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Jul 19 2012

That Story that Made a Journalist Out of You

Every journalist has a moment when he or she know they can call themselves a journalist. This moment could be elusive, but it often has to do with covering a big story. Whether it is when you wear a headscarf while crossing a checkpoint, pretending to not really be paying attention while eavesdropping on a big state secret, getting shot at, or getting a phone call from your very own and first “deep throat”. Sometimes it happens when you reflect on a conversation you had an hour earlier and realize that something just doesn’t add up, sometimes when lying at the bottom of a van in-between rebel camps, trying very hard not to breath and sometimes when you present a high ranking official with the question that could end his career, maybe even send him to prison. I think mine was when I was in a car climbing up the steep hill to the settlement Itamar in the West Bank on my quest for the ex-combat-pilot now guru-type radical settler Avry Ran, who groomed a bunch of lost and stray teenagers in an outpost organized in a biblical style. Two tents, one for humans, one for animals, many dogs and a woman dressed like she must have imagined the biblical Rebecca or Sarah did.

The secretary of the more established settlement at the bottom of the hill, when he realized he failed to convinced me not to go up there, insisted of escorting us in the car and was almost visibly shaking. Ran and his boys were famously armed and dangerous.  In one of their raids, wild-west styled, one of “Avry’s boys”, a young men by the name of Gur Hamel, shot to death an old men from Beit Furik, who climbed up the hill to tend to his olives, on his own. I was following the story of the killer, who grew up in a religious but moderate and liberal kibutz, and found his way to a community of messianic Hassidic people in central Tel Aviv, and then to Ran’s outpost. The biblical woman refused to let us through the gate. Ran was not around. The secretary was clearly relieved. He was scared, not for his safety, but for mine. It was a cold day and the atmosphere was chilling. We drove down the hill and across to Beit Furik. Not many Israelis dared drive into the village at that time, but I felt much safer sitting in the victim’s house with children curiously climbing on my knees and checking the photographers equipment, listening to the story of the last day of his life, than I felt standing at the gate of Ran’s outpost, pleading with his wife with the dogs barking nervously and the secretary shivering next to me.

I realized that this is a profession where in the course of covering one story you get to cross between radically different worlds, in the course of one afternoon, trying to figure out one coherent story out of conflicting voices in different languages. This is what this is about, I thought, this is what we do.

I asked a few of GRN’s corresondents to tell me their stories of coming to be journalists in their own minds. Please add yours at the comment section.

Kerry Skyring, Vienna – It was “the battle at Terania Creek” a fight between environmentalists and loggers over the pristine rainforests of northern New South Wales which made a journalist of me. In 1979, when the battle began, I was a local ABC Radio presenter and not even classified as a journalist but this story taught me the basics i.e. where there’s conflict there’s a story and the job of reporting that story is an important one. It taught me about politics too. I remember covering a loud demonstration by loggers and their supporters who wanted to show their anger at government plans to stop logging of virgin forests. Their protest took place during a visit by the premier, Neville Wran. Wran, a clever politician, had his driver park the official car around the corner from the angry mob. Instead of arriving in the black limousine he simply walked in amongst the loggers, shaking their hands and saying “g’day, I’m Neville and I understand your problems.” They were totally disarmed. On this story I also had the chance to work with a true professional, our local ABC Journalist Murray Miles. We all need a mentor and Murray was one of the best. And, for most people, the story had a happy ending with the rainforests preserved for future generations.

Peter Bild, Berlin – Some believe foot-in-the-door, hard-nosed ruthlessness are the hallmarks of a good journalist. Not so – at least in my case. Those characteristics may get you that News of the World splash (it may also close down the paper), but being seen as a decent person and honest seeker after a complex truth can pay dividends, too. As it did for me. Combine that with a bit of luck and …

Way, way back – before many of you were born – I was the specialist Economics Correspondent sent to the West German capital of Bonn to figure out and report – on an on-going basis – German economic policy. It meant getting to know and be known by decision makers. A minor breakthrough – so I thought – came when I was invited to a private briefing dinner given by the German Finance Minister, at his invitation. I had become friendly with his personal assistant. It was held in the Bonn Press Club – and paid for on that occasion by the minister himself to support to support that generally exclusive domain of German journalists.

