"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Women Writing War

To the Guardian Newsroom in Farringdon Road last night for a discussion, sponsored by Persephone Books and organised by English P.E.N., on the theme of the challenges faced by women war reporters. Actually, it wasn't the Guardian Newsroom itself but the building over the road with that name which they use for conferences. A panel of three women, Caroline Hawley the BBC's Middle East Correspondent, Maggie O'Kane of the Guardian famous for her reports from Sarajevo, and Ann McFerran who has reported on the aftermath of conflict in Uganda and Rwanda were interviewed by Anne Sebba, author of Battling for News: The Rise of the Woman Reporter. Anne put a series of sharp questions about whether being a woman made a difference to a reporter from war zones (the preferred term to "war reporter" which no one seemed to like much) but the three panellists remained stubbornly resistant to this line of questioning. They were just reporters, they said, and the most they could say was that in some areas of conflict in the Arab world as women they could get certain kinds of access to people, especially women, which would have been difficult for men. Maggie O'Kane, who halfway through the discussion actually used the prohibited word 'feminist' to describe herself, said that after she became a mother she did feel some anxiety about being separated from her son if she were arrested or detained. Her contribution was the most interesting and she no doubt shocked the cohorts of women journalism students packing the hall by saying that, actually, the game was up. "The time has passed for white Europeans, " she announced dramatically in response to an earnest inquiry about what made a good war reporter. What she meant was that we have entered a new phase of reporting from war zones in which white European journalists (male or female) would no longer be able to operate and it was the local reporters, the translators, or what she called "fixers", on the ground who needed to be trained and empowered to report. There was some anxiety that this might limit the ways in which wars were seen, if other perspectives weren't brought into play, but it seemed inevitable, certainly in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Another stimulating P.E.N. event.


anne said...

HI NICHOLAS glad you found it stimulating but so sorry not to have seen you there and chatted. So much I wanted to cover because, historically and until very recently, there really have been serious gender-based advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps as Maggie stated so clearly all that is over now.

Andrew Kenneally said...

The idea of reporting being done by people actually living there rather than, in a sense, tourists with necessarily superficial understandings is obviously desirable. Though what of the unfortunate fact that the worldwide press is "in the hands of the power elite", as Huxley wrote. We get the excitement of things on the ground but intentionally short-focus or downright false perspectives on the big picture, as demonstrated by the words of David Rockefeller in an address to a meeting of The Trilateral Commission, in June, 1991.
"We are grateful to The Washington Post, The New York Times, Time Magazine and other great publications whose directors have attended our meetings and respected their promises of discretion for almost forty years. It would have been impossible for us to develop our plan for the world if we had been subject to the bright lights of publicity during those years. But, the work is now much more sophisticated and prepared to march towards a world government. The supranational sovereignty of an intellectual elite and world bankers is surely preferable to the national auto-determination practiced in past centuries."

This being the necessary lens to understand the drive behind world events naturally get wholly omitted, since the media are owned by members of this same very special inteterst group.

Sorry bout that tangent.

Nicholas Murray said...

Sorry, too, that I missed you, Anne. I suppose I was a little surprised at how easily some of those gender issues you raised and cited examples of (from male editors etc) were disposed of. Perhaps people don't want to acknowledge them too readily in case it seems as though they are starting to whinge. Strong, successful women like these impressive reporters certainly don't want to be seen as victims but I suspect there are others who are still being told (or perhaps not even being told, everything being tacit) that they are "past their sell-by date for TV" etc etc. I suppose I am sceptical of the idea that we suddenly woke up one day and found crass sexism had been completely abolished overnight!

Andrew: media ownership is a big issue, you are right. I also liked someone last night quoting Jeremy Paxman about news being "covered" 24hrs rather than being reported. Watching CNN on a hotel TV on my recent holiday I was very frustrated by the lack of illumination.

Andrew Kenneally said...

I suppose the very fact that it is a blanket of coverage means that there is no space for illumination to occur. To quote Victor Pelevin whom I mentioned before: "Phenomenologically any politician is a TV program, and this doesn’t change from one government to another." I don't think it's wise to look upon the mainstream media as much more than that-the making of television programmes. I remember, naive as I was, being astonished by the headline under all CNN programmes when the US attacked Afghanistan, which was "The Empire Strikes Back." ! News as entertainment for slave populations...I think that's about the size of that.

English PEN said...

Great blog, Nick, and glad you enjoyed the evening. There was some interesting tension around the gender issue. I can see why our speakers resisted the idea that in any essential way their reports might differ from those of a man - but as they repeatedly illustrated, being a woman had given them a different kind of access, particularly to the female victims of conflict. I think Anne was right to push them on this - and perhaps they were right to push back! Anyway, the best events are those which raise more questions than they answer. JH

Andrew Kenneally said...

Though I've kind of offered a crude interpretatino of Pelevin. In Babylon, he writes about the state of consciousness itself that is produced by watching television as being a kind of spirit possession though without the spirit; unreality in the midst of reality. So it's deeper than simply being lied to: the medium being the message and the medium producing an unreal sense of reality which is the kind of ambient background or screen upon which the establishment fairy-tales are projected.
Though this again is a crude rendering of Pelevin's thought.