The Power of Listening

In 2009, former news editor of the Sunday Times and the Observer Andrew Hogg spoke to journalism students at the City University in London about the treatment of torture victims. Below is the text of his illuminating speech.

(This was originally published on November 13, 2012, in the wake of the London High Court decision allowing three Kenyans to sue the UK government for torture they suffered during the 1950s and 60s Mau Mau revolution.)

The following is an excerpt from Andrew Hogg's recent talk on the treatment of torture victims:

"The essence of all news is conflict. It does not have to be people firing guns at each other. You have all heard the adage that dog bites man is not news, man bites dog is. That is a conflict of ideas. Conflict permeates every column of every newspaper, even if it is simply a column about changing faces in industry it still brings with it an inherent conflict: what is the new person going to do that the old person did not?

The way we as human beings most experience conflict, it is through trauma. And as human beings, generally speaking, [if] we are told that something really ghastly has happened to some person, and we meet that person, our instinct is not to ask them what happened, our instinct is to retreat and to treat them with respect. We are fearful for what demons we might unleash, we are fearful for the hurt we might cause by asking insensitive and inappropriate questions.

But everybody in this room—unless you go straight from this course into Bloomberg’s where you are going to be writing about the future of the oil industry—those of you, and I expect quite a number of you, are going to land up in general newsrooms for at least a period of your life [and] are going to end up fairly quickly with the expectation that you are going to have to talk to people who’ve had fairly ghastly things happen to either of them or to their family…

One of the things…that I'd absolutely, fundamentally underline is the importance of treating people in extremis with the utmost grace and respect. And if you do that people will in many many cases, [be] warm towards you. They will want to share with you the memory of the person they have lost, they will want to share with you details of the circumstances in which they have lost that person. In some cases it is just a desire to share this information; in other cases it is because they want their loved one validated; and you, as a window onto the world, offer them a chance in a sense to present the world with the truth of the person that has been lost. And in some cases…they are going to very much want to talk to you because they are going to want you to tell the world outside what has happened to them, their loved ones or to their community.

I left journalism in a sense some years ago to join an organization called the Freedom From Torture. That organization grew out of Amnesty international. It was set up by a woman called Helen Bamber in the mid-1980’s. Helen had been a caregiver who had gone into Bergen Belsen at the end of World War II. Bergen Belsen was full of people who had nowhere to be sent back to because those who had survived the camp and the cholera and the other epidemics—which carried off people like Anne Frank—those who had survived such horrors…had been expropriated by local people, and those that did go back to find a new life for themselves were murdered for their sins.

And so for two years, Bergen Belsen existed after the war had ended. The surviving inmates moved into what had been the SS barracks. The huts they had lived in and contracted these diseases [in] were burned to the ground. And Helen spent two years there and she took away two really important lessons, two lessons that fundamentally informed the work of the medical foundation. She recognised how quickly sympathy can turn to irritation, because the British who occupied the area where Bergen Belsen was wanted to be rid of these people. They had several thousand people on their hands all clamouring for a future, because the stronger these people got, the more vociferous they became about who [was] actually going to do anything for [them]. And Helen witnessed British troops who initially had been compassion epitomised becoming deeply deeply irritated with the neediness of these people.

And the second lesson… is that Helen recognised the power of listening. She told me time after time [of] people at deaths door, people who did not survive the peace, people so frail that they died within days of Helen’s arrival, but that they in a number of cases would talk to her time and time again and tell her the same story over and over again about what happened when the Nazis arrived in their village. And she recognised that just by merely listening and by paying witness to what they had been through, that she was in a sense performing something that approached a kind of a therapeutic process. I am not suggesting that when you are on your local newspapers and you are going to interview widow and widowers that you are going to be providing some kind of surrogate therapy to them. But what I am trying to tell you is: don't be frightened, don't go and hide in the loo when you are confronted with the request from your news editor.

Because news editors are not going to have the remotest sympathy, because what they want is that story. They are not there taking pace in the face-to-face with the relatives, they are emotionally detached from that entire experience and their needs are therefore completely emotionally detached as well, which means that you come into play actually as a human being.

There is a famous book written by a man called Ed Behr, the British version of it was called, "Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?”… It was an account of his life as a foreign correspondent in the 1950’s and 60’s. And this was apparently a question yelled out to a group of nuns during the Congo rebellion of the early 1960’s. Even in those days, people like Ed Behr thought that it was a tad insensitive. The fact of the matter is this: you stand a far better chance of obtaining the information you want and of not effectively dehumanizing yourself in the process if you follow a few really basic courtesies. They will sound like common sense because I am sure that most of the people in this room would utilize them anywhere in circumstances like this.

But the first one is "be polite." Ask people if it is OK if you ask them questions, don't just walk in all guns blaring and say, "I hear that your child was knocked down on a zebra crossing last week how do you feel?” During the Falklands War, the British public was confronted for the first time in decades with television journalists going and sticking microphones in the faces of the bereaved and it became almost a cause célèbre at the time. People were writing columns because they were so outraged at the insensitivity of journalists just saying, “Oh well you lost your 18 year old son on HMS Sheffield, how do you feel?”…It is not a particularly bright way to get somebody on [your] side or to make them feel comfortable.

Be empathetic. It may be at times that you are dealing with people that you are not remotely in empathy with, but that they have [had] something absolutely awful happen to them and it is your job to try and elicit the material for that that you can.

