Kim Willsher is an award-winning foreign correspondant for the Guardian and the Observer, based in Paris.
Could you first please briefly go through your education and career?
I started my journalism career the traditional way: on a small newspaper in my local town, where I did the NCTJ training courses and passed the final exam, before moving to a larger regional newspaper, in Birmingham. In the mid-1980s, I decided to move to London and try to get work as a freelance. I worked at most of the national newspapers – including the Sun, the Times, the Express and others – doing daily news shifts. My first staff job was as a social column reporter on the Daily Express’s famous William Hickey column. Within six months, I had moved over to news. I became a feature writer and foreign correspondent before joining the Mail on Sunday in 1991, where my first job was covering the war in the Balkans. I stayed at the MoS until 2000, winning Reporter of the Year in the British Press Awards in 1997 for work from Chernobyl and the conflicts in Bosnia and Afghanistan, and ending up as Chief Foreign Correspondent. I moved to France in 2000 to work as a freelance. I was correspondent for The Mail on Sunday, The Sunday Telegraph and wrote for The Times, The Evening Standard, and other publications. I have since become a correspondent for The Guardian, The Observer and The Los Angeles Times.
When did your life acquire a Franco-British dimension?
I moved to France in 2000, mostly for a change of scene and intending to stay for two years. However, I met my French husband and never returned the other side of the Channel, even though I often miss it. I consider myself a Francophile. When I am in France, I miss the UK. When I am in the UK, I miss France. I see the best of – and the not so good – of both countries. I am devastated by Brexit, which I feel was caused by misinformation and a complete lack of understanding of Europe by much of the British public.
How would you compare the French and British media?
The French media is more serious in the sense that there is no equivalent to tabloid newspapers. Le Parisien is not really a tabloid newspaper. The French media can be ponderous and slower than the British media, which is very reactive. One thing that struck me when I first came to France is how interested the media is in the outside world. At the time, Libération would run two or three pages of news about the situation in, say, Mali or Afghanistan. There wouldn’t necessarily be a particularly strong news angle or French involvement; they would do this because they felt that people should be interested in what was going on around the world. This is my idea of what journalism should be. It’s not just about giving people entertainment; its main role is to inform the public about what is going on around them and in the wider world, even if it’s a subject that doesn’t directly affect them. This has always been my approach.
Before Brexit I would also have said the press in France was more political. I think this reflects the fact that on the whole French people are more political. There is an old and persistent view in Britain that one shouldn’t really talk about religion and politics for example at the dinner table, that it is somehow impolite or that it might lead to violent disagreements and conflict. In France, it is almost impossible to have a meal with friends without having a political conversation. Everyone here talks about politics. People are happy to argue and share their ideas. I enjoy this aspect of the French culture and find it sometimes frustrating when I go back to the UK as political issues are seldom discussed. France has changed me in this sense. I am quite capable of changing my opinions and I think that it is very important to be open for discussion, listen to other people’s views even if, especially if, you don’t agree with them.
I am very much a news reporter and a news features writer first and foremost. I try to stick to facts in my articles although I’m sometimes asked to write a comment piece. When I first came to France I felt there was a blurring of fact and comment in French news, that the lines were often unclear and I found this accepted as a perfectly normal and acceptable approach when I spoke to French journalism students. I was told this idea of balance and keeping one’s opinions out of news reports was “very British”. Now, we see this increasingly in the British press, which has become very political and partisan. Most newspapers in both countries have a political affiliation that is clear and that guides the news agenda. I think Brexit has shown the influence of the right-wing press in Britain. I’m not sure French papers have the same influence.
Many people in France and in the UK believe that sections of the British media have poisoned the British view of the French. Do you think this is true?
I do believe sections of the British press – specifically papers with right-wing agendas – have poisoned and continue to poison public attitudes towards France, and more widely, Europe. It is my opinion that you can divide Britain broadly into two: the older generation which harks back to the second world war and whose attitudes are formed by a certain nostalgia for what they feel Britain’s place was in the world and its power and influence who tend towards Euroscepticism and antipathy towards France, and members of the younger generation who feel they are citizens of a wider world with all the opportunities that Europe offers. Bizarrely, there are a number of people in the first group who live in France, who love living in France, but who are still Eurosceptic. I find this very puzzling!
Has the French media poisoned the French view of the British?
