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Channel 4 News international editor Lindsey Hilsum on war reporting, women journalists and celebrating Marie Colvin

By Freddy Mayhew

Channel 4 News international editor Lindsey Hilsum says female foreign correspondents ‘pretty much always get 100 per cent of the story’ in the Middle East, unlike their male counterparts who are more restricted.

Hilsum told Press Gazette: “If you look at the Middle East, as a woman you never have any problem with access to generals or presidents because you are treated like an honorary man and you can also get to women who sometimes your male colleagues aren’t allowed to talk to.

“So as a woman it means that you can pretty much always get 100 per cent of the story, whereas sometimes it’s more difficult for men because they can’t get the female perspective.”

Hilsum was speaking ahead of the five year anniversary of the death of her friend and Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed by artillery fire in Homs, Syria, in 2012, while reporting for the paper on the nation’s raging civil war.

A party celebrating Colvin’s life is to be held at Bush Hall, Shepherd’s Bush, London, on Wednesday, 22 February, with tickets costing £75 (including food and drink).

Hilsum, who is currently writing Colvin’s biography (expected out next year) revealed the iconic war correspondent, who wore an eye patch as a result of an injury sustained in Sri Lanka in 2001, had “loved parties”.

“Apart from being the best war correspondent of our generation Marie also threw the best parties of our generation, which her friends and colleagues who love her and miss her still think should also be remembered,” she said.

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Money raised from ticket sales will go towards the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network (see site for tickets), an organisation Hilsum co-founded last year that supports young women journalists from the Arab world.

The network currently supports about 50 journalists by pointing them to training opportunities, putting them in touch with mentors and providing support for families, as was the case recently when one of the women was kidnapped in Iraq (since released and healthy).

Hilsum told Press Gazette that war reporting was “changing, rather than suffering” under budget cutbacks affecting most UK news media organisations.

She said there was now “much more of a synergy” between local or national reporters in regions of conflict (such as Channel 4 News’ own Waad Al-Kateab) and foreign correspondents than their used to be.

Hilsum points to Al-Kateab as a reason for why the network is needed today, saying: “Increasingly we are all relying on young local or national journalists, many of whom are women and some of whom who have never been reporters before.”

But, she said there was still a “particular value” in an outsider reporting events and taking testimony. “That was what Marie Colvin’s journalism was all about and I think that we should all be trying to report in her tradition,” she said.

The award-winning broadcaster said reporting on the ground from Syria was “very difficult” after it became “prohibitively dangerous for foreign reporters to go in on the rebel side” following the murder of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of Islamic State and Colvin’s own death, believed to have been the result of targeted regime shelling.

Though she said it was still possible to go in to Syria on the government side, and had done so herself, publishers and broadcasters had “come to rely more and more on Syrian journalists”.

Asked about the difficulties of reporting accurately on the conflict in Syria, Hilsum said: “I don’t think it’s difficult to get the truth, but I think it is difficult to get the whole truth – and this is always true in wars.

“You tend to have to report from one side or another. I have reported on wars where you could cross a frontline but it’s often very difficult, you are often working under difficult restrictions. When I say restrictions, it’s usually restrictions about where you can go.

“When you report on the government from the government held part of Syria, as I have done, they don’t let you go to everywhere you want to go. You do your best. And the same is true from the rebel side, they won’t let you go where you want to go. That was true for all reporters in war.

“If you reported on World War Two when you were going in with allied forces you weren’t allowed to go wherever you wanted to. That has always been the case, but I think we feel it very much as a journalists.

“You are aware that the reporting you do has truth but there’s an awful lot that has either been covered up by rebel or government forces or even if it’s not been covered up, you just can’t quite reach it.

“You always have that nagging feeling in the back of your mind that I did the best job as I could, I reported truth as I saw it, but there were so many things that I didn’t get to see or find out about and then those come out later.”

Hilsum is dismissive of the debate around embedding journalists with troops, namely that it distorts reporting on conflicts by restricting them to seeing things from only one side.

“I get a bit fed up of people who go on about embedding and what a terrible thing it is, particularly if they are in their living rooms – we do actually think about this stuff,” she said.

