Oldern women in broadcasting have been feared and disregarded, bundled out of jobs at an alarming rate. In 2013, a shocking 82 per cent of TV presenters over the age of 50 were men.
Once women hit 50, their days were numbered. ‘What I remember is there not being very many women and not many women older than me,’ recalls BBC newsreader Reeta Chakrabarti about when she joined the BBC in 1991. ‘To be honest, my mentors have been men,’ admits Lindsey Hilsum, the international editor at Channel 4 News, ‘because there weren’t so many women around’. But not any more. For anyone who’s watched TV reports of the brutal invasion of Ukraine, one of the most notable things has been the number of older women on our screens.
They include foreign correspondents used to working in dangerous and highly charged countries, and those more familiar with a safe TV studio now risking their lives to broadcast from a war zone. They have challenged prejudice and bias to bring bravery, stamina and humanity to war reporting. And being an older female reporter, as the following women reveal, brings some surprising advantages as well…
Women have challenged prejudice and bias to bring bravery, stamina and humanity to war reporting. Pictured: Lindsey Hilsum, 63, international editor, Channel 4 news
‘THEY THOUGHT I WAS A FRIEND OF THE QUEEN’
Lindsey Hilsum, 63, international editor, Channel 4 news and author of Sandstorm; Libya In The Time Of Revolution and In Extremis: The Life And Death Of The War Correspondent Marie Colvin. She lives in London with Tim Lambon, a security specialist.
After 35 years as a journalist, including covering wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the uprisings in Egypt and Libya and the genocide in Rwanda, Lindsey Hilsum has discovered an unexpected advantage in being an older woman.
Early in the war in Ukraine, she and her team (cameraman, producer, driver, security man and local fixer) arrived at a checkpoint.
A soldier leaned into the car to check documents. All of a sudden, the fixer started laughing. ‘He says you look like the Queen!’ he reported to Lindsey. ‘This is really good!’ After that, whenever they got stuck at a checkpoint, the fixer would point to Lindsey, and say: ‘She knows the Queen.’ (Not true.) And their car was waved through.
When we meet, Lindsey has just returned from a five-week stint in Ukraine (with only a short break). And she’s desperate to get back.
She knows the risks of war reporting. Friends have been killed, most notably the American journalist Marie Colvin, in Syria in 2012.
In March, Lindsey (pictured) was forced to take cover from shellfire in Irpin, a city just outside Kyiv. ‘Nothing fell very near us — probably about 300 yards away,’ she says
In March, Lindsey was forced to take cover from shellfire in Irpin, a city just outside Kyiv. ‘Nothing fell very near us — probably about 300 yards away,’ she says, ‘But we were with soldiers, and they obviously thought I looked like their granny and so they tried to carry me.
‘I had to fight off these soldiers while running away from fire!’
‘But it’s a weird contradiction. You never feel so alive as you do in situations which are dangerous and where you feel that what you’re doing matters.’
Her manner is much like her onscreen persona: unflappable; never indulgent; straight-talking.
She keeps her hair short and has never dyed it, despite going grey in her 40s. When she was younger, she felt she wasn’t taken seriously, ‘so I was happy to go grey because I think that says: “I know something. Treat me with respect”,’.
After graduating from Exeter University, where she studied French and Spanish, Lindsey became an aid worker. Then, in 1986, she became a stringer in East Africa for the BBC and The Guardian, and in 1997 joined Channel 4 News as a diplomatic correspondent.
Traditional war coverage is of the battlefield, but Lindsey doesn’t see the point. ‘You’d see me crouching in a ditch. So what?’
She prefers talking to people behind the front line, especially women: ‘They often look at things in a different way.’
Being a woman gives her an edge, she says. ‘In some countries, it’s more difficult for male journalists to talk to women, so they only get half the story. And yet, I’ve never been anywhere where you can’t talk to the men. Though I do remember after 9/11 trying to interview the Taliban in Pakistan and they wouldn’t look at me. They looked at the cameraman the whole time. Very irritating!’
She never shows emotion on camera. ‘Your job is to be calm, to tell the story. But I do get upset.’
She wept after hearing the horrifying stories of those fleeing the besieged city of Mariupol. Her younger self would never have done that for fear of seeming weak. ‘But I’ve learned over time that we’re all a bit pathetic, and that’s OK.’
I thought it was hard when the children were small, but it’s got harder as they get older. They need me more
The order of her home and beautiful garden help to steady her after the chaos of war. As does her partner, Tim Lambon, former deputy foreign editor at Channel 4 News, and now a security specialist.
‘He totally gets it. When I ring to say: “I’m coming home.” He says: “Are you sure? You always leave the story too soon and then come home and you’re a pain.” ’They never wanted children. ‘A lot of the stress that journalists feel, men and women, is the push and pull between their home life and working in the field. I don’t have that.’