They don’t seem to have that kind of agenda. They may make fun of the British, but I don’t think the French press operates in that way. As I said before, they do not have what we would consider tabloids. The papers have a political agenda but it is mostly a domestic political agenda.
How did the British media treat Brexit?
There was a lack of facts in large parts media during the Brexit campaign. The pre-referendum message on the Vote Leave battle bus implying the £350 million a week sent to the EU would “fund our NHS instead” was one of the claims that helped swing the UK to Brexit; nevertheless as we know it was a complete lie. The campaign was mired by the misuse of statistics. For instance, Welsh farmers who voted to leave for some inexplicable reason did not comprehend the fact that this would mean losing subsidies and so on. It was a very close vote and I don’t think Brexit would have happened if people had been given more balanced reports and facts. I am not dismissing outright those who voted for Brexit for what they considered genuine reasons, including feelings that the EU needed reform but was unreformable, or even the idea of repatriating some kind of sovereignty, however misguided I think this is, but many people voted for Brexit on the basis of misinformation and disinformation.
I find it frustrating that there is another group of people who voted for Brexit knowing the leave campaign was based on false information and didn’t care, because how they felt was more important than facts. This idea that someone’s feelings carry as much weight as facts is a worrying one. I hear people say that Brexit was a democratic vote and we have to accept the result, but how democratic is a vote based on false information?
There is a great difference between French and British attitudes towards the European Union obviously based on different histories. Most French people were completely baffled after the Brexit vote. They felt the UK was deliberately harming itself. I also think they felt a little hurt that Britain wanted to walk out and slam the door. Despite the historical antipathy between our two countries, I think the French people admire and respect the British – far more than the British do the French. In my opinion, the French also have this idea of European solidarity and community that the British don’t have. The British have had an attitude towards Europe that has been largely based on the question “what can we get from it?”. A historian I interviewed the other day said that since the Reagan and Thatcher years there has been an ongoing sense that there is more stress on the individual and ego than society. A lot of British hoped that by leaving, the whole European house of cards would collapse. Whilst we have seen a bit of this with the rise of far-right parties in mainstream European politics, I firmly believe that Brexit will diminish the United Kingdom’s influence outside the bloc and narrow its horizons. Great Britain may soon shrink into a Little England.
You have worked for many newspapers. Have you ever felt the pressure to stick to a certain editorial line?
I’ve worked for papers across the political spectrum but mostly covering news, so there has been less pressure to follow an editorial line. I feel it’s important that news reporters stick to facts. It is obvious that nothing that a journalist writers can ever be totally objective because even your choice of words can convey a certain disposition, but words have a weight and I try hard to choose them carefully. I think it is essential for journalists (apart from those writing comment pieces or op-eds) to be absolutely impartial in their reports.
Can you recall a particular time when you felt a strong urge to express your opinion but couldn’t?
I can recall a few. One time in Bosnia my colleague – a female photographer- and I persuaded a well-known head of the British Army in Bosnia, Colonel Bob Stewart, to allow us to accompany his troops. When you work for the Sunday newspaper, you need to try and cover stories that have not already been told by your daily colleagues. At the time, certain editors thought the British public was questioning the role and involvement of the British Forces in Yugoslavia. We thought it would be interesting to describe what those forces were doing and report the soldier’s thoughts on whether they should be there. We spent a week with the troops and they were fantastic. Most of the soldiers were young lads, some very young. We went out on patrols to where the British troops were dispatched including to the scene of a massacre. I wrote a reportage of our week with the British troops and the photographer and I spend all night sending it to the Mail on Sunday. The next morning, I phoned the Editor using the BBC reporter’s satellite phone from the middle of a field. The Editor said the copy was “ok” but what he really wanted was a piece on “how the Yugoslav war was not worth the life of a single British soldier”. I disputed this. I said it wasn’t just my view but the view of the soldiers actually serving in Bosnia, being shot at, threatened, intimidated. He asked if I would write a piece saying it wasn’t worth a single British life. I said no. He asked if he could write the piece with my name on it. I said no. He slammed the phone down and the people in the newsroom hear him say “Willsher’s gone f***ing native”, meaning I had got too involved in the conflict. In the end, he published a three paragraph picture caption of our entire week with the British troops, which was, in fact, an exclusive. I was very upset, not for myself, but because I felt that I had let all the people whom I had interviewed down, including the soldiers. The Editor ordered me to return to London. Three weeks later, I received a letter signed by some of the local commanders, the soldiers I had been with and some of my press colleagues in Bosnia thanking me for not writing the piece the Editor had wanted. Back in the news room, I wasn’t given a good assignment for weeks.
