LSE student Helena Smolak speaks to Lindsey Hilsum about life as an international correspondent, the risk of covering war, how to cope with trauma and the question of objectivity in journalism. This article was first published in The London Globalist.
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We are sitting in her living room decorated by all the souvenirs from different countries. A house with a small garden located in a calm neighbourhood in the outer reaches of London. Everything seems like a normal life at first glance. Her personality is engaging, her career remarkable, her job, in a nutshell, requires courage. Lindsey has seen horrible things while working in war zones. Nevertheless, she doesn’t let it look like a big deal, arguing “some people are just more prepared to take more risks than others.” Although not denying all the negative aspects that come with operating in war zones, she gives remarkable insights into her work, also outlining the positive parts. “You see people in their best and in their worst moments. If you work in extreme situations you become close to people you would normally not be, a really tight bond emerges. There’s just nothing more interesting than seeing where history happens.”
Lindsey Hilsum is the International Editor of Channel 4. She has covered many conflicts over recent years, including the Arab Spring, Syria, Ukraine, Baghdad and Belgrade. As the Rwandan genocide began to unfold, Lindsey was the only English-speaking journalist initially on the scene, which she considers the most difficult moment in her career. Her work has won her awards from the Royal Television Society, and BAFTA amongst others, including the Patron’s Medal from the Royal Geographical Society. Recently, she has published a biography “In Extremis – the Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin”.
The question of subjectivity in journalism – how can a story be truthfully reported?
Due to increasing threats journalists face today, covering foreign affairs and war is becoming more dangerous than it used to be. This in turn increases the importance that stories continue to be told. What unites war journalists the most is probably the desire to tell the truth. Journalists are being placed in polarised extremes, observing and being in touch with all the suffering. This raises the question how stories should be reported. Is it a necessity to be neutral? Is it even possible to be neutral or does one automatically sympathise one side? Under the circumstances of seeing social injustice can one still be fair and impartial? The notion of subjectivity is rooted in the thinking of Descartes and Kant. At the centre of their philosophy lies the different perception of reality by different individuals. One’s perception and opinion are shaped by experiences and its social surroundings.
According to Hilsum, “If there are two sides fighting, you try not to get in between them.” In her opinion, one should not be neutral whilst covering war. However, neutrality and impartiality must be differentiated. It is essential to take an unequivocal stand. She emphasises the urge to see things clearly. Based on her own experience, she mentions that as a young journalist, the tendency emerges to sympathise with rebel movements. For Hilsum, being careful about the perception of young rebel groups is a key aspect as often those groups become as corrupt as the government they have overthrown, referring to Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. A circle that continues.
The most difficult task
The question of leaving a story too early affects every journalist and remains unanswered. For Lindsey Hilsum, drawing the line between going further or stopping the coverage, is the most difficult task in reporting.
Lindsey states: “Your adrenaline should not overcome your judgement if going further is worth the risk or not. I’m always the person who says I want go further and my producer says we have to stop, that enables me to pretend I’m braver than I actually am. There is a certain risk involved, you try to calculate the risk, you minimize it and obviously you want to tell the truth. I was basically going to change the world through journalism and I think that’s probably one of my less successful projects. A naivety I had in my twenties and I don’t have it anymore.”
The cost of neutrality is a badly informed public. Journalistic practice reflects each one of us – the duty to seek the truth, as relative as it is. As I step out of the door, this proverb of Aeschylus comes to my mind: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” This dictum was perhaps never more accurate than it is today.
By Helena Smolak