Women Writing War

Women on the frontline

At this event, kindly sponsored by Persephone Books, PEN welcomed three distinguished female journalists – Caroline Hawley, Ann McFerran and Maggie O’Kane – to discuss their experiences as war correspondents, and the challenges they may have faced as women. It was chaired by Anne Sebba, herself an experienced journalist, as well as the writer and biographer behind a number of books including Battling for News: The Rise of the Woman Reporter, an academic history of women journalists.

In the opening remarks, Anne paid tribute to two exceptionally brave woman journalists: slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a longtime critic of the Russian government’s corruption and conduct in Chechnya, whose 2006 murder is still under official investigation; and Eve-Anne Prentice, killed just a few days before the event itself, who was an expert on Yugoslavia and author of the memoir One Woman’s War, about her experiences on the Balkan front line.

Opening the evening’s discussion, Anne asked whether any of the panellists felt that their jobs had been made more difficult by their gender, and if so, how. Straight away, Caroline Hawley voiced her discomfort about any discussion of ‘women reporters’ as a discrete category, preferring to see herself and her colleagues as “just people doing their job.” Caroline currently works as a Special Correspondent for BBC News 24, having worked abroad as a BBC correspondent between 1999 and 2005. She began her career with Newsweek in 1991 as their Special Correspondent in Jerusalem, and covered stories such as the Gulf War, the second Intifada, and the capture of Saddam Hussein.

 In her experience, she offered, being a woman can sometimes prove practically useful when reporting on conflict situations. In societies which perhaps take a more dismissive attitude towards women, male officials can prove more willing to talk, or more careless in what they reveal. She gave the example of an Iraqi police commander who agreed to give her a tour of his station, where she was able to film footage of the victims of brutal police beatings. If she and her crew had been male, Caroline felt, the police would certainly have stopped the cameras.

Maggie O’Kane agreed, saying that women are often perceived as less of a threat, and military officials can often take a possessive, protective attitude towards female reporters. This was not to say, however, that they are any less at risk than their male counterparts in such situations. Caroline suggested that, until recently, editors assumed that women were safer in war zones, in that they were less likely to be taken hostage and that they would perhaps arouse fewer suspicions. But recent experiences, such as that of Yvonne Riley, suggest otherwise.

O’Kane, author of innumerable award-winning reports from the Balkans, Afghanistan, Burma and Northern Ireland, is perhaps most widely recognised for her graphic stories from Sarajevo whilst it was under siege between 1992-6, particularly for her reports’ description of the widespread rapes during the conflict. Maggie explained that in her experience of interviewing rape victims, a greater degree of intimacy and communicative directness could be established between female reporters and their interviewees, who found their experiences exceptionally difficult to talk about. The interview process is very much dependent on body language and eye contact to establish empathy and women are often able to do this more effectively. Anne McFerran also felt that being a woman was an advantage when talking to traumatised people, and has made a point of always using female translators throughout her career as a freelance journalist. Having reported on numerous post-conflict situations, she feels that it’s the trivial details that bring her stories to life, and she found that male translators often don’t understand the kind of details that she’s looking for.

A discussion followed concerning the fierce reaction of many newspapers and reporters to former Sunday Express correspondent and single mother Yvonne Riley ‘allowing’ herself to be taken captive by the Taliban in September 2001. Maggie O’Kane described her own experience of how desperately she missed her infant son while she was away on dangerous stories, describing her terror of being arrested and therefore separated from him as “a completely different kind of fear” than that of the situation’s inherent dangers. This terror, as well as an intuitive sense of having had enough of playing the odds with her life, ultimately led her to realise that she should no longer be going to war. “Once you lose your nerve,” she said, “you’re kind of useless.” Maggie declined to speculate on whether this fear of separation from children and family might be qualitatively different for male reporters.

Conversation turned to the question of whether women were ever exploited by male editors – for instance, the increasingly common sight of the attractive female reporter in a flack jacket on the evening news. Are they put there, despite the risks, simply to make cinematic, entertaining television? Caroline felt that no one in the BBC had been particularly pushed into conflict situations for those reasons, but could not vouch for the scrupulousness of other news agencies in this regard. Maggie made the example of the Daily Mail’s less-than-enlightened feature, ‘Chicks in the Zone’. She also expressed the opinion that both male and female foreign correspondents are becoming increasingly redundant in conflicts of this kind, particularly as it is too dangerous to operate in certain areas. There has been a recent shift towards a new phase of war reporting, in which civilians on the ground are given the skills to gather the footage and compile reports themselves – a shift that she is directly involved in, as editorial director of Guardian Films, the paper’s film unit which began in 2004. Recent coverage of the situation in Zimbabwe, closed to foreign journalists, presents an example of this more grassroots style of reportage by civilians. This development may also be part of a shift away from the colonial-style attitude that “we should go and report on them.”

Anne Sebba asked, what about courage, fearlessness, those particularly male attitudes – must women reporters prove themselves to be fearless, to be capable? Have any of the panellists felt the need to prove this? Neither Maggie or Caroline ever felt pressure from their London offices to be brave – quite the reverse, in fact, as the superiors invariably worry more about their reporters well being than the reporters do, and feel more deeply responsible.

While none of the panellists were willing to accept gender as a determinate factor in any aspect of journalism, throughout the talk there were moves to differentiate between a more macho style of war correspondence – one that focuses on the ‘hard’ stories of war, the military hardware and dramatic advances that make for dramatic stories – and one which focuses more on the social and humanitarian fallout of conflicts. It was predominantly female reporters such as Maggie O’Kane who made the civilian victims of conflicts part of the news agenda. For a long time the home front – the overloaded hospitals, the food and water shortages, the child casualties – were treated as ‘soft news’. Ann McFerran described her own work as ‘human interest’ stories, being of the opinion that the most worthwhile stories come from people “at the bottom of the pile.” She finds the most interesting aspect of war reporting is the post-conflict situation.

As opposed to the wars of 100 years ago, modern warfare generally lacks a tangible ‘frontline’, and those who suffer worst are almost always the civilians, predominantly women and children. Anne Sebba described the state of war as “society in its most extreme form,” and each of the panellists expressed their belief that examining the war’s impact on society is the most important aspect of war reportage. Stories should present the busy, dense context of the conflict, demonstrating to the reader how easily the people caught up in it could be their sister, friend or family member. “This is what you have to understand in terms of empathy – they’re just like us,” Maggie said. “That should be the goal of reporting from war zones.”

PEN would like to thank panellists Maggie O’Kane, Caroline Hawley and Ann McFerran for sharing their experiences with the audience, and chair Anne Sebba for leading a fascinating discussion. Our particular gratitude goes to Persephone Books, a publisher of forgotten classic twentieth-century novels by mostly women writers, for sponsoring this event. As always, PEN also thanks Waitrose for supplying the evening’s much-appreciated wine.

Report by Ross Fulton.

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/womenwritingwar/

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