Marie Colvin: The death of a role model

‘Marie Colvin is in Homs!”

The text that was sent to me by a fellow journalist early last Sunday morning got me running to get hold of a copy. I knew that Marie’s story was going to be incredible – as ever. Last weekend, the Sunday Times’ front page ran her story with the line ‘The only British newspaper journalist in Homs’. Sitting in a small, quiet pub later that afternoon, I was riveted by her gripping, heartfelt and human reporting – her final story for the Sunday Times.

I barely knew Marie. But from work experience shifts I did at the Sunday Times foreign desk and from hearing of her incredible accomplishments while covering late night debates at the Frontline Club in Paddington, I have some idea of the kind of person she was.

Liaising with her on the phone during my stint at the newspaper was always a pleasure, and she was always thanked me for the newswires on Libya that I would send her daily. She recognised my voice and remembered my name from the short time I was on the desk. I remember a tense half hour when we were unable to get hold of her amid shelling in Benghazi, but she made it through in the end.

‘You sound stressed,’she said to me once, jokingly, when I found out I had a slightly busier day ahead of me than planned in the air-conditioned News International offices in Wapping. I was talking to her via satellite phone. She was checking in from Libya, a ravaged country in the full throes of war, and she couldn’t have sounded happier.

Marie was known for her fearless reporting, but she was never reckless. Reports and reporters say she was experienced, well-prepared and graceful – a veteran war correspondent who, unlike many war correspondents, wanted to go out and tell the story of civilians, rather than experience the rush of war.

I came out of the Sunday Times with a role model in mind. With that distinctive patch, used to cover the eye she lost because of shrapnel wounds sustained after an ambush in Sri Lanka in 2001, she was my hero – one of the reasons I wanted to break into foreign reporting.

There seem to be fewer and fewer veteran female correspondent role models for young female journalists. On my training course, I was told along with the other women that we had to be tough, that it is a man’s industry, that many young women start in journalism but many eventually stop because of family commitments, work pressure, or a combination of both.

There are the pressures of some newsrooms, where news editors may think twice about sending women out to the frontlines. There are the pressures of the male-orientated industry, where few flak jackets are issued to fit a woman’s smaller frame, and most are very heavy to run in. And sometimes there are the pressures of society, which looks down upon mothers and those with families leaving their children behind to risk their lives to tell the story.

Being a woman in a war zone is never easy. My role as news assistant at the International News Safety Institute has driven home this point as I’ve worked with a number of female correspondents to get their incredible experiences of frontline reporting told.

Yesterday, the media was flooded with the tragic news of Marie’s death. Tributes came flooding in on Twitter, from those who knew her, and those who admired her. The British press has lost an incredible reporter, colleague and journalists – young and older – a role model.

I spoke to one of her colleagues at the foreign desk the day before she was killed, congratulating her on the superb piece she had written.

‘Marie’s doing a great job over there and enjoying every moment!’was the reply.

Helena Williams is the news assistant at the International News Safety Institute, a non-profit dedicated to the safety of news media in conflict and other danger. It is marking the role played by women journalists with the launch of No Woman’s Land: On the Frontlines with Female Reporters on 8 March, International Women’s Day. The book is the first to be dedicated to the safety of female journalists. There will be a tribute to Marie Colvin at the launch.

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