If You Ask Me: Christiane Amanpour

Ask a journalist at what point in their career they knew they had ‘made it’and you realise you’re talking to a big player if she replies it was when people looked at her in horror and asked if her turning up meant they were going to be bombed.

Amanpour, described by Time magazine as the most influential foreign correspondent since Edward R Murrow, earned her reputation working in major conflicts around the globe including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Somalia and Rwanda.

CNN’s highest profile foreign correspondent first came to prominence reporting on the tumultuous events in central Europe during 1989 and 1990. She won particular acclaim for her coverage of the war in the Balkans, receiving a string of awards including a News and Documentary Emmy and two Peabody Awards. Since then the gongs have kept coming – including nine Emmys and the Edward R Murrow Award for distinguished achievement in broadcast journalism.

Having begun her CNN career in 1983 as an assistant on the international assignment desk in Atlanta, Amanpour has also packed in some major interviews with world leaders, including Tony Blair; Mikhail Gorbachev; Mahmoud Abbas, the first Palestinian Prime Minister; Chairman Arafat and ex-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

With striking looks and considerable presence, it would be easy to put Amanpour in the superstar correspondent frame. Half Iranian – her father was forced to leave his homeland with his family after the revolution in 1979 – she speaks with a mix of shrewd intelligence and passion that doesn’t quite fit the mould of a hardened hack.

She talks passionately about her work, about the need to evolve in her career and personally, how doing what she has done for the past 20 years has made her care about the world more, not less.

Married to former Bill Clinton aide turned Sky News international affairs specialist James Rubin with a young son, Amanpour takes fierce pride in her work. She forcefully rejects the critics who suggest she is either too emotional or biased.

She plans to spend more of her time working on documentaries. With people more hungry than ever for information about the world, she is attracted to the idea of having more time to investigate and tell a story. Last year, In the Footsteps of Bin Laden was aired, as was Where Have All the Parents Gone? – a film on the plight of children in Africa that generated $250,000 of fundraising.

Amanpour spent six months working on The War Within, the first of a new long-form investigative series titled CNN: Special Investigations Unit which launches on Saturday. Careful in her criticism of fellow journalists, Amanpour says she sees some signs of a reversal of the ‘self-muzzling’that she spoke out against in 2003, claiming that ‘television and, perhaps, to a certain extent, my station was intimidated by the administration and its foot soldiers at Fox News”. But does she include herself among those journalists who bowed to the ‘climate of fear and self-censorship’and allowed the Bush administration, she says, to equate ‘journalistic investigation with giving comfort to the enemy”?

Amanpour gives a straight ‘no’answer. She cites her investigation into claims by the US government that Iraq had bought aluminium centrifuge tubes to develop nuclear weapons. When Amanpour looked into the story, she discovered that although Iraq admitted to having tried to get the special tubes, it claimed they were to make rockets rather than a nuclear bomb. ‘I did ask the difficult questions,’she concludes.

My general philosophy and style is to try to go beyond the cliché and the stereotype.

Whether it was when I was in Bosnia, Somalia, post 9/11, or in Iraq, wherever it is, I try not to just follow the pack. I get really fascinated by these topics, and I think: ‘There must be another side, something else.’I can’t add to the debate simply by repeating what other people are doing – let me see if there is some different angle, something we haven’t thought about.

I will still be doing breaking news, but doing documentaries is a little bit of a shift in focus.

It is one that I perceive as necessary for me right now, because if I can bring my voice to a different format that’s useful and effective, I really want to do that. More and more the longer narrative is something that is drawing viewers in better than the shorter narrative, or the shorter daily soundbite news, which is still vital on breaking news, but on these big topics that demand another level, I think that’s important.

I strongly believe that certain media platforms – CNN is one of them, and the BBC and Channel 4 – have all put stock in the documentary style and format. We have a role to play today because people are getting more confused and anxious. Viewers want questions answered and they’re hungry for information, not just the snippets that are increasingly part of the daily news diet.

We in television still have an unrivalled capacity to tell stories and bring the compelling sound and pictures of what’s going on around the world.

