Interview: Lindsey Hilsum

“I’ve seen terrible things”, says Lindsey Hilsum. As a foreign correspondent, she has been at the centre of the most harrowing conflicts and natural disasters of recent years. Her reporting has brought images and analysis of these crises out of seemingly far-off nations and directly into our living rooms. In her role as International Editor for Channel 4 News, Hilsum has won awards for her coverage of the situations in Beslan, Fallujah and the Palestinian refugee camp at Jenin. She spent ten weeks in Baghdad in 2003. Most recently, she’s been in China, attempting to report uprising in Tibet, the Sichuan earthquake and the Olympics, often facing and facing down resistance from state censors.

Hilsum began her career as an aid worker. The move to journalism was motivated by the fact that she “felt like I wasn’t making a difference”. Indeed, she argues controversially that international development is often ineffective, and that the only place she has seen it work is through a capitalist model in China. She is no more idealistic when she considers her current job: “I don’t really know if being a journalist makes a difference either.”

Nevertheless, she reveals a passionate sense of purpose in describing her vocation’s role in furthering international development. “In terms of British taxpayers’ money, it is important for us to try and understand how that’s used – whether it’s being used in a military campaign in Afghanistan, or whether it’s being used in terms of development through DfID.” For her journalism provides a vital means of education, allowing “people to understand all the issues surrounding globalisation and development work”. Crucially, she believes that journalists should never be in the business of propaganda, even for worthy causes. Her scrutiny extends to the aid organisations that she once worked for. In Hilsum’s view, this scrutiny is how her old job and her present one can fruitfully overlap.

Although she has witnessed poverty and political oppression, her assignments have led her to the conclusion that nothing is worse than war. Can a news programme ever convey the true horror of a conflict? Hilsum is adamant that while “there are issues about children being exposed to images of death and destruction and murder”, the “overriding thing for me is for people in this country to understand what’s happening”. She says that “journalists out in the field always want to show everything…the reason I’m there is that I think it’s important that you should see those things”.

In the case of Iraq, where in several reports she joined American troops on the ground immediately after the invasion, she was motivated by this conviction: “I’m not saying that our government was right or wrong to go into Iraq, but we should jolly well know what the reality of that war in which our government is engaged is, and it’s my job to make sure that you do know that.” She points to the fact that the American news media “shows almost no images of death, of killing, of injury – the result was that people thought it was a blood-free war, and that effects how people feel about what their government does”. In contrast, the Arab news media broadcasts much more graphic images of the reality of war. When deciding what is acceptable to broadcast from conflict zones, she argues that the crucial question is whether “you are using those images as propaganda, or whether you are using them to try and tell people the truth about war”. She concedes that this “is a very difficult thing to get right”, but is emphatic that it is not the place of a foreign correspondent to manipulate emotive images “to make a political point”.

For Hilsum, “the main thing is not what foreign correspondents like me are doing”. Instead, “the most important thing is what journalists are doing in their own countries”. This is particularly vital in places “with a lot of corruption and inadequate government, where what matters to those journalists is challenging their governments”. She seems to cast a critical eye on her own profession when she says that national journalists have the persistence and the prerogative to initiate change from the bottom up. It is evident that she has found the many aspects of her role as a foreign correspondent morally ambiguous; the responsibilities of being a relatively privileged outsider who visits a scene of destruction – and then leaves – do not sit lightly on her. In particular she pays tribute to an Iraqi colleague who supported her team at the height of the violence. He was subsequently abducted and is presumed dead.

Lindsey Hilsum has seen terrible things and lost her idealism as a result – about international development, about “righteous causes” and about journalism itself. Yet her cynicism is not cold. Living and working close to human tragedy have not inured her to suffering. It is her continuing capacity for empathy with the people that she meets, and her outrage at injustice on their behalf, that energise Hilsum’s reporting. OXSTU