Christiane Amanpour: 'We are journalists, not politicians'
When CNN war reporter Christiane Amanpour addresses today's Women of the Year lunch, guests may find her as steely off camera as she is on. But, she tells Cassandra Jardine, she does have a frivolous side
Guests at today's Women of the Year lunch need not expect their keynote speaker, Christiane Amanpour, to be a barrel of laughs. "I don't do jokes. Or anecdotes," she says, staring straight at me, as if speaking to camera.
CNN's chief international correspondent is scary. As an interviewer she has crumpled presidents and generals; as an interviewee she's scarcely meeker. It's partly her steady, dark brown gaze that's so daunting, partly the very deliberate way she speaks So As To Make Herself Absolutely Clear.
Combined with her reputation for lack of bias, fearlessness and accuracy, these attributes have made her, at 49, reputedly the highest-paid reporter in the world.
For the first half of our conversation, neither her words nor her manner give me any reason to suppose that she isn't spot-on about her own lack of humour and lightness. I had been told that she would be talking about women in war at today's lunch.
"Why are you telling me what my topic is?" she demands in a tone that an actress playing Lady Macbeth would do well to study. I feel almost glad that a press officer is present; perhaps she will protect me, rather than her charge.
But this high-level severity sits strangely with some aspects of Amanpour, who is wearing white trousers and a fluffy jumper over a T-shirt decorated with a row of hearts.
She also has a deep, sexy voice – though that could, of course, just be the luck of the genetic draw from her Iranian father and English mother. Also, while she talks in an English accent, larded with American expressions such as "You know what?", she plays around with her glasses in an almost kittenish manner.
We are in her office at CNN London, a tiny cubbyhole lined with awards to which, next week, will be added the CBE she collects from the Queen. She's "thrilled" with the honour, which is a long-awaited acknowledgement of her Britishness, despite the fact she is employed by an American broadcaster.
Amanpour believes she's the first female journalist to get such a high award – Kate Adie having got an OBE – but she's not absolutely sure. "You'll have to do your research," she instructs me. Yes, Miss.
Finding some time with her has been tricky because she's often travelling. Now that she has a husband, James Rubin, and a seven-year-old son, Darius, she's less enthusiastic about collecting unexploded shells to add to the souvenir from Sarajevo that serves as a vase in her London home, but she's still CNN's chief international correspondent and that means jumping on and off planes.
These days she makes documentaries rather than news bulletins, preferably in the hottest trouble spots around the world.
Ideally, she would have been in Burma this month, if she had been able to get in and if events there hadn't overtaken her plans. Instead, she has just returned from Russia, where she is making a programme about the Putin years.
"Last Sunday was the first anniversary of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya," she says. "Freedom of the press there has taken several strides backwards."
No doubt that contributed to her wish to raise the awareness of today's audience on that topic. "My subject is freedom of the press and reporting in war. There's so much silliness about that I think people will appreciate some seriousness.
"People think that to be patriotic you have to report in a certain way," she explains.
"The threat comes not just in undemocratic countries but in democratic countries too. It is especially so in the US, but this tsunami of politicised news is increasingly creeping across the Atlantic. That is something we have to resist. We need to remember that we are journalists, not politicians: we are the eyes and ears of the public, who trust us to bring back as honest a version as possible."
I must admit that my mind wanders a little as she lectures. Although I stand in danger of falling into the slough of "silliness", what really interests me is the breaking news in her life.
In January, Amanpour will leave London for New York after a decade here, not counting her years at Catholic boarding schools in Buckinghamshire and Essex. The reason she gives is that her husband, "Jamie", wants to go "home" – but his timing is interesting.
James Rubin was assistant secretary of state to President Clinton. He has spent the Democrat wilderness years in London writing, lecturing and broadcasting about foreign affairs – but with the party gearing up for the 2008 election, the summons must have come to serve another Clinton. "Obviously, in a presidential season, it's important for him to provide a service to his party," his wife states carefully, "whoever the candidate may be."
