Sky News’ Alex Crawford has been arrested, detained, interrogated and faced live and rubber bullets, tear-gassing, IEDs and mortar shells. One of the world’s most recognisable journalists, she has lived to tell the tale.
Alex Crawford once said journalists were “a very different community of individuals, with different DNA to much of humankind – designed to challenge, to push, to dig, to question, to irritate, to run toward danger and confrontation rather than away from it”.
This four-time winner of the Royal Television Society (RTS) Television Journalist of the Year Award and Special Correspondent for Sky News, currently based in Johannesburg, epitomises the species more than most.
Being the first reporter to broadcast live from Green Square as Libyan rebel forces took over Tripoli, and arriving in the capital on the back of a truck with a rebel convoy, are among her most celebrated exploits, so to speak, as one of the world’s most respected journalists.
But there have been plenty more. Crawford and her team were the only journalists to get inside the besieged town of Zawiyah when it was being attacked by pro-Gaddafi forces in March 2011. It was this report that was credited with largely being responsible for the historic United Nations agreement to a no-fly zone over Libya. When based in Asia, she was responsible for covering stories in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
A noble calling
Following her reports on the Mumbai terror attacks from outside the Taj Hotel in November 2008, during which she came under fire live on air, Sky News was short-listed for a BAFTA and won the coveted international Golden Nymph award for News Coverage. Her work has been recognised by the Foreign Press Association in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010, and she has been cited in the Bayeux-Calvados Awards for War Correspondents for her reports from hostile environments every year since 2007. In December 2010, Crawford was named Woman Journalist of the Year by Women in Film and Television International, and in October 2011 she was awarded the James Cameron Memorial Award in recognition of her outstanding contribution to journalism. For her, journalism is a noble calling, indeed – and journalists themselves are bound together by unique ties.
“I’ve had desperate and competitive rivals risk their lives for me, others who’ve jeopardised their careers to help out a fellow journalist in need. There’s a bond that ties us all together – despite the tribal fighting which has recently been reaching self-destruct proportions,” she said in a recent address at the Journalists’ Charity Thanksgiving Service, at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street, London. (Until the 1980s, Fleet Street was home to most of Britain’s national newspapers and is today still a metonym for the British national press).
Journalists, she said in her address, were “a tribe, a big family, with lots of different branches, with our own strengths and weaknesses. We ARE different...”
Presidents, rebels and renegades
She described being a journalist as “fun and exciting… and also often dangerous – whether it’s in the boardroom, the newsroom, a Parliamentary sub-committee or the battlefield. But we get to talk to presidents and prisoners, rebels and renegades. We can be face to face with evil, yet witness incredible heroism…”.
The regard in which Crawford is held by her peers was perhaps best summarised by the RTS judges this year, when they said they “recognised the extraordinary achievement of not only Alex Crawford but also her team in getting unique access to the frontline in Libya – in particular capturing the first proof that Gaddafi was attacking his own people. It was brave, vivid conflict reporting of the highest order: compelling viewing on a story of major importance.”
She is often asked about the bravery and courage of foreign correspondents who travel to wars and disasters, and says: “To me, bravery is taking on the establishment and the expenses department, as much as dictators abroad. Bravery is not – as some people seem to think – the defining quality of the war correspondent. Bravery comes in little acts achieved in every job or life, every day.
“Bravery in our profession is the editor who trusts his or her journalists in the field when everyone else is screaming otherwise. It’s standing up to the accountants who say we can’t afford to cover that genocide, or that natural disaster.
“Bravery is being prepared to go head to head with not only your own government but that of several others by exposing the real extent of one nation’s surveillance and snooping.
“Bravery is knowing you’re guaranteed unpopularity, but printing or broadcasting anyway because you KNOW it is the right thing to do”.
Journalism, she says, is changing rapidly. “Today, new technology is moving so fast that last week I could broadcast live from a canoe in the Congo River Basin about elephant poaching, while my peers were reporting live from helicopters over the floods in Britain, or live behind the barricades of Kiev.”
Searching out the truth
“We find we’re trying to beat a 69-character message which can be delivered in seconds, often by unqualified, ill-informed, very partisan participants. But despite enormous pressure, most journalists go that extra mile to search out truth, and to take the consequences of being staunchly impartial.”
And it’s journalists, says Crawford, who have made a difference, “showing the effect of chemical weapons in Syria; the torture of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, match-fixing in cricket, or the expenses scandal in Westminster… It’s journalists who can supply the evidence to change a government’s direction, who can topple dictators – who still remain important, essential pillars of democracy, freedom and justice”.
