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The Politics of Being a Foreign Correspondent: An interview with Christina Lamb OBE

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Christina Lamb is an award-winning Foreign Correspondent; whose most recent work documents the lives of those who find themselves caught in amidst conflict.

I meet Christina Lamb, just before she gives a talk at the RAMM on her ‘Years of living dangerously’. A title which is without exaggeration: she has in fact been trapped in trenches by Russian tanks with the Mujahideen, ambushed by the Taliban in Helmand and present on the bus where the 2007 Karsaz suicide bomb attack on former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, took place. As she is currently the Chief Foreign Correspondent for The Sunday Times; I think perhaps I was naively expecting someone a bit more overt, but Christina is softly spoken, with a kind yet studying stare. She is, of course, one of the world’s leading foreign correspondents; her writing captures the characters that are so often reduced to a statistic, or become the subject of a fortnight’s broadcasting. Alongside her reporting, Christina is an author whose work includes co-writing activist Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography I am Malala and The Girl From Aleppo, the story of the young Syrian refugee turned advocate, Nujeen Mustafa, who gave an inspiring talk at TEDxExeter last year.

Her career, she admits, began “by accident” after graduating from Oxford with a degree in PPE, she worked as an intern for the Financial Times. Upon attending a lunch with Pakistan’s People’s Party, she had the opportunity to interview Benazir Bhutto at the time of her exile in 1987. An unlikely friendship blossomed herself and the politician, whose country she explored upon receiving an invitation to attend Benazir Bhutto’s wedding. It’s hard to imagine not being excited by a highly charged event, which in her writing she paints as having “long discussions with her political colleagues fighting to topple the military dictator”. Unsurprisingly, following a brief stint working in TV, she resumed writing about the Middle East for the Financial Times. She was assigned with the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, at just the age of 22. When given the responsibility of documenting war at such a young age, one can’t help but question the experience she’d meet it with. Christina explains how her innocence made her write with an intensity that perhaps others had become desensitised to. “I think that the financial times were very trusting because I wasn’t very experienced, and I went there I started writing very differently. I think in some ways there was an advantage of being young I got there, I had no preconceptions whatsoever – I was rather shocked by things that I was seeing. I realised that the situation was far more complicated than it was being portrayed in the things that I was reading about. I basically just wrote what I saw, that’s what I have done ever since.”

her work has closely followed the injustices faced by those whose lives are affected by conflict

Over the last three decades, Christina has been posted in South Africa, Brazil, Pakistan and Washington. During this time, her work has closely followed the injustices faced by those whose lives are affected by conflict, which has seen her become a five-time recipient of the Foreign Press Association and most recently she has been recognised by the UNCHR for her writing on refugees. I ask her how she feels her position as a female foreign correspondent provides a different perspective, “I do think that we look at this quite differently to male correspondents and sometimes my male editors want is – very much the “bang bang”. The Sunday Times loves its graphics and who’s shooting and what and where. I’m not very interested in that at all.”

‘there is far too often an impulsive demand for a pre-written narrative’

I ask her if she faces any obstacles when pitching pieces. Surprisingly, she explains there is far too often an impulsive demand for a pre-written narrative. “I think the worst thing in journalism is preconception – far too many people have decided what the story is before they have gone there and then they try and make things fit to what they want to say.” She talks of an upcoming trip to Somalia, and being asked by her editors “what’s the story you’ll write?” Christina emphasises the importance of being present and open to what you discover “I’ve never gone somewhere and not got a story. Sometimes there are places that you know are very interesting because there is a lot going on, unless someone has told you something specific sometimes you are just going there because there is a lot going on and it hasn’t been reported and you know that you will find interesting things there.”

Although Christina is now in a position of authority, working alongside supportive female editors The Sunday Times she has previously spoken out about journalism being a male-dominated industry. She tells me that the misogyny that she has encountered in the industry has meant that there has sometimes been a struggle to publish feminist pieces; the stories “male editors don’t always want”. She explains, “There have been many times when I have been asked by my male editors if I am pitching a story about a woman – what she looks like. In other words, we could run a picture of a glamorous Afghan woman – they would be more interested in that.”

