Sky News special correspondent Alex Crawford’s brave reporting from Libya has provided ample evidence of why she wins so many awards.
Crawford, along with cameraman Martin Smith and deputy foreign editor Tim Miller, were the only western journalists in the rebel-held town of Zawiyah as it came under attack from pro-Gaddafi forces at the beginning of March.
With the town sealed off and internet access shut down Crawford and her team were the eyes and ears of the world. As Gaddafi told journalists that rebels in the town had been defeated and that it supported him, Crawford’s reports showed thousands demonstrating against his rule, and civilians being fired on.
Press Gazette interviewed Crawford on 1 March, during a brief break back at her Dubai base a few days after receiving her third Royal Television Society Journalist of the Year Award – and the day before she fl ew out to Tripoli.
She may not have the profile of a Simpson, Dimbleby or Snow, but no other broadcaster has won that RTS prize three times.
Asked what her reaction was to winning it again she says: ‘Five years ago I was begging to be a foreign correspondent. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I felt I was only just starting out. I feel like a novice compared to many of the others. I just seem to be very lucky, and I love it. I feel like I’m living the dream.”
Despite her success Crawford shows not the barest hint of complacency. ‘You’re just constantly trying to do your best,’she says.
‘Some days you have good days, a lot of the time it’s really stressful. We are leading this rather surreal life where we are detained, arrested, being tear-gassed or shot at – when I go home I slot back into being a mother of four and it’s a massive big gear change. You don’t have much time to think most of timeâ€¦
‘I’m often the one pushing, pushing and pushing. At the end of the day I’m more worried about failure than anything else.”
She says later: ‘I’ve always worked hard. It’s just now people are noticing it because before I was on overnights.”
Crawford and the likes of Marie Colvin and Christina Lamb at The Sunday Times would be near the top of any list of the UK’s top foreign correspondents of recent years.
Does being a slightly older woman (Crawford is 47) help when it comes to reporting on war?
‘I’ve got certain years behind me that give you some life experienceâ€¦ I definitely saw things differently soon after I had my children because your life is defined by that. You react differently, you see things differently, you seek out different stories, you ask different questions and people react differently to you.”
After starting out in print at the Woking Times, Crawford worked on radio and TV news for the BBC before joining Sky News at launch in 1989. She says she did not always have her sights set on being a foreign correspondent: ‘I just wanted to be a journalist. I didn’t really have any career in my sights at all.”
But after joining Sky News this soon became her aim. She went from producer to correspondent then tried and failed to get a foreign correspondent posting on three occasions. After growing up in Nigeria, Zambia and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) witnessing coups and civil war first-hand, she probably had more reason than most to think that she had the necessary experience for a foreign posting.
Following the births of her four children, who are now aged between 15 and eight, she says: ‘I really thought I’ll be lucky enough to keep a correspondent’s job in London… I thought that’s it then”. Crawford notes that each time she came back from maternity leave ‘you go back to the bottom of the heap’working back on the nightshift.
When she returned to work after having her fourth baby, and after convincing herself that she could hack it as a for correspondent, she set about persuading her bosses: ‘I could see why they weren’t convinced at the time because it is quite a big ask. I wore them down and finally made their ears bleed.”
She was turned down for postings to India, China and Africa and was then seconded to Five News – which is produced by Sky News – in December 2004 for a year. After covering stories including Hurricane Katrina, the death of the Pope and the Pakistan earthquake she impressed Sky News bosses enough to secure her first foreign posting – as Asia correspondent, based in Delhi.
She soon found herself reporting on emergency rule, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination of December 2007 and the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008 (during which she came under fire live on air).
Asked what her scariest moment has been in a recent career which appears to have had more than its fair share of danger, she cites an occasion last May when she was abducted while returning from four days travelling with Afghan fighters in a remote region near the Pakistan border.
She and cameraman Phil Hooper were grabbed by two carloads of NDS (Afghan intelligence offi cers), and taken for interrogation. Fortunately colleagues were able to raise the alarm with the US military – who arrived in force to demand her release.
She says: ‘A couple of French journalists had gone missing in that area – and still are missing – and the Americans thought that we were going to be sold on to theTaliban.”
Reporting from inside Zawiyah Crawford sheltered inside a mosque as it was shaken by heavy bombardment and at one point in her report bullets could be heard ricocheting off the ambulance she was travelling in.
But despite coming under attack from an angry mob while covering the Egypt protests in Alexandria in February, Crawford says that Western journalists have generally had a positive reception covering the Arab revolts.
‘We went in as tourists because we weren’t allowed into countries as journalists – when we were in the crowds, doing interviews and filming, there was such a feeling of gratitude and appreciation towards a lot of the media; you’d be clapped on the back.
‘In Bahrain we were helped by so many people. When we were coming under fi e and being tear-gassed total strangers would be taking us in and helping us and driving us around and refusing to be paid.
‘We were being given flowers and people were saying thank you so much, thanking us as an industryâ€¦ the whole of the media.
‘When William Hague was talking about Libya when this started and said don’t think just because the cameras and journalists aren’t there we don’t know what’s going on, I thought wow – that makes such a change.
‘So much of the time we get so criticised as an industry and despised, and not really held in very high regard in our own country. Go to these other places and they are so grateful that we are giving them a voice.”
‘No impartiality required’
Talking to Crawford, and watching her reports, it is clear that she cares deeply about the stories she covers. Does she ever find it diffi cult to remain impartial?
‘We are meant to be impartial and we should be independent, but I think if you’re a normal person you’re probably not entirely impartial, and if you say you’re entirely impartial you’re probably not being entirely honest.
‘It’s good to give both sides. And you should be able, as an experienced journalist, to tell whether you are being fed a line or fed a scene or whatever.
‘But when you are walking into a hospital and you are seeing people dying in front of you from bullet wounds, unarmed protesters who just criticised somebody…
It’s a bit of a no-brainer; there’s no impartiality required. That’s just human.”
She takes the example of CNN reporter Anderson Cooper, who was criticised for stepping in to carry a child to safety during unrest in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake.
‘He acted instinctively. We’re not robots, otherwise you might as well get some computer-generated avatar to do it. We have feelings; thank God we have. The day you don’t have feelings is the day you shouldn’t be reporting.”
‘I feel like I am failing a lot of the time’
Asked what it is that drives her on to put herself in sometimes dangerous situations to report the news – especially considering the large family she leaves behind every time she goes on assignment – Crawford says: ‘I feel like I’m failing a lot of the time. Failing as a mother, failing as a wife and feeling so torn because I can’t give as much as I want.
‘A foreign correspondent’s job should require 150 per cent effort, it’s a 24/7 job, and to do it well you need to put so much time and effort into it. And consequently I feel torn between all of them and like I’m not quite succeeding at any of themâ€¦
‘I never became a reporter to make money and I never thought I would make money. That’s a bonus. I wanted to be a journalist because I wanted to do something where I think I could make a difference.”