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Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Lindsey Hilsum

Oration given on 14 July 2004

Chancellor, The Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon LINDSEY HILSUM

About seventy years ago two eminent reporters attacked the forced enclosure of women journalists in the ghetto of women’s issues and opened the international arena to their talents and expertise. When Martha Gellhorn served as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, she was unique among reporters, not least for her gender. Gellhorn’s career continued through the war in Finland and the Second World War, when she became the only woman journalist to go ashore with the troops during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. She later reported on the communist takeover in China, the wars in Java and Vietnam, and the Arab-Israeli Wars. In 1990 at the age of 81 she reported on the war invasion of Panama. When the Bosnian war broke out two years later, she finally agreed that she was too old to go.

Claire Hollingworth had an equally long and distinguished career. She was at Poland’s border with Germany on the outbreak of World War II, and she later reported the Desert War – despite Monty’s attempts to remove her from the scene. She was staying at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel when it was blown up; and she later covered two Arab-Israeli wars, Algeria in the 1960s as well as Aden, Burma and Ceylon and wars between India and Pakistan.

Gellhorn and Hollingworth had begun as exemplars of a very rare breed. Progress since that time has been rapid, albeit far from complete. More than 75 women served as war correspondents in Vietnam. Several were wounded; three were taken were prisoner; two were killed. They won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. Now forty years on, women are indeed present at all levels of journalism – shooting film, editing, producing, reporting.

Lindsey Hilsum now appears almost nightly on Channel 4 News, where she is readily recognisable, eschewing where possible battle fatigues for her trademark scarf always draped gently over her left shoulder. She was diplomatic correspondent from 1996 and has been International Editor since March 2004. She brings to her reporting of Iraq the capacity to explain difficult issues in clear, simple language, conveying her own sense of humanity while she unravels layers of complexity with great forensic skill. Her outstanding professionalism has been widely recognised among her own colleagues. This year she received the informal, possibly it is still a secret, Channel 4 News Groaning Shelf Award given to the person whose contributions have had an unprecedented impact. That award, perhaps it is still a virtual award, also came with

the requisition order for a new glass display case at Channel 4 mainly to hold the new awards gathered by Lindsey Hilsum and indeed Channel 4 sees Lindsey Hilsum’s work as a major ingredient in its own success in winning BAFTA, International Emmy and Royal Television awards this year for various aspects of its war coverage. In April 2004 Lindsey Hillsum won the Voice of the Listener and Viewer’s Special Award for Excellence in Broadcasting for her reports from Iraq. The Voice is an independent organisation campaigning for high quality radio and television programmes and for the principle of public service broadcasting. In May Lindsey Hillsum was named Broadcast Journalist of the Year at the One World Media Awards, with a portfolio including pieces from Iraq during and after the war. It also included a report on American oil investment in Equatorial Guinea, revealing new insights into that sordid, brutal and corrupt regime. For this film she and Soren Munk also won the 2004 Amnesty International UK Media Award for TV News, recognising excellence in human rights journalism that has made a significant contribution to the UK public’s greater awareness and understanding of human rights issues.

Lindsey Hilsum upholds and extends the fine traditions of her eminent forebears and, like Gellhorn and Hollingworth, she has witnessed on our behalf the most dreadful occurrences of recent years. The optimism that a New World Order would follow the fall of communism rapidly evaporated in the realities of international conflict, including civil war, ethnic cleansing, and new tactics of international terrorism. These conflicts reveal unspeakable acts – the rape of women as an instrument of conflict, the deliberate mutilation of children, torture and mass executions – as well as the indescribable anguish of survivors.

If conflicts are to be prevented or resolved then they must first be understood. A good journalist will not simply show us a burning building or a distraught survivor but puts events and developments into their historical and political context to help identify their underlying causes. It is not enough to report individual events no matter how powerful. This was especially important both in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, where the facile but erroneous explanation was that long standing ethnic hatreds lay at the base of ethnic cleansing and genocide. It is also important in Iraq, where the occupying coalition itself seemed to have brought with it little awareness of social, religious, and historic conditions or regional differences.

So the modern journalist must understand history and culture. New types of international intervention such as that argued in humanitarian terms by the Kosovo conflict, the response to international terrorism in Afghanistan, or the war in Iraq also require a knowledge of the new international human rights’ regime, the concepts of genocide and war crimes, the terms of the Geneva Convention, the findings of international tribunals. It was the events in Rwanda that led to rape being recognised as an act of genocide for the first time by an international court.

