The Kindness of Strangers, by Kate Adie

A light, comic touch amid the bullets and bulletins

David Lister
Tuesday 08 October 2002 00:00
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Kate Adie, we are reminded on this book's cover, is the chief news correspondent of the BBC. Whatever that means, it clearly doesn't involve much reporting on screen. She did, of course, for many years. From the Gulf War to Kosovo, a conflict had not truly started for British viewers until Kate was there with her flak-jacket and unemotional analysis. Now, she and her style of reporting are not so much in favour.

Adie has said that she is "an old trout" at a time when television wants young, photogenic talent, whose pain we can feel. Adie has a distaste for such reporting. Communicate "with humanity but not sentimentality", she concludes. Never throw your emotions at the viewer and inhibit them from deciding what they should feel. She reveals, tellingly, that many of today's reporters emote under precise instructions from editors.

I have wondered before at the silliness of the BBC in sidelining one of the best war reporters they ever had. But reading her first book, I no longer mind. Adie has reinvented herself as a writer with such a delightful, light touch, such an unexpected eye for the absurd, that her memoir at times bears comparison with Evelyn Waugh.

Yes, she tells vividly of the dodging bullets in Bosnia, of running from Chinese troops desperate to kill her before she could reveal the terror of Tiananmen Square. What I did not anticipate was the delicious vignettes: her early days in local radio when she would look at the sky outside Radio Durham, then broadcast in tones of grim foreboding, "There will be dark clouds over Gateshead"; a tour to India with Prince Charles when the prince, affected by the pains of the Third World, lectured an ITN woman on the need for contraception, unaware she was pregnant; and a devastating critique of John Birt's time at the BBC. That was epitomised at a meeting on religious broadcasting, when she was asked for a mission statement, said "how about 'I believe in one God?'", and was asked to leave the room for showing lack of respect for different religions.

Adie shows a striking ability to convey in a few pages an era, a war or a country – from her genteel Fifties childhood in Sunderland to the horrific civil war in the Balkans. But the reporter's detachment has its drawbacks in an autobiography. Though rich in insights and humour about the job, this book has nothing to say about the Kate Adie who exists between conflicts.

One can only guess at her relationship to family. The word boyfriend is mentioned in passing, but never with a name attached. Packed off to South America, she laments the hurry as her "love life is rocky". And that's it. Perhaps she's saving that side for a novel. She should write one: a comic novel about the BBC. She is as classy an act on the page as on the screen. There's life in the old trout yet.

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