> Zed Book Club / ABC News foreign correspondent Hilary Brown writes about war zones, ‘Reporter’s Atonement’ and life in a flak jacket

Hilary Brown's first journalism job was as a freelancer for CBC Radio in London and Paris, but she moved to Montreal in the late 60s – where she met Leonard Cohen – to host a live CBC television show. Photo: Courtesy of Hilary Brown

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ABC News foreign correspondent Hilary Brown writes about war zones, ‘Reporter’s Atonement’ and life in a flak jacket

In her memoir 'War Tourist,' the Canadian-born TV journalist Hilary Brown covers her ground-breaking career as a female war correspondent, meeting her late husband and finding love again in her seventies / BY Hilary Brown / November 25th, 2021


My tenuous claim to fame is that in 1973 I became the first female foreign correspondent for the American Television network, ABC News. Back then I was a token woman in a man’s world.

For more than 35 years, I reported from trouble spots around the world. I was successively based in London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Rome, Washington and New York. In the 1980s I was back in Canada anchoring the six o’clock news on CBC in Toronto, an experience I came to regard as “death by hairspray.”

In the early 1990s I returned to ABC News for another 18 years to do the work I love best: foreign news reporting. I was 69 when I finally hung up my bulletproof vest in 2009.  At the end of my career, TVO’s  The Agenda with Steve Paikin profiled me as “a trailblazer … one of the greatest foreign correspondents this country has ever produced.” Wonderful praise, but a little embarrassing.

I covered wars, revolution and general mayhem, and for most of the time I absolutely loved it. I covered the fall of Saigon in 1975 and was one of the last reporters to be lifted out of the city by helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy. A clip from one of my reports later appeared in the Oscar-winning film, The Deer Hunter. I think of this as my “15 seconds of fame,” but it was even better! It was actually 17 seconds.

 

Hilary Brown
This clip of Brown, reporting for ABC from the USS Hancock in 1975 after she was one of the last people plucked by helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, was used in the 1978 war drama, The Deer Hunter. Photo: Courtesy of ABC News

 

I covered the Yom Kippur war, the Portuguese Revolution, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Shaba rebellion in the Congo, the Iranian Revolution, the conflict in El Salvador, the Bosnian war and the siege of Sarajevo, the genocide in Rwanda, the American invasion of Afghanistan, and the American occupation of Iraq, among other stories.

This may be why friends and colleagues kept nagging me to write my memoirs. My excuse was always that I couldn’t possible write my memoirs, because I couldn’t remember anything.

Hilary Brown

 

I finally followed the dictum of Dorothy Parker, who famously said,  “the art of writing is the art of applying the ass to the chair.” I was in my seventies, after all, and how much time did I have left on this earth?

And much to my amazement I discovered that I could remember quite a lot. War Tourist: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent is 450 pages long!

I was also moved by the words of another American author, Paul Auster, who, in his novel The Brooklyn Follies, said:  “Most lives vanish. A person dies, and little by little, all traces of that life disappear.”

I didn’t want my life, my exciting, dangerous, lucky life, to just disappear!  I wanted to leave something in print for posterity, and my descendants.

I decided to title my book War Tourist not because I have a cynical interest in destruction and death, but rather because this is one fitting definition of the role of the foreign correspondent, who are like war tourists in flak jackets.  They document human misery, and then move on to the next conflict. That’s just their job. But many carry the emotional baggage of compassion for the victims of war, and guilt about leaving them behind. When they can, they try to help them, or to find some other way to atone for the sin of leaving them to their suffering. I call this Reporter’s Atonement.

During the siege of Sarajevo (1992 – 1995), I documented the conditions of its citizens, who were reduced to a state of medieval deprivation under daily, continuous bombardment by Serb forces. Whenever I could, I gave them money and food, and I even got a former prime minister smuggled out of the city for cancer treatment.

But my best act of atonement as a war tourist was when I sponsored an entire family of Vietnamese people to Canada in 1990, to atone for the sin of leaving my ABC News translator and his family behind in Saigon in April 1975, when the city was surrounded by North Vietnamese forces. I still keep in touch with the family I sponsored, and the youngest, who was a baby in 1990, just got her PhD from McMaster University.

 

Hilary Brown
Brown with Air Commodore Tahir Jan of the Pakistan Air Force, who flew her to the front lines of the Indo-Pakistan War in December 1971. Photo: Courtesy of Hilary Brown

 

Danger for a foreign correspondent doesn’t always come on a battlefield. Not long after the fall of Saigon, I interviewed the Shah of Iran in the Saadabad Palace above Tehran. After a few softball questions, I started asking him about human rights. (Iran had a record of torture that was  “beyond belief,” according to an Amnesty International report.)

The Shah started to tremble. “ What kind of question is this? I am the Monarch!” he roared.

“But your Imperial Majesty,” I said, “only last month Mike Wallace of CBS’s 60 Minutes was asking questions along similar lines.”

“Mike Wallace was a baby next to you!”  shouted the Shah, who brusquely removed his microphone and stalked out of the room.

My crew and I were terrified that we would be clapped into Evin prison and the next day ABC decided to pull us out of the country. The interview was never broadcast. Forty-seven years later, the producers of a history of U.S. -Iranian relations approached me and later tracked down the interview. It will be part of a two-hour documentary on PBS in February 2022, part of its American Experience series.  At long last, I will finally make air with this historic segment.

 

Hilary Brown
The bride wore white – and a Pakistani tribal belt around her waist – when she married BBC journalist John Bierman in Cyprus on Aug. 22, 1976. Photo: Courtesy of Hilary Brown

 

At the heart of War Tourist is also a great love story. I met the handsome BBC journalist and biographer John Bierman in Pakistan at the outbreak of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 – my first war – when he hired me to carry his news film up the Khyber Pass to Kabul, Afghanistan, and then to the outside world. This was before satellites. John became my mentor, husband and father of my only child, Jonathan. Six years after his death in 2006, I met a Canadian businessman and philanthropist who, until the pandemic, flew me around the world on so-called ‘”adventure holidays” that kept me in a constant state of excitement and fear. Which, of course, was just like being a foreign correspondent all over again.

Can a woman, age 70 and over, find love again? Answer, YES!

The best-selling Canadian author Susan Swan called my memoir “a terrific read.” The artist Charles Pachter says that he read the book in two days. “I am overwhelmed by her life’s incredible roller-coaster ride. Her courage and pluck and intrepid nature are astounding. “

Thanks, Susan and Charles, you are both good friends. But thank you!

War Tourist is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

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