Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Sound foreign news coverage can save lives

Saturday 17 September 2011 12:59

Sometimes in this job praise is as important as criticism. So let me report an anguished phone call I received last Tuesday morning, shortly after the Burma cyclone. A director of an international charity was on the line. "I just despair of our press," he complained. "Here's a huge international disaster and most don't even put it on the front page." He was right. Only 'The Independent', 'The Guardian' and 'The Times' made it the main page-one headline, while others were preoccupied with that other "important" foreign story – the bizarre sexual tastes of Austrian "cellar beast" Josef Fritzl.

By the next day, as the scale of the crisis in Burma worsened, so did much of the press coverage. Only 'The Independent' (and uncharacteristically, but to its credit, 'The Sun') thought it worth leading on. "And tens of thousands dead," said my friend. "What a crazy sense of priorities!"

It does seem a paradox that the more the British travel abroad and the more internationalised our economy becomes, the less we are deemed to be interested in foreign news. 'The Independent' and 'Independent on Sunday' remain among a handful of British newspapers to retain foreign bureaux and world-class writers in key parts of the globe. Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn in the Middle East, Rupert Cornwell and David Usborne in Washington, and John Lichfield in Paris are familiar names. Andrew Buncombe, our man in Rangoon, files a harrowing report on the Burma cyclone aftermath on pages 16-17 today.

This is not to downplay other quality papers, who have their stars and serious coverage, too. But some nationals have no foreign correspondents at all – or even a foreign desk. It's a trend reflected internationally. Researchers at Harvard University report that by 2006 the entire US media – print and broadcast – was supported by only 141 correspondents in the whole world.

By comparison, 'The Independent' and 'IoS' together have nine staffed bureaux, 11 staff correspondents and a dozen or so others who report for the paper around the world. The daily paper "splashes" on a foreign story on half the days in an average week and runs a 2,000-word daily overseas spread – a key part of the paper's "brand". 'Independent' foreign editor Katherine Butler says: "You can never afford to be complacent. We had been keeping an eye on Burma ever since the uprising and taken the precaution of applying for a visa for our Asia correspondent a few weeks ago. This meant that when the cyclone struck, we were able to move really quickly."

t I'm delighted to report that readers have been rallying to my "Blimp" campaign to Ban the Lazy and Meaningless Phrase. Today's prize goes to Michael Davison from Kingston upon Thames, who writes: "For my favourite 'Blimp', look no further than the 'IoS' last week and a reference to 'legendary actor Sir John Gielgud'. I can assure you Gielgud was no 'legend' but a real flesh-and-blood person: I saw him on stage myself, many times!" Quite.


Is Boris a loose cannon trained on the Tories?

Our story suggesting David Cameron regarded the new London Mayor as a liability who could lose him the next election had readers lobbying on all sides at ios.typepad.com


We deserve to have a true banged-up clown as the Mayor. London, like many other capital cities across the world, is only a delusion of a prosperous oasis for a few international happy-go-lucky people.

Adam Winter

Well done, Boris. A refreshing change from stale, boring and party-line-driven clones. I look forward to a period where Boris leads with common sense and practical governance.


It was time for a change in London. However, is this Etonian buffoon really the best candidate the Tories could come up with? Perhaps not much in their party has changed. What a depressing thought.

Neil McGowan

Tory party HQ will be mentoring him at every step to ensure the gaffe-proof election campaign matures into a gaffe-proof tenure as Mayor. All eyes will now be on London without Newt Labour.

Mike Poulsen

Behind the facade of a buffoon ticks an almost frighteningly intelligent brain. Boris is not a joke, or a loose cannon, and the press demean themselves by portraying him thus.

Phil Williams

As Labour supporters, this is the "Get out of jail" card we have all been praying for. A loose cannon in the capital is great news for us all.

zone 2

Alas, too many in London preferred Boris to Ken – if only as the lesser of two evils. Does Boris really have it in him to be a party- hack polemical mayor? Watch out for Boris the Independent in 2012.

Daniel Earwicker

According to the 'IoS', the only two areas of policy difference between Ken and Boris are immigration – nothing to do with mayoral politics – and his proposal to "water down" the extended congestion charge.

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