Social media, twitter and digital technology have made the world a whole lot smaller and accessible – “and made us all MORE concerned about the killing of children in the Central African Republic, and more empathetic about the typhoon in the Philippines... not less,” she says.
And, she says, she knows just how much journalists are valued, by the reaction out in the field. “I once walked miles over an Afghan mountainside to meet a Taliban unit – and when their hooded chief with his AK-47 met me, the first thing he said was: ‘Thank you. Thank you for coming to talk to us and hearing OUR side.’”
Filled with hope
Some of her peers, she says, “will know that feeling of walking into a refugee camp – I experienced it again just a few weeks ago in the Central African Republic – and being surrounded by desperate people clinging onto you, all suddenly filled with hope because YOU’VE walked in with a notebook and a camera crew – and they know their story is now going to be heard and maybe, just maybe, help will arrive.
“And it’s then you’re reminded again of just how privileged we are to have this job – and what a responsibility it is to do it well.”
Foreign news, any news, says Crawford, is expensive – and there are massive risks – “but do we really believe twitter and citizen journalism is where we are headed? They can never replace an experienced and questioning journalist in the field.”
And, more to the point, she says, the public KNOW the difference. “We just have to embrace and move with these evolving ways of delivering and collecting the news – and let it enhance, not take over or replace.
“We have to also recognise and applaud the sacrifices that many of our number make in doing this job…. And the sacrifices our families and those who love us also endure.”
She describes journalists as “mainly mavericks and troublemakers, gamblers, workaholics and risk-takers. Sometimes the dice just rolls the wrong way.”
She feels passionately about the safety and wellbeing of fellow journalists. “We continue to lose far too many of our colleagues through murder, kidnap or jail – for being journalists. Think of the Al Jazeera journalists incarcerated in Cairo for simply doing their jobs…. for going to those dark and violent places where mayhem and anarchy are flourishing – and which we would not know about, but for them. They didn’t want us to forget – so we should never let their lights dim”.
Getting emotionally involved
Asked about her own work in various conflict zones, the dangers and challenges involved and whether or not she is able to remain detached, Crawford says: “One of the great founding rules you are taught as a young journalist is to stay detached, to not become personally involved and report dispassionately. I’ve increasingly grown to believe that is wrong. I think you have to get emotionally involved in a dramatic story – and if you don’t, then perhaps you can’t convey the meat of it. I’m a visceral reporter, in that I express my feelings and if I make a bad judgment call, I can live with that. At least I’ve been honest”.
The Sky News team was the only media presence in the besieged city of Zawiyah in March 2011 and secured proof that, contrary to Gaddafi propaganda, civilians were indeed being massacred by the regime – an act of courage that at one point seemed likely to cost the lives of herself and her crew. Leadership asked her why she had put herself at such personal risk.
The Zawiyah incident, says Crawford, was unusual “in that we got swept along by an unpredictable chain of events. I chose to go to Zawiyah but then, like the citizens, got trapped by an advancing army. Fortunately, nothing the same has happened before or since. We – the team – try not to put ourselves at unnecessary risk, as we are rather keen to use the return portion of the ticket. We’ve seen people getting killed and we prefer the alternative. To get to the story can occasionally put you in tricky situations, but we are not gung-ho. We try to stack the odds in our favour as much as possible. We are not heroes, even though we meet a few of them.”
The situation, however, reversed, and Gaddafi was ousted. Asked what it was like to ride into Tripoli at the head of the rebel column, and whether it felt as though she were sharing in a triumph, she says: “It was probably the most exciting night we’ll ever have as journalists and most of those guys we were travelling with will have as human beings, and I tried to express that atmosphere. I was not a part of the triumph – I was reporting it – but you would have had to be a tree stump not to feel the waves of euphoria that were everywhere. It was amazing.”
When it comes to reporting from combat zones, calibre of bullet and types of weaponry are not really her bag, says Crawford. “The big thing that is rumbling toward you is not a Challenger 2 or a Leopard 2A4 in my book – it’s a ‘tank’. I’m a technological dunce. I’m more interested in what those bullets and tanks do to soldiers and the normal people – the public – who inevitably get caught up in warfare.”
Real people perishing
“I’m not out to give a hardware lesson, but rather a description of the dismal effect that hardware can have. I think talking largely about kit and numbers of people deployed and dying dehumanises the whole thing. Those are real people perishing and getting maimed out there. Their story seems to become my story.”