But it is also not you role [as a] human being not to start to make value judgments. I am thinking particularly of being in the occupied territories some years ago in one of the settlements in Gaza and talking to people who had lost a teenage daughter from a rocket attack over the fence. And those people were very hard line settlers who my heart did not necessarily go out towards but nonetheless I was confronted with a grieving family and that was all that was necessary. I can empathize with a grieving family.

Be wary, particularly when—I am taking it from the microcosmic level of the local newspaper and putting it into the much more global theatre…—there will be times when you approach people who are grieving who have already worked out the political status to be gained from telling you a story as bad as they can possibly make it…I am thinking of going to a refugee camp with a translator across the border in Slovenia and deciding really quite quickly after talking to these two matriarchal women who had presented themselves to us,…that I wasn't comfortable with the ease with which they [were] telling us their stories. I found much more plausible witnesses very quickly. In circumstances like that you will find yourself being used if people have the ability to do so.

Be sensitive, especially over sexual matters…Working for the medical foundation we were dealing with ethnic Albanian women from Kosovo. If their husbands had known that they had been raped by the Serbs, their husbands would have divorced them on the spot. So you are not going to find people necessarily wanting to volunteer information unless…confidentially is absolutely signed, sealed and understood.

There is a gender issue here too. As a news editor, if it were a case of rape, I would automatically ask a woman reporter to go and do the story…I would whenever possible try not to be there [by] myself but to have a woman present at the same time.

Feel your way in an interview. You are in a process of exploration and…you will come up against situations where you sense that the person you are talking to wants to go no further and you have to show them that you understand that. In fact I generally start interviews like that, with the words: “there is absolutely nothing that you have to tell me, tell me only what you want to.” That is the kind of mantra that we stick with.

Talking for a moment about the change that can happen when people are given the opportunity to talk about their experiences,I at the medical foundation have built up a relationship with a number of our clients and I'll just quickly give you a couple of vignettes. There was Chantal, a Tutsi from Rwanda who watched her whole family massacred in front of her…The neighbors had actually brought the Hutu extremists, the Interahamwe, to the door. She was an attractive teenage girl and the troops obviously had other things they wanted to do to her. Which they did for the next few days and they, they took her into the bush and they stood her beside a mass grave and fired a pistol at her and it grazed her forehead, and she fell backwards into the grave.

They assumed that she was dead. She crawled out under the cover of nightfall, lived in the bush for the next few days, ultimately driven by hunger and thirst to the roadside and was found by a passing military patrol and eventually came to the UK under the auspices of the UNHCR. When I first started working at the medical foundation—the medical foundation offers emotional support, medical care and practical assistance mainly these days to asylum seekers.

When I first arrived there all the psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and all the other psychos who were there were extremely suspicious of what a hard-nosed journalists [was] doing [there] as a head of press. My boss actually shared that view as well.

However very soon after I started there the Algerian Civil War really began in earnest—the killings in the triangle of death. And I was introduced to this young Algerian lad whose name was Ahmed. Ahmed's father had been a senior member of the Armed Islamic group who were the most violent of the Islamist organizations. And the cops knew that his father was with this group, and so they hit on a way of torturing the family. They would take Ahmed to the police station for a week or so where he'd be repeatedly raped and then they’d release him and then they'd pick up his younger brother and this went on for a period of months.

So when I first met Ahmed he couldn't make eye contact and he could barely speak above a whisper and I said, “Well look I've been asked by Channel 4 if I can find somebody who can talk about the kind of tortures being perpetrated in Algeria at the moment.” I said, “You won’t be identified, in fact your face won't be shown, but it is an opportunity for you to get your won back if you like, if you so feel.” And Ahmed thought about it and came back and said that he'd do it. So I got him on Channel 4 and I got him on Five Live and I got him a couple of newspapers as well, telling his story.

And about three months later his psychotherapist stood up at a staff meeting and said that Andrew has given Ahmed back his manhood. And I said, “What on earth do you mean?” And she said ever since what happened happened, she has been impotent and he has not had sexual relations with his wife and he has been deeply depressed, etc. But because you have given him this platform that he can fight back from, he has actually become a new man and his wife is now pregnant. And that kind of sort of meant that other people at the medical foundation thought that, well maybe there is a way that we can use this journalist to help our other clients and so I was introduced to Chantal, the Tutsi that I was talking about.

And Chantal had told her therapist that she wanted to tell her story. “She wanted to tell her story.” Her therapist had got it wrong, she wanted to write her story; she didn't want to tell it. I got her into my office and sat her down and spent five minutes just saying to her, look if you want to tell your story these are some of the questions that a journalist will ask you, and within ten minutes she was in a heap and she was utterly inconsolable. And it took me two hours to get her into a sufficient state to send [her] home.

When we worked it out though, what she really meant was that she wanted to be a writer and she wanted to have the story told in the written form and so she was put on a writing therapy course at the medical foundation with very experienced playwrights etc., and ultimately what came out of that was a play called "I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Written by a Young Lady from Rwanda" and that play appeared on the London fringe about three or four years ago and then transferred very successfully to a number of US cities where it is still being performed. If you meet Chantal today, whereas the first time I met [her] she was this broken sparrow, she is now a very assured, a very dignified and a very poised ambassador for the medical foundation."