“Under these circumstances, talking to a Western reporter could be a death sentence. And yet here in Douma, as soon as people saw that I was a journalist, they wanted to tell their story.” Thus begins the extraordinary autobiography of Clarissa Ward, On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist.
Now a much admired CNN chief international correspondent, Ward takes us on a personal journey from internship in Moscow to someone barely dodging bombs in Aleppo. On All Fronts is not a fast paced, adrenaline filled book which romanticises a job that can often take you to some of the worst moments in anyone’s life. It is a reflective and considered look back at a career and life that spans the world. Ward’s career has been one of distinction; she has often chosen to go to places that many others would avoid.
I remember her speech at the UN, where she gave testimony on the conditions in what was then rebel-held East Aleppo as it was being besieged by the Assad regime backed by Russian air strikes in 2016. Her words transcended the norms of her profession and did something more important than journalism as she bore witness on behalf of the Syrians and spoke the truth to those in power.
On All Fronts takes us behind the scenes, so to speak, of what shaped Ward’s drive in her work and is quite emotionally raw in certain places. “Near the end of 2016, as Russian bombs were raining down on Aleppo and the eastern part of the city was about to fall to the regime, I felt a familiar flash of rage and despair. I wrote an email to Ben Rhodes, now Obama’s point man on the Syrian conflict… ‘Dear Ben, Hope you are sleeping well as Aleppo burns. Thank goodness we have the Russians to sort it all out!…’ He never replied.”
As someone who was making films about Aleppo during 2016, I can relate to Ward’s sentiment here. Dealing with people who are stuck in a hopeless situation and seeing the emotional and physical damage done to them, does have an impact on journalists, even if they are in the safety of a foreign land. The emotion that goes into each story is not something that is immediately obvious to the audience, nor should it be, but it is still important for people to acknowledge, especially other journalists as we have a tendency to downplay it. Memoirs like On All Fronts can provide a useful outlet for exploring this side of the job.
The book also touches on issues of gender and the difficult position that women in the media can find themselves in. Ward’s brief stint as a stand-in for Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill being filmed in China opened her eyes to some of the degrading things that women were made to do both on and off set.
Such experiences were not confined to the world of cinema. Even as an established correspondent, Ward has found herself in situations which male reporters probably wouldn’t. On one occasion in Moscow she was invited to a party with Saif Al-Gaddafi, who paid no attention to her at the venue. However, a Russian businessman and friend arranged for her to ride with him and Gaddafi in a limousine after the party. Hoping to question the Libyan dictator’s son about statements he had made during dinner, she soon realised that he had other ideas. “Having barely said a word to me all night, he lunged for me, moaning ‘baby’ as he tried to stick his tongue in my mouth. There was no preamble, no pickup line even, no indication that he had been contemplating making a move.”
She fought him off successfully, despite his many efforts. Nevertheless, this anecdote exposes an unpleasant aspect of their job which many female reporters face. While trying to do her job like any other competent journalist and question a powerful man, she found herself in an entirely unwanted situation. Discussing such incidents openly is important and will hopefully encourage more people to speak out against such things and share similar experiences. On the strength of what Ward has revealed, journalism also needs a #MeToo moment.
What makes On All Fronts such a good read are the people who Ward encounters and the obvious passion she has for telling the world their stories. It is a humane, sincere, honest and reflective look back on a life and a career from which we can expect much more in the coming years. The book does not relate the background to every major story that Ward has covered or been involved in, but it does give you a sense of what being a journalist means to her. Thank you, Clarissa Ward, it certainly has been an education.