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Vale John Tulloh - Internationally-Renowned News Leader

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ABC Alumni is deeply saddened by the death of our esteemed colleague John Tulloh, on Saturday 20 August at the age of 82. John was a distinguished journalist and international news editor, revered by broadcasters across the world. As the much-loved leader of ABC’s foreign correspondents from 1985 until his retirement in 2004, he guided his team with wisdom, expertise and extraordinary care and compassion. Here, four of his closest friends and colleagues pay tribute to a man whose contribution to the ABC’s international coverage, and Australian audiences’ understanding of our world, is incalculable – and enduring.

Remembering John Tulloh

– by Walter Hamilton

In the mid-1980s, the ABC news division was split between radio and television. Although the industry trend would later turn back towards media convergence, due to the digital revolution, at this moment in time the ABC opted for media divergence.

The launch of The National, a new nightly television program, combining the genres of news and current affairs, announced the completion of the big policy shift. The program, alas, was short lived––audiences did not take to it––but one appointment that had a lasting and profound impact was that of John Tulloh, who became the first foreign editor for television news and current affairs in 1985.

The man who hired him, news and current affairs boss Bob Kearsley, knew he was onto a winner: “If I did anything at all at the ABC, the appointment of John was the best; traditionally, up until then, the management of foreign coverage was a bit of a dog's breakfast.”

While working in Asia in the 1970s, Kearsley got to know John as Visnews bureau chief in Hong Kong. Visnews – originally the British Commonwealth International Newsfilm agency – had been set up in 1957 by a consortium of broadcasters, among them the ABC, the BBC, NZBC and CBC (Canada). The American network NBC took up a share later. John Tulloh had joined Visnews in London as a scriptwriter in 1963 and later spent time in Singapore, Saigon and elsewhere assigning cameramen (it was still an almost exclusively male profession) and dispatching their film and ‘dope’ (script raw material) back to the syndication hub in London.

The Vietnam War was still raging, and Visnews staff such as cameraman Neil Davis would become famous shaping the way the world saw this and the conflict in Cambodia. Tulloh would write: “For me, the best news cameramen in the world are Australians. They are versatile, have a can-do attitude and an uncanny eye for the pictures that count.” Kearsley saw the same can-do attitude in John, and recognised him too as someone who was deeply caring: “He could make the wheels turn and invariably make the right decisions on stories, but John had a reputation for taking utmost care of the people who worked for him.”

John Tulloh did not immediately jump at the ABC offer. “He was wary from having dealings with the ABC for a hundred years, many of which were not always satisfactory,” says Kearsley.

“I was based in New York at the time for Visnews,” John would recall. “The ABC asked me for the second time if I would be interested in [coming to Sydney]. I decided I had achieved as much as I could at Visnews ... and, furthermore, I did not want to go through the rest of my life without another challenge. I had long thought about putting some competitive drive into the ABC's impressive foreign news network.”

The Adelaide boy also wanted to be closer to his parents.

His father Jack Tulloh had once worked as a journalist at The News, Adelaide's afternoon daily, where John later obtained a cadetship. It was a close-knit family – only 22 minutes separated John from his twin sister Helen when they were born in June 1940. There were two other sisters, one of whom, Ann, remembers: “Our Dad told stories about hiking in the Black Forest and the Lake District, skiing in Austria and doing the walk from London to Brighton. Lots of interesting stories to soak up; the seeds were sown! Learning at an early age about far distant places instilled in John a curiosity to travel and discover for himself how the world operated.”

The tall and lanky 20-year-old set out to see the world in January 1961, travelling aboard the Greek liner Patris (described as a 'rust bucket' by some passengers). After time spent in Zurich at the International Press Institution – to which his former editor at The News, Rohan Rivett, had retreated after falling out with Rupert Murdoch – John headed to London. At this time, Visnews operated out of an old Rank Organisation studio or film lab in Acton.

Australian journalists arriving in London often turned up looking for work. Tony Maniaty was one: “I asked where I could find John Tulloh and found the door, on which in white plastic letters on pegboard was stuck: ‘WOR D EDI OR’. The ‘L’ and the ‘T’ had fallen off long ago. My enthusiasm rapidly sagging, I dragged open the sliding door and there was the man: surrounded by piles of newspapers, magazines, yellowing paperwork. Any doubts were overturned in minutes. John proved a ball of sunshine, and so began a long and happy working and personal relationship. When I departed Visnews in 1974, I asked John for a reference. He said, ‘Do you want the five-pound version or the ten-pound one?’”

