In surroundings far removed from their usual working environments, three female war reporters shared experiences of the front-line at a WIJ panel debate in London last week.
Sunday Times foreign correspondent Christina Lamb made the audience gasp as she recounted being ambushed by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. As described in this dispatch for the Sunday Times from 2006, Lamb was lucky to survive a sustained surprise attack that lasted several hours.
“Your survival instinct really kicks in, I really really didn’t want to die in that field in Helmand,” she said. Lamb also admitted her journalistic instincts were just as alert, as she risked being shot to try and save her notebook. “I’ve lost lots of things, but I’ve never lost my note book,” she joked.
WIJ chair Eleanor Mills, editorial director of the Sunday Times, asked Lamb if her job was worth the risk. Lamb said her experience had highlighted the shortage of resources within the Army, and contributed towards parliamentary action that meant soldiers received more equipment.
Lamb also commented on what it is like to be a mother as a war correspondent. After the incident, she returned to England to host a football party for her young son. “Since I have become a mother, I don’t take the same risks,” said Lamb. “That day we hadn’t knowingly gone into a dangerous place.”
Dame Ann Leslie recalled the early days of war reporting. She said she never wore protective gear. “I felt it was insulting,” she said. She admitted that now she would, as today journalists have become targets and the job is more dangerous.
Leslie described how the web has affected war reporting. “You don’t have to charm people anymore to tell their stories [for them],” she said. “They can do it themselves now on the internet.”
Leslie also explained what she thought was different between male and female war correspondents. She said men were more often “war junkies”. “Most male war correspondents I’ve met, their marriages don’t last and their relationships with their children are lousy,” she said. She suggested the late journalist Marie Colvin, who died while covering the 2012 siege of Homs in Syria, had a similar determination. “She could not have retired,” said Leslie.
Investigative filmmaker and broadcaster for Al Jazeera English Juliana Ruhfus said women could assess threats differently to men. She described how she would find the sound of gun fire unnerving, but had observed this didn’t bother male colleagues. However, in a situation where she had had a gun pointed at her vehicle, men had reacted aggressively and she felt calm. “You feel you can still talk to the person,” she suggested.
Panellists’ tips on how to become a war reporter
- Listen to people
- Be very determined
- Try to go where other people are not going
- Set yourself up in a cheap country as a way of starting out
Dame Ann Leslie
- Read a lot – books as well as newspapers
- Know your facts and do your research
- Pick up a few local words and learn how to pronounce them properly
- Never betray a contact or fixer
- Don’t do the obvious
- Carry pictures of your children and grand children to soften people in difficult situations
- “It’s always useful knowing the odd criminal as a war correspondent”
- “Pretend you know the queen”
- Have confidence
- “Try and work to your comparative advantage whatever that might be – language, religion or passion.”
- “Think about the logic of a situation – a lot of places get described as chaos, but they’re not chaos.”
See pictures from the event on the WIJ FLICKR PAGE.