When Britain finally lowered the flag in the Iraqi city of Basra in 2007, the army’s top brass valiantly claimed that they were leaving it to ‘self-rule’ rather than all-out anarchy. Despite the militiamen in the streets and the mortars in the skies, this was what success looked like in Iraq they told the invited press pack.
Nobody really believed them, of course; but only Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times could actually prove them wrong. Ignoring the ceremony invites, she donned an abaya and went into Basra to report unembedded, the first western correspondent to dare to do so in nearly two years. Her coverage on the 48 women murdered by death squads in the previous six months embarrassed the army’s top general into admitting that he ‘didn’t think it would end this way’.
It embarrassed me too. As chief foreign correspondent on the rival Sunday Telegraph, I too was in Basra at that time. And as Channel 4’s Lindsey Hilsum rather painfully reminds me in her new biography of Colvin, ‘while other British reporters were safely in the airbase watching the lowering of the Union Flag, Marie was inside the lawless city’. For her delighted editors at the Sunday Times, the risk was ‘worth it, as it always would be until something went wrong’.
It finally did go wrong for Colvin in the Syrian city of Homs in 2012 where, once again, the lady with the famous eyepatch had been the lone voice reporting the slaughter. Ironically, her death in a mortar attack made her far more celebrated than she’d ever been in life — not just among fellow women who admired her courage, but among people who’d never normally read the foreign sections.
All of which made me fear, initially, that a 375-page biography might be overdoing it. Most foreign correspondents, after all, have a couple of scrapes and otherwise lead fairly humdrum lives. Not so Colvin who, from Hilsum’s account, does indeed deserve that overused accolade of ‘bearing witness’. The book drags slightly near the start, with rather too much on Marie’s suburban upbringing in Long Island that she longed to escape. But by halfway, I’d already lost count of the number of times she’d only just escaped alive, like the heroine of some improbable action movie.
In Chechnya, in mid-winter, she trekked for eight days across 12,000ft mountains to escape the Russian bombardment, dragging a photographer who begged to be just left to die. In Sri Lanka, she lost her eye in a grenade attack, leaving her with the patch that made such a striking photo by-line. And in East Timor, she refused to leave a UN compound where 1,500 people were besieged by murderous Indonesian militias — knowing it might result in her being slaughtered alongside them, but hoping her reports might shame the government into letting them live. It worked, leaving Colvin to be feted as the trailblazing female war correspondent ‘whose courage saved 1,500 lives’.
In fact, Colvin had limited interest in being the sisterhood’s representative on the front line. Feminists irritated her, she said, by concentrating on her gender rather than her stories. Nor did she agree with the veteran Daily Mail hack Ann Leslie, who reckoned that female war reporting was all about charming militiamen with one’s vulnerability. Try that with a KLA commander when you’ve spent days without a bath.
Still, away from the battlefield, Colvin was more like a bullet-dodging Bridget Jones. Diaries that Hilsum quotes from reveal her as a functioning alcoholic who worried about her weight, was perennially unlucky in love and smoked up to 50 a day (which raised eyebrows even in the Middle East). Husbands and lovers came and went, leaving her private life as chaotic as any warzone, and often less fulfilling.
Indeed, throughout her life, the only men who never really let her down were the likes of Yasser Arafat and Colonel Gaddafi, both of whom became personal confidants. The Libyan leader was an Arab Harvey Weinstein, squeezing her knee during interviews and hinting that he’d like to do rather more. But he still gave her world-beating scoops, as did Arafat, who even let her see him without his famous red keffiyeh on (he was bald).
In writing this richly researched and well-crafted account, Hilsum avoids canonising Saint Marie of Fleet Street. Colvin’s writing, she points out, was sometimes patchy — so much so that in the early days, the newsroom joke was: ‘Marie’s copy’s in, someone call Bletchley Park.’ She missed deadlines, occasionally pitched up drunk, and struggled with PTSD to the point where many believed she should no longer have been on the road.
The advent of the digital age, where much cutting-edge reporting is done via the web, may have made her all the more anxious to prove herself yet again in Homs. Yet while old-school foreign correspondence might have been going out of fashion, it was all Colvin really wanted to do.
Her bosses had offered her the chance to take it easy and do a column. But retiring as a Kate Adie-style grande dame did not appeal, nor did she find the time or focus to write a memoir. That it fell to someone else to do the reporting on her remarkable life story may seem tragic. It is also, perhaps, a measure of just who she was.