Woman of Courage: An Interview with the BBC's Kate Adie
I once wanted to be a foreign correspondent. Oh, the thrill of having bombs explode all around you while you’re hunkered down in a ditch! Oh, the glamour of hanging out in some smoky hotel bar in some gritty foreign capital while waiting for the next big story! Oh, the rush of reporting on historic events. In fact, for a few brief moments I did do some war reporting. But I quickly realized I wasn’t cut out for it. Not least of which because I did not like being in the middle of gunfire.
Which brings me to journalist Kate Adie. “I’ve got three bullet grazes and shrapnel in my foot,” she blithely says.
Adie is one of four remarkable women receiving an International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award at dinners in Los Angeles and New York this week. Hillary Clinton congratulated the brave winners in a taped video chat. Actor Aaron Eckhart was the lucky man to give Adie her award. And on Friday I had the privilege of doing a phone interview with the 64-year old British journalist, from her hotel room in Beverly Hills. I won’t call her a legend, because she’d probably hate that. But she is, which is why IWMF is giving the unflappable reporter its Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I’m very very flattered,” she says. “It’s a funny thing to be given an award for having survived. I did it because I loved it. It’s a bit grotty when you’re standing in the rain all day being shot at, but the actual job was full of such fascinating people, places and events.”
Adie was the first female foreign correspondent for the BBC, a post she held for four decades as she hopscotched from the massacre in Tiananmen Square to the Gulf War to the war in Bosnia. When she met Queen Elizabeth, the monarch astutely remarked: “Ah, Miss Adie, I always associate you with rather ghastly things….”
She's charming, incisive and fearless. Even so, Adie scoffs when I suggest that riding in tanks under mortar fire, among other lively experiences during her career, might have been harrowing. “Harrowing is what the people who are involved and live there experience. Journalists are just the people who visit,” she insists.
One of the many newsworthy figures Adie interviewed was the enigmatic (and late) Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Was the dark-haired despot as crazy as he seemed?
“He wasn’t crazy, he was just a dumb president,“ she says, with her typically dry British wit. “In the end what you had is not a very educated man. He never had much experience of the world. He grew into somebody, because of his huge bad temper and his immense viciousness, did the stupid things people do when nobody says, ‘Don’t do that’ and you’ve got a country to play with.
"He never showed violence in front of any of us foreign journalists but we could see that people were deeply afraid of him.”
Ironically, Adie had no ambition to be a journalist. She took a job doing radio for the BBC because she thought it would be “fun.” Through luck and chance she broke into television.
In those days female journalists of any kind weren’t exactly welcomed. I know some of you younger feminists might find this hard to believe, but Adie’s male colleagues often asked her such progressive things as, was she a secretary? Could she take shorthand? “When I started in the 70s, we had only just passed equal pay legislation” in England, she recalls. “Women were still very much discriminated against. You met with patronizing remarks from camera crews, ‘When is the reporter turning up?’”
Her first big story for the BBC was in 1980, when she reported live the rescue of hostages at the Iranian embassy in London. From there, she went on to cover every disaster and conflict imaginable. She was there in Tripoli in 1986 when Reagan ordered the aerial assault of Libya, and the French embassy, among other undesirable targets, was hit. “I was 500 yards from the first bomb,” she says. “It was the most incompetent bombing I’ve ever seen.”
She was there in 1990 when British forces rolled into Kuwait, the lone female among 43,000 fighting men. This made her famous. Needless to say, living in the desert for months with a literal army of men had its challenges. Including finding a bathroom. “The tents were all in close proximity. It took me some time to work out precisely how to get through the day and the night,” she explains.
So she devised a strategy. “Yours truly waited until the moon had disappeared behind a cloud, then trotted 200 yards out into the desert, and then did what a human being has to do.”
A few mornings later, a Colonel approached Adie and asked, was she familiar with the standard British army rifle? ‘‘No, we don’t have guns, why?’ ‘I’m just going to tell you, apart from being a crap rifle, it’s got a first-rate night sight on it. So don’t wait until dark.’
“They were a wonderful crowd to be with,” Adie continues. “When you’re one woman, life does get interesting.”
When I asked Adie if she’d ever been sexually harassed or assaulted, she didn’t address the question directly. But here’s what she said: “Curiously, let me tell you when you head out on something very serious it concentrates the mind. The usual frivolities do not occur to you if you’re contemplating going into a battlefield.”
Adie’s career as a war reporter has given her a unique window on women’s lives throughout the world. When CBS reporter Lara Logan was brutally sexually assaulted during last spring’s victory celebrations in Tahrir Square, Adie was incensed by the victim-blaming Logan received in the press.
The historic event in Egypt also highlighted to Adie a stunning ignorance about the reality of sexual harassment.
“If anybody had noticed what young middle class women were saying, ‘It’s wonderful to come to the square, we can feel free,’ nobody seemed to understand what that meant,” she says. “It was specifically because the standard interference with women was frowned upon by these very liberal minded protestors, and women could operate that without being harassed.
“The lack of understanding in the western press I found appalling,” she adds. “This is what you really get when you’re a second-class citizen with many fewer rights, and you have no legal redress at all. If you complain you bring shame upon the family. That’s why one fights for women’s rights so you can improve the very freedom to walk abroad without fear.”
When I asked her which countries are the worst for women in terms of equality, she did not hesitate: Iran and Afghanistan. “Women are less than animals really.” Then she told a story that perfectly and horribly illustrated it.
Years ago, after the Russians fled, Adie was in Afghanistan. The Russians had planted huge mines throughout the country. When the refugees returned home to their fields, “They used to send the women out,” says Adie. “They’re worth less. That’s what discrimination means.”
Adie no longer dashes off to the latest conflict or war zone. The pioneering journalist is a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s “From Our Own Correspondent.” Much to her dismay, foreign coverage doesn’t have the depth it used to. Who needs an expensive globe-trotting reporter when you’ve got 24-hour news and a satellite dish? “You can’t stand on a battlefield and talk to a satellite dish with all this equipment.”
Although Adie isn’t pleased about the changes, she believes women journalists are as essential to telling the world’s human stories as ever.
“I’m not a great one for arguing that women bring something to the table,” she says. “I think women ought to be reporting because journalism is a reflection of and a window on the world we live in. Half the people living in the world are women, so I don’t think the job should be left to men. I feel very strongly women have gained a place and should hold onto a place in journalism. If you’re lucky, if you have your wits about you, and you find an aspect of journalism you like, it will be a wonderful job."