On Friday, 14 November, the International Politics Association hosted legendary journalist Christiane Amanpour for a talk in St Andrews. Known for her daring and groundbreaking reporting, Amanpour is a household name whose appearance had the student body buzzing with excitement. Having interviewed some of the world’s most controversial figures from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Muammar Gadhafi, she never shies away from the tough questions; at Friday’s event, the tables turned as she dished the tough answers. Displaying a refreshing amount of transparency rarely seen with public figures of her calibre, Amanpour’s bluntness about media and current events made for a phenomenally captivating affair.
Amanpour serves as the Chief International Correspondent for CNN, the Global Affairs Anchor for ABC, and the host of her own evening interview show Amanpour. Throughout her career, she has acquired countless accolades including every key television journalism award, nine honorary degrees, and a citation as a Commander of the Most Excellence Order of the British Empire bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II. While describing the tireless journey that led to her incredible achievements, Amanpour joked that it was actually due to academic failure she ended up a journalist.
Born and raised in Iran, she attended boarding school in England and had ambitions of becoming a doctor. During her time studying in Europe, the start of the Iranian Revolution threw Amanpour’s once familiar home country into unchartered chaos. After she failed to receive the necessary A-levels to become a medical student, she decided to make a living telling meaningful stories.
As she told the audience, ‘I was told that if you really wanted to accomplish a dream and were willing to work hard for it, the United States was the place to be.’ With her parents’ bank accounts frozen in Iran, Amanpour attended the University of Rhode Island with financial help from her grandmother and great aunt. As she sat before the majority-student audience, she expressed nostalgia for University life, stating that most of the beliefs that underpin her current work were developed during that time.
She landed a job doing graphics for a NBC affiliate, and noted that she benefitted from the kindness of strangers and relentless passion to launch into the realm of reporting. She joined the then-new cable network CNN in 1983, which kickstarted her career as one of the most respected journalists of our time.
Amanpour has followed war and conflict across the globe and has been witness to some of history’s greatest atrocities. While she recognised that reporters can’t be ‘opinion mongers,’ she also noted that journalism comes with responsibilities. ‘If you don’t take a stand for what is right, you become an accomplice,’ she added. Amanpour is no stranger to controversy surrounding her opinions, and has been highly criticised for the strong stances she took against Serbian violence during the Bosnian Civil War and the inadequate Western response to the Syrian conflict.
Amanpour highlighted the necessary accountability that media brings to international crises, but admitted that the power of media is a two-way street. Discussing the lack of a timely international response to the Rwandan genocide, she noted the ignorance-related problems that stem from a lack of media attention, especially on the African continent. ‘We don’t cover Africa,’ Amanpour acknowledged, a fact that contributes to Western-perpetuated stereotypes of Africa as a place of poverty, war, and disease.
When asked about her opinions on the sensationalist reporting CNN was criticised for with coverage of Casey Anthony (an American mother tried but later acquitted for murdering her two-year-old daughter), Amanpour admitted it was ‘rubbish’ initiated by society’s love for scandal. A follow-up question about the network’s excessive coverage of missing flight MH370 elicited an uncharacteristic pause from Amanpour. ‘CNN was having a rough time financially,’ she said. She explained the financial opportunities that accompany news stories with high global interest, candidly admitting that the correlation between ratings and advert revenue is problematic.
The conversation moved onto ‘hashtag activism’, a trend including campaigns like ‘#Kony2012’ and heavily exercised on all social media outlets. Answering a submitted question on the potential dangers of ‘hashtag activism’, Amanpour warned against its fleeting nature. ‘Social media hashtag activism isn’t real activism. Social media is 20 metres wide and a centimetre deep,’ she noted. Amanpour dubbed the perpetuators of this form of activism ‘armchair warriors’ who get excited about a cause for 15 days, and then move onto the next one. To the entertainment of the audience, Amanpour predicted, ‘Hashtag today, semi-colon tomorrow.;
When asked about the growing prevalence of more informal news sites like Buzzfeed and Vice, Amanpour didn’t declare them to be a replacement for traditional news networks, but expressed her bafflement over some of their stories. She referenced Vice’s feature on retired American basketball player Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea, prompting much laughter. ‘Sorry, that’s weird. I have no idea what he was doing. Have some self respect, man.’ Amanpour criticised Rodman for ‘kowtowing’ after a leader known for his blatant violation of human rights.
The talk progressed to more serious discussion about world politics. Admitting she respects very few world leaders, Amanpour expressed her approval for young Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi for his dedication to change and Tunisian leaders who ensured some positive change came out of the Arab Spring. When asked about her opinion on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whom she interviewed in 2005, Amanpour noted his lisp, weak demeanour identified by his weak chin, and the inconsequential nature of his chic wife and social media presence. She said, ‘he is weak and ruthless, and that is the worst combination.’
Amanpour was critical about Western leaders, especially regarding their decisions in the Middle East. She asserted that pulling out of Iraq too soon and the response to the Syrian conflict created a vacuum. In reference to ISIS flourishing in the region, Amanpour said, ‘the vacuum is being filled by the worst of the worst.’
She argued that the world is more violent now than when she first started as a journalist, attributing this to the breakdown in the Middle East that doesn’t fit in any existing frameworks. Throughout her career, Amanpour said she came to recognise the value of intervention, especially when dealing with radical and power-hungry groups like ISIS. ‘If you don’t confront an issue like this as problem, that means you are accepting it, and that isn’t okay.’
She blames the current state and fear of intervention on Bush and Obama’s ‘post-war screw-up.’ Amanpour emphasized that the 2003 Iraq War was won in three weeks, but the ‘aftermath’ led to the current volatile condition of the region. She pointed to the United States Government Accountability Office reports that show trillions of dollars being wasted in the Middle East, admonishing the US’s ‘flagrant disregard to proper policy making.’
Before the conclusion of the talk, an audience member asked Amanpour about the role of women in the media. She exclaimed that she was ‘absolutely obsessed with this topic,’ noting on the gendered inequalities that she still notices. She proudly bragged that many of her most dangerous encounters on the field were faced with all-female teams, and expressed her belief that everyone should be forced to publish their salaries so members of both sexes are shamed into justifying their positions.
She concluded by encouraging anyone who wanted to become a journalist to do so. Stressing the importance of education and dedication, she reminded students not to take themselves too seriously and enjoy their time at University. The IPA event was successfully informative, honest, and fun, the only complaint perhaps being that we didn’t get to pick her brain for longer. The candid talk reinforced why the strong-minded and reputable Christiane Amanpour serves as an inspiration and role model to so many.