As for entering Gaddafi’s walled citadel of Bab al-Azizia, looking back, she says “it seems surreal to have been tramping around Gaddafi’s compound with all the rebels but, at the time, we were working and just trying to convey the emotions of the moment: jubilation, relief and excitement.”
After Libya, the Arab Spring blackened considerably and now there is the real risk of regional carnage. Leadership asked her if she considered the lack of intervention in such bloody conflicts as Syria, in sharp contrast to the effective action in Libya, to have contributed to this morass.
“To strip it to the nuts and bolts,” she says, “warfare seems to be about two things: the battle and the aftermath. The action may have been effective in Libya i.e Gaddafi was removed but, as ever, what came after the defining combat has been messy.
“Warfare of a different sort in Libya continues to this day. The emphasis from the top always seems to be on the whizz-bang, the headline, the victorious picture and the claim of victory. The equally important but more drawn-out job of cleaning up afterward and establishing a shining new order seems to get left behind. Lack of intervention has certainly hampered the situation in Syria and allowed the growth of ISIS.” (ISISI is the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, a jihadist group active in Iraq and Syria. Formed in April 2013, ISIS grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq.)
Crawford has reported from conflicts and battles in Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Egypt, Bahrain – “too, too many,” she says – “all different, all dangerous.”
She was arrested by the Inter-Services Intelligence in Pakistan, and detained/kidnapped by corrupt Afghan intelligence operators who planned to sell her and her crew to the Taliban, before they were rescued by American marines – incidents described in detail in her book, Colonel Gaddafi’s Hat.
“There’ve been too many narrow escapes to mention, but fortunately they are all escapes. Zawiyah was the worst, and I hope it always will be,” says Crawford.
A mother of four, she finds the “mum of four goes to war” line a touch sexist. “I think to myself, ‘Dad of three gets off scot free’, in that a man in my position is very rarely held up as somehow being a reckless parent in their choice of profession.”
But how is it, Leadership asked her, to balance bringing up four children with the job she does?
“Bringing up one child with two parents and a team of helpers is difficult enough,” she says. “We’re no different from any other family with working parents. We do our best, which you often feel is not quite good enough, even though it is your best. My husband, Richard Edmondson, is very unusual in that he put my career ahead of his own despite being an award-winning sports journalist himself. I’m afraid that’s astonishingly rare, even in 2014. He is a very rare person.”
She does, however, feel guilty about leaving her children to go off into dangerous conflict situation to do the job she does, “but I try not to think about it while I’m working because that’s of no benefit to either them or me and would actually detract from what I’m doing. When I return after a particularly hard job – like my recent mission to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia – it can be exhausting reconnecting with an excited family when they haven’t seen me for a while. But if they weren’t pleased to have me back, then something would be wrong.”
Her children, says Crawford, see her on television, “but because Sky is a 24-hour channel and I’m on so regularly, they don’t think it’s a big deal. They’ve grown up with me occupying the little box in the corner of the room and they usually prefer something on a different channel anyway.”
When it comes to the personal and professional qualities necessary to become a successful conflict reporter, all the normal criteria apply, she says: “a good news sense, persistence, the ability to make lists and so on”.
Does this inveterate journalist believe she is making a difference? “It might be a high-minded aspiration”, she says, “but ‘making a difference’ is perhaps the main reason I do my job. If I can, in any way, highlight injustice or the bad things happening to ordinary people, then I can convince myself I’ve done something worthwhile.”
She pays tribute to all fallen correspondents, but particularly ones who were in her orbit, including Mick Dean, the Sky News cameraman killed while covering the conflict in Cairo in July; Marie Colvin, the American journalist killed while covering the siege of Homs in Syria in February 2012 for the London Sunday Times; and Tim Hetherington, the acclaimed photojournalist and filmmaker, killed in April 2011 while covering the ongoing conflict in Libya.
Wikipedia says she was born in Nigeria, but Crawford begs to differ. “Although it might have been rather more exotic to have been born in Nigeria, the actual truth is that I was delivered in Surrey, England. My sister, Gerry, was born in Lagos – and as my parents met and married in Nigeria, we spent much of our early lives in Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe,” she explains.
She looks back on her childhood “with only sparkling memories” and says if they’ll have her, she would like to be considered an honorary African.
“I moved to England when I was 16 to go to boarding school in Kent, but there was always a bit of me left behind. I’ve been back to Africa several times on holiday and with work, and now I’m fortunate enough to live there permanently once again,” Crawford says.
