The death of the deputy Montevideo correspondent

This is a piece I did for the British Journalism Review, asking whether the modern age had made the job of the roving foreign correspondent – see the great Alan Whicker above – redundant. Appropriately, I wrote it just after being made redundant by The Telegraph…

DEEP in the bowels of the Daily Telegraph’s offices, there is a large walk-in storage room known as “the foreign desk cupboard”. It’s full of frontline clobber like first aid kits and gas masks, but like any office cupboard, it’s also a dumping ground for old junk, and therefore a mini museum to the ever-changing craft of the foreign correspondent. There are bulky flak jackets that look like they date back to the Bosnian war, early satellite phones that are only slightly smaller, and a stash of ring-binder files – remember them? – on subjects like Saddam Hussein and his oil-for-food scam.
What really showed me how our world has changed, though, was a wooden box of correspondents’ contact details, which had somehow found its way there from our old offices in Fleet Street. Printed on brown and cream paper like old-fashioned library cards, they were a window into a bygone era of foreign correspondence. Next to one reporter’s card, for example, was a note saying he was travelling by ocean liner to cover Churchill’s speech at the 1943 Cairo conference. Any messages could be left, please, at his club, the Garrick. For me, though, the one that stood out most was a chap who sounded like the title of a Graham Green novel. He was “The Deputy Montevideo correspondent”.
What? We had a stringer in Montevideo? (it’s in Uruguay, in case, like me, you’d forgotten). Not only that, we had a deputy? I Googled Uruguay to see what big events had taken place there in modern times, only to discover a tiny, well-ordered Latin American nation of three million. Even in the bad old days of the Dirty Wars, it was relatively unscarred compared to its neighbours, and today it’s ranked first in Latin America in various indexes of democracy, peace, lack of corruption, and other dull stuff. Sad as it is for the romantic in me, I can’t see The Telegraph hiring a new Deputy Montevideo correspondent any time soon.
Then again, my days of rummaging in the foreign desk cupboard are over too. As of July, I was one of four of the Telegraph’s senior foreign journalists to be made redundant, along with the Middle East Editor, Asia Editor, and our Africa correspondent in Johannesburg. Ten of the best years of my life, during which I reported from 60 countries, are over. No more barging into the foreign desk cupboard to pick up a tear gas mask for Arab Spring protests in Cairo, or the sturdy wellies I wore while covering the Ebola crisis.
As anyone who follows the media knows all too well, newspapers are facing tough times in the digital age. Until someone cracks the alchemy of turning web audiences into reliable advertising revenues, staffing cuts are always possible. Especially on the foreign desk, which, by nature tends to be an expensive business. Up-and-coming digital rivals are feeling the pinch too. In the week that I was warned of redundancy, so too were two London-based foreign correspondents at Vice, along with several other staff.
So what does this mean for the future of my trade? Finer minds than mine have already asked this question, not least the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, who in 2010 compiled a rather presciently-titled report called “Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant?”. It cites variously the end of the Cold War, the growth of citizen journalism, and the growth of decent media outside of the Western world for the reduced need for old-school foreign news specialists. More depressingly, it also blames the rise of the beancounter, although judging by the number of media studies experts it quotes, another gloomy trend is that these days, there are far more people writing about foreign correspondence than are actually doing it.
Indeed, in my more recent years at The Telegraph, I’d regularly get calls from some post-grad wanting to interview me for some earnest dissertation on the role of reporters in conflict zones, or the journalistic ethics of embedding with the military. The way things are going across the industry, they might one day have hardly any full-time foreign correspondents left to interview, like anthropologists studying some near-extinct tribe in the Amazon.
Yet to be fair, the question the academics asked me most often was a reasonable one. Why, in the globalised 21st century, should someone like me be despatched from London at great expense to cover some drama in say, Uruguay, when there were locals armed with I-phones, internet access and fluent English who could do the job instead? Were hacks like me not just throwbacks to the colonial era, pitching up for a few days and then presuming, as the more pompous of my tribe like to put it, to “bear witness”?
My answer, borne partly of bitter experiences deputising as foreign editor, was to ask them to imagine themselves in a newsroom on that day that Uruguay is a big story. Those local citizen-journos may be fine as news gatherers, but when it comes to putting it all together, it’s a different matter. Can you really expect them to write 1,500 words in house style, simultaneously pushing the story forward, taking in “devs” of the last few days, and adding in wit and colour? Not to mention that line from The Times that seemed a bit shaky, but which the Editor mentioned in conference? It’s a challenge for the best of us, never mind someone who hasn’t even yet made the grade as deputy Montevideocorrespondent.
Ah yes, the post-grads would argue, but don’t the local hacks have a far better grasp of the story? Sure. But for most newspapers, even a “long read” is an exercise in precis anyway, with limited space for sub-plots and finer points of detail. What is wanted is broad, deft brushstrokes, switching between on-the-ground close-ups and the bigger picture. Which, like it or not, is a task sometimes better suited to the outsider with the fresh eyes.
Look, for example, at those films of my old hero Alan Whicker, doing his Whicker’s World piece on the flower power scene in 1960s San Francisco. It isn’t superb because he’s hip to the Haight-Ashbury happenings, man. A glance at his immaculate suit and tie is proof enough of that. It’s superb because he scripts his material beautifully, with pithy insights tailored exactly for his viewers back home.
Still, if the days of the globetrotting big shot are over, what will the digital-age Alan Whicker look like? Will he even exist? My hope is yes – but the chances are that that he’ll be working on a freelance basis, quite possibly with his own camera, and with very little time for leisurely G&Ts in the clubhouse afterwards.
As part of my research for this article – and also to see if I can still earn a living – I tracked down a number of fellow foreign correspondents made redundant elsewhere, to see if they are still in the game. A few are, but increasingly, it’s a kind of portfolio career. A bit of reporting for various outlets, supplemented by video work and perhaps a bit of corporate consultancy too. Books, which were once a common outlet for ex-hacks, are no longer the bolt hole they once were. As the publisher of my own two books of reportage tells me, his trade is in the same digital doldrums as newspapers. These days you are lucky to find even a contract for a non-fiction work, let alone a decent advance, unless it’s the memoirs of a ‘sleb or SAS man.
Indeed, those who still want to press ahead with a book idea are as likely to seek backing from the public sector these days as the private sector. Trusts and grant making bodies provide bursaries for books and other long-term projects like films and investigations, while PR for NGOs is also a useful sideline. One photographer told me he could £300 a day working in Africa for a well-known charity – compared to about £275 if sent by Fleet Street.
True, foreign correspondence has always relied on a certain charitable instinct. Stories about far-off places seldom help to sell newspapers, and as such, well-funded foreign desks have usually enjoyed the indulgence of owners to a certain extent.
Nonetheless, if I am to succeed in the brave new world of the freelance foreign correspondent, I may have to be rather braver than I would like.
What if one is kidnapped, for example?  When I was abducted in Somalia in 2008, I knew the Telegraph would do their best to get me out, and indeed they did. If it happens again though – God forbid – who if any among a portfolio of different employers might feel obliged to help me out? Sure, I ran that risk as a rookie freelancer in Iraq a decade ago, just as a new generation of freelancers do covering Syria today. But I suspect that most of them, just like I did, stick it out in the hope of one day landing a staff job. If there’s nothing now on offer beyond the rank of deputy Montevideo correspondent, I wonder just how many will keep going.
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