Is this the most memorable article you have ever written?
There are many. The most memorable articles I have ever written have concerned human suffering: acid attack victims in Bangladesh, the dead and dispossessed of Bosnia, the women of Afghanistan, the victims of Chernobyl… Human stories that make me realise we are all the same, we all have the same dreams and hopes, the same fears and should have the same rights. One thing I have learned is that we have to use individual stories to tell a wider picture, to make people relate to events on a personal level. If we can do that, we can make them engage in the story.
Croatia and Bosnia were really frustrating. The war in Yugoslavia in itself was extremely infuriating. I was very interested in writing about how this war was affecting people like you and me. As I mentioned earlier, the British public struggled to understand the complicated situation that was occurring in former Yugoslavia. I remember my mother saying to me that she could never understand what was going on in that war. She then saw a television report of some old ladies carrying their whole belongings in two shopping bags. These women were victims of ethnic cleansing and had been forcedly dispossessed of their homes; removed and expelled from their homeland. My mother looked around the house and found herself wondering what she would carry with her in two bags if she had to suddenly leave. That was the whole point for me; to make people relate to these situations of extreme injustice in the hope that by doing so they might change things. Yugoslavia was almost a disconnect for me. I would write articles and politicians would say that the press were exaggerating the war. We were not. Someone once said that journalism is the first draft of history and I can say that I was there and it was absolutely as bad as we described and wrote. When I used to go back to London from assignment I was so boring. All I did was talk about what I had seen. In those days, foreign correspondents didn’t get counselling and we never spoke about PTSD. We just had to get on with it. I would come back home and I couldn’t make sense of the things I had witnessed. I used to tell people to imagine how it would feel to be suddenly forced to go in war with your own neighbours. Religion and ethnicity coerced people who had lived together for many years to do the most unspeakably atrocious things to each other. It was utterly barbaric. I was very troubled by what I saw. I have a humanist approach to the reporting of such things.
Can you describe a few of these articles?
I wrote an article about the “Hanging Woman in Bosnia”. A picture of this woman hanging in a forest was published on the front pages across the world soon after the fall of Srebrenica on 11 July, 1995, and became a symbol of suffering. In these articles, she was simply referred to as the “Hanging Woman”. I thought it was important to find out who she was to humanise her story. To say she wasn’t “The Hanging Woman”, she was whoever she was. I read a recent story of a journalist who had spoken to her children and they remembered us as American journalists. This recent article credited the New York Times, but it was actually us who found her, the photographer I was working with and myself. We found her family and we told her story. She was called Ferida Osmanovic. We told the story of her children who were now orphaned because their father had been taken away and shot along with the other men and boys of Srebrenica. He was one of the more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys who had been killed in the only legally proven case of genocide on European soil since the Second World War. I can’t imagine how desperate she must have been to hang herself. This story was very important to me.
Another story that affected me heavily was when I went to Bangladesh in 2002 to report on acid attacks against women and girls. In Bangladesh, females belong first to their fathers and then to their husbands. They are viewed as goods, chattels… So if a man, a father, a husband, a brother seeks to settle a dispute with another man, he will try to damage his goods, so he will go and throw acid in the face of the man’s wife, or daughter, or female relative. A British doctor was doing plastic surgeries for acid attack victims. I can honestly say I have never met such brave women in my life. Their lives had been completely destroyed and yet they carried on. Most were uneducated women but they taught me such immensely powerful things about strength of character. The photographer took photos and some of the women gave us photos of how they had looked before the acid attacks. I cannot even begin to describe what battery acid does to human flesh, but it simply melts it. But when I returned to Europe and tried to place the article nobody wanted it. The photographs were, they said, too graphic. I couldn’t let this drop. I felt a sense of responsibility to highlight these women’s’ ordeals having persuaded them to speak to me. Finally, the Sunday Mirror, a Sunday tabloid newspaper published the story with pictures on their front page. Afterwards, the Editor of the paper told me they had sold fewer copies than usual that week because people were put off by the photos… but she said she did not regret using the story in the front page.
