Iranian Embassy Siege, London.
Northern Ireland Troubles.
American bombing, Tripoli.
Gulf War, Kuwait.
Here is a woman who has witnessed and covered some of the most significant moments in recent history. In the process, she has been shot three times and still has part of one of those bullets lodged in her toe for good measure.
Kate Adie OBE is a member of the old guard. She was the Chief BBC News Correspondent from 1994-2003. Feisty, informed and to the point, Adie hasn’t missed a beat in all her 65 years. She is very clear about how she defines the responsibility of a reporter: you report and you stay alive long enough to file the story. It “has always been based on a very simple argument… you’re there in order to bring news back and to bring it back you have to be alive”, she explains. To do that she has used her own unique sense of judgement to assess dangerous situations, one that has involved jumping over walls, punching assailants in the face and running, running a lot.
Why the need to report war? “That’s absolutely obvious. War changes lives, war is the biggest event that often happens in people’s lifetimes, war changes how ordinary people live, war changes the circumstances in which they live, and therefore it is one of the greatest of events of a particular period to report.”
Being “neither easy nor pleasant”, reporting in such tense and guarded environments is undoubtedly difficult. “Probably the first thing you should say about it is that a great deal of war depends on surprise and secrecy,” she explains. “You don’t announce to your enemy that you are about to invade them… that conflicts automatically with the basic habits and functions of journalism. You are always going to bump into all sorts of attempts to report straightforwardly.”
Instead, it is something that becomes “automatic”, you push the parties and people involved for information. But there are limitations: “If you’re in a war zone, there are some areas that you do not and cannot get into or if you are in a riot, there are often areas forbidden to you. You get as close as you can.”
Talking about the recent uprisings in Egypt, I bring up the situation of another woman reporter, CBS’s 60 Minutes’ reporter Lara Logan, who was molested when reporting from the middle of the protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Was it bad judgement? “It is nothing to do with reporters whatsoever,” she fires up, “ It is to do with the status of women in those countries, their poor legal status and the sexual behaviour of the men in those countries which does not respect women and which interferes with them.” Simply put, you are not the story, they are and such personalized accounts have no place in news stories: “the very fact that you thought this was a story about a women reporter and her behaviour showed that you didn’t quite understand that men [even in the Western world] would highlight as women ought not to do this.”
Of the positive developments to result from these protests, however, Adie points out that for women’s rights hope may be on the way, “some of the elements coming through in the efforts that are going on in the Middle East perhaps will have an element of change because in the forefront, at quite a number of these protests are women. And women who know that they are badly treated and know they need equality in the law and in social matters. So you can only hope for it, [but] I think you need to be able to highlight what happens in the proper way.”
The immense media interest in the Lara Logan story is evidence of the rise of the personalized account in modern journalism. One that quite clearly Adie is not an advocate of. It’s a style that “in the view of many of us gets in the way of actually telling it how it is.”
But journalism in the twenty-first century is changing in more ways than one. I try to get her comment on the current hacking scandal dominating the press in the UK, but receive a fairly direct answer: “there is no way I am discussing something that is practically live on air at the moment.” Having just seen the first video of Wendy Murdoch defending her man minutes before our interview, it is a fair call.
But with or without Murdoch, what is her opinion on the future of broadcast journalism? “If I knew that I would be starting my own television station,” she replies. For the record, this is not on the cards. But as she admits, “Very few people have any firm idea about what is going to happen in the broadcasting world. There are new challenges and systems coming in what with the internet and a great deal of more easily acquired pictures and information. And nobody seems to know precisely what might happen.”
However, Adie is quite clear about the changes she doesn’t approve of: “The one big change, I suppose in television, has been the impact that 24 hour news has had, which has to a certain extent destroyed on the spot reporting.”
Interestingly, it is an issue of technology and the demands of the modern-day consumer: better image quality, immediate access, online streaming. Indeed, “you can see it on screen.” Such weighting on up to the minute access to current affairs only necessitates more expensive sophisticated equipment. “If you have a satellite dish then you are not going to put it in line of fire. It is expensive. And to talk to the satellite dish for 24 hours, you have to be live so therefore, the dish is not where the action is. It is a distance from it. And that is one of the major things that has happened with television news reporting.”
Having covered everything from style to not being a war correspondent – “nobody ever has the title of war correspondent for a lot of technical reasons involving all sorts of things from the Geneva Convention to the law, plus the fact that nobody does it full time” – we finish our discussion on the subject of one of Adie’s old haunts, Eastern Europe. It has been some months now since the Serbian Military commander Ratko Mladic was arrested for war crimes. He was responsible for the Srebrenica massacre where in July 1995 more than 8000 Bosnian men and boys were shot and killed.
Mladic’s arrest elicited a number of reactions inspiring messages of support from some Serbian nationalists and celebrations from those who he persecuted and harmed. What does Adie make of the situation? Well, it’s a response that comes in two parts. “I think what you will find in the country is that some people would desire and also imagine, and it is a bit of imagination that by putting him on trial you draw a line under the war and the dreadful things that happen and that that leaves the country able to go on to a different future and better relations, etc.” Then, “There are a lot of people, not because they don’t desire this, that it doesn’t draw a line under this, that if you only put the generals on trial you somehow miss out that all the people in the villages who killed their neighbours that somehow they have all changed.”
It is undoubtedly an on-going issue, as the correspondent concludes, “I think what it is is whether or not it really changes people’s minds and there is not a great deal of evidence that it automatically does.”
Kate Adie answers my questions in her own way, they are considered and informed, but God is she quick. Then again, she has needed to be. For someone who has vowed never to retire, she shows no sign of letting up yet.