Barefoot correspondents tell what it's really like


By Pip Hinman

Ever fancied yourself as a barefoot foreign correspondent? Spending nights on trains (to save money) on the way to conferences, meeting dignitaries and famous people and being the first to break the lead story. Apart from the normal sorts of inconveniences which come with negotiating life on a shoestring budget, foreign correspondents for Green Left Weekly highly recommend life on the road in faraway places.

Unlike others, GL's foreign correspondents haven't spent years in tired newsrooms, learning professional cynicism. Neither have most graduated from courses in "objective" journalism. No, these journalists' training has largely come from what's been dealt them in real life — rather like the people they write about.

Of course, while fun and interesting, the job was a demanding one, Frank Noakes and Catherine Brown, GL's recently returned European correspondents told me.

The pressure was on to provide — and quickly — the complete background to any number of events taking place, Noakes said. "You felt that you were expected to be an instant expert." While most other foreign correspondents seemed happy enough to write their stories from prepared texts or kits (if they hadn't already prepared something before arriving at the event), Noakes and Brown made sure that they acquainted themselves with the issues beforehand and were not afraid to ask questions.

"Some of the international press people seemed amazed that, firstly, we asked questions, and secondly, we seemed to know what we were talking about", Brown said. On more than one occasion they were singled out for special attention by political activists keen to get wider coverage of their struggles. For example, at a Scottish National Party conference, attended by about 400 people, Noakes and Brown arrived late and joined the press gallery during a keynote speech given by the SNP's vice-president, Stewart Hosie. Noticing them arrive he looked up, grinned and waved. When, at the end of his speech, he ascended and sat between the two of them, eager to hear their comments and questions, they were surrounded by raised eyebrows and noses which seemed noticeably out of joint.

But, as Noakes explained, GL was the first left press to give the SNP coverage. The left press in Britain has generally taken a narrow and sectarian approach to the development of this party, which now boasts thousands of members. "Despite the fact that this is a working-class party, supported by a broad range of people (some were even wearing kilts at the conference) and having a real discussion on strategy, the left press hasn't been very sympathetic. We were encouraged by this development in Scottish politics and wanted to inform GL's readers. They, of course, were very happy to oblige."

Noakes and Brown were based in London, covering political developments in east and west Europe for just over a year from July 1991. Besides that, they also attended gatherings such as a conference in Geneva on Palestine at which Yasser Arafat and Oliver Tambo spoke; the unity conference between the east and west German Green parties in Leipzig, a Sinn Fein women's conference and its annual conference and an anti-G7 conference in Munich at which 3000 anti-Maastricht demonstrators went ahead with their rally despite the 9000 or so police in riot gear.

The initial culture shock, they said, passed pretty quickly. Taking part in some militant mass anti-racist and anti-Maastricht rallies made them feel a long way from home. But these events, alas, weren't the daily routine. Between the rallies, conferences and interviews, life was a little more mundane; Noakes and Brown would spend the majority of their week in a farm outside a relatively isolated village east of London, reading and clipping articles, preparing backgrounders and sweating over their stories for GL's weekly Friday deadline.

Only occasionally did language become a barrier. Usually there was someone around who would translate for them, Brown said. But on one occasion, at a Greens conference in Germany, having searched in vain for help, they decided to set up a table display of GLs. Almost immediately they were surrounded by interested people, many of whom spoke English — and bought copies of the paper!

Both Noakes and Brown say that GL was a very influential calling card. "It opened all sorts of doors, and solicited a range of complimentary comments", Brown said. "We were never without a place to stay. People went to some lengths to make us feel comfortable, even if it was occasionally on the floor! They were amazed that GL is produced with such minimal resources. In fact, they often asked how often it came out, as if they couldn't quite believe it was possible to get a weekly out on such a minimalist budget."

"In terms of look and style, GL is unique in the Western world", Noakes said. There isn't a paper like it in Germany, for instance, despite the mass membership of the Green Party. And in France, a spokesperson for the Green Party's international department told Brown that he was sure there was no other green party internationally that gets out anything like GL.

Tony Benn, the British left Labour leader, singled out GL for special praise. According to Noakes, Benn is very critical of the British left press for its Eurocentrism. "In contrast, Benn thought the 'striking feature' of GL was its coverage of Third World and Asian issues."

Another outstanding feature of GL since its inception over three years ago has been its coverage of the anti-apartheid struggle against the white minority regime in South Africa. And, in an effort to ensure that the progressive movement here gets an accurate account of South Africa's first non-racial and democratic elections in April, GL's Norm Dixon is about to become the next barefoot correspondent — in Johannesburg.

"I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that for activists and left-minded people, GLW's coverage has been indispensable for understanding the exciting events that have forced the apartheid regime to negotiate its own demise. South Africa is on the verge of electing its first majority rule government, led by the African National Congress, and we want to have first-hand coverage", Dixon told me.

Through the pages of GLW our readers, and the left-wing movement in many other parts of the world, will have an opportunity to hear the thinking of key leaders of the organisations leading the democratic struggle — the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

While Johannesburg is said to be the "murder capital" of the world, Dixon is not daunted. His coverage of the anti-apartheid struggle to date has generated many close contacts and friends. Anyway, he told me, only someone on the spot can hope to cover the elections at a deeper level. "Such historic events cannot be covered adequately from Sydney just by phone interviews or fax messages."

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