“Embedding has gone on since the beginning of time often the choice is to be embedded with one side or another or not to go to the country.”

Hilsum said her experience of being embedded with an American marine unit during the battle of Fallujah in 2004 resulted in her seeing “extraordinary combat”.

“It was the closest combat I have ever seen, I was right in the middle of it, and I got that slice of battle. It was very dramatic stuff,” she said, but added: “It didn’t tell me anything about what the local population felt or thought.

“Later on when it was possible we had a local Iraqi reporter, who was actually a doctor, who went in and got the other side. So we did, at Channel 4 News, manage to get both sides over a period of time get both sides, but you can’t get everything all the time.

“I think that you should be clear with your readers or audience what the restrictions on embedding are. I can see this but I can’t see that.”

Since the fall of Aleppo to President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces in December and the rise of Donald Trump, Hilsum said there was a sense that Syria “has gone down the running order” as a news story.

“That’s sort of natural, in the sense that we are all journalists and things wax and wane as stories, but I suppose I would say we should be careful not to let it drop off the agenda completely, because although the tide has turned very much in favour of the government militarily there are still people suffering,” she said.

Hilsum said “viewer fatigue” in the Syrian conflict was “due to the complexity of it”, with hundreds of different rebel groups involved whose names and acronyms change regularly.

“You have a situation which is very hard to understand and suddenly you find yourself down a rabbit hole of a level of detail – the same is true with the refugees [crisis],” she said.

“There is a compassion fatigue and a sense of people almost not wanting to know because it’s too awful. People often see my stories and say: ‘But what can we do’?

“I would say it is important for people to know what’s going on because it’s important to be an informed citizen and to know the rights and the wrongs. I believe people should show compassion and have compassion, but I think it is difficult to find new angles.”

She added: “I think if you try and provide some context and understanding so it fits with what’s going on in the world people then will be more interested. But I try and do my job as best as I can.

“Marie [Colvin] was absolutely brilliant at finding ways of reaching people often by spending a lot of time in places and really getting to know people so the human stories became very real.

“Then also I’m afraid there’s a couple of times she would become the story, like when she got lost in the mountains in Chechnya in the middle of the war and had to be helicoptered off by the Americans and also of course she lost her eye – I mean talk about going the extra mile for the story.

“She was more dedicated than anybody to telling these stories and I think that came through in her writing and people appreciated that. You really feel it when you read her diaries and her notebook, how much she cared. And she did reach readers because of that.”

Hilsum, whose current “warzone” is Washington where she is covering the Trump administration, said she was in some ways relieved to be taking a break from war reporting.

“I have to say, I think it’s actually good as a journalist to have variety in what you do. To not always be reporting the misery of war and to try and find other stories and other ways of looking at the world.

“But I also think you need to have other things in life. So for example, when she wanted to switch off, Marie would go sailing. I go horse riding.

“It’s a complicated thing as a journalist because you can get to the point where you think that nothing else matters, because when you are reporting a war it’s so intense and you care about it so much. The colours are brighter, you come back and everything seems dull.

“Actually I think that’s a warning sign. You need to remember that everybody’s life is important. You don’t have to be having physical grudges like a war to have an important life.”

Her advice for journalists considering a career in war reporting is firstly not to think about it as such,  but rather as “foreign corresponding”.

“There’s lots of important things that go in the world which aren’t war, it’s not the only valuable reporting there is,” she said.

“I think there’s a danger of us glamorising it too much. And of course, Marie, with her parties and her eye-patch and her mojito cocktails was the classic glamorous war correspondent.

“But there are lots of other things that are interesting and sometimes it’s better to cut your teeth on other issues first. And I would say to get safety training and experience and learn a language.

“I learnt Spanish and French which has been fine, but boy do I wish I had Arabic and Chinese. I think languages are really important and war corresponding is important but put it in a context.

“Learn other things. Do something else as well, because it’s important but it’s not the only thing and I sometimes think that young correspondents and young reporters are too keen on that.

“I was never interested in war, I was interested in the places I went to and then wars happened but in a sense I suppose I think that’s a better place to start is being interested in people and stories and different places in the world.

“Sometimes it’s good to think about living not killing.”

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