'I am vilified for being a woman doing a man's job'

Ridley

 Would she go back into Afghanistan? "Absolutely." Sunday Express chief reporter Yvonne Ridley, released last week after capture by the Taliban, is certain her decision to cross the Pakistan border in disguise was the right one for her.

Attacked by rival newspapers for her foolhardiness, Ridley told Press Gazette: "It was quite obvious the bombing wasn’t going to start for at least two weeks and I’d obviously been in touch with quite a few sources because I do have exceptional military contacts [she was a captain in the Territorial Army, see page 6].

"I thought this would give me a great opportunity to go in."

She had a conversation with her news editor, Jim Murray, who had reservations about her going, she said, then: "We both discussed it with Martin [Townsend, Sunday Express editor]. It was my idea – I wanted to do it.

"If I had thought it was foolish I would never have done it. I am not a brave person. It was very well thought out.

"Is it a crime to be ambitious? I did not want to spend the next two weeks sitting in press conferences being spoon-fed party lines. It’s not my thing. I did riskier things when I was working at The Sunday Times but because I have dared go into a man’s domain – war correspondent – I am vilified.

"I didn’t want to do a cheap stunt and say, ‘Look how clever I am – I’m over the border’. I didn’t want to go in with the Northern Alliance. I wanted to go in and meet ordinary people."

She was 20 minutes away from the border and safety on the way back after a night in Afghanistan when her donkey bolted, her camera fell out from under her burqa and she was discovered.

For the first three days after capture, Ridley said, she was totally isolated with no contact with the outside world and thought she had been forgotten about.

Then the Taliban told her: "You are a high lady. Your top director has come to Islamabad to speak with our ambassador."

Express Newspapers editorial director Paul Ashford’s meeting had a major impact, she said. The embassy gave its word she would be released.

Her two worst moments were at a point soon after her capture when she believed she would be stoned and when the harsh reality of arriving at Kabul prison dawned, after she had been told she would be going home "in just a couple of days".

She has described her defiance towards her Taliban captors in the newspaper, yet she said: "I didn’t think I was brave – the six female aid workers I met were brave and my cousin who died of cancer while I was in prison was tremendously brave."

But she was shocked when she came out to read what other newspapers were saying about her.

"I was expecting some criticism but there was a lot of professional jealousy. It will take more than a poison pen to hurt me but I was particularly dismayed by Sue Carroll’s piece [in The Mirror].

"She said I was ‘too calm’ when I came out. I was in shock. I couldn’t punch the air – there were people left behind in Afghanistan. I couldn’t discuss the two men in prison."

She was also ridiculed for wearing a baseball cap and a Planet Hollywood leather jacket when she arrived at Heathrow. "That was the only jacket I had because I was on my way to New York when I was diverted to Pakistan and the cap was a necessity because my hair was in such a shocking state."

 

She was stung by references to her daughter Daisy being in boarding school – "the implied criticism that I didn’t give a stuff about my daughter. I am a single mother, frequently away from home. She is much happier at boarding school.

"It’s a very sad thing. Journalists used to stick together and congratulate each other and now there seems to be this nasty, back-biting syndrome."

She was sad about the criticism of Townsend as "a showbiz writer". "You could look at a few editors in Fleet Street who came from showbiz backgrounds. While editors have allowed these brickbats to be printed, I’ve had several bouquets from them – including one from Piers [Morgan, Mirror editor]. I am surprised The Mirror hasn’t sent someone in to rescue the donkey."

She is not happy with Christina Lamb’s Sunday Telegraph report. "She bought me dinner the night before I went in. I would be very happy to buy her dinner to find out why she said the things she said."

Of a Mail on Sunday story that a witness said she was arrested at the border before ever setting foot in Aghanistan, she retorted: "Fantasy journalism."

She scorns a Guardian report that boss Richard Desmond paid £2m to get her out. "He would have realised these people would have found such a gesture offensive," she said.

She feels she had all the support she could have asked for from the management of Express Newspapers and that many people worked behind the scenes to pull in favours to get her out. She is thanking them all privately, as she deals with the 80 proposals she has had for books, films and TV appearances.

One thing has pleased her: "The Sunday Express team has really bonded over this – it’s a closer, tighter ship."

What she found particularly emotional on her return was "driving over Blackfriars Bridge and seeing the Express building".

Her next assignment is unlikely to be in foreign fields. The Express is holding her passport and she has been grounded.

By Jean Morgan

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