I’ve decided to drop everything this Friday to attend Swedish journalist Kim Wall’s memorial service at the Swedish Church here in London.
Why would I choose to do that, given that I certainly didn’t know Kim personally?
I remember sitting in remote Swedish Lapland when the story broke that a female Swedish journalist was missing in Denmark. How I hoped that story would have a happy ending… It did not, and the man Kim was interviewing for an investigative piece of journalism, Peter Madsen, now stands accused of her brutal and shocking murder.
The question that has come up, and that irks the hell out of me, in the aftermath of this horrible crime, is “why did Kim put herself in that situation?”, as though we as journalists, and in particular female journalists, should be “more responsible” in our approach to our work. We should somehow be aware, beforehand, what kind of tendencies the person we’re interviewing might have. This is not possible. Kim could not possibly have known what kind of situation she was getting into, when she was interviewing Madsen, who might have seemed eccentric, but was well-known as an inventor, not a homicidal maniac.
Now, I don’t do investigative journalism, I don’t write about politics or world affairs, I don’t cover war zones, but that said, I can think of countless occasions, as a travel writer, when I have had to rely on complete strangers in remote locations, without recourse to the usual safety nets. I’ve simply had to trust that “this person is all right”, even though I’d never met them before, just to get the work done in the smoothest and best possible way open to me at that time. Had I been Kim, investigating that piece, would I have taken the same risk as her? Undoubtedly.
If there were people in Madsen’s life, people who’d known him over the years, who did not suspect him of being capable of murder, then why on earth would a journalist on assignment realise it? I don’t think it’s (female) journalists taking unnecessary risks, but rather to do our job we have to make a judgement call on when to trust people. The better we’ve become over the years at choosing wisely, the more we assume that we are “safe with strangers.” And let’s face it, most of the time we are. One of the reasons this case is so shocking, is because it’s so unusual. Even though journalists the world over have seen their professional life become more dangerous in recent years, we manage to interview people every day in all sorts of settings and make it home at the end of the day. Just like Kim should have been able to – she could not foresee this mission would be her last.
Kim Wall’s death is a sad loss, but to lose our desire and ability to explore and investigate would be a sadder loss still. To creep back under our safety nets for fear of the repercussions would be a tragedy, because in this day and age, staying silent is the real danger. Kim Wall’s legacy is all-important.