As a witness to the atrocities of war, Christina realises the limitations of reporting as activism. “You know you say to yourself that writing about it that you’re going to make a difference but most of the things I cover – however passionately I write about it – at the end of the day- the situation doesn’t change. Look at Syria for example.”

The day before we talk, Christina had just seen a screening of the upcoming biopic A Private War based on the biopic of fellow colleague Marie Colvin written by Lindsey Hilsum. “My colleague, Marie Colvin, lost her life in Syria and Assad’s still there and he’s going to continue. So, then you think, was it worth it to go there? And actually, I don’t ever think it is worth losing a life for a story.” On the film’s depiction of her colleague she says, “It’s very harrowing to watch because apart from being killed, you see the mental toll on her coming back and drinking lots of vodka martinis and having a breakdown.”  When I ask about her own mental health, she is comfortably quite reserved, but reveals how her role as a mother provided her with stability: “I think that in my case, the fact that I had a family made a lot of difference, Because I couldn’t come back and hang out at the frontline club in London and get drunk and tell war stories. I had to come back and take my son to football practice”.

However, once on the ground it is clear that for a foreign correspondent there is a conflict of responsibility between reporting the story and helping the people who the story belongs to. “This is the hardest, single most difficult issue of my job which is that I meet people that terrible things have happened to and then I just go away. If we are in a situation where we can actually help somebody we should do that. And I suppose that I’m lucky because I work for a weekly paper – so I don’t tend to get into in situations that my colleagues have been in where they have to file, and they’re choosing between having to stay, wanting to stay and help or meeting their deadline. I only have one deadline a week – so it’s a bit easier. Probably my biggest regret is that I don’t have more medical training, I just have basic first aid – there are times when I wish that I could have done more.”

She is currently writing a book entitled Our Bodies, Their Battlefield on the subject of war rape. “It seems to me that over the last few years I have seen more violence against women than any other time in my career.” Christina poses that we reframe the #MeToo movement to be more inclusive, articulately calling for a We Too Movement instead in order to give voice to those across the world who are facing sexual violence.

I’m curious as to how she discovers these stories? How does she talk to girls who have suffered abuse at the hands of Boko Haram, without it being distressing? “Sometimes the people we meet, we’re the first people they’ve spoken to. So I’m very conscious of you know – there is the real conflict – we want this story for the paper or the TV or whatever but they’ve been through something terrible and then asking them to repeat it isn’t necessarily good for them. It can take hours for people to tell you what really happened. Actually, I have been in discussion with different people about trying to come up with some kind of guideline on how to do interviews, because there isn’t anything. I think that we journalists would like some help because for the most part we’re not deliberately trying to traumatise these people.” In the process of writing her upcoming book, Christina tells me how a female psychotherapist sat in on the interviews that she conducted with Yazidi women. “Often they say that it is important for women to tell their stories and that’s the start towards healing. How will you ask them? What kind of questions? And I think that’s where having some kind of guidelines is helpful for us too.”

What happens after they share their story? Christina tells me that the Yazidi women “feel angry that they have told their stories and nothing has happened, and that they trusted us. I was back a few months ago at one of the camps and the people there were really very angry and there had just been a programme with Stacey Dooley where she took a former slave to where she had been kept and went face to face with an ISIS perpetrator who wasn’t anything to do with her anyway. That was all very disturbing. People are angry about that. I think that the important thing is always, when you are talking to these people, that you are always trying to do it for a reason. To try and get justice or looking on to the future and a bit more of what can be done more than just getting them to tell the horror.”

‘I want people to be aware. I don’t want to spend all my time talking about it instead of doing it’

Christina Lamb finds the community that exists in spite of war. Hearing her talk in person hit home that there was only one conversation that separated the women that were affected and myself. In this way, she doesn’t want us to lose sight of the fact that these communities are, truthfully, not too far away from our own: “Like I told you I like to go and talk in different communities, I want people to be aware. I don’t want to spend all my time talking about it instead of doing it. I just a had a big fight with my editors recently that I haven’t gone anywhere for a while,” she laughs “the point is I just can’t just go and telling people’s stories like some ancient movie star.”

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