If you ask me: Ann Leslie

Made a Dame in December 2006, Ann Leslie has picked up numerous awards during the course of her work at the Daily Mail.

Leslie, who says she got into journalism ‘completely by accident’when persuaded to ‘by somebody in the pub from the Daily Express’during the annual milkround at Oxford University, has among her collection two British Press Awards in recognition of her reporting on wars, conflicts and political stories in around 70 countries.

Feature Writer of the Year in 1981, Leslie picked up the award again in 1989. The citation said that ‘in a year of exceptional and compelling news’she had ‘produced feature writing of exceptional quality and bite in tough and difficult situations”.

Among the major events she has reported on are the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 and Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990.

Currently on a ‘semi-sabbatical’while writing her memoirs, Leslie says she is on 198,000 words and ‘hasn’t left the Seventies yet”.

A Fleet Street columnist at just 22 after her work for the Express in Manchester was spotted by London editor Bob Edwards, Leslie’s career progressed under the patronage of David English, who she first worked for at the Express and describes as ‘the light of my life journalistically”.

After a brief spell covering showbiz having wanted a break from her column, it was English, then foreign editor at the Express, who started sending her on foreign assignments, the first of which she ‘completely blew”.

The ‘macho thugs’on the foreign desk who said ‘a girly’wouldn’t be able to do foreign reporting strengthened her determination.

But she left the Express in 1967, fed up at being refused the job of New York bureau chief because she was a woman and only interviewed the politicians’ wives, never the politicians.

Determined never again to be a ‘taxi in the rank’Leslie went freelance. When English got the editorship of the Daily Mail she refused to go on staff, but has had a contract with the paper ever since.

Leslie, who has one daughter despite being advised that she would never succeed if she had children, says she doesn’t count herself among the journalists who ‘write for each other”.

‘I don’t write for them, but I get the awards, and I’m always thrilled when I get them.”

In Ann Leslie’s own words:

“My first news editor hated me on all sorts of grounds. Firstly, I was a woman; secondly I was posh and went to Oxford; thirdly that I was young; and fourthly I had been hired by Fleet Street.

I got a job as a so-called trainee graduate reporter at the provincial office of the Daily Express in Manchester. It was an absolutely grisly time. I hated it so much. I didn’t know how to do stories, anyway. I had a terrible first news editor, Tom Campbell, who told me I was keeping a good man out of a job.

I wanted to get the hell out of Manchester and when I was 22 I was given a column in Fleet Street. But I hated it. I thought: ‘What the hell do I know about anything?’Now it’s normal, but then it was revolutionary. Everybody liked it, but I knew it was rubbish – although, looking back, maybe no more rubbish than anyone else’s.

Fleet Street had dimly become aware that half of the human race were women, but in Manchester it was completely macho. [Campbell] did everything he could to drive me out. Funnily enough, if he hadn’t been so keen to get rid of me straight off, I wouldn’t have hung on, but it so enraged me that his treatment of me was on the grounds of my gender, a certain kind of iron entered into my soul.

I wasn’t particularly feminist because modern feminism hadn’t got going then, but it made me determined that I would leave on my own terms.

My task was to do the job, get over the prejudices I faced and not weep about it. Everybody has got some kind of hurdle in their lives.

There weren’t a lot of women working in the industry at the time. There were women like Jean Rook – the self-styled first lady of Fleet Street – who would be very horrible to any woman who was coming up, because the idea that you had to help the sisterhood was completely alien.

In a way, I don’t see why you should help the sisterhood anymore than you should help the chaps. I’ve never really liked the idea that because you were born with a particular set of genital arrangements that somehow you had to have something madly in common, or any obligation towards another human with the same arrangements.

You don’t have any obligation to them, but you certainly don’t have an obligation to be nasty to them, which Jean Rook was to me.

I had only just started in Manchester when this huge woman came on the scene wearing a red cloak and a great wig-like medieval helmet. She worked on the Yorkshire Post, which was a very successful, respected regional paper, but it wasn’t a national. When she learned I was working on a national, even though in a provincial office, she descended on me, and was incredibly abusive to me about my age and experience.

By 1981 she was first lady of Fleet Street and I had another ghastly earful from her. The Variety Club of Great Britain was giving out awards for women of the year. I got it for journalism and broadcasting and Jean Rook got it for journalism. Because there was an organisational mix-up, we had to share a room at a rather grand Leeds hotel. She said: ‘I’m very surprised that you’ve won an award.’I said: ‘Why are you surprised?’And she said: ‘Well, you never seem to do much work.’Excuse me!

I’m not a war junkie, never have been.

I’ve specialised in foreign politics and that quite often involves wars, obviously. But there’s a certain type of person who is a war correspondent, which I’m not – somebody who is addicted to danger. I’ve known several war junkies, six of whom were good friends and have been killed. I’m not a hardware person – I couldn’t tell a T74 from a T55 and don’t care. I’m just interested in the politics and, of course, politics is about human stories.

