Christiane Amanpour talks storytelling and Syria

Stevie Hertz 23 January 2016

This is, perhaps, an interesting position for the journalist Christiane Amanpour; as she is keen to remind me, she is first and foremost a reporter, and doesn’t consider herself an anchor or a great story. But when she spoke at the Cambridge Union Society, that is exactly what she became. Despite her apparent reserve, with decades of international reporting experience and opinions, this is a role she slips into easily.

Indeed, for decades Amanpour has been unabashed in insisting that journalists must always be some part of the stories that they are telling; that, when reporting on atrocities, they have a responsibility not to be neutral, but to report the truth.

She is universal in her application of this justice, correcting my use of the ‘migrant’ crisis to use the term refugees. With a certain resolve, she insists it is “a legal term and one has an obligation to help them, particularly if they’re fleeing grave human rights violations and war.”

Indeed, Amanpour seems to be in mourning for a time when journalists had even greater influence over both vocabulary and policy.

“Because information is so diffuse right now, you don’t have that build up, that momentum, that sits on the Prime Minister or the President’s desk every single night and his press people come in or his national security people come in and say ‘'Did you see what was on CNN tonight?'’ or ‘'Did you see what was on the BBC news tonight?’'

She attributes this to a greater variety in news sources, particularly online, which enables leaders to “duck issues much more easily these days, than they were before.” However she is not averse to recognising that online journalism has been “very, very successful” in recent years.

Amanpour draws specifically on the example of Syria: “For four years of this war, they have not wanted to intervene. And it’s only since we’ve had this bottle neck in Syria get so unbearable that tens and hundreds of thousands have been coming and risking their lives and ending up in Europe; that has what’s caused them to care… But they should have been caring two, three years ago.”

I ask her how reporters can keep audiences interested in long term stories such as Syria and, while she admits “it’s hard”, she does have an optimistic viewpoint. 

“It is about story telling… about going there and about telling the stories and finding the unbelievable amout of fascinating stories that exist around every issue.”

She tells me particularly about the highlights of Channel 4 News’ recent coverage of the refugee crisis, including what she calls some “phenomenal” films, applauding them for showing it “through the eyes of individual refugees who’ve suffered so much and escaped such devastating destruction in their own homeland” and in doing so, allowing them their own story