They should consider their career.
The foreign correspondent is dead. Long live the foreign correspondent
The de luxe life satirised in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop has gone for good, but we can still preserve the best of a necessary craft
I drove that hard-sprung Lada around for several days, talking to Kosovar Albanians who had fled in fear of Serbian genocide and were now returning home, their tractor-drawn trailers piled high with mattresses and children; to the melancholy Serbian Father Theodosius, in his lovely, isolated monastery in the foothills of the Accursed Mountains; and to a ruthless commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Ramush Haradinaj, who unforgettably confided in me, in his weirdly Finnish Brummie-accented English: “Me, oih couldn’t be no Mother Teresa.” (Having briefly been prime minister of independent Kosovo, he is now in The Hague, facing a retrial for war crimes.)
This trip was expensive. As most foreign correspondents did, I used a fixer, a local journalist who sets up appointments, makes travel arrangements and gives local background, and an interpreter. A newspaper paid. I learned the kinds of thing that you can only learn by being on the spot. And I was not alone. Some 2,700 media people went into Kosovo with or immediately after the invading/liberating forces: roughly one journalist for every 800 inhabitants.
A decade later, how many would there be? At such a big, dramatic and warlike moment, probably still quite a lot. (“If it bleeds, it leads.”) But as a general rule, and even for very important countries and stories: fewer, ever fewer. The foreign correspondent, a type incomparably satirised by Evelyn Waugh in his novel Scoop, and celebrated by Alfred Hitchcock in his film Foreign Correspondent, is an endangered species. Only a few major news organisations, such as the BBC and the New York Times, still have worldwide networks of resident correspondents, in what are traditionally called foreign bureaux (or bureaus, according to taste).
There is absolutely no point in sitting around moaning about this, over many a whisky in a now deserted press bar. Rather, we need to establish how what was of real value in the work of the 20th-century foreign correspondent can be preserved, and how we can use some wonderful new opportunities that did not exist in the age of the telegraph and telex. This is what the former director of global news at the BBC, Richard Sambrook, attempts to do in a new, closely researched analysis for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, titled “Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant?” He quotes one American television producer saying that to hark back to the traditional foreign bureaux is like asking “why don’t we still use clay tablets?”
It seems to me that there are three features of the work of the foreign correspondent that we should want to preserve, and enhance, in new forms of news gathering and delivery. They are: independent, honest and, so far as possible, accurate and impartial witnessing of events, people and circumstances; deciphering and setting them in local context, explaining who’s who, what’s what, and a bit of why; and, last but not least, interpreting what is going on in this particular place, at this particular time, in a broader comparative and historical frame. Witnessing, deciphering, interpreting.
So far as witnessing goes, there are now fantastic new ways of doing it – by video, phone camera, and so on – which have not been available for most of human history. Of course, the camera often lies, so it’s always good to know who is behind that camera. But a multiplicity of eyewitness reports, video and audio clips, and blogs, many of them by local people who actually (unlike many foreign correspondents) speak the language, can produce a fine collage of first-hand evidence.
If we had relied only on foreign correspondents, our accounts of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman killed during the Green movement demonstrations in Tehran last year, would probably all have been secondhand – and without those unforgettable images. Websites like Global Voices and GlobalPost show what can be achieved by a multiplicity of local and visiting reporters.
Nor is the local deciphering necessarily best done by a foreigner. I have often observed how foreign correspondents rely for this deciphering on fixers, interpreters, local journalists and a few trusted sources – while themselves adding only a few dashes of colour, a brace of all-purpose interpretative cliches (edge of the abyss, hawks and doves) and, of course, the hyberbole. Why not have the local voices speak to you direct, supplemented by those of outside academic specialists on the countries concerned? This requires careful, skilled editing, to be sure, but will certainly be cheaper than a full-dress foreign correspondent’s office.
As for today’s slimmed-down, age-of-austerity foreign bureau, with a single, multitasking correspondent dashing around like a mad hatter, desperately trying to meet multiple deadlines every day for online, print, video, audio, tweet and blog: the trouble here is the poor journalist has very little time to research any story in depth, let alone to stop and think. It’s no accident that some of the best foreign corresponding we have today is in magazines like the New Yorker, written by journalists who have months to pull together a single long report.
That brings us to the third dimension: the interpreting. For this, it does help to have someone who has been around a bit, seen stuff happen in different places and times, read and thought about the how and why. She or he can therefore compare, weigh and evaluate, restoring the sense of proportion and historical significance (or lack of it) that easily gets lost if you are spending all your time in the thick of a single story. Now I hear people say: well, there is the future of newspapers. A vast surfeit of information, “news” in the broadest sense, is dumped on us every day. We have a problem of profusion. The quality newspaper’s job will be to sift, set in context, follow up, as the Guardian and New York Times did with the WikiLeaks trove.
There is something to be said for this, and it may be how things develop, but the danger lies in making too sharp a separation between the interpreter and the witness. For all my experience cries out to me: there is nothing to compare with being there. However many thousands of fantastic clips, blogs and online transcripts you have, there is nothing to compare with being there. Only by buying those petrol cans, driving around in that bone-shaking 4×4, seeing the suffering with my own eyes, could I truly understand, and therefore less inadequately interpret, what happened in Kosovo. You can’t do it only from an armchair.
The unique value added by the 20th-century foreign correspondent consisted, at best, in the combination in one person’s experience over time, the considered throughput in a single mind and sensibility, of all three elements: witnessing, deciphering, interpreting. If we can somehow preserve that, in the journalism of our day, then we may yet achieve both more and better foreign news.