The NS Profile - The foreign correspondent

Once, they immersed themselves in foreign parts; now, they rush from Afghanistan, shedding the flak

The foreign correspondent is, and always has been, the envy of his or her peers, the despair of his or her family, the model of every aspiring young journalist, the rock or sinking sand, on to or into which a foreign editor will climb or sink. With rare exceptions, successful foreign correspondents are prima donnas and workaholics, selfish loners who are either pushy or cunning.

The great anglophone foreign correspondents of our times - John Pilger, Jon Lee Anderson, David Remnick, David Hirst, Robert Fisk, Mark Frankland, Jeremy Bowen - have spent the best part of a lifetime immersed in various cultures unfamiliar to their British and American readers. They are preoccupied with transmitting what they know. With the exception of Remnick, who sailed from the foreign desk of the New York Times to become editor of the New Yorker, the others have struggled with lost jobs, no funding, exaggerated reputations for fractiousness, to continue working at the standard they set themselves two or three decades ago. They are a far cry from Evelyn Waugh's caricature of the incompetent William Boot, the hapless foreign correspondent sent from his London headquarters to Abyssinia.

No job in journalism is harder than the foreign correspondent's. No job in journalism is more important (though many a self-important political columnist may find that hard to believe). Foreign correspondents report and interpret parts of the jigsaw of the world. Without them you could as well be living in a medieval village, bounded by your family's and neighbours' concerns.

In the hierarchy of distinguished foreign correspondents, the top shelf is the almost-extinct staff correspondent for one paper, or TV and radio outlet, who lives for years or even decades in one region (Fisk of the Independent, and previously Frankland of the Observer); second is the long-lasting stringer (a non-staff reporter on a monthly retainer), with a reputation that goes far beyond the paper for which he mainly works (Hirst of the Guardian); third is the encyclopaedic entrepreneur, master of linked books, articles and TV films, of which Pilger is the only extant specimen.

For 30 years I was either a foreign correspondent or, later, a desk editor in charge of foreign correspondents. In the 1960s, I remember, we communicated by telex from Vietnam, and the only contact we had from London was the monthly cheque and an occasional envelope of clippings. The time difference with London meant that correspondents had time to spend the whole day talking to soldiers, refugees, monks or politicians, and still sober up after dinner before filing their day's story. From 1970s Algiers, Nairobi, Mogadishu, Addis Ababa, Khartoum and Kampala, we still painstakingly tapped our words on to the telex, and the one phone call from the foreign editor to me in five years was merely to announce his move to another job and to name the new man who was nominally in charge of my fate.

In those days, before satellite communications and the internet, the correspondents had life on their own terms. The best correspondents took care to keep away from other journalists, at least of their own nationality, and tried, in both war and peace, to understand what was going on in the country by living in it. The worst banded together in Foreign Correspondents' Associations, where by tradition the plummy voice from the BBC was the chairman, and absurd group decisions were made such as "to keep in with Idi Amin" in Uganda, or that Robert Mugabe would "undoubtedly lose" the independence election in Zimbabwe.

There were the odd blunders - the Guardian correspondent who wrote of the hopes of peace in the Congo with the arrival of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, when in fact he had been killed as his plane was shot down; or the Observer correspondent who wrote of the sunshine as Robert Kennedy was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery, when in fact darkness had fallen before the coffin arrived: rushing for their deadlines, the correspondents had filed their stories before the actual incident had taken place.

The US bid for dominance over the Soviet Union was the key to all foreign coverage in a British press that was overwhelmingly pro-American and respectful to the Whitehall mandarins who briefed foreign editors. The subtext of the cold war power struggle was taking place in a string of unfashionable countries such as Iran, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Grenada, Nicaragua, Ghana, Burkina Faso, where from the mid-1980s corrupt or colonial regimes once favoured by the US were swept away in a nationalist ferment. The Reagan administration came to power in 1981 convinced that these were the places where the real threat from the Soviet Union had to be fought. Its response was called "low-intensity conflict": a campaign that was not meant to be carried out in the press, lest it upset US public opinion in the wake of the Vietnam war. Washington's foes, meanwhile - the new revolutionary governments - had little interest in helping the western press to see what was going on.

R estrictive visas, expensive airfares, no access to the war front, or to those newly in power helped further to obscure the situation. Those who did manage to gain access tended to produce a story that strayed from the ideology of the desk (such as the New York Times man who wrote so approvingly of newly independent Mozambique's struggle against apartheid South Africa's covert war that he was recalled to New York). The suspicion that a correspondent might "go native" led to some spectacularly unsuitable appointments of journalists who liked to dine at embassies rather than meet the people who lived in the country.

At the same time, new proprietors eager to boost circulation began to impose a news diet of changing trends in homes, gardens, schools, fashion, holidays, self-improvement and reports on the lives of personalities. Budgets were available for these new pages with their wealth of advertising, but distant foreign lands were deemed too remote from the interests of consumers. Staff bureaus were closed, and even international news agencies such as Reuters cut back. Stringers saw their monthly retainers cut.

For a while, William Boot-style amateurs began to emerge as would-be foreign correspondents, and they cost virtually nothing. Usually they were aid agency workers on the scene of some tragedy, and long- suffering sub-editors would turn their prose into news reports. But as new technology began to shrink the world, they too were sidelined.

A new-style foreign correspondent has made a comeback - and is even more expensive than the old-style because he/she needs much more than just somewhere to live and a notebook. Besides a flak jacket, a satellite telephone is now de rigueur because it means instant filing of a news story from even the most remote war or famine zone. These expensive people are now expected to make themselves worthwhile by the sheer volume of work they produce, and the competitive speed at which they produce it. There is not much time left for living - or thinking - and certainly not for becoming a specialist on a country or region.

Because these correspondents are so skilful at meeting the impossible demands made on them, the demands grow: CNN's Christiane Amanpour, for instance, is expected to be able to manage effortlessly not only the flak-jacket work in Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan, but also, in the same tone but with a new outfit, a full-scale British royal funeral.

At news organisation headquarters the reign of the desk editors over the foreign correspondents has begun. The former get up early, read papers, magazines and news agencies on the internet, and are then ready to tell the latter where to go and what to write. The events of 11 September gave the desk editors as profound a shock as it did the FBI and the CIA, and, like those organisations, they no longer had people on the ground who spoke the languages and knew the world behind the events. The foreign correspondent suddenly won back some prestige and space in the papers and on the television. But for how long?