Friendship and work merged into one for John. On hearing of the death in 2013 of Murray Sayle, a scribe who made his name writing for bigtime British and American publications, he conjured up this memory: “I spent an entertaining day with him in Calcutta in the early ’70s as Hindu refugees poured out of what was then East Pakistan.” This was during the Indo-Pakistani war, as Bangladesh came into being. Succinct prose and vivid word pictures were his forte.

John spent 19 years at the ABC, before retiring as Head of International Operations in 2004. During his time there, the Berlin Wall fell, the Chinese government crushed democracy in Tiananmen Square, the Twin Towers crumpled before the world's eyes, wars consumed untold numbers of lives in the Middle East, central Europe and elsewhere... so many important stories covered with distinction by the ABC largely thanks to his drive and skilful organisation.

Philip Williams, who became Chief Foreign Correspondent, summed him up: “A mentor, a gentle critic, he made us all better at what we did. Perhaps no single person contributed more to Australia’s knowledge of the wider world than JT.”

Yes, ‘JT’ was his familiar tag. An old friend, John Brittle (‘JB’), who first met John at The News in 1959, and remained a close friend, explains the origin of the habit: “Referring to each other by our initials grew out of the Visnews system of addressing messages to staff abroad. If I sent a message from NY to JT in London, through the Reuter system, it would be addressed ‘Pro JT ex JB’ and messages to me were ‘Pro JB ex JT'.”

Jane Hutcheon, ABC correspondent in Hong Kong, remembers an occasion when she slammed the phone down on a diplomat bending her ear about a story he didn't like: “I knew it was the wrong thing to do. Full of remorse, I poured out my story to JT. He listened. He didn’t rush to judge me. When I had finished, JT calmly said that under no circumstances should the diplomat have contacted me directly and that he would call him and tell him that himself.” It did the trick.

John was always ready to help a colleague in need, no matter how much it cut into his personal time. Andrew Ailes followed him in various Visnews roles: “Following John around the world has not been easy. I often felt like the page trailing behind good King Wenceslas marching through the snow. The staff get rather too comfortable with a boss who works 12 hours day, seven days a week and does everything with the greatest patience and diligence. I once watched the whole of Gone With The Wind, waiting for him to come out to dinner on a quiet Saturday.”

The stresses and frustrations of being a foreign editor rarely dented John's humour. Trevor Bormann recalls: “In 1991 I was tasked with setting up a new bureau in Amman, Jordan – the ABC wanted a greater presence in the Arab world after the Gulf War. JT approved leases for an office and my home, [as well as for] locally engaged staff – there was an almost daily request by me for more expenditure. This comes from a fax he sent me: ‘We are so concerned about your aversion to strolling up and down the seven jebels (hills) of Amman that we have concluded your 4W-drive proposal is a good one. Driver: no problem, go ahead. What's your next request –a butler?’”

John insisted that his correspondents get out into field and tap into the attitudes and experiences of the ‘main street’, as former Washington correspondent Craig McMurtrie remembers: “JT always had a much broader outlook than the hamster wheel churn of political, market and showbiz news generated out of London, Washington and New York. He was resolute on the importance of on-the-ground foreign reporting.” When, from retirement, JT heard that the ABC was contemplating cuts to international newsgathering, he was appalled at the idea of “knowingly blowing up a vital asset”. He emailed Craig, who was now in management: “Remember you are one of the many who distinguished themselves in the overseas trenches. It would be a tragedy for the ABC to go down the reported path. Do the right thing!”

John could pick up the phone at any time to the BBC, CNN, TVRI (Indonesia), NHK (Japan), NBC or other major broadcaster and obtain help to improve the logistics and resources available to an ABC reporter or cameraman in the field. He husbanded the limited money available for foreign coverage by anticipating events and knowing exactly when a story had run its course.

Katie Burrell worked alongside him on the desk in Sydney for many years: “When satellites looked doomed to fail and communications were down, JT would calmly type away on the old clickety-clack telex machine at Gore Hill or help by dialling numerous numbers to reach the TV station feed-point to help get the story fed and to air. Every role in the chain mattered, and one never stopped learning from him.”

Verica Jokic was another producer who saw him at close quarters: “’Good then’ and ‘Lovely’ were words he used if he was happy with the day’s progress. A puzzled look would come across his face if he felt otherwise. That’s when you knew more research was needed, or clarity of thought was required. JT had the right mix of authority, intellect and humour. Everyone was treated as an equal and that always brought out the best in his staff.”

Verica's old boss kept in touch with her, and recollections he shared with her late in life somehow capture the man better than anything else:

Back in 1973, I went for a wonderful trip through what is now Burkina Faso (minus Islamic marauders), Mali and the Ivory Coast. In Abidjan, on the way to the airport, I stopped at the market and bought a huge pineapple. It started to ripen on the flight back to Paris. The French cabin crew were so overcome by the aroma that they told me they were tempted to cut it open. It made it back to London safely and I could not have wished for a better taste. 

