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Celebrating 'Foreign Correspondent': 30 Years Reporting the World

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With conflicts across the globe, including in our own region, ABC’s flagship international program has never been more important. And the credit goes to reporters, producers, researchers, camera crews, editors and other skilled staff who have kept the program prominent, even in times when the ABC itself showed scant support. Former executive producer Greg Wilesmith has this tribute.

It’s been a wild ride for Foreign Correspondent

By Greg Wilesmith / 27 July 2022

For many years at the start of this century I had one of the best jobs in the world as executive producer of Foreign Correspondent. Later I had an even better job as a travelling field producer on the show. Foreign was my life for the better part of 13 years. My only regret is that apart from a few guest spots as Europe Correspondent in the late 90s I never had the very best job, namely as a reporter for Foreign – but for that you needed real talent.

So here we are at 30. Foreign, which came to life in a leaky tin shed on the side of the Pacific Highway at the ABC’s Gore Hill studios in Sydney, has shaken off any teenage insecurities, not to mention the troublesome twenties. Now it’s a mature, sophisticated, prize-winning interpreter of the world. What a pity then that the ABC thinks that it doesn’t deserve a full-time gig, on the air every week.

Let me hold the critique for a minute. Fact: it is remarkable achievement for any television program to survive for five or ten years, let alone 30. So the truth is the cinematographers, sound recordists, editors, reporters, directors, researchers, archivists, producers, production managers, colour graders, sound mixers, graphic artists and countless others who have crewed Foreign Correspondent over the decades deserve a huge round of applause for the excellence of their work. Australians are better informed about a rapidly changing world thanks to the feature length reports produced by Foreign Correspondent.

In 1992 when you set out on a story, the first port of call was probably the newspaper clipping library. Voluminous files awaited. A few facts gathered and it was back to the office where a phone and fax (and possibly even the newsroom telex) were your connections to the world. Setting up stories in Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific were an exercise in extreme patience. Now of course almost every village in Africa has at least one person with a mobile phone. But you still need patience. And determination to get the story. And the skill to make it sing.

Foreign celebrates 30 years with a one-hour special this Thursday called A Wild Ride, produced by the indomitable Deborah Richards. Great title, great show (I’ve seen most of it). Please watch.

And while watching, think of this. But for two News Directors, Foreign wouldn’t exist. Back in 1992, the program was Peter Manning’s idea. He persuaded then Managing Director David Hill to find the money to resource it generously – for ABC financial types, too generously. The program was always a target for the bean counters.

In 2003, the year I became EP of the program, papers were issued to ABC Board members. Foreign Correspondent was to be axed. It was saved by the valiant efforts of then News Director Max Uechtritz – himself, of course, a veteran foreign correspondent. The compromise agreed with Managing Director Russell Balding was that a million dollars was to be sliced from the program’s budget. It wasn’t easy, the production manager was a magician and we lived to travel on in 2004.

But that didn’t stop the annual raids on Foreign’s travel budget. Successive executive producers spent a disproportionate amount of time fighting for resources – rather than directing the editorial and creative elements of the program. Over time, working conditions were wound back. No longer could Foreign send sound recordists on shoots. Then there was the great producer purge of 2014, a mass sacking by spreadsheet (too old, too expensive). 

On air Foreign’s presence sank along with the budget. At one stage down to 22 programs a year, split across several seasons, whereas previously FC had been broadcast at least 40 and sometimes 44 weeks a year. Every year as budgets were screwed tighter the axe was waved over Foreign’s head. 

Another headache for Foreign Correspondent was that the ABC pulled back from international coverage, which meant that there were fewer correspondents around the world capable of reporting a feature story. Bureaus closed included Brussels, Moscow (wasn’t that a brilliant masterstroke) and Nairobi. Bureaus downsized included New Delhi and Tokyo.

Yet for all that unreasonable pressure on its staff and budget, Foreign Correspondent has survived and in recent years - and during COVID – thrived, reviving its broadcast audience and finding a vast digital audience, domestic and international. Long may it continue.

Let me leave you with a quote from a founding reporter on Foreign Correspondent, Peter George, on what it’s like when after a long journey to difficult places you bring a story to the edit room:

When you come home a story is like your little baby. You think it’s wonderful, you think it’s beautiful; it’s going to be troublesome, it’s going to be difficult to deal with, but you know you have this beautiful little baby that you want to show off to everybody. The editor sees what you’ve shot, not what you think you’ve shot. They know its flaws, they know its strengths, and they know its weaknesses. A good editor is the crucial part of the team in some ways because all the sound and all the pictures and all the words can be brought together. A good editor laying good music tracks, good sound tracks, making sure that the edits for the interviews are perfect, can turn a fairly ordinary story into a good-looking story, and can turn a really good story into something that you can feel quite proud of.

Foreign Correspondent’s 30th Anniversary program ‘A WILD RIDE’ airs on ABC TV at 8 pm on Thursday 28 July. It will also be available on iview, Facebook and YouTube.

Further reading: Born into the hopeful world of 1992, Foreign Correspondent remains crucial as the Cold War chill returns by Jonathan Holmes, founding EP of Foreign Correspondent (and ABC Alumni Chair).

Photos supplied by Foreign Correspondent and former staff.

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