Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Kate Adie Of The BBC On Being A News Correspondent

28 February, Dubai: Kate Adie, one of the most well known correspondents on the BBC, was a good choice to deliver a talk titled "So you want to be a... news correspondent". This is the first one in a series of such talks being organised in the UAE, by Jim Davidson, the hilarious British comedian.

Knowing how quickly good shows get fully booked here in Dubai, I reached Madinat Jumeirah's box office an hour early. In a few minutes, I was happily clutching a Dhs 150 ticket for an audience with a lady who knows no fear. Being a war correspondent has always been in my "100 things to do before I die" list. Kate Adie is someone who's been there and done that. So, I had to attend even if meant losing half my night's sleep travelling back to Abu Dhabi.

Where am I?
The Madinat theatre was packed to capacity. I was among a handful of Asians in the theatre. The entire British population of the UAE was duly attending it seemed to me as I looked around at the predominantly Western/British crowd around me (doesn't anyone else watch BBC? I do.).
What was that again, me lad?
I realised the cultural dislocation of my funny bone when Jim Davidson's comedy routine moved from the UAE traffic warm-up jokes to British humour - I didn't get much of it. But he must have been saying very funny things because the audience just wouldn't stop laughing. This was happening as we waited for Kate to arrive on the scene.

Most of Jim's stories were about his visits to cheer up the British forces on duty. It's said that an army marches on its stomach but according to Jim, the British army marches on its sense of humour.

Watching Kate in action
After Jim's amazing and slick routine, the serious bit for which we had all gathered started. Clips of Kate Adie on her various assignments sobered us down. There were images of her live reporting from Iran, Libya, Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq. In one scene, Kate was talking to the camera beside an open door of a room in which lay the body a woman presumably killed in cold blood. This story was about the "wholesale killing of civilians" in Vitez, Bosnia. The dead woman seemed to be wearing a scarf like Muslims do. I was shaken by that image.

As the clips ended, Kate Adie was welcomed on stage. And the show began. Which wasn't really a show but a very seasoned journalist standing in the middle of an empty stage, talking about the challenges of being a correspondent, one that always gets to go to the most dangerous places. I wished they had kept a chair on that stage for her. But everyone was listening to her words. Anyway, in the second part of the talk, the speakers had sofas to sit on.

How did it all begin?
All she had wanted was a job, Kate reminisced about the start of her career. Her degree in Swedish and Ancient Icelandic wasn't helping much. She started out with the weather forecast on local radio and it was a fairly easy job. It involved her looking outside the window and checking the weather. Her initial days as a new recruit involved "feeding the cat" - these were the days women were rarely seen covering war zones.

So how did she end up being one of the most well-known faces in broadcast journalism, covering highly volatile regions, and winning herself the OBE, the Richard Dimbleby Award from BAFTA, and honorary degrees from six universities?

"By an extraordinary series of accidents and mistakes by the BBC," she quipped. But of course, she was being humble rather than honest here.

"Journalism is all about going there and finding the facts - you really don't get them till you go there," she said. And that, I felt, is the remarkable thing about Kate - she rushes into places and situations people are desperate to escape from. While Kate tried to make her career graph look like a series of random lucky strikes, her words gave her determination away.

"Don't sit on the fence. Train as a nurse or become an air worker - go and do it," was the advice she offered to people who want to get involved and help in a critical situation. And that surely must be the inner voice that has kept her going all this while, despite her having a knife pointed at her throat by a mad man, getting lost in the desert at the time of war, being shot at point blank range and losing a part of her collar bone!

Nobody's child
The courageous life she has lived, the historical moments she has documented, the number of times she has looked death in the face, have provided Kate not just hours of rare live footage to the world but inspired her to author three books so far. There's her autobiographical The Kindness of Strangers, there's Corsets to Camouflage: Women and War and the latest - Nobody's Child on the problems of adoption and questions of identity. Kate is an adopted child herself and talks from her heart about this topic.

