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Kate Adie: the BBC journalist on life, war and her new book
KATE Adie doesn’t have much time for anything. No time to reflect on her career, no time to consider how she is perceived, no time even to think about her life.
Lack of time is a recurring theme for the TV journalist who first became known in Hampshire as a reporter on South Today, and went on to become a household name across the country.
Whatever else she has achieved, she will probably always be remembered as “the woman in the flak-jacket”, reporting from the frontline amid gunfire.
But Kate, who was the BBC’s chief news correspondent for 14 years from 1989-2003 and now presents Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent, has insisted in the past she doesn’t view herself as a role model.
“I do not think about how people remember me. I hope people think I did a good job. I don’t have time to sit and ponder what people think,” she says, setting in motion a theme that will become familiar as she discusses her life and career ahead of her lecture and book signing at Winchester Cathedral on Wednesday.
Raised in Durham, Kate graduated from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and promptly joined the BBC, to whom she has remained fiercely loyal ever since. Then in 1980, at a time when newsrooms were a maelstrom of testosterone and women were struggling for a fair crack of the whip, one man’s desire for a night on the town handed Kate her big break.
“One of the correspondents left early, he wanted to go out that night and I was called and I came in early and covered for him. Half an hour after I got there, the SAS got in,” she recalls.
They “got in” to the Iranian Embassy in London, after gunmen took 26 people hostage there, and Kate found herself in the thick of it broadcasting to the nation unscripted crouching behind a car door.
“I did not have time to think. You have to get on air. You have to see what you can find out and you’re live on air. You just go for it,” she says, excitement still detectable in her voice 30 years on.
Having made her mark in the public psyche and having proved she could do the business, an incredible list of the world’s biggest stories followed for her, including the American bombing of Libya in 1986, China’s Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the first Gulf War, and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. It used to be a joke in the British Army that when Kate Adie arrived on the scene, they knew they were in trouble. And with Kate twice suffering gunshot wounds – in Libya and China – the soldiers were probably right to be wary.
“I remember in Sarajevo, seeing people trying to put on concerts, and the football team trying to find somewhere to play that wasn’t within sniper range.
“The point is that one of the interesting things I have found, looking at the whole picture, is that life goes on.
“It’s a determination to keep going and doing the things you like doing in the face of dreadful war.”
That determination is something explored in greater detail in her latest book. Fighting on the Home Front explores how women “emerged from the shadows of their domestic lives, acquiring their own rights and often an independent income” as a result of the First World War. It will also be the subject of the lecture she’ll |give at Winchester.
“What you will discover is that you could take any town or village in Hampshire and a good deal of what is in this book happened in those villages and towns.
“What you would have had was large numbers of people going off to cities like Southampton for the first time ever, and going away from home to find new jobs, which was a novelty and these big factories were popping up all over the place. People at that time were bounded by the fact that they lived in a certain town or village and would generally have stayed there, but the people who lived in the lovely rural parts of Hampshire would have found themselves leaving their village for the first time in their lives.”
Another chapter of the book covers the extraordinary tale of Flora Sandes, the only British woman to officially serve as a soldier in the First World War.
“One of the reasons Sandes got in the army was that they needed everybody who could fight. If there isn’t a need then that situation doesn’t arise.”
And although she observes that “what hasn’t quite arrived is equality of pay” she declines to offer any suggestions why that might be.
Writing the book, she says, was about presenting a complete picture.
“If you spend a lot of time reporting on conflict, you become very conscious that you report everything: you do not just report the frontlines and the weapons and the fighting.
“You report on everybody affected by it. Everybody who is dragged into it, whether you like it or not. You can only report properly if you look at the whole picture.
“This was a new war and the whole nation found themselves a part of it. Women had to go to work and the country changed.”
But not everything changed, and Kate recalls working in the Middle East and a male interviewee made no secret of his reluctance to deal with her directly because of her gender. Her cameraman said he looked as though he were being asked to talk in public to a cat.
“I just got on with the job. I’m a reporter. You get on with the job. You get on with it. You do it. As a journalist you have priorities. You get on with it,” she declares.
And yes, she did say it four times. She really means it.
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