Lindsey Hilsum on the passion and idealism of journalism

By Nicole Green

Live-streaming a phone call to Israeli authorities while standing on the rubble of Palestinian homes, or reporting on the victims of genocide in Rwanda, where women care for the families who murdered their own, are experiences few journalists can count in their reporting history.

But that is all part of the reporting history of Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel 4 News, who was taking at the Frontline Club in the latest of our Reflections series, in which broadcast journalists discuss their careers and choose the reports that have most influenced them.

If you couldn’t make the event in person, you can watch the whole thing here:

In the face of drastic budget cuts and a struggling media industry, some may see Hilsum’s exploits as part of a bygone, idealistic age of journalism – but she says that passion and idealism are still very much at the heart of what journalists do.

With a career spanning decades, conflicts and continents, Hilsum discussed objectivity and prejudices in the field and inevitably, what the future holds for both her own career and the industry:

"[Some reporters] want to be the centre of attention. The people we are reporting on should be the centre of attention.

"If you are a good journalist, you are prepared for your views to be assaulted…and should not have a political view which blinds you. You should be open to finding out you’re wrong."

Hilsum painted a modest yet romantic history of sellotaped news stories, cut together by hand and posted from the border of Mexico, and of her first front page splash for the Guardian, filed from Uganda under a psuedonym whilst working for the politically shy UNICEF. From here, she went on to win awards for her work across Africa, to the Middle East and most recently in China.

Hilsum asserted that the British media continue to view Africa, and the rest of the world, from a white man’s perspective, missing out on the most interesting view as a result.

Martha Gellhorn’s High Explosive for Everyone – the legendary journalist’s first report from the Spanish Civil War – clearly made a big impact on Hilsum, "showing the ordinariness… in the middle of a war".

Hilsum selected a Charles Wheeler broadcast from Kurdistan, despite her desire to "avoid men from the BBC because of [her own] prejudices". In a piece by Kate Adie, Hilsum highlighted the simplicity of her delivery which is "clear and direct…no messing around and making excuses."

However, according to Hilsum, prejudices which existed when Kate Adie was reporting from the frontline remain and her own struggles as a female journalist were ultimately the catalyst behind her resignation from the BBC.

Whilst listening to a broadcast from Rwanda, when she spoke to victims of rape for Woman’s Hour, her sensitivity to her subject became clear. Yet she asserted that there are room for emotions in journalism: "You do get upset, but that doesn’t stop you being a reporter."

Hilsum’s thirst for travel and reporting has developed if not waned, and her choice to take the role as China Correspondent for Channel 4 was made simply because "[she] knew nothing about China".

What became clear, is that her optimism for journalism, which she somewhat bluntly referred to as "going down the toilet," is still by no means depleted:

There is lots of room for idealism and passion in journalism. I believe in things and it is important to try and understand things. I am just glad I’m a journalist and not a politician.