Her statement glides over two interesting problems. The first is that one of Amanpour's greatest journalistic coups was to embarrass Bill Clinton when she asked him live on air why there had been so many American policy "flip-flops" on Bosnia. Have they kissed and made up? I'm glad I asked. Telling this tale – the first of a string of, dare I say it, anecdotes – a more than professional smile finally lightens up her face.
"It was October 1994 and he was giving his pre-election foreign policy address live from CNN headquarters in Atlanta," she begins. "CNN had asked a number of foreign correspondents to question Clinton from around the world. I was in Sarajevo. As I asked him why the US had been so slow to act, my face was huge on this wall of TV screens behind him. There's this picture of him looking tiny beneath them. He went red; Ted Turner and the other CNN people went white, as he replied: 'There have been no flip-flops, madam.' He was very angry."
Thereafter, Amanpour was addressed as "madam" wherever she went, while the "flip-flop" bit stuck to Clinton. He must have wanted revenge. She gives a throaty laugh and continues.
"Two years later, one of Clinton's aides invited me to a dinner at the White House in honour of Mary Robinson, then the President of Ireland. I was hesitant, but everyone said I ought to go. When my date came to pick me up in my finery, it turned out that he wasn't aware of the scandal. 'Ohmigod,' I said.
"But Clinton did a classic Clinton. When I was introduced, he said: 'We've had our first encounter." He was very gracious, full of smiles. That's what makes Clinton who he is: he has that ability to rise above what he might see as pettiness. Then he said: "Some people thought that I shouldn't have you here, but I said you questioned me on the issues not on scandals." I thought that was very big of him. It's something I treasure." With that, she reaches behind her for a photograph of the pair of them that night grinning determinedly.
So now she's best buddies with the Clintons? She gives a brief answer, then begs me not to go there. What about freedom of the press, Christiane? Suffice it to say, she's interviewed both Clintons since. Besides, it's irrelevant, she explains, resuming Slow, Clear mode, for this is the other interesting problem. One might suppose that a key politician and a top journalist sharing a bed would make for a certain bias.
"We've been through that test and we've proved that it is possible to be independent. I started going out with Jamie when he was an assistant secretary of state for public affairs. And there was not one serious, legitimate query raised. First of all, I don't cover the policymakers. Secondly, my husband in his then incarnation would only tell me the stuff he told other journalists. I got no more and no less."
Not even off the record?
"You know what? I was too embarrassed to push and ask. I thought it was wrong."
She's not so wary with foreign politicians. In 2002 she asked the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, whether he couldn't do more to stop suicide bombings. He screamed: "You are talking to General Arafat", and put the phone down. Two years ago, she enraged Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when she began a question about his country's nuclear plans: "Do you understand that…" He found it rude.
Mostly she gets away with blunt talk. Because she's a woman? "It definitely works in my favour. I can't think of a time when it hasn't. I got one of the first interviews with the Taliban, back in 1996, even though they didn't talk to women and they didn't condone television. I had to do the interview with the camera focusing on a bowl of plastic flowers on the coffee table with this guy not looking at me."
Amanpour is so cheery talking about golden career moments that soon she's showing me a picture of Darius. When she's in London, she likes to be an attentive mother, so tonight she's picking him up from football. She's going to miss friends and family in London where most of her relatives have lived since they left Teheran, largely dispossessed, after the 1979 Islamic revolution. But America is her third home: she went to college in Rhode Island, graduating summa cum laude in journalism.
Soon after, in 1983, she joined the fledgling Cable News Network, where she distinguished herself covering the first Gulf war. As the long?reigning deity, she's the reporter who gets the best stories and enough time on camera to give more than a superficial view of events.
"It's taken me 24 years to get to this position," she reminds me. If that has meant emphasising her serious side, it's not all there is to her.
"I have a very frivolous side which I exercise liberally," she says. "People imagine that I relax by practising in the backyard with my Kalashnikov, but I absolutely don't do that. I do all the normal things – I see friends, family, theatre, movies. I love to laugh. Really."
What's the last thing that made her crease up? She gives an extremely dirty laugh, then says huskily: "A text from my husband. I won't show it to you, but my reply was LOL."
So she can do jokes and anecdotes, but not when she has a serious point to put across.
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