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The decline of the foreign correspondent

A new report highlights the dramatic decline of foreign international reporting in the British press

A report published today by the Media Standards Trust documents the shocking decline of international reporting in the British press. Comparing coverage of foreign affairs in the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Mirror, and the Mail each decade since 1979, Shrinking World found that over the past 30 years international coverage has fallen drastically in both absolute and relative terms.

Compared to 30 years ago, there are now 39 per cent fewer international stories. Moreover, international news fell from 20 per cent to 11 per cent of stories over the same period. The report found similar declines in the prominence of these stories, with international stories falling from 33 per cent to 15 per cent of those in the first ten pages of the papers. At the same time focus has shifted towards stories which are essentially extensions of UK politics, or involving celebrities. Of the two stories on India the Mirror covered during the first three months of 2010, one was on the arrest of British plane spotters on suspicion of spying, the other on Lindsay Lohan's "life-changing" visit to the country.

Most significant, however, is the decline of on-the-ground foreign reporting, with fewer professional foreign correspondents than ever. The number of foreign reporters has declined for nearly all UK newspapers in the past 30 years. Even for the few exceptions, such as the Guardian and Observer's 18 and the Times' 24 staff foreign correspondents, foreign reporters have decreased as a proportion of total reporters. In contrast, the BBC has around 200 foreign correspondents, not including their numerous freelance journalists.

Part - or even much - of this is economic. A foreign bureau typically costs between $200,000 and $300,000. Even sending a single reporter and associated support to cover a single story - so-called "parachute journalism" - can cost £6000. Another factor is the rise of 24-hour and internet news sources, coupled with a rising feeling amongst newspaper editors that there simply isn't the appetite for serious international journalism amongst the newspaper-reading public and that they no longer need leave the newsroom to write their stories.

It would be easy to conclude that this is not a real problem. After all, the internet provides much faster access to information, and a greater choice over what we view. Right? In practice, less than 10 per cent of the UK population uses the internet to find their news. More specifically, the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, two of the largest US papers committed to international news, reach just 0.3 per cent of the UK population each month, and the Telegraph and Guardian websites reach just over 1 per cent of the UK audience.

Moreover, while there certainly are some significant benefits to the rise of internet news and the citizen journalism it has enabled, these cannot replace some of the crucial functions of professional, on-the-ground, journalism. For one thing, it means an increasing prevalence of reactive journalism. When the story of the Israeli assault on the aid ship Mavi Marmara as it attempted to cross the Gaza blockade in May this year, for example, only one UK newspaper had written about the boat and the flotilla. To the UK press, the event came as a complete surprise, whereas even a little prior background knowledge would have told us that the ship couldn't have realistically reached Gaza without some form of contact or confrontation with Israeli forces. Similarly, there is a risk of relying on NGOs for foreign reporting in many areas of the world, not least as these are usually pursuing a particular agenda that doesn't necessarily entail a balanced appraisal of the situation at hand.

The greatest risk of all, though, if that of relying on too few primary news sources. Without dedicated reporters on the ground, we have nobody to bear witness to events, to record, illustrate, and, above all, question what is happening. We will have fewer scoops, and hence less scrutiny of those with power around the world. Fewer reporters also means that any mistakes are repeated and magnified and institutionalised into the internet. It becomes easier for primary newsgathering to be shaped by a limited set of concerns, whether intentionally or otherwise. With fewer intelligent filters and moderators, it becomes harder for people to find and contextualise their news, and awareness of international affairs risks becoming even more of a minority pursuit than it is today.

The report highlights the crucial position of BBC, and the World Service in particular, as one of the last bastions of foreign reporting in the UK, and the extent to which we would be impoverished without them. The BBC has been earmarked under the recent spending review for "delicious" real-term cuts, with the World Service, currently funded by a Foreign Office grant, facing a budget cut of up to 25 per cent. Of all the services the BBC provides, Shrinking World shows just how unique and valuable the World Service is.