Women on the frontline

Unreported World's Ramita Navai marks international women's day at an Amnesty event about the role o

I was chuffed to be asked to take part in a special panel discussion at Amnesty International's HQ last night on women reporting from the frontline, not only because it was a chance to reflect on my work and the nature of our journalism, but because I was going to be in good company – the three other female foreign reporters are not any old reporters, but among the best in the country – Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor of Channel 4 News, Christine Toomey and Marie Colvin, both of the Sunday Times.

Amnesty was holding the event as part of International Women’s Day and invited us to talk about the old chestnuts that are often thrown at female reporters – how being female affects our journalism, and whether newsrooms and editors are bastions of sexism. They also wanted us to share our experiences of how women’s lives are affected by war and whether media attention and campaigning can make a difference to their lives.

So, do we women journalists report differently from our male colleagues? All of us on the panel took slight umbrage to the question to start with – good reporting is, after all, simply good reporting. When you're singled out as a sex for reporting differently, it's hard not to suspect sexist assumptions – that women reporters are more tuned into people's emotions, more sensitive to the impact of war on families while, of course, allowing ourselves to be clouded by our emotions and so implicitly less able to stand back, analyse and be objective.

But we soon agreed that there are some undeniable differences. We cover the same stories as our male colleagues, but we get access to stories that are often denied to them, and so our insights on how conflicts affect women, say, are broader. Christine Toomey, a feature writer who has written award-winning articles on the postwar impact of mass rape in Bosnia, said that the subjects that often interest her are different from male colleagues, as is the way she interacts and communicates with people.

These differences also work to our advantage, including the frequent and potentially-irritating occurrence of not being taken seriously. In countries where there are restrictions on media freedom, there is nothing more satisfying than having your requests and questions met by mild amusement and curiosity, which does wonders in loosening tongues. It can also help distract government minders.

We were also asked whether there's a tendency for us only to cover women's stories, and if we are boxed into a category by commissioning editors. Just looking at the range of issues that each of us has covered – wars, gang violence, murder, trafficking, politics etc etc - the answer was a resounding no. Having said that, if you want to uncover human rights abuses, women's issues are obviously part of the territory. And if you want to uncover the world's unreported stories, it is very often women and children who are the most forgotten and the most vulnerable.

Lindsey Hilsum said it's important not to show emotion when reporting to camera, in order to appear authoritative and objective. She noted a double standard here, saying that if a male reporter became teary-eyed he'd be applauded for being sensitive and empathic, instead of the eye-rolling 'well, it's a woman' response that we would receive. But keeping my emotions in check is something I still struggle with. Although Lindsey did admit to the lump-in-the-throat moment, she was quick to add: only when the camera is OFF! With the style of Unreported World – where the cameras are constantly rolling in order for the viewer to get to see events unfold as the reporter follows the trail of a story – I don't always have that luxury. And when you're faced with a little boy telling you his world has been shattered and he is in constant pain because his penis and testicles were hacked off to be sold, or when a young girl breaks down as she says she has lost six babies and has such horrific injuries from childbirth she is incontinent for life, and the smell of urine that permeates from her means that her community have cut her off, it's not always easy to keep the emotions at bay. I'm a reporter, but I'm also a human, moved by tragedy, loss and despair. But luckily editors can work wonders, so wobbly moments can magically disappear...

Many in the audience at Amnesty, who included aspiring journalists, activists and campaigners, wanted to know if our work has a positive impact on the stories we cover, and also how we cope with the job. We all had encouraging tales of how pieces we had written or broadcast have inspired readers and viewers – even some politicians – to act. After seeing my report on child brides in Nigeria, a couple from the north of England contacted Channel 4 and are now trying to sponsor the young girl I mentioned above, and the hospital that was treating her. We had a similar response from viewers who saw the little boy in our film about the sale of human body parts in South Africa. All the panelists agreed that we do this job because we feel that exposing these stories to the world can make a difference. Even if it's a tiny difference.

But we also had a reminder that there are still many stories that desperately need telling – a young Sri Lankan woman in the audience at Amnesty broke down as she asked us our view on why the war in her country is so neglected and under-reported when conflicts like that in Gaza, rightly, command acres of news coverage.

This is a subject close to Marie's heart, having doggedly reported from Sri Lanka, and having been seriously injured there while on the job. It’s because the government has systematically banned the foreign press, local journalists have been killed and forced to flee their country if they dare file reports. Even reporting undercover has become nearly impossible. The result is an ongoing war without witnesses, which means less pressure on the international community to act.

As to how we keep ourselves sane and happy in the face of some of the horrors we have all witnessed, detachment is one of the keys to self-preservation in this business. Although Marie's method is preferred: 'I go to a lot of bars,' she said in her magnetic drawl. Hear, hear!

Ramita Navai – reporter for Channel 4’s http://www.channel4.com/news/ontv/unreported_world/

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”


Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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