“Thank you, I’m hoping the storm’s going to come right through here.”
I had just wished Robert Moore, ITN’s correspondent in Washington, good luck, as Hurricane Irene prepared to wreak havoc up the East Coast of the United States at the end of August.
While he was advising me to sit tight in Canada, Moore was hot-footing it up to Manhattan in the hope that he would be right in the destructive path of the hurricane. Chasing storms, both real and metaphorical, is an everyday occurrence for a foreign correspondent.
And Moore has been in the path of many a news storm, reporting from the USSR, Middle East, Europe and Rwanda, in a career spanning more than 25 years. From the “totally negative story” of the Israel-Palestine conflict, to checking into a flight to Italy in pyjamas at 6.30am to cover the earthquake two years ago, there does not seem to be a typical day in the life of a foreign correspondent. Moore has had to watch, helpless, while the genocide in Rwanda unfolded around him, and been in the front row for the “train crash in slow motion” that was the Bush presidency. Though the expression is certainly cliched, it is undeniable that the charming, well-spoken Oxford graduate has ‘seen it all’.
While at Oxford, Moore edited Cherwell in 1984, with a team that included David Lappard and Christina Lam, respectively Chief Investigations Editor and Washington Correspondent at The Times, and Mike Germey, Head of News at ITV. Although they reported on Thatcher being rejected for an honorary PhD, we laughed as we agreed that student journalism hadn’t really changed much. Moore recounted that most of their content was “pretty second rate news – academic gossip and student debauchery”.
In his final year, Moore also set up Oxford News Agency with friends, selling profiles of Rhodes Scholars to their local papers. After graduating in PPE from Exeter college, Moore joined ITV as a ‘News Trainee’, writing news links in the London office for a couple of years. He was then sent to Moscow in 1988, as a producer, and it was here that he got his big break.
As the Soviet Union and communism were beginning to crumble, the Russians “decided to return the favour” to the British, who had just expelled some Soviet spies. “Thanks to the KGB, when they kicked the correspondent out as an MI6 spy on cooked up charges, they wouldn’t let ITN replace him”, Moore told me. “So I had to step in.” He added that being thrown in at the deep end, to report on the collapse of the USSR, was “an unpredictable roller coaster ride.” At the start of his four years in Russia, the foreign reporters were aware that something was going on, but no one was quite sure what. As Moore put it, “cracks were appearing. It was going to crack, but we didn’t know where or how.”
Although the reporters were unaware that they were observing a society on the brink of collapse, it was clear that this was a system with fundamental flaws. “They ran out of tobacco in the USSR for about a month. No cigarettes in the whole of Russia. For the addicts it was a nightmare – every morning we used to film fights outside the tobacco kiosks.”
With the privilege of the front row seat that he was given to the most significant political event of the end of the 20th century, Moore is aware that it gave him a once in a lifetime opportunity to make his name as a journalist. “I like to say I was the first person to predict the failure of the coup against Gorbachev. I looked outside my window and there was a column of rebel tanks heading to the Kremlin to seize power. And the light went red and they clunked to a halt. Obeying traffic laws – a perfect symbol of how these guys weren’t ruthless enough to take power.”
A stroke of luck, considering that Moore had returned from London the night before, yet his report made that evening’s broadcast. Though Moore admits that there is a “huge amount of luck” involved in news reporting, he emphasised the importance of making your own good fortune, of working the unpopular shifts and of following your instincts.
I asked Moore whether he believed that the way news is reported has changed, and is still changing, with the explosion of online journalism, and of social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. Though he admitted that the platforms have changed somewhat, he was adamant that the fundamentals have remained the same.
“People wake up and want to know what has happened. The skills of storytelling and news gathering, the basics, have stayed exactly the same. People want a compelling story; they want to know how it affects them personally.”
Having often heard people complaining about television news – that it never has anything positive to say, that it exploits personal sorrows for a story – I put it to Moore that including a sobbing relative, for example, in a broadcast was pandering too much to basic emotions. “It’s all part of good storytelling”, he replied. And watching the ITN team put together ‘10 Years On’ broadcasts, for the week leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I had to admit that he was right.
The flood of images that made up the broadcasts – the huge towers crumbling to the ground, the New Yorkers stumbling blindly through the ash clouds, the mother taking her children to put flowers on their father’s grave in Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery, reserved for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan – did bring a lump to my throat and tears pricking at the corners of my eyes.
Having been only ten years old when the planes crashed into the twin towers on September 11th 2001, I had never fully felt the emotional impact of what had happened that day. Yet for those who are old enough to appreciate the enormity of events, the images you see and the voices that you hear on the news will be the lasting memories of days that change the world.
I wondered if Moore was ever relieved when there was no news, and he smiled knowingly. “If we’re honest we all like the adrenaline of a big breaking news story – we’re not all saints”, he laughed. And Moore is clear that while he’s “got the chance”, he’s going to keep reporting from the front line, doing what he described as “the best profession in the world”.