'Sad indictment' on newspapers: Christina Lamb on 29 years without a female editor

The Sunday Times' award-winning foreign correspondent Christina Lamb discusses being a woman in a warzone, dealing with fear and why you shouldn't buy self-heating cappuccinos.

Christina Lamb: The Sunday Times journalist says she has always answered, ultimately, to a male editor
Christina Lamb: The Sunday Times journalist says she has always answered, ultimately, to a male editor

Christina Lamb has been a foreign correspondent for 29 years.

In that time, she has experienced more than most, including being ambushed in Afghanistan, being bombed in – and expelled from – Pakistan, and interviewing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. She has also received an OBE from the Queen for services to journalism.

But she has never had a female editor.  

"I think this is a really sad indictment on the state of the newspaper industry in this country. I have never had a female news editor or a female foreign editor," she says.

"I would really hate it if I finished my career never having had a female editor, but it is starting to look to me like that is going to be the situation," she adds.

Lamb was talking to Campaign at Wacl’s Gather training event for future female leaders. We were discussing what role gender plays in how stories are covered in the media, as well as the impact of being a woman in often male-dominated environments.

Of course, there have been – and are – female editors of other newspaper sections, and Lamb’s current employer, The Sunday Times, has a female deputy editor. "But the person I am answering directly to – and who decides what goes into the paper – has always been a man," she says.

A skewed lens

The reason the dearth of female editors matters is that, like in adland where a small percentage of the creative department heads are women, it can skew the lens.

That is not to say that men don’t commission stories about women, or can’t produce brilliant ad campaigns that resonate with women, but it’s about the prevailing perspective.

As artist Grayson Perry said in his recent exploration of masculinity in Channel 4 documentary series All Man: "Centuries of male domination has meant that their ideology and bias has been presented to us in the wider society as common sense, as objective rational behaviour, whereas in fact, if we start to unpick it, it’s just as mad as any other construct."

Or as Jan Gooding, Aviva’s group brand director, said on stage earlier in the day at Gather: "I’m disappointed to find that relying on meritocracy doesn’t work, because he who decides what is of merit is in charge."

A woman in a warzone

For Lamb, being a woman in a warzone has been a mixed blessing.

In many of the countries she has worked in, there has been a certain honour towards women. This has meant often getting to ask the first question at a press conference, and has increased the likelihood of securing an interview.

It has also affected the type of stories she has managed to get. When working in countries where women are often in purdah, she is able to access and interview women where her male counterparts are not. 

She adds: "Maybe this isn’t such a good thing to say, but I think a lot of men in those countries don’t take women seriously, so tell you things they really shouldn’t tell you." 

But the downsides include "a lot of sexual harassment – we all have to have very sharp elbows."

She also believes it is getting more dangerous for women – and for male correspondents too – "because we’re targets now in a way that we never were before."

Feel the fear, but get the story anyway

Lamb obviously has a different approach to risk than many others, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t ever get scared. "I don’t believe people who say they don’t get frightened. You’d be mad if you were in these situations and you didn’t feel fear," she says. 

"Sometimes before I go, I think why am I doing this? Once I’m on the plane, I’m already in the mode of thinking about the story," she says. 

But she adds that, unlike the pictures being painted in the media, there are still millions of people in difficult situations getting on with their lives. "You are seeing the kind of sharp end of it, but actually there are an awful lot of people still trying to feed, protect and educate their children. I think that’s a very important part of the story. So you are not necessarily always in danger."

She adds: "The other thing - I always say this to my mother – is that the most dangerous situations I’ve ever been in have generally been where it didn’t look like it was going to be dangerous. It’s very hard to predict. And these days you can be killed in a restaurant in Paris sadly or an airport in Brussels."

Manicures and cappuccinos

One of the key pieces of advice that kept emerging from the Gather conference was that women should be themselves. It’s a phrase that sounds pretty anodyne, but as EasyJet chief executive Carolyn McCall - one of very few female CEOs in the FTSE100 - said at an earlier Wacl event, women shouldn’t feel like they have to "defeminise" to get ahead in business.

Lamb is a good example of doing things her way. Before going in to the warzone to report on the second war in Iraq, she was with a group of male foreign correspondents who were preparing by buying various equipment and gadgets.

Instead of joining them, she went for a manicure. "It was an open, glass manicure place. The guy from The Wall Street Journal walked past and saw me, he couldn’t believe it," she laughs.

Indeed, the piece of equipment she chose to take in with her was self-heating cappuccinos.

Much to her disappointment, they didn’t work. "Never buy them," she advises.