“When I was younger, I wanted to be a guitar player in a band. I literally thought I was going to be a rockstar,” says Jenny Kleeman. “You think maybe I would be a bit more cynical having seen the things that I have seen but actually, it’s made me a bit of a hippie.” For those of us, the mere mention of Jenny’s name is enough to grab hold of our attention.
The award-winning journalist, writer and documentary-maker established herself as a daring reporter on Channel 4’s critically acclaimed foreign affairs series, Unreported World. Having tiptoed through war-torn countries, tackling corruption and appearing as a witness in the trial of the first ever Nigerian trafficker to be convicted in the UK, Jenny’s standing on the frontline as a narrator is astonishing. From her top three survival tips to her infamous fallout with the Labour party and Tony Blair, Flavour caught up with Channel 4’s leading lady for an insight into her action-packed life.
Who are your journalistic idols?
There are a lot of journalists who I admire for different reasons. I love the documentaries that Nick Broomfield makes. I love his tenacity as well as how he’s able to dig away at stories and most importantly the relationship he has with his contributors. He made some films about Aileen Wuornos (America’s first female serial killer), which I thought were incredible as he had such an amazing rapport with her. He’s a fantastic film-maker. Jon Ronson is another writer who also makes documentaries. He spends a lot of time becoming an expert on certain things before pulling it apart, and he’s also a great writer too. There are also some fantastic journalists at Channel 4 news and The Guardian, including Paul Foot, who passed away a few years ago. He was a legend in investigative journalism. I would also love to be able to write like Charlie Brooker.
Charlie Brooker seems to have done a great job with the Channel 4 series Black Mirror…
I think Black Mirror is amazing. The interesting thing is Charlie started off as a cartoonist and when he writes he uses a lot of metaphors, through which he creates pictures in your head. He’s kind of like a verbal cartoonist, but very slick and that’s why he is so brilliant as he can simply draw cartoons in your head without you noticing them.
From reporting civil wars to exposing how human traffickers are using black magic to compel Nigerian women into a life of prostitution and the devastating consequences of overpopulation in Manila — you have pretty much seen it all. Are you still easily shocked?
I have never really been that easily shocked, but I am very easily moved. I cry very easily and I can occasionally get very emotionally involved, but the more you see is the less surprised you tend to be. Then again, when I started out working I was always doing things on the edge, so I’ve never really been easily shocked. In-fact, I have always been attracted to quite extreme things, but I will continually be surprised by the things that I find in my work. I think the day that I am not outraged by the injustice or the terrible things that I witness is the day I will stop being a journalist.
How do you remain poised and not get too attached when in such surroundings?
I think you have to remember when you’re in emotionally difficult situations that the story is not about you, so you must be able to keep your composure, or at least save the bulk of your emotions when you’re not on camera. You don’t want it to be about how tough it is for you to be there, especially if you’re dealing with a situation that is tragic for someone else. When you’re working you are very absorbed in the moment but you can keep yourself in check by remembering that your reason for being there is to tell the story, and if you get emotional then you may ruin your ability to tell the story. Some journalists like to get emotional and sometimes it can be very effective, but anything too histrionic may end up being all about you rather than the subject.
A recent documentary of yours saw you investigating hydrocephalus – a preventable yet misunderstood condition that affects a quarter of a million babies a year in Uganda. You must get very upset over some of the things you see?
When people are angry that’s when they will try and change things. I think anger is a good thing in small doses. I have seen many things that have made me want to campaign, and when I do make films like that particular one with lots of people contacting me wanting to help, it makes me really happy. The thing about that film as well was the mothers who were so amazing. These were women who really had nothing and were sacrificing literally everything in order to provide treatment for their children. It’s good to feel those emotions because that’s basically how you make changes. Everywhere that I have seen bad stuff, I have seen incredibly goodness in the most desperate circumstances. In some ways, it actually restores your faith back in human nature. You think maybe I would be a bit more cynical having seen the things that I have seen but actually, it’s made me a bit of a hippie as I’ve come away with a really positive view on human nature.
In the run-up to the 2005 general election, you spent several months working undercover in the Labour Party Press office. Would you ever embark on a political career?
Absolutely not! Politics is not for me. I think you have to be made in a certain mould to want to be a politician, and sadly I am not.
Are you and Tony Blair friends again?
No, Tony Blair and I are not friends. In fact, the Labour party, and I were not friends for a while after that. Interestingly, the Channel 4 offices are actually quite close to the Labour offices and when I am going to meetings at Channel 4, I have to literally tiptoe past their offices.
What would you do as Prime Minister for a day?
