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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 March 2005, 11:24 GMT
The end of being on the road
Stephen Sackur
By Stephen Sackur
Europe Correspondent

From the first Gulf war to 9/11, Stephen Sackur covered it all in his 15 years as a foreign correspondent. Now, as he prepares to take on a new challenge in the studio, he looks back at his time on the road.

Stephen Sackur
After 15 years on the road, Stephen Sackur will host Hardtalk on News 24

I got an email the other day that sent a chill down my spine - from Newsgathering HQ.

It suggested that all correspondents should feed their reports at least 20 minutes before the beginning of the relevant news bulletin.

The reason? Something incomprehensible to do with digital servers.

Though this was a message despatched to all overseas news gatherers I took it personally. After all I've spent the past 15 years refining my unerring ability to file late.

My theory has always been that time expands as you get closer to feed-time. If Einstein were alive, I'd seek out his views on the subject.

But as he's not, I've reluctantly been forced to accept the collective opinion of the dozens of brilliant producers and VT editors I've worked with over the years.

They say I'm wrong. Time does not start to expand at three minutes to six. Instead it's their blood pressure that exhibits extreme volatility.

Which may explain why so many dear colleagues of mine have felt the need to lie down in a darkened room after a "challenging" edit with the Middle East/ Washington/ Europe correspondent.

'You're a disgrace... if you don't know how to operate your equipment you don't bloody well deserve to be here'. My on-the-job education had begun

So here's my opportunity to apologise to all the brilliant editors whose stress levels have yet to recover.

I'm sorry. Well, a little bit sorry; but let's be honest, isn't the adrenaline rush of a frantic edit part of the fun?

Fun. A small word which serves better than most to encapsulate my feelings towards the job I've done for the past decade and a half.

But now, somewhat earlier than I'd anticipated, I'm jumping off the foreign correspondents' carousel. So it's as good a time as any to reflect on the past and the future of one of the best jobs the BBC has to offer.

When I first struck out for foreign parts, I was a young and blissfully ignorant radio correspondent. Not just wet behind the ears; soggy all over.

Tedious old codger

On my first big story, the collapse of Communist regimes across Eastern Europe in 1989, I was despatched with a microphone, a tape recorder and a "mutterbox".

The latter was a strange contraption to be attached by way of crocodile clips to the telephone, to enable transmission of radio material to London.

Stephen Sackur
A familiar TV memory for millions - Stephen reports from Washington

I hadn't the foggiest idea how to make it work. Indeed, during the Velvet Revolution in Prague I was forced to turn to a very senior colleague for some technical advice.

He produced a screwdriver, proceeded to dismantle the old Bakelite hotel phone and did something mysterious with the croc clips. Within seconds I was through to Donna Eaton, the saintly traffic manager.

I turned to thank my colleague, tears of gratitude glistening in my eyes.

"You're a disgrace," he growled. "If you don't know how to operate your equipment you don't bloody well deserve to be here."

My on-the-job education had begun. Forgive me for sounding like the tedious old codger in the corner of the bar, but things really were different when I was a mere slip of a correspondent.

Safety, for example, was nothing like the priority it is today. On one particularly hair-raising assignment in Sri Lanka I found myself hiding in a ditch as Sri Lankan army forces exchanged fire with Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

I lost count of the times I said 'this is the biggest story we'll ever cover'. Every time I was proved wrong. Usually within a week

The nearest working phone was perhaps 20 miles away. Never mind a flak jacket and a first aid kit, I didn't even have a sticking plaster.

No one in the BBC knew where I was. The entire enterprise was bone-headed madness. But that's the way things worked in the dim and distant days of 1989.

I grew up fast in foreign news. It's a competitive business with little room for sentiment.

TV egomaniacs

I reported the first Iraq war of '91 in a British military pool alongside Kate Adie and Martin Bell. They would have ripped their own eyeballs out to be first with the news of the fall of Kuwait.

In the event, that particular story fell to none of us, and the stench of frustration in our reporters' tent was more pungent than a British military toilet.

But the Middle East got under my skin in a way no other story ever did.

Stephen Sackur
Stephen in his radio days, reporting from Baghdad in 1991

I stayed in the region as Cairo Correspondent until 1995 and then moved on to Jerusalem. It was there that I started to do some television, after an early career devoted to radio.

As was the way with many radio reporters, I'd always regarded TV with a mix of supercilious disdain and barely concealed envy.

Television news was superficial. The words were banal and the pictures distracting. And besides, TV reporters were egomaniacs while radio people were selfless pursuers of truth.

And then there was Jeremy Bowen.

Actually working alongside Jeremy in the BBC's small Jerusalem office was a wonderful education in the craft and the value of television news.

Yasser Arafat came back from exile; Yitzhak Rabin sought peace and was assassinated for his trouble; the suicide bombers began to do their worst; and through it all our bureau buzzed with a collaborative commitment to the story which I've never forgotten.

It was a wrench to leave, but the BBC prised me out with a single word: "Washington".

Over the years I've been able to interview presidents and prime ministers. I even got to spend a day with one of my boyhood idols... Terry Yorath

I had five extraordinary years in the US capital; a dizzying spiral of momentous events: the Lewinsky scandal, the Clinton impeachment; the tied election; the Florida show-down; 9/11; the global war on terror; Afghanistan and then Iraq.

I lost count of the times I said to Bureau Chief Andrew Roy: "This is the biggest story we'll ever cover." Every time I was proved wrong. Usually within a week.

Competitive business

Of all the events that have redefined our world, perhaps none can compare with the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

But 9/11 was, for me, also an unforgettable example of my uncanny ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This BBC Washington correspondent watched the drama of that terrible September morning unfold on a TV screen in Nicaragua.

We were there to film a Newsnight piece on the Nicaraguan elections. (Funnily enough, a film that never got made...) but instead we drove 1,500 miles non-stop from Mexico to Washington.

It was a desperate bid to get back for the biggest story of our lives. Also, a desperate bid to beat the private plane full of BBC colleagues flying in from Stansted. We made it. As I said, it's a competitive business.

Over the years I've been able to interview presidents and prime ministers. I even got to spend a day with one of my boyhood idols, Terry Yorath, the tough-tackling Leeds United midfielder, who became coach of the Lebanese football team.

Former Hardtalk presenter Tim Sebastian is pursuing new projects

But two particular encounters stand out from my 15 years on the road.

The first was personal. While in Baghdad after the war, I was able to visit the long-abandoned childhood home of my Iraqi-born wife.

I drank coffee with the grizzled caretaker who has looked after the house for the last two decades. He gave me a precious kiss for "little Zina".

The other encounter came more recently, during the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I visited the death camp with survivor Esther Brunstein and her grandson David. I will carry the memory of that experience with me always.

Art of argument

But that's enough of the reminiscences. I'm off to Hardtalk to learn something new: the art of the interview. Or as some might see it, the art of the argument.

Washington producer Sanjay Singhal once claimed that I was the most argumentative man he'd ever met. Maybe that's why I got the job.

It promises to be an invigorating challenge. No more shouted questions at news conferences. No more interviews spent fishing for a 20-second clip.

Instead the chance to be rigorous and relentless with the movers and shakers of the 21st century. It's a unique and exciting job.

But more fun than being a foreign correspondent? Now that, as they say in American sports, is a big ask.


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