The currency of the issue of female journalists working in danger-zones remains high at the moment, and so it’s great to see Anne Sebba of Battling for News fame et al writing for the Independent on an intriguing new fiction by Annalena McAfee. Read the whole for yourself here, the opening paragraphs will grab anyone with an interest in this field:
In 1991, researching a history of women reporters, I wrote to veteran war correspondent Martha Gellhorn requesting an interview. She declined to co-operate with a book which had women in the title, insisting that she was a reporter, not a woman reporter.
The Spoiler, Annalena McAfee’s first novel for adults, is, the author insists, not based on Martha, nor any of the other distinguished women journalists of her era. Yet her heroine, Honor Tait, (born 1917) bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman whose fearless reporting from the Spanish Civil War and the front line during the Second World War made her a legend as much as her messy private life, which included a stormy marriage to Ernest Hemingway…
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Posted in Appreciations, Reissues, tagged afghanistan, anne sebba, arnold bennett, battling for news (sebba), bookslut, faber finds, gayle lemmon, jenny mcphee, john rentoul, kate adie, kim barker, richard t kelly, war reportage on 18/04/2011|
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Memorial to journalist Jessie White on the facade of her former home in Lendinara, Italy
The excellent Bookslut site recently ran a fine review-essay by Jenny McPhee
examining two new books from female American journalists who have reported from Afghanistan: Kim Barker’s The Taliban Shuffle
and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s The Dressmaker of Khair Khana
. McPhee astutely opens her piece with reference to a title of great pertinence to this subject-area and one we are proud to offer in Faber Finds:
Anne Sebba’s Battling for News: Women Reporters from the Risorgimento to Tiananmen Square (1994) is a compendium of vignettes profiling dozens of female journalists over the past 150 years. An excellent addition to herstory, Sebba’s book covers all nature of journalist, notably the long tradition of the female war correspondent, beginning with Jessie White, who commenced her life-long career in 1860 embedded within the ranks of Garibaldi’s Red Shirts, and ending with BBC journalist Katie Adie’s coverage of the 1986 U.S. bombing of Tripoli and the 1989 student revolt in Tiananmen Square. In story after story of intrepid women risking all in pursuit of the news, Sebba describes the systematic prejudice they encountered and their heroic battles to overcome myriad barriers in order to do their job.
In 1898, novelist Arnold Bennett wrote in Journalism for Women: A Practical Guide: “Is there any sexual reason why a woman should be a less accomplished journalist than a man? I can find none…” Yet as Sebba shows in the years since Bennett’s statement, the issue of a woman’s suitability for the profession has been constantly debated: During a war, are women a distraction to the soldiers and therefore dangerous? Are women emotionally biased, less objective, more partisan? Are they oriented more towards people rather than facts and statistics?
BTW the Independent‘s formidable political correspondent John Rentoul administers a justly celebrated slack/cheap-journalism-watch series entitled ‘Questions To Which The Answer Is No’, and I would say that familiar and chauvinist little troika that rounds off the Bookslut quotation could probably be admitted in toto...
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The horrible assault suffered by CBS News reporter Lara Logan at the hands of a mob of men in Tahrir Square, Cairo, last week served a disturbing reminder of the dangers faced by frontline newsgatherers in the midst of tumultuous/violent events. It further reminded us, very depressingly, of the sorts of “stupendously inappropriate and wrong and offensive” things that routinely get said (and more so in the Blog/Tweet era) when commentators give themselves the right to pass judgement on the victims of such offences. (The quote in that last sentence is from a fulmination by Slate blogger Tom Scocca against the ugliest comments made regarding the Lara Logan incident.)
Anne Sebba can be considered an authoritative guide to unpicking the tangle of thorns around this issue, since she is both a former Reuters correspondent and the author of the excellent Battling For News, a history of women reporters which we are very pleased to have reissued in Finds. Anne has set down her thoughts on the Logan assault and reporting thereof, in a post (‘Don’t Blame the Women’) at her blog.
Further reading? Slate‘s Jessica Grose directs us to this Columbia Journalism Review article by Judith Matloff which paints a grim picture of how routine is the sexual threat faced by female reporters working in tough places; and which further produces some evidence to suggest that many newswomen fear to report an incident lest it become a professional ‘issue’: as Matloff summarises, “The shame runs so deep—and the fear of being pulled off an assignment, especially in a time of shrinking budgets, is so strong—that no one wants intimate violations to resound in a newsroom.”
Elsewhere: an echo of Anne Sebba’s argument against the gendered double standard often applied to working parents can be found here in this New York Times blogpost by Lisa Belkin, who makes the stirring case that ‘yes, having children does make you more aware of the dangers of the world. But exposing dangers and righting wrongs are why most journalists do their jobs.’
