Kate Adie has covered breaking stories from all over the world. She talks to Chris Bond about being in the line of fire and wartime heroines.
IT used to be a joke among the ranks of the British Army that when Kate Adie arrived on the scene, the squaddies knew they were in trouble.
As the BBC’s chief news correspondent she became one of the best known faces on television for her calm, no-nonsense reports covering some of the defining events of modern times including the Gulf War, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the Rwandan genocide. In recent years she has stepped away from war reporting, concentrating instead on radio work. She presents the excellent From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4, and has carved out a successful career as an author.
Next week she’s coming to Yorkshire where she will be speaking at Off the Shelf, in Sheffield, the Morley Literature Festival and the Ilkley Literature Festival. She will be talking about her latest book, Fighting on the Home Front, which tells the story of women in Britain during the First World War. She examines what life was like for the women who took on labouring, agricultural and munitions jobs to keep the country afloat and feed and clothe their families.
Adie says women played a crucial role in the war effort. “The war couldn’t have been won without them. It was the most enormous industrial effort, they worked in munitions plants and engineering works and they were part of the war machine.” Many of those who had been at the forefront of the suffragette movement put their campaign on hold to help defend the country.
“They led volunteer groups and medical units and a huge number of women were doing jobs they had never done before. You had women delivering post for the first time, you had women in the civil service and you had female clerks in the Bank of England where they’d never had women over the threshold before. They worked as window cleaners, road menders and they showed they could do all these things.”
In doing so they proved they were just as capable as their male counterparts. “For the first time they had become a major part of the workforce.” However, after the war ended they didn’t get the rights or recognition they deserved. “They were shunted out of their jobs to make way for the men returning from the Front, which caused enormous bitterness.” Nevertheless, she says their efforts didn’t go to waste. “The memory of what they did lasted and it was picked up by future generations.”
Adie herself has covered some of the biggest conflicts of the past 30 years, including the Falklands and the Gulf War, but points out that women were reporting from the front line long before she was.“There was an extraordinary woman called Flora Shaw who reported the Boer War. She was comfortably off and she travelled around the world but she was a journalist,” she says. “Then there’s Flora Sandes who was the first British woman to fight in uniform. She came from Yorkshire and worked as a nurse as part of a VAD unit in Serbia. But she put down her bandages and asked to be given a rifle and became a soldier who had a distinguished career.”
Adie, too, has enjoyed a distinguished career, although she doesn’t regard herself as a female role model in an industry long dominated by men. “A lot of women of my generation were moving into areas they hadn’t been in before, you had the first woman assistant chief constable and the first female judge in the Court of Appeal. Barriers were being knocked down and there were a lot of us. So I didn’t feel I was a role model, I just had an opportunity and I wanted to go for it.”
Adie was born in 1945, and was the adopted child of a couple from Sunderland, where she grew up. Her early years were unremarkable and she describes herself as “a timid little beast” when she was young. She gained a degree in Scandinavian Studies at Newcastle University before joining the BBC in 1968 as a studio technician in local radio.
To begin with, though, she didn’t have a burning desire to be a journalist. She started out in regional TV in Plymouth but admits she found it hard initially. “I was a real fish out of water and I asked myself ‘can I do it?’ I hadn’t trained as a journalist and I was very diffident,” she says. “Now it’s a popular job that people aspire to but it wasn’t in those days and I’d had no intention of being a reporter.”
After a couple of years her confidence and experience grew and in 1979 she joined BBC TV news in London. It was her coverage of the Iranian embassy siege in 1980 that first brought her to prominence. Adie was the duty reporter when the SAS stormed the building to end the stand-off. She reported from behind a car door as smoke bombs exploded in the background and soldiers abseiled in to rescue the hostages. “News doesn’t normally happen in front of you and certainly not in such dramatic circumstances.”
But if she hoped this was going to propel her instantly up the journalistic ladder, she was left disappointed. “It made no impact whatsoever. I was sent to Crufts or something like that the next day.”
However, she had proved her reporting skills in challenging circumstances and over the next 20 years became a key member of the BBC’s news team. But she feels the industry has changed radically from the one she started out in. “The job I did doesn’t exist now, it’s much more about the presentation of news.” Has it changed for the better? “That’s for the audience to judge.”
Being a journalist can be a hazardous occupation, especially in a war zone, and there have been a spate of recent incidents where reporters have been killed while covering stories, raising fears that they’re now seen as legitimate targets. But Adie questions this view. “There are 30-fold more journalists in the world so you have to take into account the sheer number of reporters there are now,” she says.
The enduring image of her is as the under fire, flak-jacketed reporter, although she scoffs at the idea that she’s in any way fearless. “You don’t last long if you’re fearless, you need to know when to hide or duck behind a wall.” She’s been in some sticky situations during her career but says you can’t afford to dwell on them. “You realise afterwards that you got into a corner but you don’t think about it at the time because you’re trying to do your job.”
Wars, she says, are cruel and messy and she’s seen with her own eyes the devastation they can wreak. “They change people’s lives and they affect the entire population, everybody is involved. When I was in Sarajevo the women felt they were being ignored, people were being killed when they were going out to buy food and I remember one woman telling me, ‘we are all on the front line’.”
Although she’s become synonymous with war reporting, it’s far from the only string to her journalistic bow. “I’ve been a court reporter and I’ve covered elections and assassinations. I’ve even done Miss World.” Really? “I did it once, but they didn’t send me back,” she adds.
She’s always been popular with the public because they trust her. But being a hard-nosed reporter doesn’t prevent you from being emotionally involved in a story. “Of course you’re emotionally involved, wars put people in terrible circumstances and you do feel enormously sorry for them, it’s just not put in the report. Viewers will make their own decisions, but if you’re as cold as stone then you’re not a very good reporter. You’ve got to understand what people are going through.”
These days Adie, who has just turned 68, has gone back to her first love, radio, and says she is enjoying this latest chapter of her life. “I don’t spend time sitting around looking back and wallowing. I record programmes, I get invited to give lectures and I write books.” And she believes passionately that journalism still matters. “Who else will hold those in power to account? That’s the job and journalists now have the tools to bring the news almost instantaneously to people, but it still needs to be done rigorously and truthfully.”
Kate Adie is appearing at Off the Shelf Festival of Words, in Sheffield, on October 12, Morley Literature Festival on October 13 and Ilkley Literature Festival on October 14. Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now priced £20.
The roving reporter
Kate Adie was born in September 1945.
She went to school in Sunderland before gaining a degree in Scandinavian Studies at Newcastle University.
Joined the BBC as a studio technician in 1968 and cut her journalistic teeth in regional TV, before joining BBC TV News in London in 1979.
Adie became the BBC`s chief news correspondent in 1989, and has reported from war zones around the world, including the Balkans, Iraq, Rwanda and Afghanistan.
She has won numerous awards including three Royal Television Society awards, and was awarded an OBE in 1993.
Adie presents From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4 and is the author of four bestselling books.