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International Women's Day: Q&A with C4's Lindsey Hilsum

International Women's Day: Q&A with C4's Lindsey Hilsum

What is it really like to work as a female foreign reporter? To mark International Women's Day, we spoke to Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor for Channel 4 News, about the launch of the Marie Colvin Journalists' Circle, and her thoughts on the risks and rewards of being a female freelancer today.

You recently set up the Marie Colvin Journalists' Circle along with Lyse Doucet, the BBC's Chief International Correspondent, and Lady Jane Wellesley. Could you briefly tell me about its aims and ambitions and how it wants to help Arab women journalists?

Our aim is the support young female journalists in the Arab world, to preserve the legacy of Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times foreign correspondent who was killed in Homs in 2012. Our original idea was a peer-to-peer network but the young Arab journalists we've talked to have overwhelmingly said they would appreciate mentoring from more experienced journalists so that's what we 're starting with, as well as a website which will showcase items of interest, including links to the Rory Peck Trust.

How do you think the initiative will be able to help female freelance journalists in the region specifically?

We're saying "journalists in the Arab world" but our focus is very much on Arab journalists rather than foreign correspondents [working in the region]. We've found that freelancers complain that the contracts are bad, editors lift their photos without paying, and it's hard to get a decent day rate or fee. We can't change the culture or economics of freelance journalism but we hope that mentors will be able to give our members some ideas of how to ask for better rates, defend themselves and know their rights. Feeling exploited as freelancers is definitely one of the recurring themes our potential members have mentioned.

How are conditions different for (Western) female foreign reporters and local female freelancers in the Arab world? Do you think one is more risky to do?

Local/national female reporters have the advantage of language, and passing unnoticed. They start off with a huge advantage. They may have better contacts. This may diminish risk. But it may also increase risk if they are not regarded as guests, and therefore to be looked after. And obviously, male or female, when arrested they may be imprisoned while the foreigner is deported.

In general, how do you think conditions for female foreign journalists have changed since you first started reporting?

I was freelance for many years, so I think in some ways that insecurity and fear of never getting another gig is just an inevitable part of the life, and it's the same for men and women. But it seems to be that there are more female freelances now, maybe for a good reason - young women feel more confident - and a bad reason: it's so badly paid many men don't bother. I think editors no longer assume that a young reporter in a conflict zone will be male.

But it seems to me that young men are still better than young women at pushing themselves forward - look at the Rory Peck Awards. The finalists are still overwhelmngly men. Is that because women don't put themselves up for awards, or their editors don't? I don't believe it's because their work is poorer, although it may be because many of the women are writing rather than filming.

But also what do you think are some of the advantages of being a female foreign reporter?

It's easier to gain the confidence of women and report their lives. It's easier to get through checkpoints, especially in the Arab world where you can cover up and fit in. Sometimes you're seen as less of a threat so you diffuse situations. And sometimes it makes no difference at all.

What do you think is the most pressing issue facing female foreign freelance reporters now?

I think it is often still difficult for for Arab or African reporters to convince Western editors that not only can they do the job, but they can do it better. Western editors may still have a stereotypical view of African and Arab women which has to be overcome.

To find out more about the Marie Colvin Journalists' Circle, visit their website.

Image credit: Roberto Ferrari 

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