PurpleBeach Experience 2015

Live postcards from the PurpleBeach Experience 2015

By Richard Davies

Good manners saves lives in warzones says veteran BBC foreign correspondent Kate Adie

Date Posted: April, 28 2015

Veteran BBC journalist Kate Adie described the role of the foreign correspondent in starkly uncompromising terms:

“You turn up when there is trouble, the last thing they want is this stranger coming with a camera saying ‘I am from the BBC.’ You have to concentrate on getting facts and verifying the facts, getting the views of people on the spot. You have a lot to do, so you have got to get a grip of yourself and concentrate… You may come across something very unpleasant like a corpse. You don’t have time to emote about it. It doesn’t mean you don’t have feelings. You were sent there to do a job.  Your job is to find out what happened and tell other people about it. If you don’t do that you get lost in the scene around you.”

Clearly this is not a job for anyone with a delicate disposition or who expects a honeymoon 'settling in' period!

In Kate’s view, modern war reporting began in the Crimea, when William Howard Russell took no notice of Army complaints about his despatches. There is, says Kate, a natural tension between the Army who like order and don’t like surprises and journalists, for whom the reverse is true. Although in modern warfare when there is ‘hot metal’ flying around, you are usually better off inside the military vehicle than outside, it is necessary to achieve a ‘working relationship’, but at the same time, "never forget you are a journalist with your own ethics and rules.” While clearly a journalist should not endanger life by giving away military ‘confidences’, military and journalists have to work next to each other as ‘grown-ups’.

It is a truism that ‘the first casualty of war is truth’ and the role of a warzone reporter is to “get as much truth as you can”.  Inevitably, people in war zones will not want to tell the whole truth: “In war you have to keep up morale, conceal foul deeds, claim victory when you only just saved your skins and deny defeat. People are very inclined to lie.”

When asked if it was still necessary for journalists to go into danger zones, Kate observed that these places rarely have an official designation: “Nobody puts up a sign, there are almost never front lines except in divided city territories. All this complicates matters enormously.”

As technology develops, it may become possible for drones to do some of the work of TV cameras, but Kate is certain there will always be the need for ‘on the ground reporting’ to distinguish between a village razed to the ground and an out of control barbeque.

Being a foreign correspondent will always be a dangerous job. Inevitably people feel hostile towards outsiders and don’t want to tell you things. Katie is a great advocate of good manners: “You have to tread carefully and learn how to survive.  You have to learn very good manners, positive body language, and never be aggressive with people who are fighting mad. Good manners save lives.”

Kate cited the example of a French journalist colleague who defused a potentially dangerous situation when confronted by a West African militia by offering an open hand and saying “Bonsoir”, demonstrating that “it’s harder to shoot someone after they have shaken your hand.”

On the subject of coping with fear, Kate described her reactions to different types of fear. When you are in a conflict zone with bombs and mortars landing randomly around you, it is a fear of indecision. You don’t know what to do. It is a demeaning fear and intended to make you feel that way. Fear of snipers is like ‘playground fear’ that can make you freeze, wondering if your impulse to run is correct.  When someone holds a gun to your head, it is a different fear altogether. To survive you have to suppress your feelings of ‘why is this happening to me’ and start thinking, “right, get a grip, control your body language, don’t be vulnerable, think about what am I going to do.” Katie likens this to the experience of workplace bullying.

Kate also described the challenges of being a woman reporter in countries that do not respect women’s rights, where to go out alone is to invite sexual attack. Her advice is not to invite trouble, describing how she married her cameraman on three occasions (often to his considerable surprise), slipping a ring on her finger and demanding to remain with ‘her husband’. At the same time, Kate always stood her ground, insisted on being treated equally and refused to be “sectioned off with the women.” Kate also recommended women to adopt ‘coping strategies’, such as ‘going behind a bush’ rather than expecting a separate ladies’ lavatory to be provided in the middle of the Saudi desert!

After all, Kate remains a great believer in humanity, describing the “extraordinary little moments when people who have lost everything will still be prepared to help others and give them their last bit of food. Resourcefulness is what people have in bucketfuls.”

Finally, Kate shared her three rules for leading a team:
1) Be competent -  “Never make decisions and tell other people what to do unless you are totally competent in your own role”
2) Be honest, always – “Praise people when they do a good job, but don’t lie - don’t say they are doing a great job when two weeks later you will try to lose them. Use your good manners if someone is doing something wrong.”
3) Be kind – “Be a decent human being.” Kate dismissed workplace surveys which say no more than the that if you  treat people decently they do more work, saying she could offer this advice in a few minute conversation!
An hour in Kate’s company passes very quickly and I straightaway find that I want to hear her refreshingly candid views on so many other topics!

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