Sunday, 14 April 2013


Yesterday evening I listened to former reporters Kate Adie and Triona Holden and camerawoman Susan Stein talk about their war zone experiences in working for the BBC.
I think it's a fair observation that most of the 100+ audience squeezed into the top floor room of the Horsebridge Centre were in awe, particularly of Adie who led the talk and subsequent discussion, and were simply amazed to find this top-class event in little old Whitstable.
The explanation is that Holden, now an artist, has recently made her home here and seems keen to get involved in the town (you are warmly welcome, Triona!)  Every penny from last night's ticket sales is being kept by the Horsebridge and the generosity will be repeated next week in a similar event with Sandi Toksvig (already sold out).
As we remember from TV, Adie is a fluent, articulate and strong speaker, well-equipped to deal with one or two slight 'digs' at the BBC from last night's audience and giving some revealing information about censorship - yes, she wrote her own scripts which were never edited by others before she presented them to camera - but also yes, the marrow-chilling, agonising screams of the injured and bereaved in earshot of the broadcasting crew are edited out. It's an interesting thought that sounds may be more unbearable to us than sights...
Too much of the second half Q and A session, in my view, focused on the gender of the trio and whether they had found this a hindrance in their work. Adie amusingly recounted how a heavily bearded warlord had to be persuaded into an interview with her - and her colleagues dredged their memories for one or two other similar anecdotes.
It might have been mildly interesting to learn how they fared with personal hygiene and sleeping arrangements in tough conditions. But really, this 'wow - how amazing for a woman to do that' is tiresome stuff which we've surely got beyond. As Adie said, at least twice, things have moved on in the last 40 years, so I was surprised to hear young women raising this question.
When I was a rookie reporter in my first newsroom in the 1970s, the gender split was roughly 50:50 and as far as I can recall, every newsroom I subsequently worked in was much the same, local and national. If it wasn't quite that evenly balanced, I didn't notice but just got on with the job. There was the editor I went to see after we moved 'up north' who assured me that my new husband wouldn't mind if I didn't find a job straightaway... luckily I never got to find out the make-up of his staff.
I never had an issue with interviewees who, in fact, may have been more amenable to a slightly-built young woman than to a masculine reporter. This advantage was not lost on one news editor, who was rebuked by a colleague for sending me to talk to a newly-arrived community of travellers. His reply was that he knew I wouldn't get a 'hostile reception'. And I once inveigled my way into a National Front meeting because the chairman took a shine to me...
With promotions which later came my way, it never occurred to me or (as far as I am aware) anyone else that there would be a problem with my supervision of older, longer-serving men.
At five foot nothing and without Adie's kind of self-assurance and assertiveness, I now look back on this with mild curiosity... but I never wondered at the time, and never had anything but co-operation.
There was, I have to admit, some blatant sexism among some of the print workers. One of a newspaper sub-editor's tasks until about 20 years ago was to work alongside the compositors who 'made up' the pages, checking that they had pasted the correct headline and story together, stuck the photo on straight, and that they hadn't cut an over-long story mid-sentence to fit the space.
Very often I would be scrutinising pages, working in a room 'decorated' with posters of topless pin-up girls. Then there was the guy who always asked me in a very concerned way if I found my husband 'satisfactory'...
He was easily dealt with. As I held the power in this situation, with him desperate to have his page 'signed off' with my initials, I would be just a little bit more pernickety about his work and insist on absolute perfection...