Broadcaster and journalist Kate Adie was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Society of Editors’ 20th anniversary gala dinner yesterday.
The event at Stationers’ Hall in London, was packed with an invited audience spanning the industry, and Adie was greeted with a storm of applause as she took the podium to respond.
She talked of her formative years as a raw trainee with local radio in Durham, only entrusted in those days with such challenging tasks as producing the weather forecast. “As the budget was frugal, I would go into the studio, stand behind the presenter, open the window, and have a good look out,” she said, to roars of laughter.
She then went on to relate the disastrous tale of going to interview someone, only to find the door answered by a policeman. “I told him who I wanted to see. He said: ‘You can’t.’ ‘Why can’t I see him?’ I asked. ‘I’m from the local radio station.’
“I was rather disappointed. ‘He’s dead. Murdered,’ was the reply. I gasped and fled.”
She ended up getting sent back twice more by an increasingly exasperated editor before being able to get anywhere near covering the story properly.
Adie also gave insights into the niceties and nuance of covering royal tours, and the clear pecking order of the transport arrangements – the Queen whisked away by limousine, the officials following in saloons… and the Press bundled into a lorry.
In Bangladesh, Adie recalled when the Queen was greeted by a horribly raucous band, impressively equipped with every conceivable kind of wind instrument. “The Queen stopped right in front of the band and it started up with the most enormous amount of noise I’ve ever heard,” she said. “The Queen visibly stood very still and stared into the mid-distance. When it had finished, she looked at the bandmaster, who saluted her, and she said: ‘That was very nice. What was it?’ And he said: ‘Your national anthem, ma’am.’ ‘Lovely’ she said, and went on her way.’ We didn’t report the noise – her good manners and their determination to give her a good welcome were the most important points.”
The anecdotes came thick and fast, including her encounter with Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi who took her on one side during one of his interminable and rambling press conferences to tell her about his plans to boost tourism. “You don’t always get confided in, but you do learn that some leaders are very odd indeed,” she said.
But important lessons were learned. “Those of us on the ground took the decisions, and the overriding argument was to bring the story back, not become the story – a great lesson to tell young journalists. You are not there to become the story, you must bring it back.”
Over the years, Adie has put together her own list of journalistic priorities. “Be an eye witness. It’s primary. You can’t do it by phone or drone. You have to be there,” she said.
“Facts need to be very much to the fore these days. Get on the ground, ask questions, ignore the PR, ignore the press officer, ignore the bigwig who tries to muscle in. Talk to people who have experienced it.”
But beware: “Everybody lies in a war because of fear, because of defence. People who are trying to survive will tell lies.”
Facts must be checked, and this is more important than ever, even if the verification slows the process down, but the aim must still be to get the story out as soon as possible.
One story in particular still haunts Adie. “I reported for five-and-a-half hours on the streets of Beijing when five armies slaughtered everyone they could see,” she said. “The estimate now, from diplomatic sources, is that possibly 10,000 people were killed that night, all over the city. Why do I care about it? Because it is still oppressed as a story. Their own people are not allowed to hear about it. It matters. It is what journalism is all about and why I feel strongly is obviously that we are watching Hong Kong and we know what happened 30 years ago.”
Adie concluded by summing up the vital importance of journalism: “We are in a terrific profession. It is a pillar of democracy. It matters, and we will all work to keep it a strong, a vibrant pillar that reflects society, that informs people, and gives people the truth.”
Picture: Kate Adie with SoE Executive Director Ian Murray