I think the covering of war has changed since more women have gone into it. Although I rather resist the idea that there is a feminine way of covering stories, I think when it comes to war there is. Men have much more of a Top Gear Clarkson-like concern with hardware. Women are more interested in the human stories.

Some of the older foreign correspondents, some of them deceased, said to me they hated the feminisation of war coverage. One old crusty gent said to me: ‘You women feminised all the news.”

There weren’t many women working as foreign correspondents when I started, but now they’re 10 a penny.

If you are an addict, the only way you can keep the high going is to have another shot at it.

When I was doing the liberation war in what was then Rhodesia, before Mugabe’s lot took over, there was a lovely man, Paul Ellman, who worked for The Guardian. Well, he was a ghastly man, but I adored him. After Mugabe came to power and all the killings stopped, he said to me morosely over a large scotch in Harare: ‘This bloody fucking country is becoming normal. It’s so boring, I think I’m leaving.’The next time I saw him was in El Salvador.

It’s not very good for personal relationships, being a foreign correspondent. I keep forgetting when I got married, but it’s apparently 39 years ago. That’s really freaky. Some people say it probably endured because half the time you weren’t there. I suppose we’ve always got something different to talk about.

Another war junkie friend of mine told me yet another relationship had broken up – he told me she was leaving because he regarded her domestic concerns as trivial. He said: ‘The trouble is, I do think they’re trivial.’He couldn’t get his head around domesticity after what he’s been through – interviewing mothers whose children have been raped in front of them, and then going back to her saying the plumber didn’t come again today.

I remember when my husband said to me: ‘We should have a child”. I said no. It is the end of one’s career as a foreign correspondent.

I admired Clare Hollingworth – and she didn’t have children; Martha Gellhorn, who in her 40s adopted an Italian orphan, but it was not a happy experience; and Anne Sharpley, who used to be foreign correspondent for the Evening Standard and was quite legendary in her day. She was like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday – the sharp, wisecracking reporter. She was very good to me. She had numerous affairs – in fact she was rumoured to have had an affair with Lord Beaverbrook, who was 50 years her senior.

When I started doing foreign reporting, she said: ’First, you should sleep with the resident Reuters correspondent and then the chief of police, that’s the way you get stories before everyone else.’I said to her: ‘I’ve seen some of the Reuters correspondents. I’m not going to lay down my body for my career’and she answered: ‘More fool you.”

She then said to me: ’You would be absolutely insane if you were to indulge in having children, because that would be the end of your career.’It wasn’t the end of it – I had one. You can do it, but you do have to have a fantastically supportive husband or partner, which mine is.”

Foreign reporting was 80 per cent logistics and 20 per cent the story. It’s now completely reversed, and that’s bliss.

I adore computers, mobiles, wi-fi, everything like that, because of the number of times I’ve been in danger of not getting the story back simply because of communications problems.

Computers were banned by the unions, but because I wasn’t actually on staff, I got my first computer in 1980, but I had to use it very surreptitiously. I had a little Tandy in the Falklands – a wonderful little machine that used A4 batteries and these rather strange things called acoustic couplers, which you would put over a phone handset.

I got into trouble with the union and was called to meet them. I dressed like a sexy, but possibly silly and harmless woman and was expecting to be in trouble. I went into a room and they said: ‘We hear you have a computer.”

I confessed and they said they secretly had one, too, and asked: ‘Can you show us how they work?’They could see the writing on the wall. People take it for granted, but I still regard it slightly as a miracle.

I was there when the Berlin Wall came down and it was probably the most exciting story I did.

David English had called me in towards the end of October and asked me what I thought was going on in Germany. I said it would either be the Tiananmen solution – gun ’em down – or that, in some way or another, they would get rid of the Wall. I didn’t think there would be a massacre. He said: ’When do you think you can go?”

I said: ’Well I’m a bit busy at the moment, but I’ll try and rejig my diary.’I dawdled a bit because I had other things to do and really didn’t think it would happen so fast. Things happen so slowly in communist countries. At the beginning of November, I went over to Berlin.

I went to a press conference that evening, Thursday 9 November, which I only went to because I wanted to see if my press credentials were working and I wasn’t about to be arrested.

I had been writing for the paper and I was exhausted – so was everyone else. The Berlin politburo boss and the DDR’s minister for propaganda, Günther Schabowski, were giving a press conference that was going to last an hour.

Then at 6:57pm, Schabowski said: ‘This might interest you,’and read out an extremely confusing bureaucratic thing about travel to the west. There was a nice chap from ITN sitting next to me who had been dozing off. I said: ‘I think this is an immense event.’We asked when and Schabowski said ‘immediately”. My fixer and I fled round to Checkpoint Charlie.

You shouldn’t be so arrogant to think that your readers have failed you just because you’re interested in something, and they’re not.

What I really like is starting off on a job that you know perfectly well your readers don’t want to know about. The challenge is to get them to start reading and thinking: ‘I’ll go on reading it”. You know from the reactions you get that they had never heard of this place before, but they think: ’Wow, that was terrific”. It’s partly aspirational – they want to read a paper that credits them with enough nous to want to know and hear about something that might be outside of their immediate comfort zone.”

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