Ian Burrell: 'Fifty Taliban fighters filmed me from toe to head on their mobiles'

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The Independent Online

Alex Crawford is in a hurry because she has a food-tasting evening at her child's school and needs to fly 3,500 miles back to Dubai.

She only popped over to London briefly because she has been named the Royal Television Society's journalist of the year – for the third year running.

She only needs one more gong, she jokes, and she will have one for each of her four kids. Not that she was desperate to be at the awards bash at London's Grosvenor House Hotel, she would rather have been in Libya covering the uprising.

According to the RTS judges, Crawford "showed complete mastery of the reporter's art – tremendous enterprise, polished writing and great screen presence, together with remarkable personal courage and the ability to work under sustained pressure in dangerous places". The previous year, she won the most prestigious prize in news broadcasting for her coverage of the Mumbai bombings and before that, she was rewarded for her fearless coverage of the upheaval in Pakistan.

But because her employer, Sky News, has a comparatively small audience, Crawford does not have the profile of the BBC's John Simpson or that enjoyed by Kate Adie during the Eighties.

Before she heads for the airport, Crawford talks about her time embedded with the Taliban last October. She describes a process "like something out of Spooks" as she was led to a remote meeting place by a series of guides with walkie-talkies who took her and colleague Stuart Ramsay into the hills. Beneath her full-blue burka she wore her trademark pink headscarf. "I always keep my head covered because it's respectful – it's shocking [for the Taliban] to see a white woman, let alone one without a headdress on, it's a bit like walking into a room in a bikini."

She recalls one occasion when she was in a room with 50 young Taliban fighters. "So many were filming me on their mobile phones. It was all this," she says, gesturing to show a phone camera being raised from foot level slowly up the body. "I felt like I was being mentally stripped. It was so disconcerting, something they would never do to their own women folk. The commander let it go for a bit and then said stop, to keep them in order."

But, though she admits that in her line of work "you've only got so many lives", she is rarely afraid, claiming that her gender often helps to defuse situations. The Taliban commander stressed: "We don't want you to go away thinking we don't like women".

She has recently been in Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt, confronting secret police in Alexandria and finding herself surrounded by an angry mob provoked by what she believes were pro-government agent provocateurs. Though she describes the sexual assault in Cairo on the CBS News correspondent Lara Logan as a "really horrible incident", it hasn't put her off. "When we were in big crowds, people were actively looking after us in Tunisia and Bahrain, even though the authorities don't want you there and they are the ones causing trouble. In Bahrain [protesters] were handing us flowers."

Crawford was detained in all three of those Arab countries. During her career, she has faced live bullets, tear-gas, rubber bullets, IEDs, mortar shells, Molotov cocktails, water cannon and bamboo whips. Her experiences covering the Mumbai attacks, while based in India, did not stop her later going to the city's Taj hotel (the scene of atrocities) for a family holiday to celebrate the birthday of her husband Richard Edmondson, former horse racing correspondent of The Independent. "It's a really beautiful hotel and I think it's important that, when my kids are living in a country where these things are going on, you don't keep it away from them."

In live debates with viewers, she has faced criticism for not being a more conventional mother. "They say 'She's a mother of four, why would she want to do such a dangerous job?'" says Crawford. "Frankly, that argument is so sexist and so patronising it's not even worthy of a response."

The correspondent – a great conversationalist with a sense of mischief – probably got her taste for adventure from her own mother, who twice escaped Japanese bombing in Shanghai before arriving in Britain as a refugee, then promptly heading to Nigeria as a half-British, half-Chinese single woman on a French mail boat. In Africa, she met Crawford's father, a British engineer, and the Sky reporter grew up in Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe. She completed her education in England and took a job on the Wokingham Times.

She will relocate to Africa, the continent of her childhood, in the summer. In fact, as you read this, she is already there, covering the Libya story. Crawford wouldn't want to be doing anything else. "As my husband says, 'Even if we won two million quid you wouldn't give up your job because you get such an energy from it. It makes you come alive'."

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