I've just come across a box of slides (!) taken in a 1973 trip to Upper Volta, as it was then, Mali and Timbuktu. It was a wonderful adventure. I've never forgotten the kindness of an impoverished African village sharing their guinea fowl meal with us when we camped there, and wanted nothing in return.

JT shared his 'guinea fowl' with countless others in the news profession. They thank him for it dearly.


The ABC’s Good Fortune

– by Ian Macintosh

In 1985 Bob Kearsley, then Director of TV News & Current Affairs, hired 45-year-old John (JT) Tulloh to become International Editor at Gore Hill. Unbeknown to many of his ABC colleagues at the time JT was already one of international broadcast journalism’s finest newsgathering editors.

He’d spent the previous two decades learning and honing his formidable journalistic skills with Visnews, the international TV news agency of which the ABC had been a foundation partner with the BBC, CBC, NBC and NZBC.

From the Visnews headquarters in London and its New York, Singapore, Hong Kong and Saigon bureaus, as well as on field assignments which took him to major events and trouble spots around the world, JT was at the very top of his game when he arrived at the ABC.

As his new colleagues were very soon to discover.

There wasn’t an international desk at any serious television news broadcaster in the world that did not know John Tulloh. His personal contacts and friendships on all continents were legion. Nor was there an hour of the day or night when JT couldn’t rustle up someone somewhere overseas, call in a favour, arrange transportation or book urgent satellite feeds – all to ensure his correspondent, camera/sound and producer colleagues safely and successfully completed their distant assignments.

In what is often a frenzied business of pressure, tension and seemingly unattainable deadlines he was invariably calm, wise, obliging and supremely well informed.

The ABC’s newsgathering teams were blessed with a newsgathering editor who understood their demands, stresses, craft skills and foibles. And he always had their backs. Encouragement and support were given in public, counsel and correction privately.

JT’s enduring legacy was his commitment to the safety and well-being of newsgathering teams in the field, whether working for the ABC or some other organisation. That career-long focus was forged by both his innate decency and humanity as well as the personal tragedy of losing close friends and colleagues in the field – Roger East (East Timor, 1975), Neil Davis (Thailand, 1985), Mohamed Amin (Comoros Islands, 1996), Paul Moran (Iraq, 2003) and Paul Lockyer, John Bean and Garry Ticehurst (Lake Eyre, 2011).

JT felt each of those losses keenly, never forgetting their sacrifices nor losing contact with their grieving families and loved ones.

For mine, the most eloquent memorial to my dear friend was one he penned himself about journalists’ safety earlier this year for the Alumni.

That was John Philip Tulloh - always thinking of others.

Vale JT.


The Great Communicator

– by Greg Wilesmith

Memories of John Tulloh, the ABC’s remarkable veteran international editor start with a phone call, generally in the middle of the night because that’s so often when events happen.

“Hello Greg, JT here,” he’d say ever so politely in his characteristically breathy voice, “I wonder if you could get yourself to Baghdad.” Or sometimes Beirut or Jerusalem, or Cairo or some other less glamorous hellhole in the Middle East or North Africa.

As a correspondent there for four years, along with my wife Louisa Wright, in the late 1980s and early 90s John was my leader and I couldn’t have asked for a better one. Over time, professional regard turned into friendship.

I learned that John knew rather more about my part of the world than I did. Moreover, in those pre-internet days he knew more about international flight schedules than my travel agent. I suspect he slept with his much-thumbed airline guide.

By the time we stumbled to the office in the pre-dawn there’d be a fax or telex waiting which would outline JT’s plan for coverage of whatever story was considered significant enough to excite the sleepy news bosses at Gore Hill in Sydney.

John’s deep knowledge of the world and how to report it had been hard earned working for Visnews, the world’s biggest television news agency. By the time I lobbed into London in the late 70s and made my way to Visnews HQ in an industrial slum called Park Royal (where I found many of the staff in the bar upstairs), JT had the title of World Editor and presided over it from New York.

John brought a wealth of knowledge and excellent news judgement to the ABC in the mid-1980s and shook up its international coverage. This was just as well because the world was changing dramatically. The year 1989 saw the Tiananmen Square massacre, then the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the break-up of the Soviet Union in ’91.

In our patch on 2 August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait. Most of the next seven months was a blur of travel and reporting. The ABC mounted extensive coverage of the refugee exodus from Kuwait, then Operation Desert Storm, its consequences in Israel and Palestine and later the slaughter of the Kurds as Saddam Hussein embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing; a term much used in following years as the Balkans descended into war and genocide. I can only imagine the enormous amount of planning and people management that John engaged in to ensure that the ABC had the best possible coverage of these significant stories.

