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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Hanging up the microphone
By Stephen Sackur
BBC News, Brussels

So what happens when a foreign correspondent finally hangs up his microphone? Stephen Sackur, who has reported from Jerusalem, Cairo, Washington and Brussels is swapping his nomadic life as a correspondent for the comfort of a television studio and new role as presenter of BBC HARDtalk.
Stephen Sackur
Stephen Sackur during his time as BBC Washington correspondent

The phone rang at an inconvenient moment. I was trying to find one of my daughter's socks, which had miraculously escaped while stuck in the washing machine.

"Where are you?" said the voice. It was a producer colleague. He had the urgent tone of a man on the edge of nervous collapse.

"In Brussels, at home with the kids," I said, one hand still probing the insides of the washing machine. "Why what's up?"

"It's the Pope," he explained. "It looks like the end. I need to know if you're available".

"Well, my wife's in Beirut," I said. "I've got three kids round my legs; you know, I'm on leave and I'm about to start a new job, so..."

My answer trailed away. I was heading towards the word "No," but I couldn't quite get there.

"Forget it," said the voice briskly. "I figured you weren't an option, but I had to try. Don't worry we'll find someone else".


So ended a decade and a half as a foreign correspondent.

The death of the Pope forsaken for a missing sock. A final reminder that in the hard-bitten business of news there is, ultimately, always someone else.

But I will miss the phone calls. Those summons to immediate, drop-everything action have been a major part of my working life.

The instant knot in the stomach, the frantic dash to the airport; they may seem like dubious pleasures, but the buzz is irresistible; it's the sense of being in the thick of something important, of writing the first draft of a story that matters.

1989 protest in Prague
An early assignment: Reporting from the 1989 Velvet Revolution
My addiction - and I suppose that's what it's been - took hold in Prague. The Velvet Revolution of 1989. I was a cub radio reporter despatched by a trusting editor to convey the spirit of the crowds gathering nightly in Wenceslas Square.

I remember being overwhelmed by the singing, the communal ache for freedom given haunting voice. I dutifully recorded my report and prepared to file it to London. Only then did it dawn on me... I hadn't the foggiest idea how.

I'd been issued with a strange contraption known as a mutterbox. It had leads and a set of crocodile clips, but no instructions. I threw myself on the mercies of a very senior BBC colleague who proceeded to dismantle my old bakelite hotel phone with a screwdriver.

He did something mysterious with the croc clips and within seconds I was through to BBC HQ.

I turned to my celebrated colleague, tears of gratitude glistening in my eyes. "You're a disgrace," he growled. "If you don't know how to use your equipment you don't bloody well deserve to be here".


So I grew up fast in foreign news. I had to. It was, and is, a highly competitive business.

There's a flip-side to this extraordinary job. I've seen it in myself. A tendency toward vanity, self-absorption and callousness
Now, of course, there's a temptation to go all misty-eyed about those past assignments. The night in Israel when Rabin was shot, the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton, the day the US Supreme Court decided the identity of the US president.

I'm leaving with a host of powerful memories, but my feelings about the job are best distilled in two very different episodes.

The first came in Iraq. A country especially dear to me, as my wife's homeland. It was there I saw the most distressing sight of my life. Men and women clawing at the earth, uncovering the first of the mass graves discovered after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Thousands of stinking corpses came out of the ground that day. I saw infants with bullet holes blown through their skulls. I was the only reporter there. I sensed in that Iraqi field that I was a necessary witness, in the right place at the right time.

But there's a flip-side to this extraordinary job. I've seen it in myself. A tendency toward vanity, self-absorption and callousness. Picture for a moment the scene on the morning of the 11 September 2001.

I was on assignment in Nicaragua, far from my base in Washington DC. I watched the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on a flickering TV. And then I called my wife back home. She was tearful and distraught. Our kids had been rushed out of school in an emergency drill. It felt, she said, like war had broken out.

"God this is awful," I said with feeling. "I know," she replied, "there may be thousands dead".

"I don't mean that", I snapped. "I'm talking about me. I'm missing the biggest story of my life."

Every so often my wife reminds me of that shameful sentiment. But she doesn't need to. I haven't forgotten it.

Being a foreign correspondent is the best job in the world as long as you know when to stop. And for me, it's time to stop.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 16 April, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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Farewell to Uncle Sam
13 Jul 02 |  From Our Own Correspondent



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