The NS Interview: Alex Crawford, war reporter

“You have to be scared, because otherwise you’re not careful”

Alex Crawford.
Alex Crawford. Photograph: Linda Brownlee

You rode in to Tripoli last year with the advancing Libyan rebels. How did it feel?
It was like in a lot of war, or fighting – there’s a lot of waiting. They fully expected to have battles going in and suddenly there wasn’t any resistance at all.

What is the situation in Libya now?
Libya is a real fractured mess and that’s quite depressing. The first big challenge was capturing Gaddafi and executing him. They failed. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be an easy future with all these militia groups, so many weapons out on the streets and no real confidence in the NTC [National Transitional Council].

Do you get scared?
You have to be a bit scared, because otherwise you’re not careful enough.

Was this an exceptional year?
Usually you’ll have one big event or two big events a year that have worldwide waves. But last year we had a string of completely unprecedented popular uprisings, and the same group of people, a relatively small band, who were covering it all. For our generation of journalists, there hasn’t been anything like it.

Is impartiality possible – or even desirable?
I don’t think it’s possible to be completely impartial. That doesn’t mean you can’t be questioning, and it doesn’t mean you’re taking sides. But it’s very difficult to watch defenceless children being shot at and remain impartial, because that would mean that you’re not terribly human. I don’t know why people are embarrassed about admitting that.

Do different rules apply in a conflict situation?
Surely one of the skills of a good journalist is to work out what’s right and what’s wrong? I’m not talking about cutting the top rate of tax. I’m talking about whether it is right for a dictator to turn his army on his own defenceless countrymen and women. It’s a no-brainer.

The things you’ve seen must stay with you.
They do. If you had a car accident you'd always remember that. They're a searingly vivid part of your experience. But it's all a learning curve. Every time you go into a situation, it doesn't matter how much experience you've had. It's sort of like you're starting all over again each time. You've got a bank of experiences to draw on, but every experience is different.

What's the hardest thing?
You have to be physically fit and mentally strong. I'm quite lucky because I have a team with me. If you're close to a team and you work very well together, like I do with my cameraman, you draw a lot of strength from each other.

Are war correspondents traumtised?
They must be. You can't see that stuff without being traumatised. It doesn't mean you can't cope. But all the foreign correspondents that covered the Arab will have seen traumatic events. It was happening all around. I'm sure you don't even need to be there to be traumatised. The editors in London who edited some of our footage were quite affected, because they have to go through a lot of pictures considered too graphic to get on air. I'm sure there are whole newsrooms affected. But that's the business we're in.

What is important about what you do?
The thing that struck me during the Arab spring was that while our journalism in Britain was getting a real kicking because of the hacking [scandal], foreign correspondents were doing a vital job. We were incredibly valued by the populations that were being oppressed; they weren’t allowed their own independent media.

Did you always want to be a war correspondent?
I wanted to be a journalist – I didn't even think whether it was radio, TV, or newspaper. I didn't seek out hostile environments, they just happened to be all hostile areas that I was covering.

Was it always foreign reporting you wanted to do?
I was more interested in foreign only because the whole world is a bigger canvas.

You were rejected for several foreign postings. Did you think about giving up?
I got turned down four times for foreign postings and I never thought of giving it up but obviously I felt quite dejected. It's quite difficult to pick yourself up after that but I think it probably made me more determined to prove people wrong. When I finally got it I thought “I can't fail now, because I've badgered them for so long.”

You get asked a lot about being a mother. Is it sexist that men aren’t asked about fatherhood?
Undoubtedly. People have different rules for women. And then they have extra rules for women who are also mothers.

How do you feel about being asked?
It is terribly unfair, because most women who work who’ve got children feel guilty anyway because they don’t feel they’re doing enough. Seriously, I don't need anyone making me feel more guilty. I feel guilty enough. Why should I feel guilty about liking my job? I've got a role to play and why should I feel guilty about that? Most of the people I'm working alongside also have children, but they happen to be men. They don't feel the guilt that women feel, and they are not criticized for doing it. It's weird because the people who we report on think it's extraordinary that a mother would come out. They're terribly respectful and grateful.

What difference does it make being a woman reporting in very patriarchal environments?
The most difficult thing was operating as a woman in a western newsroom and getting the job. Operating in the dictatorial regimes across the Middle East and North Africa was a breeze in comparison. In many areas that I have worked, there are advantages to being a woman. You are seen as much less of a threat. My own experience is that being a woman can open doors, and you can get angry without people feeling that you're being too aggressive. You can be more pushy than a man.

Does it help with telling the stories of women?
In most of these cultures, women feel very uncomfortable talking to men they don’t know. They certainly wouldn’t want to talk about being arrested or manhandled or badly treated.

Lara Logan was criticised for talking about being assaulted in Egypt. What is your view?
Most women have experienced some sort of molesting while they’ve been reporting – even covering the London riots, I bet some women would have been assaulted then. In the big scheme of things you are conditioned to move on. Lara was brave in talking out. On the scale of severity, it sounded near the top end of it. Sexual assault is a difficult thing to talk about – for a man or woman – and it was obviously a very traumatic experience for her. Some said it might put people off sending women, but I think decent news editors will be sending the best person for the job rather than a male or a female. Lara's one of their top reporters, with a huge amount of experience in hostile environments.

Were there any stand-out moments this year?
There are a lot of evil people out there but also an awful lot more good people. People gave up their homes, their cars, the only food they had, risked their lives to help us. That was inspiring.

Is religion a part of your life?
Not one particular religion. But I think you’ve got to have faith.

Was there a plan?
No. I would have drawn up a different one. Definitely.

Is there anything you’d rather forget?
Lots. Trying hard to forget them now. I’d rather forget seeing people die. Seeing people in agony.

Do you vote?
I always vote. People died making sure I get the vote. Anyone who complains and hasn’t voted doesn’t have the right to complain.

Are we all doomed?
There’s quite a big strength in people. That’s what the Arab spring has shown: despite overwhelming, excruciating odds against them, they still somehow managed to come through. I’ve got a lot of faith in the human spirit.

Alex Crawford’s book Colonel Gaddafi’s Hat is out now.

Defining moments

1963 Born in Zambia
1989 Joined Sky at its launch as a producer
1994 Reports on the first democratic elections in South Africa
2003 While working at Sky News, she doorsteps both James and Rupert Murdoch on James’s first day as BSkyB chief executive
2005 Becomes Asia correspondent for Sky – her first full-time foreign posting
2011 Rides in to Tripoli with Libyan rebels
2012 Royal Television Society Journalist of the Year for the third year running