Kate Adie interview: Our own correspondent

She's dodged bullets and bombs in trouble spots around the globe but Kate Adie insists being a war reporter is far from the world's most dangerous job

A SATURDAY afternoon in Croatia in the early 1990s. Kate Adie is one of a group of journalists hunkered down behind a farm wall watching Serb tanks pound a village a short distance away. They are joined by a young, fresh-faced American, eager for a taste of war-reporting action. "Are you guys waiting for someone," he demands, "Or do we just walk in?"

The journalists, now flat on the ground (the firing has intensified and the locals have dug out their AK-47s), inform him that no, under no circumstances are they "going in". Adie smiles at the memory. "In some instances journalists don't pelt forward. You don't have to deal with that danger. You're not forced to confront it."

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That, in a nutshell, she says, is the difference between the war reporter and the soldier. That is the reason why, despite having reported from countless frontlines, she maintains that hers is not a dangerous job.

We find this hard to accept. We watched in our living rooms as she reported the Iranian embassy siege in 1980, crouched behind a car door while grenades went off around her. At Tiananmen Square, she kneed a policeman in the groin, scaled a wall and endured a bullet nick in the arm to deliver her tapes of the massacre. She has a piece of shrapnel in her foot, a souvenir of Sarajevo, and was once held at knifepoint by a psychotic Croatian. ("That was gunpoint," she corrects me, matter-of-factly. "Knifepoint was Bosnia.") Fair enough. It all sounds dangerous to me.

She does concede that there are "moments". "Warzones are dangerous, protests can be violent, also, natural disasters are difficult to cover, so there are going to be risks. But the point is that no editor is going to force you to go and do it. I'd like to meet the editor who does and who would admit it. So you have a choice."

It's a subtle distinction, but the BBC's first lady of the flak jacket is sticking to her guns. In fact, she got so tired of explaining the point that she decided to write a book about people whom she considered did genuinely dangerous work, whose jobs give them no choice. Into Danger: Risking Your Life For Work is based on interviews with bomb disposal experts and hostage negotiators, stunt workers and soldiers, snake venom collectors and food tasters.

We meet in Newcastle, her home turf. She grew up in Sunderland and went to Newcastle University where, with the "gentle desperation" of someone who didn't work hard enough for their A levels, she did Scandinavian Studies. Now 63, she has a businesslike elegance, sweeping through the hotel lobby with the air of a woman with things to do, people to see.

She has the authoritative demeanour of the kind of teacher who gets everyone's homework in on time. When a waiter asks for our drinks order (we are in the hotel bar and might reasonably expect to order something for the privilege of sitting there) she says, "Not just now, thank you," with such authority that the lad scuttles away and doesn't dare trouble us again.

Adie is a notoriously tricky interviewee who guards her privacy ruthlessly. Equally, she can be very good company; personable, funny, frank and thoughtful. She laughs easily and has a tendency to end sentences with a conspiratorial "Mmm". Her book is engaging precisely because we see the people in it through her eyes. Highlights include (reformed) armed robber Bob Cummins who "shared a cell with Reggie", and despite descriptions of violence which left her open-mouthed in horror, turned out to be "something of a charmer".

Then there's stuntwoman Sarah Franzl, who has worked on Titanic and the Harry Potter movies, describing being set on fire: "Your hair's always a huge worry." Stunt women, Adie adds, are comparatively new. "Forty years ago it was a bloke in a wig and a skirt. We've made great strides there. I've been watching old films much more closely now I know that!"

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There are those she clearly admires: Kenya-based conservationist Richard Leakey, who lost his legs in a suspected sabotage incident; Zhao Ming, who was imprisoned and tortured in China for belonging to the Falun Gong movement; Gie Couwenberg, the diver who spent three hours recovering the living – and later the dead – from the capsized ferry Herald of Free Enterprise. He shrugs off the idea of bravery, as does Adie, who uses the word seldom, and the word "cowardice" even less.

But she warmed less to the three lady missionaries from Southern Baptist churches in the US with whom she travelled to Guatemala (they are included in the book because the death toll among fundamentalist missionaries in hostile countries is rising). "Single-minded to the point of closed-mindedness," she says. "Quite difficult to be around. Mmm."

What fascinates her is why people do what they do. She asks every interviewee: "'In the name of what?' – the question 'why?' doesn't get quite the same response." The answers vary: for idealistic reasons; out of loyalty to others; in the pursuit of adventure; because somebody pays me. The armed robber, without the slightest hesitation, answered: "Greed."

"The interesting thing I found is that not one of them paused before they gave an answer," she says. "They came straight out with it, whatever they were doing. I was fascinated by that. That tells you that they've thought very hard about what they do, why they were doing it."

And Adie has thought hard, too, about why she does what she does. It was nothing to do with ambition, she says, or chasing the adrenalin rush. Where's the adrenalin, after all, in lying in a freezing ditch all day while bullets whizz over your head? She describes her arrival at the BBC – Radio Durham – as "accidental", just as she happened to be duty reporter the day the Iranian embassy was besieged.

