Lindsey Hilsum, one of Britain’s bravest foreign correspondents, used to be a character in a Toni Morrison novel. At least, she worked under the pseudonym of Reba Linden, a name inspired by the book Song of Solomon.
During the early part of her career the Channel 4 News international editor did her journalism covertly while working for organisations such as Unicef and Oxfam. Hilsum, who has been named Journalist of the Year in the One World Media awards, was the only correspondent in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, having taken a job with Unicef. While working for the same organisation a decade earlier she saw the start of the Ethiopian famine and it is her deepest regret that she abandoned the story because of a broken relationship.
“I had a broken heart and I went home to cry on my mother’s shoulder because of some idiot bloke – and what a bloody waste of time he was. Priorities all wrong!” she says in a London coffee bar. “I saw the beginning of the Ethiopian famine, working for Unicef, and I knew I was seeing something really important and that reporting it mattered, and then I dropped the ball – and that was a big mistake.”
Hilsum does not often drop the ball. She had to be dragged back from Libya after a six-week stint covering the uprising and has since been out to the site of Osama bin Laden’s hideaway. She is a natural foreign correspondent and 2011 is providing her with “the most fun I have had in many, many years”.
Placing yourself in life-threatening situations is not everyone’s idea of entertainment but she defends her language. “It is fun because revolutions are fun until they go horribly wrong. You come across incredible people and in Egypt and Libya the people had previously been unable to express themselves.”
Hilsum talks of the “incredible senses of humour” that she discovered among the North African rebels, such as the Libyan graffiti artist who had written in Arabic “Gaddafi – you are the weakest link”, and the Egyptian protester with the placard reading “Normal service will now be resumed”. Her fun was enhanced by the fact that so many of those she encountered seemed to have a British connection. On her flight to Libya she met a group of NHS doctors who were off to volunteer for the rebels. “They immediately became my best friends – one was from Stoke and another was from Liverpool,” she recalls, saying that she met numerous Libyans who had lived in Manchester. “In the hotel I met a very nice man called Mohamed who had been a carpet fitter for John Lewis in Leicester. Instead of having a conversation about the intricacies of Libyan resolutions [in the UN] we were talking about the John Lewis corporate pay structure.”
As the world becomes a smaller place we still rely on travelling correspondents of Hilsum’s calibre to make sense of it. She won her trophy for reports on the plight of Christians in Iraq, the mass rape of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the struggles of Habiba Sarabi, the only female governor in Afghanistan. Channel 4 News, with its long format, allowed her to tell the Iraqi story in a 10-minute report. She smarts at the recollection of criticism her Congo coverage was an example of negative stereotyping of Africa.
“I could do a nice story about how they are trying to bring democracy to Congo but it is boring and not true – they are trying but they are not succeeding,” she says. “For people on the ground, the real issue is conflict and rape. I don’t care if people say it’s a negative stereotype – it was the right thing to report.” Hilsum feels strongly about Africa. She says “a part of me” is still in Rwanda, where she has a godchild. She is infuriated at “the way Africa is viewed here through this prism of aid”.
Though she once worked for NGOs she realised she was born to do something different. “I was going to change the world of course,” she says. “I realised things were more complicated than I had thought and who was I to be running around the world telling women to breast feed and what latrines to build. I am not a health worker – I don’t actually have any skills. All I could do was read, write and ask questions in a couple of languages.”
A break came in 1986 when she was based in Nairobi for Unicef and went to the UN to monitor messages on the war in neighbouring Uganda. “I just sat in the radio room and pretended that I was filing my nails,” she says of how she obtained her first front page story for The Observer.
Hilsum long ago dropped the name Reba Linden and has worked for Channel 4 News since 1996, covering the Nato bombing of Serbia and the US invasion of Iraq. Her hope is that more of the “bridge people” who grow up in Britain with diverse backgrounds go into journalism. “I don’t see enough younger black women coming up,” she says. “This is a very diverse country and we still don’t reflect that. I really hope that starts to change in the next few years.” Toni Morrison would no doubt approve.