But she’s realistic about ageing and the job. ‘Presumably, there will come a point when I’m too decrepit to carry on doing this job — but I’m not there yet.’
In fact, she has set up a campaign group, More Old Bats On The Box. Membership: two. Lindsey and Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s 63-year-old chief international correspondent.
‘We often say: “How much longer are we going to do this?” And we always come to the same conclusion: “Let’s just keep doing it. We really enjoy it!” ’ she says.
‘I DON’T WANT MY KIDS TO BE MOTHERLESS’
Romilly Weeks, 48, political correspondent, ITV News. She lives in London with her husband, Nick Green, a digital marketing expert, and their three children, aged five to 13.
Romilly Weeks, 48, (pictured) political correspondent, ITV News. Romilly broadcast live from Lviv, western Ukraine, for two weeks in March. In one report, from a busy square, sirens sounded in the background
As a political correspondent and news presenter, Romilly Weeks’s normal habitat is a warm television studio. She’s never had to dress for -12 degrees.
‘I only had a day to get ready and I was running around camping shops trying to find a really thick down jacket. But because it was spring, they’d put everything away.’ She ended up wearing three coats.
Romilly broadcast live from Lviv, western Ukraine, for two weeks in March. In one report, from a busy square, sirens sounded in the background. Hours earlier, a military base outside the city had been bombed. Romilly carried on.
‘Julie [Etchingham; the anchor] was basically saying: “Shut up and go and find somewhere safe,”’ she says. ‘But actually, there really isn’t anywhere to go.’
Romilly’s speciality is detail. Even now, back home, she recounts stories that are wonderfully sharp and moving. ‘I found it incredibly emotional being there. Pretty much every day I ended up in tears, and I don’t think that’s a negative thing. That is how the world is reacting.’
Romilly joined ITN in the 1990s. In 2003, aged 29, she was embedded with the British Army in Iraq for six weeks during the Gulf War. She spent one night in a trench dressed in a military chemical warfare suit and was caught up in sniper-fire during a food distribution in Basra. But she is best-known for taking heated rollers to the Gulf War.
Ukraine was Romilly’s (pictured) first assignment to a war-torn country after nearly two decades as royal and then political correspondent. ‘The balance for me is not putting my family through too much hell,’ she says.
‘It was an unfortunate article,’ she says. In fact, it was hair straighteners, she clarifies. ‘My hair is bushy and I’d always had to straighten it to go on TV. So I was in this flutter of “what will I do with my hair if it looks really s***?’ She packed cordless gas hair straighteners.
‘Having got older, I feel far more able to say: “This is how I look in a difficult situation and I don’t have a hair brush.”’
Ukraine was her first assignment to a war-torn country after nearly two decades as royal and then political correspondent. ‘The balance for me is not putting my family through too much hell,’ she says. ‘None of them complained, but on a practical level, it’s difficult. The only reason I could do it is my husband works for home a lot, my mum helps and we have an au pair.’
‘It’s something I thought about a lot when I was there. My responsibility is to do a good job here, but my prime responsibility is to get back OK. It would be the worst failure in the world to leave my children motherless.’
‘AGE IS YET ANOTHER PREJUDICE TO FIGHT’
Alex Crawford, 60, special correspondent at Sky News, has won many awards, including the Royal Television Society TV journalist of the year. She has four children aged 20 to 26 and lives in Istanbul with her husband, Richard Edmondson.
Alex Crawford, 60, (pictured) special correspondent at Sky News. In 2016 she was arrested and deported from Zimbabwe. Most recently, she was shelled by Russian artillery in Chernihiv, north Ukraine
Alex Crawford has a reputation among foreign correspondents for having a high risk threshold. In 2011, she rode on the back of a rebel pick-up truck to broadcast live on the battle for the Libyan capital Tripoli.
In 2016 she was arrested and deported from Zimbabwe. Most recently, she was shelled by Russian artillery in Chernihiv, north Ukraine. Locals were racing to leave the city; Alex and her team were racing to get in.
‘It’s not blind danger-seeking’ she says. ‘I weigh up everything.’ It’s just that she has a clear idea of what she wants. ‘And I don’t like to be defeated.’
We meet at a hotel in Herefordshire, where Alex is doing ‘nextlevel’ medical training in preparation for returning to Ukraine.
She is dressed for action in combat trousers. ‘I always wear combat trousers because I can carry millions of things: notebook, passport, sat-phone. I hate carrying handbags.’
Most striking, however, is her extraordinary physicality. Her aim is to surprise people with her energy and her age — 60. She dyes her hair (‘I think grey equals old’) and until recently, she was the fittest person in her team. But now that title has been claimed by a new colleague in his mid-30s.
