the gentlewoman

The Calling

Chances are you’ve heard the name Clarissa Ward and seen the five-foot-10 Londoner in fatigues on CNN broadcasting from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan in her precise, mid-Atlantic timbre. But you may not necessarily have connected the two – and the 40-year-old multi-award-winning journalist is fine with that. When you’ve been in warzones or embedded with the Taliban, as Clarissa has, you don’t sweat the small stuff. Here, CNN’s chief international correspondent reports on how she found her calling.

Clarissa Ward

Richard: When you’re asked, what do you say you do for a living?

Clarissa: I like to keep it broad, so I usually say I’m a journalist; sometimes I will say I’m a conflict reporter. I tend to avoid the term “war correspondent” – it’s become a little clichéd. Also I’ve lived in Russia and China, covering things that weren’t about war, but war seems to be what people are most interested in hearing about.

R: Being on CNN means a lot of people see your work.

C: Well, I think within my field most people know me. When I’m recognised in the street, it’s like, “Oh, you’re the blond chick who wears an abaya and goes to Syria,” though they never remember my name.

R: How do you start your day?

C: There’s a ritual of coffee in bed with my two-year-old son and my husband, reading our newspapers online, which run the gamut. The New York Times is my first stop, but I’ll also look at the BBC, The Guardian and The Times. At the weekend it’s the Financial Times and I also have a subscription to The Economist. Obviously, a big part of my job is to be informed, but as a television reporter you’re always digging around to see what else can be plucked and plundered and turned into good television.

R: Why did you choose television journalism?

C: It’s a funny one – I think the collaborative nature of it appealed to me. I’m an only child and while I had a very privileged upbringing in London, I was always a bit lonely as a kid. Then when I went to Yale in 1998 to study Russian literature, I spent a lot of time on my own in the library at night, crashing a 20-page paper on Pushkin or whoever – it was always last minute. I found those evenings so solitary and I hated working in that way. Now, I love being in the editing suite with two or three people, hashing things out, arguing about what looks best. I really feed off collaboration.

R: How many people are on your team?

C: It varies from story to story, but I like to keep it tight. Working in a huge team can get a little chaotic. I have a producer, Salma Abdelaziz, who I work with all the time. We’ve done a lot of undercover stories together. We embedded with the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2018 and we also went into the rebel areas of Syria in 2012 when no other Western journalists were able to.

R: Stop there – I find the logistics of this compelling. How do you go about actually doing that?

C: Ha! It’s challenging but I do become fixated on getting into places other people can’t. On a practical level, you’re always going to work with cameramen on the ground, local drivers, translators and sometimes a security consultant. Local fixers are critical in pulling it all together. So, for example, take the Taliban story: I approached this filmmaker, Najibullah Quraishi, who had done work for Channel 4 and PBS in the US and who had awesome access to the Taliban. With his help, over four months of back and forth, we eventually cracked it. Honestly, it was harder to persuade CNN to agree to it than it was the Taliban. Also, I think being a woman has allowed me to get into places – at a checkpoint people don’t suspect you, dressed in an abaya, to be a Western journalist.

R: You must have a hefty life insurance premium?

C: That’s something CNN takes care of. From the outside these stories look riskier than they are, which isn’t to say that they’re not dangerous. But when I say I’m a scaredy-cat, I really mean it. I don’t like being shot at. I don’t chase danger.

R: How do you manage in those situations, then?

C: Fear affects people differently. I get very quiet and become focused on whatever the mission is at hand, which is usually, How do I get out of here with my team safely? The problem can be other people panicking: flapping, not thinking clearly, starting to make mistakes and drawing too much attention to themselves. You can’t do this job if you’re a panicker or flapper.

R: After all that, how do you return to life at home in London?

C: There’s no pressure on me to go straight back into the office after spending 10 days in Syria, sleeping on the floor and eating one meal a day! You can’t do this kind of work if you don’t take breaks. Self-care is important: I do yoga, I work out, take an extra hour in bed, walk the dog, drink too much wine sometimes. My husband isn’t a journalist and neither are any of my friends, so I spend time with them, and my son.

R: Is counselling recommended in your line of work?

C: Yes, it’s essential in this job to be regularly checking in with someone, even if you don’t think you need it. I’ve struggled in the past, particularly when I was covering Syria. Because the more you give to a story, the better your work becomes, right? But then you’re carrying around reservoirs of shit. It’s not like in the movies, where they have bad dreams and cry a lot; it’s more like you come home and feel a bit detached, you’re really cranky. I remember after a particularly intense trip to Iraq arguing with my mother when we were planning my wedding. I was running down the stairs at home to shout at her and I twisted my ankle and fell. I was lying at the bottom of the stairs, crying, with my mother standing over me, hands on her hips, saying, “I don’t think this is about your ankle.”

R: Does that story make it into your memoir, On All Fronts?

C: I was surprised by how much I enjoyed writing that book. Sure, some parts were difficult to relive, but there’s humour in there. At the end of the day, it’s also about universal experiences like having crappy boyfriends, a crazy family and navigating a man’s world. It contains very human moments, like when I spent a night with these Taliban women and they had never used moisturiser before – we were rubbing it into their cheeks.

R: Do you think the book will be adapted into a film?

C: It probably would lend itself quite well to a Netflix series. I gather that films about female journalists don’t always perform well at the box office.

April 2020. Interview by Richard O’Mahony. Portrait by Brigitte Lacombe. On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist will be published by Penguin Random House in September 2020.