At 15, when I was living in Berlin, the BBC advertised for a Berlin correspondent, and I thought that would be a very nice job indeed. My other great ambition was to write for Cosmopolitan, because my sister-in-law had been giving me back copies since I was 11 and at the time I thought it was a wonderful magazine.
Back in Britain, I studied German and English at Southampton University, but I didn't really do much about journalism there - apart from producing a poetry and literature magazine full of adolescent angst. But I did go to America on an exchange programme for nine months, to do a journalism course - though every time I tried to write something they would send it back and say "Your spelling is really strange". I also did an internship on Cosmo in New York, which put me off wanting to write for it.
When I'd done my finals my parents asked me what I wanted to do, and I said "Something creative, like journalism". My father said: "That's not creative, that's not a proper job. Why don't you go and join the civil service?" But I insisted I wanted to do a post-grad journalism course, and they said as long as I funded it myself, that was fine. And I did: I applied to City University in London to do a diploma in magazine journalism, and got sponsorship from Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors Journals, by doing an attachment to their magazine, Chartered Surveyor Weekly. That's a wonderful grounding in journalism, because if you can make that interesting, you can do anything.
At City, encouraged by my tutor Linda Christmas, I applied to, among other things, the BBC. The interview there was horrible: there were these four blokes sitting round a table, and they asked me questions like "What would you do if you were in Tiananmen Square and somebody set himself on fire saying 'Film me!'?" I said I'd film him, and they said: "You can't spend licence-payers' money on filming people burning themselves. That's not humane!"
But, aged 23, I got the job, and started a two-year news and current affairs traineeship, which taught me the basics of TV and radio. I worked on the Six O'Clock News, the Nine O'Clock News, and in the Radio 4 newsroom. I also did some reporting for Newsroom Southeast - that was the first time I was allowed out with a camera crew, so that was very exciting - and some work in local radio in Birmingham.
I then worked in World Service Television, reporting and producing. In my second week I found myself outputting the bulletins, and occasionally I would be able to get a crew together and go out and do stuff. Another thing I did was organise the foreign correspondents, and I thought I'd really like to be at the other end of that, rather than be stuck in London. So, in 1993, I applied for and got the job of German business correspondent, at the age of 26.
Martin Bell was the Berlin correspondent at this stage, but because there was so much going on in Germany the BBC decided they needed an extra person out there. But the business bit of the title got dropped after a while, because in Germany, you can call everything business: issues that I was covering, like unemployment and factories closing down, are more social than business stories.
Then, after a couple of years, the office was expanded and I became Berlin correspondent. Really exciting things were happening: both the Russians and the Brits were pulling out of Berlin, and it was the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I'd discovered just before that my grandfather had been a prisoner at Auschwitz, so it was very emotional for me covering that. Of course, in Germany many of the stories are bound up with its history: a couple of weeks ago, for example, they found Goebbels' bunker in Berlin, on the site where they're building the Holocaust Memorial.
Then, last year, my contract came to an end; you're only allowed to stay abroad for four years at a time. So I went back to London, but then the job of Bonn correspondent was advertised, and I knew I wanted to be back in Germany for the next elections - to see whether Chancellor Kohl survives, and what happens with monetary union. And after that, I want to do a bit of radio presenting, and then go to Washington.
It's bloody hard work being a foreign correspondent, but it's so much fun. And you have so much independence - in terms of deciding what angle you're going to take on a story, or even what story you're going to cover in the first place.
Interview by Scott HughesReuse content