ABC NEWS IN LONDON

8:59 pm Feature Stories

By Dawn Shurmaitis

Moscow. Edinburgh. Berlin. Jerusalem. Bonn. Johannesburg. The list goes on. ABC News correspondents are so often on their way to somewhere else, they joke that their home base in London is but a pit stop on the way to the world. When news breaks overseas, chances are great the London news desk is somehow involved.

“We cover stories that are important to our viewers — and, therefore, our broadcasts,” says Rex Granum, Director of News Coverage for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and the London Bureau Chief. “London is a jumping off point. This is the logical place for the primary overseas bureau.”

In late August and early September, the bureau swelled in size, and importance. Hundreds of ABC News personnel poured into London to report on the death of Princess Diana. While it wasn’t quite business as usual for the 90 ABC employees who call London home, it was another chance to prove their importance to company’s overall news operation.

In a message sent to the bureau following the funeral, “World News Tonight” anchor Peter Jennings wrote: “I’m never surprised when London flourishes in this way. In other words, we do as well as you do, and as it’s apparent that we did well, we are all in your debt once again.”

Like many of ABC’s stellar news personnel, such as executive VP Paul Friedman, Jennings worked in London before moving to New York. But back then, the overseas operation was twice the size it is today. Economic necessity has forced cutbacks in numerous foreign bureaus and a reliance on an increasing number of freelance producers, editors and camera people. Ten years ago, news employed two full-time correspondents in Rome. Today, a full-time freelance producer and staff cameraperson cover the region. In Bonn, which once supported a bureau of 12, a staff cameraperson and staff producer now work from their homes.

London is the largest overseas bureau, followed by Moscow, Jerusalem, Paris, Rome, Johannesburg, Cairo and Bonn. News events dictate the size of a bureau and, ultimately, the company’s financial investment. “It’s so expensive to do business overseas,” says Granum, an ABC employee for nearly 17 years and formerly Atlanta bureau chief. “Having a wide array of fully staffed bureaus has become a luxury. We’re much more centralized now.”

SUBHED: From Lockerbie to love farce

Three times a day, via speaker phone, the news bureaus link up with New York news executives to help identify what stories will be available for use on ABC programs, including “World News Tonight.” The various time zones (London is five hours ahead of New York) means some news people join the conference calls from home. During fast-paced Q&A’s, bureaus summarize their hottest stories. The ultimate decisions on what stories to use on which programs are left to News Chairman Roone Arledge, News President David Westin, Senior VP of Hard News Bob Murphy, VP of News Coverage Mimi Gurbst and other top news executives. Any plan, of course, is subject to breaking news.

Here’s a look at a typical day: October 27. The “UK Daily News Packet” — a collection of newspaper stories — includes a wide array of headlines, such as “Lockerbie Plea From Mandela” “Army Link to Algeria Slaughter” and “Bishop Tells Charles to End Love Farce.” But the top stories are the jittery state of Far Eastern stock markets and the final hours of the au pair trial. Granum and Assignment Manager Mark Foley dispatch producer James Blue to the London stock market and a camera crew to tape college students’ reaction to the upcoming verdict.

“It’s not only what’s important — it’s what’s important to ABC viewers,” Granum says. “We are covering for an American audience and one of our criteria is whether Americans will be interested. But one of the things I’m proudest of in working for ABC News is that overseas stories don’t have to have the word `American’ in them. That’s one thing that sets us apart from our competitors.”

Granum and Foley check in frequently with Jerusalem-based Middle East Bureau Chief Kathy McManus, Moscow Bureau Chief Tomek Rolski and Paris Bureau Chief Bruno Silvestre. Foley is constantly on the phone with assignment editors and producers throughout the far-flung coverage area.

“The London bureau is a revolving door,” says Foley, a 25-year ABC veteran of the New York, Atlanta, Johannesburg and London bureaus. “Two of the biggest headaches we face in every decision are time zones and international borders. Russia alone has 11 time zones. We also have to deal with visas. We have to get ABC troops on planes to visit countries whose governments are frequently not exactly overjoyed at our desire to report on what’s happening in their country.”

SUBHED: Another stamp on the passport

For news junkies, London is the center of the universe. “If foreign news is what you want to do,” Granum says, “this is the place to do it.”

Correspondent Mike Lee is a seasoned hand — 17 years in the London bureau alone. “My first day at work, in May of 1980, I was rushed over to Hyde Park in London, just in time to join Peter Jennings for live coverage of the British SAS rescue of hostages inside the Iranian embassy,” Lee recalls. “At that moment, in New York, my former boss at CBS, not known for his short term memory, glanced up at a bank of monitors and said ‘Thank god, we’ve got that covered.'” Lee, whose familiarity with the British often leads to wry reports, provided the first live on-scene reports from Kensington Palace during the first hours of the Diana coverage, as shocked mourners built a mountain of flowers.

