Meeting an idol is risky business, but Alexandria Gouveia took on the challenge even if it meant getting barked at by one of the greatest journalists in broadcasting history.
Kate Adie has just shouted at me. I wouldn’t mind, but I only met her two minutes ago! With hindsight, I should have been more prepared, especially as a friend only recently told me: “I saw her at a lit fest, and she screamed at a child!”
The saying goes, never meet your idols. Why? Often there’s a fair chance that they will hate you or, even worse, you will hate them. And no one wants to knock a hero off their pedestal. But it was a risk I decided to take as I sat in the InterContinental Hotel, during the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, opposite the lady once described as the woman “with the schoolmarm looks and machine-gun intonation”.
Kate is an award-winning journalist; she’s reported on some of the most important events in modern history, been shot at and held at knife point all in the name of her career, just so us (the public) get the story – the news. She’s an honorary professor of journalism at the University of Sunderland, from where I graduated. She is the reason I wanted to be a journalist; she’s the reason, as a woman, I believe women should have a voice.
Born in Northumberland and adopted by a Sunderland couple, John and Maud Adie, Kate graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in Scandinavian studies; soon after, she joined the BBC, where her strong work ethic saw her move into national news in 1979. Shortly afterwards she got her big break – reporting on the infamous siege on the Iranian Embassy.
She covered the story live on air, behind a car door as bombs exploded. Her calm demeanour while reporting – for which she is renowned – secured her reputation as a world-class journalist.
Kate was soon the first name deployed to cover events such as the Falklands war and the Bosnian war. She once said of the latter: “I think that a lot of people were immensely shocked by its nastiness. These were people with no military background; they actually went and killed their neighbours. I was in the kitchen with one family who shot their postman…”
It’s no surprise then that squaddies joke that if Kate is sent to their posting, they know they’re in trouble.
Twenty-four years ago, Kate risked her life (although she doesn’t see it that way) to report on the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. She kneed a policeman in the groin, endured a bullet nick in the arm and scaled a wall, all to get the story.
Her prolific career saw her receive an OBE, although Kate isn’t boastful. When asked about her role in some of the greatest stories of all time, she says: “It’s just another story. You have no idea at the time how big it is. You only learn that afterwards.
“There are times when you realise you’re breaking something, but not really how significant it is. There are times when you think the story is extraordinary, but it drops out without anybody remembering it. History takes time to establish.”
She doesn’t mince her words, she doesn’t tolerate stupidity and she’s not overly fond of the “new generation’s obsession with feelings”. She snapped: “You don’t feel; you do.”
But she still remains my idol… So, with that in mind, I present an interview with the domineering Kate Adie…
You’re one of the first significant women in news broadcasting. How was it at the time entering a ‘man’s’ world?
Well that’s not entirely true. We were a minority, but there were quite a number of women in broadcasting.
Yes, but you were the one who stood out. What were the pressures you faced?
When I came into the world of work [late 1960s], women weren’t expected to do a lot of jobs. There were still no high court judges who were women. There were no senior policewomen. There were no women in the armed services. There were a huge number of jobs in which women didn’t figure at all. I came into a world of work where you were expected to find barriers against you.
It was changing a little by the 1970s: the legal rights to equal pay and equal opportunities were brought in by law. I was part of that, although you never know while you’re there that a revolution is happening. You just assume it’s normal progress.
And so I got a job as a radio producer on a local station. There weren’t many producers around. And then I transferred, eventually, to television news, and there were very few women working as reporters. But I wasn’t the only one and I wasn’t the first one. When it came to it, all working women knew there would be pressure anyway. You took it for granted that there would be hostile remarks; that people would be difficult. Frequently, when you turned up with a TV crew, somebody would ask: “Well, dear, where’s the reporter?” That was patronising. The assumption was that you were a personal assistant.
How did you cope with that?
Very badly. You just said to them [firmly]: “I am the reporter.” You raised an eyebrow if they made a comment again.
Did being a woman stall any progress in your career?
There was enormous difficulty, because it was a job people assumed was only done by a man. I was very lucky in television news. I had three senior news organisers who were young and very liberal minded. They used to say: “Right, hook off to Belfast.” They didn’t say: ‘Oh, you’re a woman; maybe we won’t send you.’ There was a lot of trouble in Belfast. You just do it.
But not all TV channels were like that. [Kate worked for the BBC.] I remember colleagues on other channels that were having terrible trouble, where they just got nothing. They just got the fluffy stuff. Back then, women would do the fluffy stuff. That was it, full stop. They didn’t think women could report on economics, crime, diplomacy and conflict.
London’s Iranian Embassy raid – how did getting that story feel?
