In conversation with CNN’s Clarissa Ward

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Politics and journalism – what do they both have in common? Aside from the tenuous relationship between public-pleasers and oligarchical monopolies, it’s clear that they are both male dominated industries. While believers in the status quo may claim that the world of politics and journalism is ‘gender-blind,’ I am fond of the principle of having a 20/20 approach in recognising sex, race and identity as elements to bind us and celebrate, rather than sweep under the carpet.

I interviewed CNN’s Chief International Correspondent, Clarissa Ward, asking her about her most remarkable experiences On All Fronts, as her recent autobiography implies. Above all, I wanted to pose the unspoken question: would Clarissa’s career have worked out differently, if she was a man?

I would like to see more mothers covering war 

Do you have any important life lessons or advice from the industry which you would impart on young journalists?

“The most important thing for young journalists starting out today is that they maintain curiosity and retain judgement, and be open to listening. I think it is very important to listen in this day and age. Some of that has been lost. Some people see listening as a form of weakness. Listening to someone doesn’t mean that you agree with them, doesn’t mean that you condone their ideas, it doesn’t mean you’re weak or they have the upper hand — it simply means you are willing to hear someone out.”

It was at this point where Clarissa apologised for the noise of her two year old chirping up in the background, but this instilled a sort of comforting normality about the interview. I recognised the marvellous reality that an award-winning international correspondent could be interviewing the Taliban one day, and picking up her children from nursery the next. On the one hand you are immersed in the fast-paced nature of journalism; the thrills and demands of field work spurring you on, only to find this is paralleled by the extraordinary experiences of parenthood.

I think it is very important to listen in this day and age, some of that has been lost

“Our job as journalists is to listen. A big part of our job is to be curious. The minute you stop being curious and start being judgemental, I think that is when dangers can creep in. I also think young journalists today have to be incredibly tough, but incredibly careful about the landmines that have been put our way with the rise of social media, the constant disparagement of journalists and mainstream media. That is to say the curse of fake news.”

“Naturally, there is this inclination to respond to that angrily. My motto has been to tune out the noise and stick to the facts, keep doing your job and don’t get drawn into these battles with people on Twitter who have an egg asa profile picture and 15 followers.They only exist to perpetuate this idea that there is no such thing as truth, which is a real threat to journalism more broadly speaking.”

What is your proudest moment as a journalist?

“A triumphant moment for me was my work during the Syrian uprising, particularly the first couple of trips where very, very few other journalists were able to get there. I really felt like I was giving a voice to people who didn’t have an outlet to tell their story otherwise.”

“One of the first projects I began working on was a trip to Afghanistan to spend time with the Taliban. Working with a well-respected Afghan filmmaker, we were able to secure an invitation from the militants, offering us unprecedented access to their territory. It is a world that has largely been shut off to westerners since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and, having come of age as a journalist in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I was desperate to see how that world had changed.”

“It took months to come up with a security plan that CNN felt comfortable with, but eventually I set out with my then producer Salma Abdelaziz and the filmmaker Naj Qureishi. From the moment we met up with our Taliban guides, I had the impression Salma and I were invisible. The men wereintimidating figures, with theirlarge turbans wrapped partially around their faces. Their eyes were lined with kohl. They did not look at us or address us and were reluctant to even answer our questions, unless we asked through Naj. It was jarring and unpleasant but, despite the hostility, I was not worried about the threat of kidnapping. Our invitation came from the highest ranks of the Taliban’s leadership, and we had brokered the terms of our visit through village elders.”

How does being a mother affect your line of work?

“There is definitely a stigma about motherhood and conflict reporting, people expect you to stop doing it when you have children, in a way they probably wouldn’t expect fathers to. By now I have become used to the question. When people learn that I have a two year old son and a newborn, their faces light up with warm enthusiasm. “That’s lovely,” they say. “Congratulations.” – then the inevitable follow-up: “I guess this means you’re going to be doing more studio work?” It’s a gentle— albeit not terribly subtle—way of probing. The question they really want to ask is, “Surely you’re not doing dangerous assignments anymore, now that you’re a mother?!”

“However, I think there is a great opportunity with motherhood; I find that I am more compassionate, more porous and sensitive to the suffering of others — particularly children.”

“I also think there is a great opportunity as well that I am more compassionate, more porous and sensitive to the suffering of others, particularly children. I hope that that empathy and heightened sensitivity makes my journalism more urgent, more compelling. I would like to see more mothers covering war, I genuinely believe that if we had more mothers covering war, maybe there would be fewer wars.”

There is definitely a stigma about motherhood and conflict reporting, people expect you to stop doing it

Would you say your experiences would be different if you were a man?

“I think for the most part, I would not say that my career or assignments or treatment or experience in the field would be terribly different as a man.Of course, there are definitely small, insidious, systemic biases against women that still exist. “I have been called ‘pushy’ on a couple of occasions by male bosses, where I would imagine a male colleague would be called ‘ambitious’. There are leftovers from a different era that are still present. But for the most part, I feel that there is broad equity and women have the same opportunities as men in the field.”

After my conversation with Clarissa, I was left with the lingering question in my mind of what it meant to be a woman in politics. The likening of mothers to preservers of peace was the most striking maxim I came across. Women in political journalism go above and beyond the issues of equality; mothers, in Clarissa’s words, could prevent warfare. And why not? Seeing more ‘mothers covering war’ should be no more shocking than the idea of fathers covering war. But for now, what we can do is be open to the unexpected, write about the world around us, and when we think we might have covered it all —take a step back and find that there are countless inspiring people left with their own accounts to tell.

Image: Adam Dobby

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