Most stories need to have some sort of continuum or raison d’être as the French would say. They have a past, a present and a future. There’s no point in voyeuristic journalism (“oh, look how awful this is…”). As a journalist you have to have a sense of purpose, that what you are doing might help, might change things. We helped a charity organise money to pay for doctors to operate on these victims. If you make enough fuss and protest about a certain thing with resilience, you can make people react. I don’t mean to sound pompous, but I still believe that journalists should try to change the world. Sometimes a story can have a reaction, like the story and picture of the lifeless body of a three year-old Syrian boy on a beach in Turkey. Sadly, it is becoming harder to get people to engage. People used to say that “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip papers”, but in the digital age we have to aim higher than that.
How can you convey such powerful stories though the use of words?
You do. You simply do. One of the most impressive books I have ever read is a book about the Holocaust: “If This is a Man” by Primo Levi. There is a lot of description of the concentration camps and the way the author wrote his book was very journalistic. He does not use a lot of adjectives and adverbs. He simply describes what happened. I think that’s the important thing here: to describe what you have seen. If you’ve witnessed something and that certain something has profoundly touched and affected you as a human being, you can convey it to other sentient human beings through the use of words.
Nonetheless, there are human aspects of these stories that never make it to the newspapers. Often when I went on stories in countries where people had so little I would find the most astonishing generosity and hospitality. People who had very little would give us almost all they had. We experienced innumerable human actions, filled with empathy and hospitality. These people would be total strangers, but we could connect with them. These human interactions made me realise that we are basically all the same. We all have the same dreams, hopes and fears. We all worry about our families and our children, our friends and loved ones. People talk about refugees and migrants as if they are an alien species, but nobody decides to get in the back of a lorry and travel half the world to get to Britain unless they are truly desperate and if we were truly desperate as they are, we would do exactly the same.
Journalism means I have had the sincere privilege of meeting some amazing people. They are people you will have never heard of and never will, but they were still amazing human beings and I hope whatever I have done in my career, I have at least allowed some of their voices to be heard. Sometimes, when I hear people talking about ‘foreigners’ and ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’, I’d like to transport people to these situations and say: “Ok, what would you do?”. I guess that’s what journalism is about, transporting people to the story conveyed…
To what extent can these articles affect public opinion and invite social change and engagement?
I guess it depends on the individual. Some people are open, others are not. If a country is suffering from economic recession and hardship, citizens tend to be less open to understanding situations elsewhere. This is the case with the current global refugee crisis. The UK has a very self-interested attitude. Attitudes towards allowing refugees into Great Britain have hardened. I don’t agree with this. Not everything political has to be about self-interest. I feel that most people have descended from refugees or have been refugees at some point. When I speak to people I ask them to make an effort to try to understand the situation, to put themselves in the shoes of these people, to have empathy with them. These people are often fleeing wars and have been forced to leave their homes and their countries because they have no other choice and fear for their own life or safety or that of their family. They are not trying to invade our country. They are people like you and me. Likewise, I also urge people to think about economic refugees. People living in the direst poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. Anyone would take the rational opportunity to move elsewhere if they knew that by doing so they could do better for their family and themselves. I don’t want to sound naïve. I am realistic and I know that the solutions are not simple, but solutions have to be found and they have to be humanist. I do believe that Western countries and economically developed countries can do much more to make life elsewhere more acceptable, civilized and dignified in terms of water, food, healthcare, and so on. We should send more humanitarian aid to the countries where people are fleeing from. This is the kind of action that journalism should entice; the idea that we are a global community with global responsibilities.
What advice would you give to a young Brit or French looking to pursue a successful journalism career?
Journalism is hard right now. The whole “fake news” business has been a blight on journalism, making it difficult for people to separate the truth from the lies. My advice to anyone wanting to be a journalist, a reporter, a news writer is be true to yourself and never give up. Keep writing. Freelance if you can’t find a staff job. Talk to everybody and anybody. Be curious. Listen to people. Everyone has a story. You just have to find it. Not all stories can make a newspaper story but every single person has something interesting in them, which they can share and which you can learn about. Be interested in the world around you.
Interviewed by Eugenia Esteva Vegas
Franco-British Portrait Gallery