We’ve been talking for years about the fragmentation of news and of information, that everyone is getting their news from where they want, how and when they want. But I still strongly believe that television provides something different than the internet. Television provides pictures, which the internet thinks it provides, but doesn’t provide as compellingly. Television also provides story-telling, which again the internet does not, because that’s not its function right now.

As human beings and as a human civilisation we have responsibilities.

I’ve always thought both daily news and documentary can make a difference. But I have to distinguish between having an agenda and responsibly using the medium. There are many people today, and it is increasingly popular and fashionable in this highly competitive media world, who have opinions and an agenda. That’s one side of the spectrum that I am not involved in. The only agenda I have is to tell the truth as far as I can find it and as far as it’s objectively possible to determine. And to tell stories that increasingly – because of the competitive and bottom line nature of our business – get told less and less. We can do something to increase awareness in a constructive way about poverty, about disease, about the environment, about religions, extremism and violence.

If I had been a journalist during World War II, would I have said there was an equal position between the Nazis and the Jews?

At different times in history we have different imperatives. Would I have said maybe Hitler had a point? No. I would have said what was going on if I had the ability to do that, as I did in Bosnia.

I don’t believe that it is my role to create a reality. I’m not one of these Bill O’Reillys or whoever who have their own slice of television pie right now. I do something different. I operate in the arena of fact-based journalism. The truth is our business and therefore we have to tell the truth. However, if there is a genocide happening under my nose, which happened in Rwanda and Bosnia, I’m not going to pretend that there are two equal sides to the story. That would not be telling the truth. I’m not going to be neutral when there is no neutrality. There is a big difference between telling the truth and trying to distort or effect or create a truth.

Anybody who has seen my work will know that: a) I’m not biased; b) I’m not over-emotional and c) I don’t have an agenda.

What I do have is a passion and a commitment. My compassion is also growing. I’ve been doing this for a long time, if I don’t evolve with the reality as I see it then I’ll just be doing knee-jerk writing as opposed to journalism. As the opinion-based wing of the business expands, more and more we need people to stay on the objective line. Otherwise who knows what’s real and what’s not? There is opinion, and let people have their opinion, but there is also a very important place for the objective reality.

It’s still the people, stupid.

The internet has created its reality. I don’t know how much further it can go – it’s done what it’s done. The challenge is still on our shoulders, because you can have as many gizmos and as much technology as possible, and that’s all useful and good. But we provide the content, which is something that matters a lot to me.

The notion that you can replace journalism somehow by pure opinion or pure personal insight is fantasy, you can’t. Saddam Hussein got executed, that’s a fact – people were there, they recorded it. Now you can have every blogger in the world writing about it, but if they didn’t see it happen, what are they going to write about?

These people are mostly writing about what we go to find out. I’m not saying that you have to listen to what we’re saying. I’m not saying that we’re God or endowed with some special power, except the power to go there and to see firsthand, listen firsthand and get the interviews firsthand, and to broadcast or somehow transmit them into the public arena. Then everybody else takes it and runs with it. We’re there to do the empirical work.

Anybody who accuses us of being elitist should spend a couple of days with us in Iraq, or Somalia, or Rwanda or Bosnia – and see the slog we go through, see our colleagues who are wounded and see what it takes to be out there.

People who say journalists think they are playing God and go in thinking they are informing the world from an elitist position are not doing what we’re doing. We are going out risking our lives, our sanity, our families and our emotional health to be the eyes and ears of people who can’t and shouldn’t go and do that. If people like us don’t do it, there will be no reality. Fine, let all the bloggers provide their view of what’s going on in the world. Many of them have interesting stories and perspectives. But I don’t believe that they can replace the original true blue journalism. It’s a public service that we provide and I’m very strongly committed to that.

Information is crucial to a functioning democracy, because without it you are truly up the creek without a paddle. We’ve studied, chosen, laboured, done our apprenticeship and we’re out there doing this job.

The biggest cost in this job is losing our friends. The biggest cost is death.

