In the beginning, there was Kate.
After an archaeology-obsessed childhood, my interest shifted to journalism – more specifically, war correspondence.
The promise of adventure was not the draw – rather the opportunity ‘to tell the world what was really happening’ (or what a 13-year-old imagines is ‘really happening’ in between howling to Alanis Morissette and mourning a bad fringe).
Through the 1990s and into the millennium, I trotted through a journalism degree, temped at the BBC and University station and covered everything from boxing and Chinese New Year celebrations to the outbreak of the Iraq War.
Then the paths diverged – I took a postgraduate degree to hone my focus on the Middle East and before long I became a doctor.
All was not lost, however: I still visit conflict zones; I write for a handful of coins or a bottle of wine and deadlines skulk in every shadow.
I convey the narratives of the intriguing, inspiring, appalling and fantastical – just with a smattering of Geertz, Goffman, Smith and Hall.
Kate Adie’s awesomeness didn’t just lie with her dispatches that oozed courage and gusto – rather, her ability to bring home the truth, in whatever God-awful form it took.
She wasn’t there to deliver the official line; she brought us the guts, shattered dreams and the dystopia that accompanied the hell of war.
The American bombing of Tripoli in 1986, Tienanmen Square in 1989, Bucharest in 1989, the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the Yugoslav Wars from 1991-1999 , the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the war in Sierra Leone in 2000 – the dame reported from every major humanitarian and political event of the late twentieth century.
(And she began her career in Durham, ergo sealing the deal of saintliness.)
Her appearance at Aberdeen whipped me into a frenzy of proportions normally reserved for the Queen, the Pope and possibly the ascension of Jesus Christ himself, combined.
And, GOOD GOD she was glorious. Gorgeous. Sassy. Droll. Humble. Wise beyond anything. In 90 minutes she rocked the world of everyone in that room, aged 15-80.
As a trail-blazer, the questions had a feminist tilt (‘there was one thing you had to learn about news – it was for men. And women had to know that’), but the profundity lay not in the gender issues, per se, but the human ones.
The nuances of conflicts that pass – willing or otherwise – without regard: in Northern Ireland sectarianism touched everything, to the point that a murder was always linked to the Troubles, rather than gangland connections, passion crimes or criminal opportunism.
The desensitisation of journalists is a myth, for ‘there is no such thing as the desensitisation of people. That’s just a medical term and happens very rarely to people,’ as is the notion that journalists are – or should be – fearless.
The need to demonstrate an absence of fear affects most of us – whether it is in a safe zone or otherwise.
There is little to gain from bravado, according to Adie: ‘Journalists loving danger is a myth. All the old ones are not the bold ones. You bring back the story, you don’t become it. It helps to be frightened – that is the best sense of warning. Fear is useful, but awful, at times humiliating, but always necessary.’
And whatever happens, be polite, for ‘most people who carry a gun and aren’t in the army are either drunk or high. No journalist carries a weapon, so what do you do when faced with a hoodlum? Be polite, don’t be threatening and when they look the other way, RUN!’
The duty to tell the truth was a frequent trope: in Tienanmen only a handful of journalists ventured from the safety of the hotel to cover the atrocities, but the need to ‘record’ the events – in more than a purely journalistic sense – led her onto the streets.
The oppression has not ceased and even today the families of those still missing from 1989, as well as contemporary dissidents, are arbitrarily arrested by the state.
During the Romanian Revolution, which brought down Nicolae Ceausescu, numbers were inflated – on one occasion, thousands were reported dead, though the morgue held just two bodies.
The lecture closed on a sombre note: the decline of news and our engagement with the world around us.
Adie cautioned that our understanding of conflict is faltering.
Twenty years ago, news consumers numbered 14 million; today, just 4 million.
The sense of unease evoked a comment from a French journalist, who told Adie that ‘the less we fear that people are going to kill us, the less we need to know about them.’
The shift in public interest from conflicts to celebrities is less lead by editors, she reasoned, but rather by what we seek as consumers, since ‘journalism is a reflection of what we are; it does not lead it.’
The disinterest affects not just our understanding of conflicts, but also those affected, an issue picked up towards the end when Adie was joined on stage by members of the Immpact group, which focuses on women in dangerous situations and maternal mortality.
According to Dr Ann Phoya, the limited focus on global health reflects flaws in social and political priorities, since maternal well-being is ‘not seen as sexy enough and is not covered enough. But without it the human race will become extinct and there will be no one to look at us then.’
This takes us full circle to the issue of women in society: for Phoya, ‘the girl child is not given enough attention,’ for Adie, talking of the case of the 276 Nigerian school girls, ‘If it had been boys, there would have been such a fuss. Women count for less in so many societies.’
As the panel wound to a close, this was reflected – from its commencement in the final 15 minutes, members of the audience started to leave the theatre.
Standing in line to buy a copy of Adie’s book, one member complained, ‘It was going so well. Pity we had to have that at the end. Every word counts with Kate Adie and we could have done without it ending it on a negative note.’
In one swoop, Adie’s entire message was lost: the spectator had come to see a celebrity and the nuances of truth, fear, the triumphs and tribulations of women and girls the world over, were reduced to a spectacle that ended on a bum note.
Seeing childhood icons in the flesh can be a disappointing affair.
But in this case, it only confirmed what I have always known: Adie is damn inspirational and will continue to be so well into my dottage.