Magazine article The Spectator

The End of the Foreign News Empire

Magazine article The Spectator

The End of the Foreign News Empire

Article excerpt

Not so long ago all of our newspapers took foreign news very seriously. And not just the upmarket ones. The Daily Express, which only the other day dispensed with the services of its American stringer, had some 30 staff foreign correspondents as recently as the early Sixties. One of its foreign writers, Rene McColl, was a household name, as famous in his day as the person who introduces the National Lottery draw is in ours.

Now only the Financial Times covers foreign news with reverence, and it can be rather bland. I read its foreign pages when feeling especially virtuous and in need of self-improvement. The other broadsheets do their best but their hearts are not entirely in it. As for the tabloids, 'abroad' scarcely exists, save as that realm into which British people sometimes stumble, a world where a British housewife may happen to take her youthful lover.

What has happened? One explanation often cited is lack of money. Foreign news is very expensive. This is not the main reason, I can assure you. Most newspapers are more profitable than they were 30 or 40 years ago. The Daily Mail, if it chose, could have a correspondent in every major capital, but it does not. Besides, new technology makes the whole business less expensive than it used to be, as we discovered when setting up the foreign pages of the Independent. A correspondent with a laptop computer in a flat is all you really need. Thirty years ago you would have probably had an office with all the trimmings, a telex operator and other office personnel.

Another explanation put forward is the `dumbing down' of newspapers and broadcasting organisations. They have fallen into the hands of marketing men who believe that Ulan Bator is the name of the new West Ham striker. Here we may be nearer the truth of things. There is an assumption even on our broadsheets that readers have intellectual problems grasping the concept of 'abroad', even though they love nothing more than jumping into the Volvo and heading for Tuscany. As for women readers, they surely don't wish to bother their tiny heads with the composition of the French Cabinet.

There may be some truth in this view of things, though it seems to me to presume too much on our ignorance and insularity. But if we are less concerned than our parents and grandparents about abroad - less concerned, perhaps, than we were even ten years ago - why should this be so? Part of the

answer is to be found in an enchanting new book by Richard Beeston. Looking for Trouble (Brassey's, 16.95) sets out only to tell the story of Mr Beeston's fascinating experiences as a foreign correspondent, but in the process it helps to explain why international affairs grip us less than they used to.

When Mr Beeston arrived in Cyprus in the early 1950s to work for a radio station, `Britain was still the dominant power' in the Middle East. So it was in Africa, where Mr Beeston was sent many times over the next 20 years, first for the News Chronicle and then the Daily Telegraph. In the Gulf, Lebanon and East and Southern Africa, Mr Beeston found himself writing about the dismemberment of Empire and its consequences. And this great story, inescapably interesting to many British readers, was intertwined with another irresistible drama: the Cold War. Mr Beeston ended up as the Telegraph's bureau chief in Moscow and Washington, but behind almost every war and coup he covered in Africa and the Middle East lay the same East-West conflict. …

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