I’ve lost many friends, not just in Iraq, but ever since I started doing this job. Bosnia was the first major danger my generation put themselves into – and it’s gone on for nearly 20 years, living that fear, living that reality. Our friends who have been wounded, who have seen families collapse, people who have put their job first because they are committed to it.

Of course it’s changed me because everything does – your eyes and heart are opened, you are listening, trying to get information. It’s affected my way of looking at the world, my commitment. The more journalism gets a bad name, the more I’m committed to it because I believe that we have a vital role.

For the past five years much of the journalistic community has essentially not been up to the challenge, and it’s only just changing.

Since 9/11 we have had to navigate radical policies, whether it be wars, the increasing erosion of civil liberties – in the US, here and elsewhere – and the increasing clash of civilisations. These are real, massively important areas of debate and investigation. We’ve experienced an incredible shift of world dynamic that we’re only just beginning to get to grips with. Only now are we beginning to realise the severity of what’s happened.

Journalism had gone soft. A couple of years ago I think everybody got their spine back – that coincided with the war in Iraq going south. I think now there is a clarity of vision, about the reality and our responsibility, which is to investigate, ask the hard questions, simply do our job.

The great CBS journalist Fred Friendly said a long time ago: ‘Our job is not to make up anybody’s mind, but to make the agony of decision-making so intense you can only escape by thinking.’That’s an incredibly important quote for us journalists to live by – a wake-up call to those of us who didn’t ask the right questions, didn’t do the correct investigation in the lead-up to the Iraq war. And now the whole world is paying the price.

I think 9/11 was such a legitimately profound shock that it shocked even the press, and this is a cautionary tale. I was helped by the fact that I didn’t live in the US. The journalists were people living in their own country that had been attacked and there was not enough questioning [about Iraq]. Every major news organisation, particularly the newspapers, have reviewed what they did on Iraq, how they reported and how they should and could have done it better. That speaks for itself. That’s where journalism is really incredible because it is accountable and does self-examinations and self-criticism. There aren’t very many CEOs of corporations who do that. That’s an important tick in the plus column.

It costs a huge amount to do international news but it does cost money to produce quality.

There has been a big spike in Iraq of deliberate violence, so it’s very costly in the simple act of travelling, the immense amount of equipment, satellite feeds. But there’s another quote I got from Lidgate’s butchers: ‘There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.”

I don’t think about what people say about me being influential, I’m just doing my job.

I don’t internalise that in any way that affects me at all. I believe that I’m very down to earth and very lucid about what I can and can’t do. I know that CNN is in itself an influential platform and if I can just do my job properly by telling the information and putting it out on something that is as widely viewed as CNN, that is in itself power. But it’s not a personal power, it’s a power because of the medium, the reality, the power of information. But do I think I have a personal power? No.

I have really resisted the pressure to be the glamorous woman journalist.

I’ve never changed, I have the same hairstyle, it’s a little longer, same clothes, same little suitcase, same amount of stuff that I pack. I don’t try to recreate home on the road. I don’t take a huge amount of personal gear. I try to be as uncluttered as possible because it’s so mentally and emotionally cluttered anyway, the things I have to penetrate and do.

Having a child makes being on the road so difficult. The basic thing is that you want to be with your child – that’s every working mother’s dilemma. Then when you add the danger level and the amount of solid time away, that adds a lot of weight on to my shoulders.

I’m not a jaded, cynical, depressed or depressive person, I’m really up.

Part of my decision to do documentaries is to do with having a child, but it’s also about evolving as a person and as a professional. No matter how fascinating it is, you can’t stay in the same groove, because if you get routinised then you’re no good. I’ve constantly tried to explore ways in which I can do the job in as effective and interesting way as I can, and I think documentary is it right now.

Despite everything that I’ve seen, I am concerned for the state of the planet – I am now more than I’ve ever been. But I believe that telling the story still matters. That’s what gets me up in the morning, that is worth everything.

Special Investigations Unit launches on 20 January, and airs every Saturday and Sunday at 5pm on CNN.

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