"I didn't have a next of kin," she said she had realised when she was asked to fill in a form before being embedded with the British troops as a war correspondent. Perhaps, I think, it might have been easier for her not having someone telling her to not risk her life every time she embarked on a another perilous assignment. Kate found her biological mother later and now has a large family loving her which she would like to call a "tribe". This part of the talk touched me and gave a glimpse of the soft side of the tough reporter.

"It's a fairly grotty job"
On being a correspondent, Kate cautioned that being a correspodent is not the first-class world travelling kind of a job people imagine it to be. Most of the times, the airlines going to war zones are not the most reputed ones. Sometimes, correspondents have to hitch rides with aid planes or the military. You can only carry the baggage "you can run fast with". You could be living for days on end without electricity, water, the normal luxuries of modern living. "It's a fairly grotty job," she admitted. And for the women correspondent wannabes in the audience she added, "you don't get to wash your hair much."

"Why do I do it?"
On the positive side of being a correspondent, Kate said, "I think it is one of the most terrific jobs." She mentioned how people are eager to help, how a young Chinese man led her to a hospital which was paced with casualties, an inside view any correspondent would give an arm and leg for. Nameless people, just collaborating so that the truth reaches out to the world. After all, getting the facts and getting them out to the world is what journalism is all about. "If I do that well, other people might realise what is going on... might do something about it," Kate said. "People are incredibly good to you," she noted, excluding the occasional tyrant and looter of course. "You get to hear fascinating stories". You meet "wonderful people in the worst of circumstances."

Ask and ye shall be answered
There was a question and answer session after a short break.

People asked about the ethics of journalists not getting involved with the story they are covering (eg feeding a poverty stricken child), someone wanted to know what 'fear' means to Kate, the gentleman next to me asked if Kate would sign her book the couple had bought.

The most interesting question, however, was by a beautiful young lady who was planning an Irish wedding in Libya and wanted advice on social skills from Kate. She sounded quite frightened, what with Kate's stories about Libya and getting shot at point blank range.

Kate reassured her that normal citizens in Libya are friendly people, just like anywhere else in the world. They might be seen on TV shouting fiery slogans but when one goes and talks to them, they are just normal people doing that just as a routine thing, not really meaning any harm to anyone.

Jim Davidson had a different kind of advice for the bride to be: "Marry someone from Dubai - have your honeymoon on Sheikh Zayed Road," he said.

You can read more about Kate Adie here:
The Lady

Your comments and feedback are most welcome.


kaya said...

Hi There. In response to your comment on my blog. Dropping in to say HELLO!
And see you around.

Shaykhspeara Sha'ira said...

Ahh degree in Swedish. I find that amusing. Then again if one knows swedish one can communicate all over Scandinavia.

I enjoyed reading your recap of the event. War correspondants always fascinated me, especially female. I was reading in Eberhardt's book about women and "observation" ( I posted about it on my blog). According to her, women in themselves and their "costume" attract attention and thus could not be good observers (i.e in this case journalists in times of war as well). Mind you this was written in the North African desert in the early 1900's so the contextual relevance can be debated as well.

I am in no way implying that it is some sort of matter of fact but I just thought about it now, reading about Kate. It is an interesting subject. Would love to hear your thoughts on it.

farrukh: copywriter & journalist said...

Hey Sha'ira,

Good to see you. You've raised an interesting point. I'll have to come and 'observe' the details where you've posted them ;-)


sanchez said...

AssalamuAlaikum Farrukh

This is Abez. :) The reason why I don't have contact info or commenting on my blog is because that one's the "public" blog (where anti-Abez dissidents with bad spelling and worse manners) sometimes lurk. I do, however, have a different blog where both commenting and contact info are available, it's

Shh! I'm in diguise. :D

farrukh said...

Welcome Abez,

Thanks for the real link. Here I come...

dreamz said...

hi there,
nice read...tho a bit too long, u made me sit and read it...
take care
the eternal dreamer!

farrukh: copywriter & journalist said...

Hey there eternal dreamer. I think I know you ;-)

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Serena said...


Just stumbled upon your blog - it's great! I'm a journalism student in S.Africa - just finished reading Kate Adie's The Kindness of Strangers- very interesting read. It definitely gives one an insight into being a war correspondent. The talk you attended must have been fascinating.

Best wishes,