'Cliché Gives People Something to Hang On To': An Interview with Lindsey Hilsum

by Stephanie Sy-Quia

Lindsey Hilsum is International Editor for Channel 4 News. Her first book, Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution, charted the demise of the Gaddafi regime. Her latest book is a biography of Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times reporter killed by the Syrian regime in 2012 while on assignment in Homs. Hilsum began her career as a journalist in Rwanda in 1993, when she was the only Western journalist in Kigali during the genocide. Since then, her work has taken her to almost every major conflict of recent years. I interviewed Hilsum at her home last November. The Kashoggi story was still coming to light, and it was yet another morning when we wondered if Theresa May would last the day. In her kitchen was a banner given to her at by a protester in the Libyan revolution, which read:


How does being the process of being one of your friends’ biographers differ from your previous book? You don’t want your judgements as someone who cared about Marie to intrude on the narrative.

I felt it was important in the preface to set out my rights to write the book, to say I knew her, so that the reader would know that they were in the hands of someone who had knowledge and understanding of Marie. And I was outer circle rather than inner circle. I think if I’d been inner circle I would not have been able to do it. But I couldn’t really put myself in the book because I didn’t know her when she was a child or a teenager. I didn’t meet her until 1998. A vast amount of her life is before we got to know each other. It would have been weird to sort of stick myself in two thirds of the way through. So I thought the most coherent way of doing it was laying it all out in the preface: how I knew her and what I knew of her. And at the end, because we spoke a lot in the last week of her life. The Libya book was very different because I was writing about six people, all of whom I’d met in the revolution. And my own experience of the revolution was part of the book. It was a very different thing.

How do ideas about your rights to write something transpose into your more quotidian journalism?

Most of my journalism is not personal, in the sense that I’m a fairly ordinary journalist. I go somewhere and report on what I find and see and don’t really involve myself in it very much. Except as a TV journalist I’m there, so you see me popping up and then you’ll see me interviewing someone.

Writing a very intimate biography of somebody is journalistic in the sense that I’m doing research, reading material which is her diaries and journals and so on, and I’m interviewing people. I interviewed 114 people – friends, family, colleagues. Hopefully it reads like a novel that’s not a novel. Everything is sourced but not sourced on the page.

It does help that quite a few of the instances that I write about I was also there. I wasn’t in Sri Lanka but I was in Kosovo and Chechnya, although in different parts. To some extent some of my journalism came into play in that I can remember what some of these places looked like. I knew what happened and I understood a lot of the stuff from her notebooks and journals because my notebooks were very similar.

Taking a step away from your book about Marie, I’m very interested in the current collapse in terminology we have between a ‘foreign correspondent’ and a ‘war correspondent’ in the Western media. I also don’t really like the term Western media because –

I agree. A lot of these categories are no longer quite as stark as they were. Marie never called herself a war correspondent, and neither have I. We called ourselves foreign correspondents. Because it’s to do with the kind of stories that you do. I’m here to tell you that I’m not in Brussels. Somebody in Brussels is a foreign correspondent. But I’m rarely that kind of foreign correspondent. Nor was Marie.

[Here we are interrupted by a squirrel, which has been trying to get at the bird feeder outside]

That bloody squirrel! I kind of admire him. But at the same time I am so annoyed with him. I am going to get up and tell him to sod off, even though it’s not going to make the slightest bit of difference. He’ll be back in a minute.

(To squirrel) You can sod off!

He’ll be right back. It’ll be two minutes. He probably won’t get to the other end of the garden before he’ll be back eating those incredibly expensive suet balls that I bought for the birds.

They call me International Editor which I much prefer. Collapsing the world being home and foreign is quite old-fashioned because everything connects up. That’s a problem for another day! Both Marie and I would see ourselves as foreign correspondents, but to a greater extent we reported on conflict and that’s what people pay attention to. That’s what people are interested in. That’s what people really, really like. When people come up to me in the street to talk to me about my work, they say ‘Oh, you’re the one who wears a flak jacket’. That’s what sticks in people’s minds. You can argue till you’re blue in the face about this fantastic piece that you did doing something that wasn’t a war or a revolution.

I don’t want to be reductive in asking you about your gender and how it informs your work -

No, it’s completely fine. Everyone does and it’s a completely reasonable question. Marie wrote about this in her very interesting article ‘Courage has no gender’. She did write that she would sit interviewing someone for hours on end in Kosovo and that she didn’t think a man would do that, but that’s bollocks – it was because she was a Sunday newspaper journalist! She had all the time in the world. I would never do that, because I’m a daily TV news reporter. It has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with how much time you have to get your story. If she were here, that is what I would say to her. And she would say I had a point.

I think that I would say the same thing that everyone else would say which is that – the squirrel is back – that there are advantages in being a woman. You get through roadblocks more easily because people don’t think you’re a threat. But there is less and less difference.