There is so much that needs to be done in this country. I think people need to appreciate what an amazing country this is and how it’s just evolved into being quite a really peaceful and happy place. We are a really old country and we’ve come quite a long way to be able to have a lot of freedom and live tolerantly, which I think we don’t appreciate enough. Part of the reason why we are so free is because we have this English habit of complaining about things. I think what I would do is have a public holiday where everyone has to go around and appreciate what’s great about this country.
How do you get access to the stories that you cover?
Part of the way that we get access is through local people who we work with. Every film that I work on I have a local producer, they are called fixers in the business, but in reality that means it’s a local person who makes all the calls for us and whose judgement we rely on in every single situation. What usually happens is we would come up with an idea for a story and they would be our guide, the quality of the producer can make or break a film. I have worked on films with some remarkable people, as well as some who were not so great and you really do see the difference on screen. There are a lot of things you can do to gain access and that involves being polite and learning a few words in the local language, but generally I have to say most of the access is down to our fantastic local producers.
“I am quite a silly person, but I think people tend to think that I am very straight and serious. Whilst I can be serious about a lot of things, I also have quite a silly sense of humour, and I like listening to a lot of loud music.”
Do you see yourself as brave?
I see myself as a giant coward. I am most afraid of not getting a story as I am prepared to put myself in quite ridiculous situations. I don’t really think of myself as a brave person. It’s not like when I’m having some time off – I am doing extreme sports or going to the most dangerous parts of London holding my laptop. I am not a brave person like that, but there’s nothing worse than coming home and realising you didn’t ask the right questions or you didn’t get what you needed to get, so I am motivated by the fear of that feeling.
What is it that drives you to make programmes that essentially put you in danger?
I feel very lucky that I am able to meet ordinary people around the world. That is what drives me to meet those people and also challenge them when there is injustice. I am prepared to do it in dangerous places because its places like those where you tend to find remarkable things about humanity.
Is your husband or your family worried about the job that you do?
They are quite laid back about it, but my mother wasn’t happy when I went out to Afghanistan. I have three sisters and I am the youngest of three girls, we’re all quite close and most days I’ll be on the phone speaking to them. Even when I’m away I still talk to my family quite a lot. My husband is used to me going away doing things, but he knows that I’ll give him a call if things are bad. He’s a pretty laid back kind of guy, but if he is worried about it, he doesn’t tend to let on too much.
If there are three pieces of survival knowledge everyone should have, what should it be?
The most important thing is to drink water. It’s incredibly important. I have seen terrible things happen to people because they get to a certain place and run out of water. The second thing that is most likely to save your life even if you are in the most dangerous part of the world is wear your seat belt. Believe it or not, that’s the thing that kills most journalists who are involved in motor accidents. And the third thing is make sure you get enough sleep because you want to be alert.
What have been the best moments in your career?
Probably, the best moment was when I gave evidence at the trial of the first ever Nigerian trafficker to be convicted in the UK. He was charged with raping and trafficking two underage Nigerian girls into the UK. I was called as an expert witness to give evidence at the trail into the case, which had been going on for many, many years. The victims as you can imagine were terrified but in the end this man was sentenced to twenty years in prison. After he got his sentence it was amazing to see a police officer cry along with everyone else who were so overwhelmed that justice had been served for these girls. I was also very pleased that my work played a role in convicting this person.
Having reported on civil wars, what do you think the outcome for Syria will be?
It’s a very depressing story. I don’t know whether or not Assad can win back the legitimate support of his people after all of this. Without legitimacy there is only so long a leader can survive, but that doesn’t mean to say that the outcome is going to be swift. I think we are going to have many more months and years of conflict there, but I don’t think that it is sustainable for Assad to carry on being leader for the foreseeable future.
What do people get wrong about you?
I am quite a silly person, but I think people tend to think that I am very straight and serious. Whilst I can be serious about a lot of things, I also have quite a silly sense of humour, and I like listening to a lot of loud music. I actually still think of myself as a bit of a big kid. When I was younger, I wanted to be a guitar player in a band, and I literally thought I was going to be a rockstar. People seem to think I am serious all the time, but I am not.
You’ve now firmly established yourself in the field of investigative journalism. Would you ever consider doing a makeover or entertainment programme for a change?
I might do one day, but I can’t change the way how I am as I am always going to be interested in things that I think matter. I am not exactly sure if I would do a makeover show, but who knows what the future holds.
How would you like the opening line of your autobiography to read?
[Laughs]… I have no idea, but I suppose, ‘Looking back, it’s probably a good thing Jenny Kleeman never became a rockstar.’
So now you’ve now taken a break from Unreported World, do you plan on doing any more or have you got other grand plans for the future?
At the moment I have been given a fellowship to go travel across America to visit some weird and wonderful places. I’ll be going to places like Texas to meet up with people on different sides of the gun debate, while doing some writing. In terms of documentaries, I have got a few things in the pipeline but you might just have to wait and see what they are.