However accidental it was, she proved to be very good at it. The more tense the situation, the more clarity Adie seemed to bring to it. It was old-school reporting, when facts were more important than emoting. With a mixture of determination and no-nonsense practicality, she made a place for herself in a largely male press corps, gained respect, even admiration.

So, Kate Adie, in the name of what? "Enlightening people. Which is a grander way of saying informing. It's informing, but it's also enlightening them, if you can give them the reasons, not just the facts. I wanted to convey what was happening around people in society, or in another part of the world, so that they would know more about it. It was my job to go and say: 'Look at what's happening over here, it's significant'. And that's the justification, because the more people know of their world – I hope – the more they are aware and take better decisions."

When I ask if she misses the frontlines (she stood down as BBC chief news correspondent in 2003) Adie becomes clipped and terse. She pointedly refuses to engage in debates about the BBC or join the growing ranks of disgruntled hacks complaining at being replaced by younger presenters.

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"There's nothing to miss. It doesn't happen any more, it's been destroyed. Twenty-four hour news delivers people who stand and talk to camera rather than deliver reported packages with their own camera crew where it's happening."

Does this mean news is of poorer quality? "Oh, there would be endless arguments about that and I would not be in a position to judge. It just means it's changed. Television is moving, worldwide, into the entertainment medium – you can see, wherever you go in the world." Is that a good thing or a bad thing? "I don't know, you must ask the audience.

"I have no time for the endless nostalgia: 'Oh gosh I used to . . . ' Life is too short, I don't have any time for sitting and saying I miss things. What's the point? Go and do something else."

So she did. As well as presenting From Our Own Correspondent for Radio 4, she has written books on women and war (Corsets to Camouflage) and foundlings (Nobody's Child). Adie herself was adopted, and traced her birth family in her mid-forties. It is to them she refers when I ask if she ever intends (heaven forbid) to retire. "Nobody in my family takes it easy. No, no, no-no-no-no, we all trundle onwards determinedly. Gallop onwards, basically. Very much so."

Has she ever been in a situation where she thought she might not come out alive? "Well, you don't actually think about it at the time," she says, with jaw-dropping practicality. "On the whole, when the unexpected danger happens to you, you're thinking so fast, you're thinking so hard, every bit of you is alive to 'What should I do?' 'What can I do?' There isn't a lot of time for contemplation."

Yet, she speaks with great insight about fear. "There are a lot of different sorts of fear. You can be just scared. You can be absolutely scared witless. You can be paralysed with fear. You can find that you're so frightened that you'd do anything, anything, to get out of it, and it's NOT an edifying feeling, not in the least. You have to confront it in yourself, you have to acknowledge it. The last person you ever want to go with into a dangerous area is somebody saying: 'Oh, I'll be fine, I don't get frightened.' Mmm."

Adie describes vividly the one occasion she was paralysed by fear, during street battles in Beirut. "It was as simple as crossing a road. It was a very narrow road, there was gunfire coming down it and I had a cassette which was due to be transmitted. I couldn't get across. I couldn't do it. I was just crouched back in a doorway. It would have taken a second to get across, two seconds; I couldn't do it, I was too frightened."

However, she has little time for the assumption that those exposed to war will necessarily be traumatised by their experiences. "There is an expectation, especially in our own society, that people will be traumatised and in a terrible state after a small shock.

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"Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined very specifically by professionals, it's a very serious condition and it occurs to a very small number of people. Most other people go through periods of normal shock, distress or perhaps grieving, and they come out the other side, perfectly normal. What you need is your friends and your family and a cup of tea. Someone who listens. Normal, warm, kind human relations mean a great deal."

Her no-nonsense attitude has likely been shaped by being a "child of the war" (she was born in 1945 and her adoptive parents survived the Sunderland bombings with a Morrison shelter in the dining room). Once, in Beirut, she rang them while American 500-pounders fell on the city, to be told, one suspects in a similarly matter-of-fact way: "We had thousand-pounders in the back garden during the war."

"What I do know is that people produce from within themselves much more in the way of determination and courage than they realise they've got," Adie says. "I've seen it time and again in unexpected places, where people have to do something and they do it – much more than I think we give ourselves credit for, these days." She pauses: "I really do think that real life is very, very interesting." sm

• Into Danger: Risking Your Life for Work by Kate Adie is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced 20. Adie will be in conversation at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Monday 24 November at 1pm; at Waterstones, Perth, Tuesday 25 November at 12:30pm; at Finzean Community Hall, South Deeside, Aberdeenshire, Tuesday 25 Nov at 7pm (tickets from Yeadons Bookshop, Banchory); at Waterstones, Trinity Centre, Aberdeen, Wednesday 26 November at 12:30pm; at the Corn Exchange, Melrose, Wednesday 26 Nov at 7:30pm (tickets from Mainstreet Trading).