I didn’t get it at all. It was nearly the sixth day of the siege. I was one among approximately a dozen reporters rotating on a 24-hour rota. Nobody gave it to me. In fact, I was on duty by chance, because a very senior reporter, coming to the end of the day, asked me to take over a little earlier, which was what a junior [like Kate at the time] did. They rang up and said one of the news organisers wants to go to a dinner party, and asked if I could come in early. I did. I arrived at about 6.30pm, and just after 7.10pm the SAS raided the embassy.
What did it feel like breaking this story?
You don’t think about how you feel. That is, completely, now a contemporary view of life. You don’t feel you do. You have to get the pictures. You have to know what is happening. You have to watch it for yourself. You have to get ready to broadcast. You don’t start ‘feeling’.
Surely you must have feared for your life a little?
You don’t have time to feel and have emotions. Let me tell you when it does happen, what kick in are an enormous number of automatic responses. Your own brain and body tell you what to do. It’s complete fiction that people sit around and feel. Most people just do things – it’s actions.
What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve found yourself in?
I don’t have one. I’ve been through so many. What’s more dangerous: someone holding a knife to your throat who’s drunk or someone holding a gun to your head who’s psychotic?
You once said you were timid as a child; why then become a war correspondent?
I’m not a war correspondent! That’s the term used by other people. You never become a war correspondent as a job. It’s not advertised. You happen, sometimes, to go into situations of conflict, but other times you could be reporting on lots of things – diplomatic summits, flooding and so on… You never do it full time, for a very good reason. If you’re going to go into extremely terrible situations that are dangerous, difficult, distressing you need to know what normal is. You need to be able to compare. Otherwise you can’t spend time in a difficult place like Sarajevo in the 1990s during the civil war. If you’re always reporting in areas of conflict, you begin to lose the edge of describing how unusual it is. You get used to it.
In Bosnia, you took shelter under a table when a particular conflict broke out, and two men from the family you were with went to the window and shot their postman. How did you react to that?
I didn’t react to it. I literally lay straight under the table, because if someone is shooting they are going to get shot back at. I just thought: “I’ve got to get out of this place, because these people are starting a fight. We don’t want to be part of it.” We [Kate and her crew] had to get out of the building fast and safely and report the story – that’s why we were there. No one trains you how to react. You have to use your instincts. You have to find out some way of getting pictures and start finding out what’s going on. Sitting under a kitchen table is not the place to be.
You’re not trained like the armed forces, so how do you know how to react in volatile situations?
You’re a journalist. Your job is to get the story back. You learn a lot on the job. In Northern Ireland, you learnt how to avoid a heaving mob of 500 people coming down the street throwing rocks: take cover. Don’t just stand there, looking a lemon. It’s all common sense and experience.
You’ve witnessed a lot of oppression; is it hard to remain unbiased?
No. It’s your training. You’re a professional reporter. You’re not going there to take sides. You’re going there to say what happened. That’s what reporting is about.
So, it’s not difficult then?
Look, there’s no such thing as a totally objective and unbiased human being, but you have professional standards. What would you think of a nurse in an emergency room who went into floods of tears every time a child was brought in in a terrible state?
I would think they were incompetent.
Thank you. Well, what do you think we’re doing? It’s called professionalism. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel things, but that’s not part of the job.
Of course not. I have to tell you you have your life to live ahead of you, and you’re wasting your time if you look back and have regrets. Not that you shouldn’t try and do things better the next time, but if you sit on your life with regrets it’s sad. There is no rehearsal. You live life. You seize it with both hands. This is our chance to live life – live it.
Any words of advice for budding journalists?
Stick to the facts and be fair. The media is undergoing enormous changes. There is a revolution underway, and nobody knows where it’s going to end. Technology is changing. There are massive opportunities for the world to be better informed, better educated. But there are also opportunities for a large number of people to giggle themselves to death.
What do you mean?
Reading rubbish on Twitter and all the other stuff.
So you’re not a fan of social media?
I don’t do any of that. I would immediately analyse the word ‘friend’ online. You haven’t got friends; you don’t know them. You don’t know how they sound, how they behave. This is an artificial construction. I’d rather someone went down to a coffee house and introduced themselves to people and made contacts rather than have artificial friends; that’s journalism.
Do you think there’s an overload of information these days?
I don’t think it’s too much information, because we have huge minds which can absorb many things if you train them. The point is that you have to be able to discriminate between information that is significant, useful, enriching and not trivial rubbish.
Who’s your idol?
I’ve never had one. Role models weren’t really invented when I got into the business. Nobody ever mentioned them. Although I think Martha Gellhorn was a tremendous reporter.
Image: Peter Dench/ In Pictures