I’d like to talk a little about how foreign coverage in newspapers has changed. You’ve got the advent of photo bylines in tandem with having to fight cable news for people’s attention. What are your thoughts, if any, on journalists cultivating their personal brands?

Marie is a really interesting example of this, because it certainly – when she started at The Sunday Times in 1986 there really wasn’t a personal brand thing, and this was something that Sean Ryan brought in when he became Foreign Editor at The Sunday Times.

She was very happy with the brand they created for her. But then, when she became more fragile, it became very difficult. She’d bought into her own brand and when she couldn’t quite manage it, that was the hard part. People always talk about going to Iraq or Syria and then coming back here, and the alternation between the two lives. I don’t think that was all so difficult for Marie. What was difficult for her was the outer life and the inner life. She wanted to be that brave, bold Marie who went in furthest and stayed longest. And then at times she just felt very fragile, alone and scared. I think it was quite hard for her to come to terms with that.

She liked writing in the first person – not writing about herself, but placing herself right there in the story. She built it up, it was was her way of doing things, and it worked really well. But it caused problems for her in the end.

The first person is very interesting to me. First person reporting is a legacy of travel writing. I really liked your Granta piece, where in a whole series where lots of writers I really admire were invited to talk about travel writing, most of them made the same pronouncements on the relationship of Chatwin and Fermour to the decline of empire. And you were the only one to come out and say ‘No, we need to reinvigorate the genre, where we defer to migrants and refugees because these are the stories of our time.’ And I read the piece you did with Anne Leslie where you said the idea of the white man or woman journalist turning up and seeing what the natives are up to is gone now.

Obviously there are limits to this whole ‘white woman/man goes in, interviews, comes out, tells story’ thing. We all know what the problems with that are. But there are also problems with ‘person from place tells story’. It doesn’t always work. You have to talk a little bit about the people you’re telling the story for. If you’re telling it on Channel 4 News, on The Sunday Times, a) they like to know who’s talking to them, and b) you can’t tell the wood from the trees. Which is a very important part of journalism. And so a certain level of ignorance is not a bad thing, because people get trammelled up in knowing too much.

When you were reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, you mentioned seeing the gutter flowing with blood and thinking ‘this isn’t a metaphor’. When you are reporting from a war zone and you need to make people feel, how do you wrestle with all the clichés which surround conflict?

Sometimes clichés are useful, because they give people something to hang on to. And most of the time I’m doing TV, so I’m working extremely fast. But obviously the most basic thing when you’ve got 45 minutes to write the script is to try and avoid cliché. I like twisted cliché. Clichés which start as cliché but then they turn. People think they’re getting the cliché, but actually you’re adapting it.

The other thing I like to do in a TV script is use a lot of half-lines of poetry and songs, which people don’t know are there. There’s quite a lot of Dylan and Springsteen and Yeats and Auden in my scripts. I actually don’t think that you can write good scripts for TV unless you read poetry. Or listen to songs. Because it’s a similar thing: you’re trying to boil it down, say more with less. Now, I would not say that my scripts are poetry, I would say that they are fairly bog standard TV scripts, but the principle is the same. Except you’ve got pictures, so you’re trying to bounce off the picture. One of the most difficult things about writing TV scripts is how to write in a way that enhances the pictures without just describing them.

Last year I saw Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! give a talk and she said that news journalism is the greatest instrument for peace that she can think of. Do you agree?

No! That’s the biggest piece of toss I’ve heard in my life. It’s information, and it’s information which is presented in different ways. Now, obviously information is important and propaganda is dangerous. But I really think it doesn’t do for journalists to exaggerate their importance. Marie did believe that her journalism made a difference. There are occasions in the book where you can see that it did.

I think that journalists can be prone to hubris and thinking that our work has more impact than it in fact does. If you look now, the overall media landscape is so passive. The individual story and the individual journalist have far less impact than they used to.

I also think that journalists are (or should be) very good at finding out what’s going on and presenting it, and presenting some human suffering and so on. But it doesn’t mean we know what the answer is. And 'something must be done' is pretty lame. We don’t always know what should be done - which is fine, we’re journalists. We’re not supposed to know.

What I think at the moment – and this is moving on from Marie, and Marie was killed in a war – is that the journalists who are having an impact and who are most in danger at the moment are investigative journalists who are looking at the network of corrupt politicians and organised crime. This is where we see three journalists killed in the European Union in the last year (Daphne Caruana Galizia, Ján Kuciak and Victoria Marinova in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Malta). That is the place to look at at the moment for the impact of journalists because they can bring down politicians, as they should be able to, by examining corruption. Exposing corruption is one of the most basic and most important functions of journalism, and I think it has much more potential for doing that than bringing peace. Bringing peace is a very vague concept. Information is very important in that, but journalists bringing peace? I think that’s nonsense.

Lindsay Hilsum's In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin is published by Chatto & Windus.