A quick drink and we sat down at beautifully laid tables for a rather fine dinner before hearing what the Minister had to say. German economic performance was so strong – plus ca change – that it was putting big strains on the international monetary system. I watched as the doyen of the local journalists – the unofficial head of the financial journalists’ lobby – approached my friend, the Minister’s assistant. There were glances in my direction. My friend came over to me: “I invited you and you can choose to stay. But Herr S. says he and his fellow journalists are unhappy at your presence. And I have to protect the interests of my Minister.” I got up and joined a poker evening that I had sacrificed in the interests of my employer.

The next day, my friend called me to apologise. I asked what the crew-cut S had said. He told me  “S wanted to know what the hell that ‘Beatle from Reuters” was doing there”. In fact I had missed rather little, no exclusives and no hot news. I thanked him for the call and told him there were no hard feelings. My hair wasn’t even that long.

Two weeks later I rang my Finance Ministry friend to clarify some technical detail in a press statement. He seemed distracted. “Forget that. It’s not important. But this is”. That very morning, he told me quite unattributeably,  the German Economic Cabinet – a closed group of just four Ministers – had met under the chairmanship of Chancellor Willy Brandt to talk about the inflow of inflationary dollars. At the time, the Bundesbank was obliged to sell Deutschmarks in the foreign exchange market to maintain a fixed exchange rate. The dollar inflow had become a torrent. “So what have they decided?” I asked.

He went silent and then whispered into the phone: “The Cabinet meets tomorrow and will close the foreign exchange market.” With the Bundesbank unable to intervene, it meant the D-Mark would be floated resulting in a major revaluation.

It seemed churlish at the time, but I told my friend that if I reported what he told me, without revealing my source, and if he were wrong, it would mean the end of my very new career in journalism.  He was right and forty years on I no longer miss the fine wines I was forced to skip. Being decent, playing fair and respecting the concerns of others can pay off, you know, even for a journalist.

Henry Peirse, GRN CEO, London – Throughout my late teens and early 20s my aim was to be a reporter. But it took moving to Zagreb for a substantial opportunity to land in my lap. My first meeting with Erich, the director of a language school in the Croatian capital got me a job teaching English but also cemented my path into covering the Balkan wars of the 90s. I was 22, the war in Croatia was on and it was about to kick off in Bosnia. I got a job writing, reading and generally preparing the news on Croatian Radio, this led to TV and onwards.

The whole thing was an alignment of timing, bad luck and coffee. I was in the right place to get a job, the region was beset with bad luck and spiralling out of control while nothing, got in the way of coffee.

Erich, very sadly is no longer with us, he was a father, Fulbright scholar, bass guitarist, fast talking ABC News correspondent and general troublemaker and my my first real mentor. Not a day goes by when he doesn’t pop into my mind and I wonder what sharp tongued witticism he would deliver in answer to any situation. Hvala covjece!

Hugh Schofield, Paris – In December 1987,  I introduced the English-speaking world to the word ‘intifada’.  You could say I discovered the word ‘intifada’ and put it in English print for the first time.  By rights I should be cited as a source in the Oxford dictionary,  and at the time it certainly made me think I  had journalism in my veins.  The trouble is that 25 years on,  I have no way of proving it.  Until someone digs out the clipping,  it’s just me vainly blowing my own boring trumpet.

What happened was this.  I was a young BBC reporter covering events on the West Bank and Gaza.  Not much had happened there for years, which was why it was a pretty lonely beat.  Only the BBC, with its Arabic Service and World Service, had the resources and interest to put someone there.  The dividends came when the Palestinian uprising began at the end of 87.  I remember travelling to Gaza after the first few shooting deaths, and asking some activist or other what was going on.  It felt differenmt, like something new was happening.  Ah yes, he said.  We call this the ‘intifada’  — the “shaking-off” of Israeli rule.

So off I went to write the tale, including the key quote,  and a few weeks later ‘intifada’ was everywhere.  I was a freelance at the time,  and I am pretty sure I wrote it for the Toronto Globe and Mail.  Or maybe the Irish Times.  Or maybe Middle East International.  Point is:  clippngs have I not.  So no way of proving my own greatest ‘coup de journalisme’.  I am beginning to think it wasn’t true, that I made the whole thing up.  But I did coin the word ‘intifada’ ….. didn’t I?

Kester Eddie, Budapest – that’s all very well, but I realised 20 years ago that what I really wanted to be was a candy floss salesman at a fairground. I’ve just never been able to make the jump…

Come on then, tell us your story!

1 comment

  1. Asa Winstanley

    Hugh Schofield: quite a story! You need to get down to the British Library and hunt out the back issues.

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