‘At 60, you have to work harder at keeping fit,’ she says. ‘But the biggest downside is you’ve got yet another prejudice to fight: the age thing. And my God, there is nothing that fills me with more joy than smacking down prejudices.’
Alex was born in Surrey, and grew up in Africa, where her father was a civil engineer and her half Chinese mother worked for a construction company. She worked in regional newspapers and then the BBC, joining Sky News when it launched in 1989.
‘I was constantly told I couldn’t be a foreign correspondent, so I became one.’ She was turned down for Russia, India, China and Africa before eventually landing the job of Asia correspondent in 2005, at the age of 43.
The youngest of her four children was then two years old.
The family moved with her to each new posting: India, Dubai, South Africa — and now Turkey.
Sky’s Alex Crawford with President Zelensky. Alex says that being older means that she cares less about poisonous put-downs on social media
‘I went to boarding school when I was small and I didn’t want my kids to do that,’ she says. ‘I always wanted my kids around me. The irony is I spent most of the time leaving Richard to look after them.’ Her husband, Richard, is an award-winning former sports journalist at The Independent.
‘If you’re going to have a relationship, one person has to make the sacrifices. As he says, I was much more ambitious than him.’
It is, she admits, ‘enormously irritating’ to be asked how she copes with so many children. Men are never asked the same question. ‘But at the same time, the practicalities are that much harder if you’re a mother. ’
‘I thought it was hard when the children were small,’ she continues, ‘but it’s got a whole lot harder as they get older. They need me more and I feel constantly that I’m not there enough for them.’
Being older means she cares less about poisonous put-downs on social media.
‘There is no expectation for a bloke to look nice in a war zone. Whereas women are constantly undermined by comments.
‘It doesn’t fill me with joy when people say: “Oh you looked great on the bridge in Irpin.” It’s like, Oh my God, I have failed.
‘You don’t want to have a piece about refugees coming out of Irpin, where you are commented on how you look. You want them to watch the piece.’
‘WE DID THE 6pm NEWS IN THE DARK’
Reeta Chakrabarti, 57, news reader and correspondent, BBC News. She lives in London with her husband, Paul Hamilton, professor of English at Queen Mary University of London, with whom she has a son of 28 and 22-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.
Once women hit 50, their days were numbered. ‘What I remember is there not being very many women and not many women older than me,’ recalls BBC newsreader Reeta Chakrabarti (pictured) about when she joined the BBC in 1991
On March 8, Reeta Chakrabarti took over from her BBC colleague Clive Myrie as the news anchor for BBC news based in Ukraine. For the first time in her career she was in a conflict zone. Technically, yes, she tells me, ‘but in Lviv, we were one step back. I’d say I was in a city in a country at war.’
Nevertheless, as one of her colleagues pointed out: “Reeta, it’s not like you’re in W1A,” — the postcode of BBC HQ Broadcasting House, in London.
Her job in Ukraine was to anchor the One, Six and Ten O’Clock News, for two weeks, from the roof on the ninth floor of a hotel. The temperature dropped to well below zero at night.
‘I am of Indian origin and my Bengali genes rebelled.’ Moreover, Ukraine is two hours ahead of the UK. So, the Ten O’Clock News, was broadcast at midnight.
She’d get to bed at between one and two in the morning. But would often have to traipse down to the bunker — the hotel’s cellar — due to air-raid sirens.
Reeta also filmed three reports from the streets of Lviv. One evening, the team had to broadcast in darkness.
‘The siren went off five minutes before the news went on air. We had to turn all our lights off.’
An engineer stood stock-still in front of Reeta for 15 minutes, his headlamp illuminating her face, so she could read the news.
Reeta Chakrabarti reporting from Lviv. Viewers were both pleased and slightly horrified to see Reeta in Ukraine. ‘I’m a familiar face. People are used to switching us on. “Oh, there she is in her lilac jacket.” Suddenly you’re out there with six layers, in the dark, looking a bit knackered and it brings it home to people’
While she was in Lviv, strategic targets outside the city were hit. ‘You’d see great plumes of smoke on the horizon’.
Viewers were both pleased and slightly horrified to see Reeta in Ukraine. ‘I’m a familiar face. People are used to switching us on. “Oh, there she is in her lilac jacket.” Suddenly you’re out there with six layers, in the dark, looking a bit knackered and it brings it home to people.’
Her husband, in particular, was delighted to have her home again: ‘He had not become reassured as the days went on.
‘My children are old enough to understand the potential risks. One of them was quite cool about it, but the other two were worried and needed more reassurance.’
When she returned, ‘it took a couple of days to come down’, she says. The slight disconnection between the intensity of life there and the normality of life here can feel a little anti-climactic and colourless.
‘And I was exhausted. You’re not yourself.’