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The recent success of Finds’ reissue of Virginia Cowles’ Looking for Trouble gives us a chance to spotlight another of Anne Sebba’s titles that we are fortunate to have on our list and which should be read in tandem with Cowles – that book is Battling for News: Women Reporters from the Risorgimento to Tiananmen Square. Originally published in 1994, it offers a terrific history of the gendered division of labour in the business of reporting from frontlines and battlefields – from the age when a female war correspondent was rated no better than an ill-equipped hindrance, to the slow grudging tolerance of women writers as exponents of ‘human interest’ in wartime, to our present day, when female war reporters have proved their fortitude and perspicacity under all kinds of fire. Virginia Cowles is seen by Anne as a mould-breaker in this regard, alongside other such luminaries as Clare Hollingworth and Martha Gellhorn. In a good piece about her time at Reuters available at Anne’s own website, she writes of how Maggie O’Kane of the Guardian told her “that the reporters she worked with in Bosnia were far too busy staying alive to worry about what gender their colleagues were. O’Kane’s brilliant style of war reporting, echoing Martha Gellhorn before her, may focus on children in orphanages, young girls satisfying soldiers as prostitutes or women scavenging for food – stories once demeaningly referred to as ‘soft news’ are now not simply regarded as the norm, but often as the only news that really matters…”
I asked Anne what she thought the passage of time since the book’s original appearance had shown us about how the woman war reporter is now perceived. She answered me thus:
“‘Battling for News’ was published just as the war in former Yugoslavia was changing the way we thought about women reporters – because the nature of warfare itself was changing so dramatically. Today more women than men graduate from media courses, and just as many women as men want to report wars. But there are still certain taboos about where to send a woman, especially if she’s a mother. Is that sensible or mad? Is it to protect the woman reporter or to protect the soldiers she is writing about? This is more relevant than ever in Afghanistan, since one of the key issues around the war is about allowing Afghan women to be treated fairly and, at the very least, given an education. Do women have a greater interest in reporting these issues than men?”
Readers interested in exploring more about this subject are recommended to look at the work of Afghan journalist Farida Nekzad, who offers some unnerving stories about her working days in this online piece (scroll down). Anne Sebba’s Battling for News is available to order from Finds, and comes highly recommended.
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Faber Finds is delighted to boast among its current authors Anne Sebba: biographer, lecturer, journalist and former Reuters foreign correspondent, whose latest work, That Woman, a biography of Wallis Simpson, is forthcoming from Weidenfeld and Nicolson in August 2011. Anne keeps up an excellent author-website and also blogs here.
Earlier this year Finds returned to print Anne’s 1994 book Battling For News: The Rise of the Woman Reporter (of which more later.) Newly reissued is her Laura Ashley: A Life By Design (1990), which was the first biography of this phenomenal woman, born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1925, who became one of the outstanding influences on British design and marketing in the twentieth century. The Sunday Telegraph hailed the book as ‘moving… a vivid, true story.’
On one level the classic brand-iconography of Laura Ashley will never age, and Anne’s portrait is of a canny businesswoman with a highly discerning eye who wanted to create for consumers ‘a kind of scrubbed, simple beauty.’ Nonetheless, as Anne told me recently, the Ashley success-story evokes quite a specific era:
“I think it’s fascinating now to look at the phenomenon of Laura Ashley in the 1970s as a very significant time in English social history, just before women had to go out of the house to work. It was a moment when we all wanted to dress like country milkmaids… And the interior decoration side was a reaction against urbanisation too. Laura Ashley herself understood that instinctively, and she was the first person to create lifestyle shops – a place where clothes and interiors tapped into an English rural idyll.”
Anne began work on the book only months after Laura Ashley’s untimely death in 1985, and at the request of her subject’s bereaved husband Bernard, with whom Laura had first entered into business printing textiles back in 1953. The Ashley marriage was in every sense a fascinating combination, both parties highly creative and driven by ambition that brought them considerable wealth. As Anne recalls:
“At first I thought I was writing about Laura, but what was really intriguing was the partnership between Bernard and her. They were so different, and had an occasionally explosive but creatively sparky relationship. Of course it was all rather raw still as Laura had died so suddenly. But the family and the workforce were amazingly open and wanted to talk as part of the healing process.”
Two months after Laura’s death a flotation of shares in Laura Ashley Holdings plc had been massively oversubscribed: a resounding confirmation of corporate success. Since the early 1990s the company has had to weather the vicissitudes of an ever-changing market, but weather them it has. Anne feels in retrospect that the opportunity for her to tell the extraordinary story of Laura Ashley came along at just the right point:
‘I am so lucky I caught that moment in time – just before the company went public – and was able to pin it down in my book. But by the 1990s and the economic need for women to engage with the world of work, the ‘Laura Ashley’ company myth was no longer valid. They had to find a new path. And – amazingly – they are still on the High Street…’
You can order Faber Finds’ edition of Laura Ashley: A Life by Design here.
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