I’d just completed another all-night broadcast, giving hourly updates from a live position overlooking Tahrir Square in Cairo. The crowd that a few hours earlier had morphed into hundreds of thousands was starting to thin out and I desperately wanted to return to the hotel for a shower and, if possible, a few hours of sleep. It had just gone seven in the morning when I asked one of the Egyptian cameramen if he’d walk me through the square and help me hail a taxi. He refused.
A few days earlier a 22-year-old Dutch journalist had been raped by a group of five men in the same square. She was still in hospital.
“It’s for your own sake,” he told me. “I’m afraid to go among those people and I strongly suggest you don’t either. Stay put.”
I remember when our hotel in Afghanistan was bombed and my editor wanted to pull us out. The cameraman and soundman refused, insisting it was safe. In Tripoli, when all the embassies were packing up and leaving, the Russian consulate phoned and said we needed to make a decision – leave with them immediately or remain behind completely on our own. The cameraman left. I stayed.
Was I afraid? Yes. Was it the right decision? Yes. But I didn’t know that then.
It’s always a gamble – the decision when to leave or not.
The experts say go with the ‘weakest link’ – the person who is the most afraid. If there’s just one person who wants to leave, that’s the cue for the whole team. But the problem is that no one ever wants to admit to being that one person.
I sometimes wonder what it is that drives us as journalists to put ourselves in the eye of the storm. Research suggests it’s our genetic makeup. We supposedly have a personality profile and cognitive attributes that hardwire us to want our computer to be a battleground – literally.
After the Egyptian cameraman’s advice I stayed in the live position for another six hours before I felt secure enough to leave. Tahrir Square was quiet and – dare I say it – safe. In retrospect I think he exaggerated the mood and I still can’t shake the impression that my fear of the square came more from the stories and angst of others than from my own experience.
And that’s the difficulty. Understanding one’s fear and knowing when it’s irrational and holding one back; or when it’s a red flag that should be heeded. Of course no conflict journalist wants to walk doe-eyed into danger, but it’s a given that our playground is unsafe and so to turn one’s back on an assignment because it feels risky undermines the very essence of our work. If the war correspondent is too afraid to look danger in the face then what kind of war journalist is she?
So how to know? When is it the right time to listen to that knot of fear encircling one’s stomach and call it a day? Can we rely on our own judgement? It just has to fail us once and we might not live to tell another story. On the other hand, we could pull out too soon, which, when you’re a journalist, can also be near fatal.
I think we get better with experience. Spending long bouts of time on location helps to read the mood. Having locals in one’s team is invaluable, as is doing extensive research and speaking to experts.
But there’s always that inevitable moment – that leap of faith – when the final decision needs to be made. And more often than not it’s ours and ours alone to bear.
Our job is to go towards the story – and the more dangerous, the bigger the story. So we push ourselves to the edge.
What complicates things is that I notice that as time passes, I become more afraid more quickly. I’m less prone to take risks. I’m not prepared to elbow my way through the crowds at Tahrir Square without a male colleague at my side. Given a second chance, I’m not sure I’d stay on in Libya with Gaddafi’s forces on the offensive and my money running out.
Is this finally the response of a rational human being? Is it the result of age? I’ve heard it said many times that we get more frightened as we grow older. Or is it experience? Instead of hardening me, has the constant exposure to danger finally caught up with me?
For me, the fear now ironically is not what to do when gun-wielding thugs charge in my direction. The fear is whether I can trust myself to know when to pull out. And do it neither too soon nor too late.
People get afraid. War journalists don’t – or we’re not supposed to. At least that’s what I was always taught.
But now I’m not so certain.