Making their mark abroad

Making their mark abroadGeoff Spencer – Head of programming, Microsoft Online Media, Singapore

At just 23, Geoff Spencer was arrested at gun-point in Kuwait.

He was held for a day by Kuwaiti secret police and military intelligence in a place where he could hear the cries of other suspects being tortured, before being released and deported back to Australia.

“I was scared shitless,” Mr Spencer said via telephone from his office in Singapore, where he now works as the head of programming for Microsoft Online Media, helping find ways for journalists to adapt to a rapidly changing media environment.

“I was just trying to take photographs of the scene with tanks on the street, after suicide bombers drove a truck into the US embassy in Kuwait [in 1983],” Mr Spencer recalled.

Kuwaiti officials saw him as a security threat, and after a day in custody, he was promptly escorted out of the country back to Bahrain. Before long, the Bahraini publication he was working for informed him his future was back in Australia.

Mr Spencer was happy to be back in a country that welcomed him back with open arms, after his ordeal in Kuwait. He was back in the country that gave him his start in journalism, learning to ply his trade at the Courier-Mail in Brisbane during the late 1970s.

“I just caught the tail end of the hot metal days when newsrooms were full of smoke, clatter and banter,” Mr Spencer said.

“Much of that came from being around crusty old pros in the newsroom. They were great mentors.”

When he returned, he found an insular media landscape, very different to when he began as a cadet with the Courier-Mail.

He approached two Sydney newspapers looking for a way to pay the bills, but to no avail.

“The chief-of-staff at one Sydney paper seemed perplexed when I came to him in search of work,” he said.

“His reaction to my Middle East adventure was: ‘Are you an Arab?’”

Soon after, he was hired by Australian Associated Press [AAP].

“I fell in love with wire work, particularly its immediacy and brevity,” he said.

“These are qualities that are now being rediscovered and realigned to suit the new 24/7 media world, particularly in the digital world.”

His work with AAP saw him sent to New Zealand as a correspondent to cover the aftermath of the Rainbow Warrior sinking and the subsequent ban on nuclear ships.

From there, he was sent to Fiji to cover the 1987 coup and other stories around the Pacific Islands.

Mr Spencer said it was disappointing that a lot of media organisations are cutting back on the importance of foreign correspondents.

“My advice to Australians wanting to work overseas is this: just go,” he said.

“The days of correspondents being sent abroad are over, largely because of shrinking newsroom budgets. If you wait for someone to send you, you might wait a long time.”

He said it was disappointing that news organisations were often overlooking the importance of a story in our region.

“A lot of the coverage tends to be through the lens of Canberra and it becomes not a story in itself – it’s a story related to the events happening in Canberra.

“People tend to look over the millions of helpless refugees fleeing persecution to focus on 100 people on a boat or something Julia Gillard says that day.”

Mr Spencer’s passion for the Asia Pacific region resonated strongly and after a short stint of working for New York-based wire service The Associated Press [AP] as its Sydney correspondent, he took over the agency’s Jakarta bureau.

He pressed hard for the posting, knowing well that dictator Suharto’s demise was overdue. He worked during the subsequent violent and chaotic scenes, which led to the breakaway of East Timor.

After Mr Spencer’s time in Jakarta came to an end, he moved to Bangkok as AP’s first Asia editor for three years. He also spent three years in New York as a vice-president for communications at the Asia Society think tank, before taking the position with Microsoft and coming back to Asia.

He said his role at the forefront of the changing media landscape was difficult, but one that he thoroughly relished.

“It’s a hell of a challenge,” Mr Spencer said. “The whole media landscape is in flux.”
“What we’re seeking to do, and what a lot of the other players in the industry are trying to do, is to find a formula that can carry on journalism in a business way so it can survive and flourish.

“[But] it doesn’t matter that what you write is on a website.

“You’re still reaching people, you’re still telling stories.”

Peter Bale – VP and general manager CNN International Digital, London

CNN International Digital vice-president and general manager Peter Bale considers himself a fortunate man, but his rise to the top of the international broadcaster has been anything but luck.

He was in London on July 7, and he was in Kuwait City during the first Gulf War … before all that, he was a persistent high school graduate in New Zealand.

“I try not to look back that much, but I am well aware how lucky I have been,” Mr Bale said.

“I was particularly fortunate that small New Zealand newspapers gave a pushy person straight out of high school several chances.”

The New Zealand native began his career by working at local newspapers in his home country, but his aim was to eventually ply his trade overseas.

“Growing up with the New Zealand Herald and TVNZ evening news and great world events like Vietnam, Watergate and the Lebanon Civil War meant that I always had a keen interest in being a foreign correspondent,” he said.

“But my first ambition was to be a political correspondent in Wellington, which seemed to be the way to cover what mattered.”

Peter Bale Kuwait

A Kuwaiti resistance soldier with Peter Bale and Tony Horwitz, then of the Wall Street Journal and Jonathan Birchall, then of the BBC. IMAGE: Supplied

His first steps on his international career began with a move across the ditch to Sydney, when one of his seniors at the Evening Post in Wellington told him about a position with news agency Reuters.

“A great editor of mine at the Evening Post in Wellington, Bruce Cohn, told me Reuters was looking for a correspondent and wrote me a letter of recommendation,” he said.

“I was incredibly lucky to be chosen.”

Reuters gave Mr Bale an avenue to fine tune his skills. He was exposed to a variety of rounds, learning how to report on everything from the stock markets to “killer cane toads” to the America’s Cup.

But in the back of his mind, he always wanted to push his boundaries and go even further abroad.

Mr Bale was first thrown into a volatile situation when he was 22. He was sent to Fiji to report on the 1987 coup d’état.

“That was a fascinating, but a pretty safe story,” he said. “We had to take care not to be thrown out and there were some physical risks as my Fijian-born photographer colleague found when detained.”

Just four years after the peaceful Fijian coup, Mr Bale was sent to the Middle East to report on the first Gulf War.

He found himself in Kuwait City during the Iraqi invasion, often attaching himself with Kuwaiti resistance groups to find stories and yarns.

“[It] was challenging and sometimes risky,” he said.

“I was very fortunate to cover some spectacular events and come out of it intact.”

Mr Bale was resourceful and would often file copy with the help of soldiers’ satellite phones, technology that he said would seem “antiquated” compared to today’s smartphones’ ability to file copy instantly.

After his time as a correspondent for Reuters came to an end, Mr Bale also founded for the Financial Times, as well as working as the online editorial director of The Times Online for News Corporation before taking on his role at as the executive producer at MSN UK.

Mr Bale is now the vice-president and general manager of CNN International Digital based in London, responsible for leading the editorial and commercial functions of the company outside the United States.

He said it would be almost unknown for a young journalist today to be given the chances he has had, but online has given them an avenue to make their mark.

“Tweet, blog, think about your personal brand and not just your employer’s,” Mr Bale said.

“Believe that no story is too small and no person is without a good story to tell.”

Mr Bale credits Reuters for plucking him from obscurity and giving him the opportunity to travel the world and make his mark on the journalism industry.

“It opened the world to me and I never wanted to stop,” he said.

“But I do think being a New Zealander and having started from the ground up helped and still does.”

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