Lindsey Hilsum is Channel 4's International Editor, and a co-founder of The Marie Colvin Journalists' Network. In this interview, she talks about her book, "In Extremis", a biography of her friend, the Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin.
Why did you feel it was important to tell Marie’s life story? For those who only know her as a journalist who was killed in the line of duty, why is it important to learn about her childhood and personal life?
Marie became famous because of the violent and tragic nature of her death, but I wanted her to be remembered for her life as well. Like many others, I was intrigued by her bravery and commitment to telling the stories of the victims of war so I wanted to find out what drove her. That took me to her childhood and family background. And if you’re telling the story of a life, you can’t omit the personal part - it’s of the essence. I didn’t want to write just about her journalism but to tell the story of the remarkable, brave, flawed woman that was Marie Colvin.
I was intrigued by her bravery and commitment to telling the stories of the victims of war so I wanted to find out what drove her.
It seems that when Marie decided to go into Homs, most war correspondents (and their editors) felt the risk too high. Having covered many conflicts and having put your own life at risk, could you tell us why Homs seemed a much riskier story than others?
Several other foreign correspondents had already been and come back with stories of how dangerous it was. Paul Wood and Fred Scott of the BBC left because they were convinced that Baba Amr would be retaken by Assad’s forces very soon and they thought that they would be killed or captured. Even getting in was arduous - you had to crawl through a storm drain and also trust people smugglers who - for all I knew - might sell you to an extremist group or criminal gang. It was certainly beyond my danger threshold but nothing would deter Marie.
It was said before that Marie’s editors didn’t exercise proper duty of care towards her, especially as her work took its toll on her physical and mental health (she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Do you think there was anything they could or should have done for Marie? And should editors stop a journalist against their own wish?
Marie suffered PTSD in 2004, the year after she lost the sight her her left eye to an RPG fired at her by a Sri Lankan soldier as she crossed a front line. She was treated in London, and her editors gave her the necessary time off and made sure she got the care she needed. Some of her colleagues felt that she was too erratic and should have been taken off the road after that, but she was determined to keep on reporting and refused attempts to put her on the desk. I think some editors would have taken her off the road, but I am convinced that she would have just gone freelance and found another way back into conflict reporting anyway.
Some of her colleagues felt that she was too erratic and should have been taken off the road after that
In your book, you write about Marie’s private life (her relationships). How did you approach this and why did you feel it was important to go into details? One review of your book says you describe some of her private relationships “ perhaps uncomfortably for some of the participants.”
I called the book In Extremis because she once wrote, “It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars.” She lived her personal life in extremistoo - so if I was going to be honest I had also to tell that part of the story. She kept intimate diaries, which provided a remarkable insight into how she thought and felt. It turns out that she was a great writer about heartbreak - something we never knew before. In her will she left her notebooks and diaries “for the purposes of a biography” so she knew, if not when she wrote them, at least later in her life, that they would be read and written about.
Did Marie’s death affect your career in any way? Have you changed anything, such as your choice of assignments, or how you view your own life and work balance?
For a year after Marie was killed I couldn’t face going on dangerous assignments, and my editors were fine with that. I just couldn’t do it. But then I felt better and thought it important to report Syria so started to make regular trips. I do fewer dangerous assignments these days, but that’s partly the nature of the news - in the time of the Iraq War and later the Arab Spring and Ukraine, the top news was all conflict. But now other issues have come up, from terror attacks to refugees, Trump, Brexit and so on. I don’t really think about work/life balance because I don’t make a clear distinction. But I do have a very nice, very small garden in North London of which I am inordinately proud.
For a year after Marie was killed I couldn’t face going on dangerous assignments
You said in an interview that Marie was more of a risk-taker than you, and that you envied her bravery, but in the end this bravery cost her her life… do you think there could ever be a story that is worth risk someone’s own life?
In theory, no, of course not. You have to live to tell the tale. But the fact is that war correspondents have always risked their lives. The main thing is to minimise the risk, and make good judgements as far as possible. We should never forget that the majority of journalists who have lost their lives in Syria are Syrians. Foreigners are the exception.
We set up this network in honour of Marie’s legacy. If there is lesson from Marie’s life and legacy you would like our members to learn/take, what would it be?
Journalism matters. Even if we can’t “make a difference” immediately, it’s important that governments can never say “Oh we didn’t know”. Yes you did - we told you. And Marie’s focus on the victims of war, whether they were the women and children in the “widows’ basement” in Baba Amr or child soldiers in Sierra Leone, is an example of the human way to report war. She never let anyone tell her she couldn’t do something because she was a woman. She had the most extraordinary determination to be an eye-witness. She wasn’t content with second hand reports, and nor should we be.
*Photo: Lindsey Hilsum (left) and Marie Colvin (right) in Jenin in 2002. Photo by Paul Moorcraft