18 February 2011

Don't blame the women

Reading about the horrific sexual attack on war reporter Lara Logan gives me a certain sense of deja vue. In 1972 - almost 40 years ago - I was interviewed for a job as a foreign correspondent at Reuters. I was 20 and knew nothing of the world. The then managing director of Reuters, Gerald Long, after a pleasant half hour chat in his fine suite on the top floor at 85 Fleet Street turned to me and asked: “And er Anne, how would you feel if you were raped by an advancing army?”

Whatever I mumbled, and I have no doubt it was both fatuous and na├»ve, clearly didn’t matter since I got the job as a graduate trainee at Reuters - the first woman on whom they chanced their arm, or more appropriately perhaps, leg. Although I didn’t speak Italian I was quietly despatched to Rome because it was thought women might have ways of getting a story, Italian style.

A couple of decades later I wrote a history of women reporters called Battling for News (just republished by Faber Finds as Battling for News: from the Risorgimento to Tiananmen). So I know this is not the first time women reporters have been attacked. I know that women, just as men, have always been prepared to use tricks - or good looks - to get a story. And I know that sometimes (ok, often) it’s the male editor who is to blame, especially where television is concerned, for exploiting a pretty woman in a flak jacket who appears on a screen in your own front room. Talk about vicarious thrills!

Nobody today has heard of Hilde Marchant but in 1936 when she was sent by Daily Express Editor Arthur Christiansen to cover the women’s angle of the siege of Madrid she was dubbed “the best woman reporter that ever worked in Fleet Street.” Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles were already there. Women and how they reported a war had become the story.

Anne Sharpley, accused by male rivals of sleeping with a police chief to get a story, was quite open about sex being a weapon in her armoury and her habit of pulling out telephone wires after she had dictated her own story. She took the view that men with their natural clubbiness had other advantages.

And as one example among many don’t forget Yvonne Ridley kidnapped by the Taleban in 2001 and pilloried by fellow journalists, including other women, who told her she had responsibility as a single mother. But are men ever asked the same question? Famously John Simpson not only dressed up in a Burqa to get himself smuggled into the Nangarhar Province, near the border with Pakistan but he was a father and since then also has a young child. It’s a decision each journalist has to make for his or her self and whether or not Lara Logan once modelled swimwear is irrelevant. Don’t forget men get attacked and tortured too. Men have babies and children at home. And men sometimes cry. Don’t blame the women for being there and certainly don’t blame them for being attractive.