Living in Johannesburg, she says, has its ups and downs. “Geographically it might seem a bit of a nonsense (Nairobi might be a better idea), but most foreign Africa correspondents seem to operate out of Johannesburg. Joburg has its problems (too much crime and too few Yorkshire puddings), but it is the most vibrant place to live in South Africa. And if you don’t want to do vibrant, Cape Town, the game reserves and the wine seem to work as well.”
Regarding the future of a free press in South Africa, Crawford is optimistic. “An outstanding feature of the press in SA is how it feels safe and able to criticise its leadership. It is a tribute to the nation’s democracy. As a consequence, the landscape is clear for some very good journalists to flourish,” she says.
Turning to the state of democracy in South Africa, she points out that this is only 20 years old, “and there aren’t many fully formed 20-year-olds around. Nelson Mandela may have gone physically, but his spirit and influence will be around for as long as the country is above the waves. So tolerance, respect and further tackling inequality will, in any luck, remain near the top of the agenda.”
Asked to name journalists, past and present, whom she most admires, Crawford says: “Michael Buerk wrote so evocatively about the famine in Ethiopia that he inspired a worldwide musical fund-raising revolution. Not bad for a day’s work. I worked with him at the BBC and aspired to try to make a difference like I felt he did.
“I admire energetic, hard-working and generous journalists most, who can do often stressful work with good humour and dedication as well as talent. My cameraman Garwen McLuckie is the journalist I work alongside most (apart from Richard Edmondson) and they both inspire me.”
When she is not riding into Tripoli at the head of a triumphant rebel column, traipsing around Colonel Gaddafi’s compound or being arrested by the ISI in Pakistan or nearly being sold to the Taliban, Crawford enjoys good wine and food and, “just before the flutes and cutlery, a game of tennis”. More recently, she has taken up running and completed the Cape Town half-marathon, “timed not by a stopwatch but a calendar”.
Perhaps predictably (although there is little of the predictable about her), she also loves reading. Luke Harding and Paul Conroy, she says, have both done incredible non-fiction books, and she also loved Caitlin Moran’s autobiographical How to be a Woman. “I try to keep pace with my teen daughters’ loves and likes and thought The Hunger Games series was fantastically exciting... very Arab Spring-like,” she says.
Journalism, or course, is her abiding love, and she can regale you for hours with tales (not by any means tall ones, but ones packed with riveting firsthand accounts) of life on the frontline.
Some stand out, like her coverage of the conflict in the Central African Republic earlier this year, which included the chronicling of a very traumatic birth by a rape victim. “It was very distressing to watch, and for the first time ever I fainted. That was hard – probably because I am a mother myself and, as a woman, I felt her pain quite acutely,” she says.
But it’s not all about mayhem, war and destruction. Crawford has also been covering the Oscar Pistorius trial and says this took her well out of her comfort zone.
“But what a challenge, and what a tragedy. The trial gripped not just South Africa but a worldwide audience, and I had a ringside seat. It gave South Africa a chance to take some brave decisions – televising the trial being just one – and provoked essential debates about female empowerment, domestic abuse, gun laws and security,” she says.
It’s been, she says, a roller coaster and a privilege in many ways to have been able to cover it. “Being in a court is NOT my first choice and I have struggled with what I feel is the disproportionate attention this tragedy has commanded over, say, genocide in the Central African Republic or civil war in South Sudan. These are difficult editorial choices made by others – but I have tried to do my best and I realise there are many thousands of people out there who are intensely interested in the trial. And perhaps, if what has happened does provoke discussions and debate about gun laws, security, inequality and others, maybe, just maybe, something positive can come out of this”.
She feels particularly passionate about violence against women. “I am definitely of the opinion that as journalists we have a duty to highlight injustices, and as a female journalist, I specifically feel duty-bound to focus on issues like violence against women. It’s a no-brainer. Push it up the news agenda as best you can to highlight and draw attention to this.
So I focused on a South African rape victim and tracked down her rapist and did separate interviews with the two. It was deemed so graphic that it only ran after the 9pm watershed. We need to do more of that... to galvanise action to stop it.”
Alex Crawford is the television equivalent of a print journalist with the proverbial ‘write stuff’. She doesn’t exactly rush in where angels fear to tread but has, nevertheless, witnessed and reported on some of the most momentous events of our times, with professionalism, accuracy and rare courage.