Lindsey Hilsum brings these skills to bear to convey understanding of these contemporary tragedies. At the same time journalism is also about story telling. It is about human beings and using the power of words to generate that empathy which links us all to the human condition. We can easily be numbed by the gruesome sights of dead and injured. The reporting of foreign tragedy can dehumanise or trivialise human suffering. Misery overload is a real danger. We do not know these people. We cannot smell the pervasive stench of death. Reporting can also create a sense of intrusion. We become international eavesdroppers, uncomfortable at the rawness of emotion, the invasion of privacy, the loss of individual dignity. It takes a fine journalist to tread the line between mawkishness and emotion, to engage us with the suffering of our fellows, to remind us with passion but without cliché of their capacity for courage and tenacity of spirit.

Lindsey Hilsum has seen her share of human suffering and degradation. After graduating from the University of Exeter in French and Spanish she joined Oxfam, working in Guatemala where she had also spent her student year abroad, and in Haiti. She began writing freelance articles on Central America and the Caribbean, continuing after moving to Kenya as Information Officer for the UN Children’s Fund in Nairobi. In the 1980s she covered wars in Ethiopia, Uganda, Mozambique and the Sudan, reporting variously for BBC World Service Television, BBC Radio and The Guardian. From 1990 – 1993 Lindsey Hilsum was a Senior Producer for BBC World Service Radio, editing Newshour and Newsdesk, as well as a rolling news programme during the Gulf War, and a series of radio documentaries about the aftermath of the war.

After that it was uncertain whether she would go to Rwanda or Burundi. Whether by judgement or serendipity, Lindsey Hilsum was the only British reporter in Kigali in April 1994, when Rwandan President Habyarimana and his Burumdian counterpart were killed when Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near Kigali Airport. The Rwandan Armed Forces and Hutu militia, the Interahamwe, set up roadblocks and went from house to house killing Tutsis and moderate Hutu politicians. Thousands died on the first day, the UN itself avoiding intervention as a violation of its own mandate simply to monitor the situation. In 1997 Lindsey Hilsum won the first of her Amnesty press awards for her television documentary, ‘Rwanda : The Betrayal’, and she was the overall winner for her reports for Channel 4 News from Rwanda and Zaire. In 1999 she reported NATO’s bombing campaign from Belgrade and from Kosovo. A few months later she was visiting Chechen refugee camps and hospitals in the neighbouring Russian Republic of Ingushetia.

Lindsey Hilsum also writes for The Guardian, The Observer and The New Statesman. She has also contributed to the literary magazine, Granta. She has written on war, but she has also pursued issues of the aftermath of war, for example, the lack of treatment for AIDs contracted by rape victims in Rwanda. The aftermath is still prolonged even in Bosnia and certainly in Kosovo, emphatically so in Rwanda. Recently the Rwandan parliament investigated the murder of genocide survivors and the intimidation of witnesses.

What are the qualities Lindsey Hilsum brings to her work in circumstances of apparently endless horror? Some are obvious – intelligence of course, great personal courage and determination, and the gravity with which she approaches her task as a serious communicator. She brings to her work a strong sense of morality, yet moral outrage never descends into piety or sentimentality. She does not approach her task with preconceived judgements. She does her research thoroughly, she has the capacity to arouse trust, and she is very good at asking the basic questions and at getting people to talk to her. She understands the rules of evidence and how to weigh it. She takes nothing at face value. She is also, it must be said, quite capable of causing trouble, quietly when that seems best but noisily when it suits. She has been expelled from Ethiopia (twice) and from Somalia, and for a time she was officially persona non grata in Kenya.

This capacity to rock the boat is apparently rooted deep in her personal history. At the age of six she risked expulsion from primary school by persuading her fellow pupils not to eat their carnivorous school dinners. She remains a committed vegetarian and indeed animals have provided her a refuge and a means of decompression from the horror of the world’s shameful trouble spots. At home in London she has a tripod in her bedroom window where she charts the species of birds appearing in the New River Reservoir at Stoke Newington. Following a particular brutal period she takes to the back of a horse, as when she rode a physically gruelling 300 miles with the Lur nomads from their winter to their summer pastures high in the Zagros mountains after the official ending of the war in Iraq.

In addition to her love of animals she has a great capacity for human friendship. She is utterly loyal to her friends throughout the world, not losing them along the way as many of us do but accumulating them in a vast bank of friendship, keeping track of them, devoting time and attention, money, helping their children. She understands the value of achievement but also its limitations. The quality of her journalism reflects her own capacity for empathy, a dispassionate head but a compassionate heart. It is fitting indeed that we honour her.

Chancellor, I present to you LINDSEY HILSUM

Orator: Professor Frances Millard