Inside the Mind Boggling Adventures of a Foreign Correspondent and What You Can Learn in Storytelling et al.
The world’s most loved and respected politician is heading towards our broadside when to my great surprise he makes a sharp turn. “Is he coming our way?” S**t he’s coming our way”.
And then he’s right in front of me. I swiftly gesture to the photographer on his right making that universal sign of “Picture?” He waves his hands palm down like a cricket umpire gesturing “no ball”. He has no film.
My hand is extending at the same time. “How are you?” “Fine sir”, I mumble. The next few moments are a blur. But I know I’m about to call my mum afterwards long distance to say I’ve just chatted and shaken the hand of President Mandela. I’m at the Foreign Correspondence lunch in South Africa.
It’s not the first time. The first was at a Press Conference (presser) for the ANC in downtown Joburg. I’m terrified. Why? Well you see the key to having a good presser is to get your question in first.
That way you control the response and when you can interrupt with a second question, and if you’re really lucky and don’t get heckled, you can get in a third. All these happen. I get heckled. But it’s a good show for my new employers ABC News where I’m an associate producer working with amongst others Danny Glover.
I’m in SA during the wilting end of Apartheid (legalised racism). I took a one way ticket from London, fresh from reporting on BBC 2’s Reportage, and presenting a show called Black London.
I always wanted to have a front seat at one of the biggest stories going, plus I couldn’t find work in London.
No network would give me the opportunity to report for them. I had form even if they couldn’t understand.
I’d spent my teenage years in Ghana living through coups, hardship and unrests like a baying mob seeking me out thinking I was part of an invading force. A friend and I are retelling that story.
At boarding school, which I attend, we learn survival. We’re brothers-from- another-mother helping one another. We still do today.
At 13 years of age my mum brings me my first camera. My friends remind me why no one will choose me for their football team because part way through I will quit to go read, or write precociously about things like the Neutron bomb. Yeah that one.
I’ll return to Ghana years later to report and produce stories on US Special Forces. They’re training ECOWAS forces Low Altitude Parachute Extraction. It’s when a paratrooper can literally fly across borders into enemy air space, deploy their chute and with seconds hit the ground and scurry, thus evading enemy forces.
Before that growing up in Britain was a combination of foster parents and care homes. Turns out my hard-nosed independence is one characteristic of being a Forcos, fending for yourself and coming up with solutions, quickly.
The network of Forcos is a guarded hierarchy. I know I came up against it. It’s sharp elbows and “who the f**k are you?” But sod it I wasn’t go to wait this one out. The irony is when I get to South Africa traveling from one story to another, editors I called upon in London who said ‘No thanks’ are now taking my stories. I’ll end up feeding pieces to BBC Radio 4 Docs, World Service and even the SABC and South African indies (Through the Eyes of a Child, SABC)
My three big wins? A radio doc for BBC that SABC chiefs hear, is purchased and played out on the eve of their historic election. Insane! Then there’s the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President. In London, Chatham House invite me to join as a member.
I’ll report on US Secretary of State Ron Brown’s ‘jobs creation visit’, be in the townships witnessing necklacing, travel down SA’s deepest mine and made to to sign a death certificate before being allowed to enter.
In Katlehong, the murder capital of the world a terrorist trains an RPG on our vehicle. In the orange free state, AWB (white supremacist) first take umbrage, with me, then can’t believe I’m British and that there are black people in the UK, and then threatens my life as a Brit responsible for concentration camps.
I will run from gun fire, evade criminals who want to carjack me, recoil from a massive bomb that shakes our home some three miles away which I’ll report live to the World Service, and interview notorious figures like Dirk Coetzee.
One of the most chilling parts happens off mic when Coetzee chuckles. When I enquire. He says a black man standing this close to him a few years back would have been be looking down the barrel of his gun. Coetzee was part of a police hit squad.
I’ll report on the return to South Africa of Miss World at Sun City. I get into a mild argument with Grace Jones. Yes that Grace Jones about why she clobbered a British TV chat show host live on air.
The Miss World organisers were so keen on me reporting the event that when I missed the 3 hour coach drive, they sent a two-seater helicopter to pick me up and return me home.
I had learned to be a foreign correspondent or international correspondent as I prefer because of the colonial inferences. Much of the myths that shape contemporary knowledge of people and places emerges from the pens of a
stream of imperialist elitists and global travellers, from the 16th century to the 20th. They treated the word ‘foreign’ as others. They include Gomes Earnes de Zurara (15th C.) Richard Hakluyt (16th C.) Sir Henry Morton Stanley (19th C.) and this newspaper.
They were proto correspondents creating false theories around Africa and pseudo concepts of race.
I learned to be at the sharp end of reportage at about the same time, technology and social conditions were changing the job.
Three months after leaving South Africa, back in the UK I will become a videojournalist — the DIY journalist. The interviewers wanted to know if I could work alone and threw at me various incidences. Just as well though, because as well as recounting my last two years a year later I will be confronted by young men who’ve smashed my car and are making off with equipment. They spot me holding a 20K camera. There’s a stand-off and I’ll need all my experience to come through it.
Int. Reporting is off my checklist. I had an interview with the BBC’s foreign news editor Vin Ray who was impressed with my CV, but nothing came of it.
However the mindset, traits, and nuances to undertake the job never leave you. People I used to hang around with at the African Service like Rageh Omaar (ITN) will go onto greater heights.
My path would take me into tech and interdisciplinary start ups, producing/filming big themed stories e.g. Lennox Lewis Vs Tyson and being able to work with the likes of legendary Jon Snow who also is an unsung diversity champion — my second source of interest. The third takes a panoramic view both pragmatically and academically with an interdisciplinary PhD across story forms, psychologies and meaning making.
And yet I will still follow my nose for adventures like this a diving expedition to a WWI wreck. I will run out of air having been wrenched by a thermocline and thrown against unexploded bombs. I’m hyperventilating and have to make quick decisions, fin up or down — each has consequences.
Travelling to the border of Syria to train your Syrian filmmakers as the US threaten an air strike.
And then working with Nato as an editor on their war games — in which journalists are inserted into the field to report on a make-belief live war, which both the top army brass examining the play out
So what’s there to learn? In the 2030s, in a world not far off from Star Trek, with bots, AI, and regions off limits will the world need int. correspondents? And what do you think of Nas with millions of viewers?
I teach Masters students and train companies from my experience, academic knowledge and being a person of colour; yes it impacts how I see the world. Sky’s Correspondent Alex Crawford has this to say.
If so what will they be like and not withstanding their highly attuned storytelling skills, what of the other qualities, transferable n’ all needed?
I’m honoured to be a juror for the UK’s highest awards in Television News Journalism, the RTS. It’s here too that I get to bump into the world’s top correspondents which provides me a personal window to express and share.
More recent interviews incl. Alex Crawford, BBC’s Jeremy Bowen (Thx @morwenw) and BBC’s Clive Myrie, and CNN’s Max Foster.
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