Guest Post – Michael Pope: the lure of foreign correspondence


Michael Pope

In a double-whammy of Wannabe Hacks guest posts, Michael Pope kicks us off with the lure of foreign correspondence. Something you’ve ever been interested in? Noble profession? Got any advice for Michael? Comment below!…

Earlier this month a room filled by prospective journalists was silenced. Sean Ryan, the editor of The Sunday Times’ Foreign Desk, tried, in an hour, to describe the life of a foreign correspondent. “I have 18 staff foreign correspondents, only one is in a long-term relation.” As one looked over the audience you could see these words affecting everyone.

Some were bored; why should they worry themselves about some other county’s problems when their own is so far from perfect? Others were uncomfortable; learning how so many women and men met their end is uneasy for anyone. And then there was me. I already knew what I wanted to do before I arrived to the talk. At its conclusion my thoughts were merely confirmed.

I will be a foreign correspondent and it’s only a matter of time.

To me it is the perfect job. Not just compared to other journalistic roles, but in relation to everything. What other role enables you to be at the cusp of history, the formation of nations, the fall of governments and the end of wars? I know there will be those who read this and simply see the words of a naïve 21-year-old, and to a certain extent they will be right. I am white, middle-class male who has never really experienced any great trauma. Despite all of this, I do not think it determines if you are a success in this: the most varied of professions.

Special Correspondent - John Stapleton

Photo courtesy of Steve Punter

If all those who wanted to be foreign correspondents, or journalists for that matter, were already burdened with these experiences, stripped of their enthusiasm, naivety and willing, then the chances are they would never have embarked on this journey.

I want to travel to China and tap into its inward and enclosed society. I want break the strangle hold of the state media and I want to bring China to the rest of the world.

Despite all the attention the Middle Kingdom receives, very few people know what the country is like. To me it is a region on the brink of uproar. I cannot imagine how over one billion individuals will continue to remain contented whilst those in power revel in ever-increasing economic success. I do not think the term civic unrest does justice to what is potentially brewing in China; I want to be there as witness.

I suppose that is what Sean Ryan was trying to compound in all of us when he gave his talk. To be willing to go to another country, away from all that you know and love to find a story takes something more than just motivation, you have to be a little bit different. Of course I don’t know if I’m cut out for it, I may find that there’s nothing worse than trudging around foreign places getting paid pennies…

But I have to find out.

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About Matthew Caines
Community & content for the Guardian Culture & Media professional networks | founder of @wannabehacks @withinreachmag | find him on Twitter @mattcaines

4 Responses to Guest Post – Michael Pope: the lure of foreign correspondence

  1. The Intern says:

    Michael, good luck – I have no idea what different challenges you will face along the way but it sounds like you are up for whatever gets thrown your way. I think that seeing the world through the eyes of a ‘naïve 21-year-old’ is often the best way to change it.

    You see reasons to do something, rather than all the reasons why you shouldn’t – it is that kind of attitude that actually changes the status quo.

    You have picked out China in your guest post, do you have a particular interest in the country or would you be happy to be stationed in a less stable region? Also what route are you currently taking into journalism?

    • Michael Pope says:

      Hi sorry about responding sooner, I have been laid out with a nasty flu.

      I chose China because that is where I want to work first. I’m planning on moving out there this coming August.

      As far as working in a “less stable region” is concerned, I can only assume you mean a war zone. As far as I am concerned there are few places where Journalists come under more risk than in China: http://tinyurl.com/26kha5x. The Philippines spring to mind, but even places like Iraq and and Afghanistan, which are deemed unstable, at least offer a reporter access to the internet and at least in theory, free speech.

      I’m going freelance, and I’m going to China because it’s what I’m interested in. I will undoubtedly go to other regions in the future, regardless of whether or not they are stable.

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  3. Peter Demain says:

    Some time ago I tweeted at the Guardian’s correspondent in China. They soon got back to me with an answer to my query which went along the lines of ‘how many of there are you reporting on this country’. It emerged there were two staff to cover all of China. 650,000,000 citizens per Graun hack.

    Similar scantiness occurs in countries where you’d assume the entire press would have dozens of people across different areas. Take Afghanistan. Prior to @arusbridger blocking me, I managed to gather that Afghanistan with all its day to day action similarly sees low permanent levels of staff from his paper. The dependency on wire stories is as high if not higher than domestically.

    That editor mentioned Jon Boone, whose coverage rarely adopts any positive angle which would be a change despite that nation being for all intents abysmal. Much of his ‘reporting’ is supplemented by wire and/or centralized from Kabul:- Here’s a record of his articles.

    If you square the existing conditions at home with getting abundant and useful foreign reportage the brick wall isn’t hard to fathom: the cost. In a press where the mentality is not to provision news and information to the public for wider benefits, but instead stock a paper with cheap filler for the good of a margin – that is why foreign correspondence is staffed so sparsely.

    What of ‘travel journalism’? This often lacks the costs associated with de facto foreign news; one is in a resort area where English is spoken widely the need to converse is diminished – no intepreter required. Safety precautions which can be anything from flak jackets to bodyguards hopefully won’t be needed in a relaxing holiday destination. Also a lot of companies will willingly subsidize a reporter’s stay or supplement with ‘freebies’ in exchange for a positive column with mention/s slipped in.

    Costs of going abroad and reporting are out of most freelancers’ range. Thus we’re left with the status quo of corporately funded journalism where the profit mentality dictates that the cost per story is too high to merit concerted, sustained coverage outside of big events. We’ve more leisurely travel columns in the present landscape than actual news emerging from abroad.

    What of the recent floods in Pakistan? When it actually occurred barely any foreign press were there. Then a frenzy of travel hastily booked from wire agencies, TV, and the papers resulted in coverage reaching us after the initial stages:

    Despite all the terrorism both the US, UK and others spend billions on in terms of security theatre the press had few on the ground in a nation which arguably is the most adversely affected by terrorism and extremism on the planet. Make of it what you will.

    It could well be a good job if you can get it. In any case good luck to you Michael.

    Pete, editor at Dirty Garnet.

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