Through the Gulf War and later NATO’s war against Yugoslavia (1999) I was in pretty much daily contact with him. As much as we worked long hours, so did he. He always wanted to know that we were safe and had a capacity to get out of trouble if need be. Tulloh understood, like few others, that good journalism demanded robust logistics. There was little point in having the best story in the world if we couldn’t file it. And he was prepared to bust the budget. During the bombing of Belgrade he organised for large amounts of cash to be brought down from the ABC London office to Budapest and then smuggled across the border to the Serbian capital. At the end of the war he told me that the ABC team in Belgrade – Katy Cronin, Tim Bates and I – had spent more money on a single (three-month) assignment than anyone previously. He seemed quite proud of it.

The defining characteristic of John Tulloh’s leadership of the ABC’s international coverage was that he was The Great Communicator. John knew about the paranoia which is the constant of a correspondent’s life. We in the field needed to know that what we’d filed for radio and television news and current affairs had not just been used – but appreciated, even applauded.

Feedback was essential and from JT we got it – often in long faxes and later emails – which in an attempt to connect us with the real world (that is Australia) would often start with a weather report, inquiries about our health, our spouses and children, concerns about the fixer or driver we were using and so forth. Importantly the feedback was not just for the reporter on camera. Television is a team sport and JT was always supportive of the camera person and the sound recordist (yes we had them quite often back then) and the producer if there were one.

John Tulloh was the consummate professional. Astute, worldly, calm, organised, tireless.

He’ll be much missed.


A Caring Mentor and Leader

– by David Brill

I first met John some 50 years ago, when passing through Hong Kong with Mike Willesee and sound recordist Bob Sloss on a Four Corners assignment to Vietnam. We had to stay there overnight. John was the bureau chief for Visnews, now Reuters TV, and there he was at the airport to make sure that we got through customs alright with the equipment. He then went to the hotel with us, and took us out for a drink and checked that everything was well organised and going to plan for our trip to Vietnam. He didn’t work for the ABC, so this was over and above any call of duty. It’s just one example of the consideration for industry colleagues that epitomised the great John Tulloh.

The thing that I loved about John more than anything else was that he was a consistently nice, intelligent man who cared about everybody. More so than himself. And he was genuine.

Professionally in our business, John was a superstar in the true sense. He treated everybody the same, from the car driver to the managing director. He had great respect for cinematographers as well as reporters, and really understood what we did and the importance of storytelling with pictures. I remember as the years went on, and John was international editor at the ABC, I’d be in some hellhole around the world and, after filing a story, there would always be a telex from John under my hotel room door next morning, thanking me for the film I’d sent through. It would inevitably say something like: ‘Good morning David your story ran two minutes 40 last night on the nightly news and very well received cheers JT’. John never really like to be called ‘JT’ but as I pointed out, he started it himself by signing off his telexes, and later emails, with JT. I said, it’s your fault! But I never called him JT. Always John.

In earlier years I’d caught up a lot with John when I was based in New York for the ABC and John came there to set up the Visnews operations for North America from ground up, employing journalists, engineers, editors and so on. We became very close and every Sunday he’d come to my apartment and have bacon and eggs that my then wife cooked.

John was a man you could confide in, and his wisdom was always there. Through my life there were some ups and downs and John was incredibly understanding. Not once did he criticise me or put me down, but was always there with support and loyalty. The thing about John was his constant decency as a human being.

I spoke to John regularly during his recent illness, and feel privileged that I was able to visit him. He was in good spirits, despite being very unwell, and still more interested in how I was going than himself. We did a lot of talking about straightening out the ABC: he still took a tremendous interest in news and current affairs and storytelling.

I have tried over the years to be as good a man as John, with his values of life and his commitment to our industry. He was a real champion in journalism, and the ABC was so lucky to have had his leadership.


FUNERAL DETAILS:

John Tulloh’s funeral will be held at 11:30 am on Thursday 1 September at the Sacred Heart Church, 1 Keenan Street, Mona Vale (Sydney). The funeral will be streamed and can be accessed here a few minutes before the 11:30 am start. John is survived by his wife Barbara, as well as family, friends and colleagues around the world.


JOHN TULLOH’S LAST ARTICLE

After his retirement, John contributed stories about international reporting to various outlets. His last story was, fittingly, for ABC Alumni: Dangerous and Worrying Times, which gives an insight into the way he approached his work as well as being a tribute to his former colleagues.

FURTHER TRIBUTES:

Memories of my brother – John Tulloh, by Ann Tulloh (Pearls and Irritations, 25 August 2022)

ABC Statement on John Tulloh (ABC Online, 21 August 2022)


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