Relative newcomers include correspondents Gillian Findlay and Richard Gizbert, who joined ABC in 1993. Gizbert has reported on the bitter fighting in the Russian secessionist republic of Chechnya and the civil war in Bosnia. Findlay, with ABC since 1994 and formerly based in Moscow, also reported on Chechnya and Russia’s historic presidential election.

Correspondent Jim Wooten covered politics for The New York Times before becoming one of the last, great newspaper reporters to move into TV, and ABC, in 1979. “This is an entirely different landscape,” says Wooten, who relocated to London last year. “European politics. Unrest in Africa. The single European currency. It’s different and it’s refreshing and, I think, revitalizing for this old reporter.”

Correspondents cover a wide range of topics from a broad mix of countries. A Wooten report from Zimbabwe can easily be followed by a feature on what makes a true French baguette (in case you missed that story, “real” means all mixing, rising, baking, etc. must be done on premises).

The veteran political reporter, whose office is decorated with pictures of Nixon, Agnew and Carter, has high praise for the London operation. “The bureau really works,” he says. “We have wonderful producers. This shop is very well run.”

Four floors up, in correspondent Sheila MacVicar’s office, a bumper sticker reads “To Kuwait Any Day Now.” There are so many countries stamped inside MacVicar’s passport, it resembles an atlas. “I get to go to great places, and I have the license to talk to extraordinary people about their lives,” MacVicar says, ticking off a few: the HIV- positive Ugandan Army major and the 80-year-old American ex- patriate running an orphanage in Ruwanda. “The challenge is to make these interesting issues relevant to American audiences.”

MacVicar started at ABC in 1990 and spent much of the last five years in Africa. Since Diana’s death, she’s been posted primarily in Paris, where the princess died. MacVicar was in Bosnia that night — August 30 — when a producer pounded on her hotel door. “I thought there’d been a coup and then she said `Diana is dead.’ And I said `Diana who?’ I’ve been in Paris ever since.”

MacVicar’s 9-year-old daughter has lived in England since she was 18 months old. Both the daughter, and England, have changed substantially. MacVicar has witnessed the triumph of the Labor Party and the subsequent rise of Prime Minister Tony Blair. And, on a smaller scale, many much-needed lifestyle improvements. “When I first moved here, many of the telephones didn’t work,” she says. “This country has changed pretty dramatically.”

SUBHED: Feeding the animal

The bureau is located in a nondescript office building off Regents Park, within a block of a Lebanese restaurant and an English pub. The seven-floor building, which ABC leases, also houses offices for “Good Morning America” and “Nightline.” Lucrezia Cuen airs daily spots for NewsOne, and Nathan Thomas is responsible for spots for “World News Now” and “World News This Morning.”

Over at ABC Radio, Linda Albin, London radio bureau chief the last 15 years, sometimes calls upon TV reporters to do voice-overs. “We cover everything from this bureau,” she says. “Radio-wise, it’s a huge source of stories.”

Near the bureau is the British Telecom Tower, a familiar point on the London landscape, where ABC and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) handle many of their satellite feeds. ABC and BBC enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, cemented in the early 1990s by Arledge and senior VP Richard Wald. Arledge recently cited the BBC’s role as a key reason why ABC was able to go on the air in the middle of a New York night with video from the Diana crash site. “This relationship is invaluable to both of us,” Granum says. “We’ve shared voice-overs, uplinks, editors and engineers, and we have an ever-improving working relationship.”

The bureau is predominantly British, with Americans accounting for about 20 percent. While five of nine producers are American, for instance, all engineers and researchers are British. Some ABC employees who work overseas are accorded a cost-of-living adjustment, owing to the high price of living in cities like London and Paris. Rent can be triple what it is in New York, gas costs $4 a gallon and even dry cleaning is more costly. Worse, Americans employed in Britian must pay taxes in both countries. Someone who earns $100,000 annually pays roughly $40,000 in British taxes alone.

Chief engineer Grahame Hadden supervises 13 engineers in London who maintain and support equipment in each bureau that reports to London, plus the Asia bureau. When news breaks, staffers race to the ground floor to fill waiting trucks, usually airport bound, with cameras, cables and editing packs. Quick action during dual coverage of Diana and Mother Teresa earned Hadden and his staff rave reviews from top ABC executives. “ABC clearly demonstrated a competitive advantage,” he says.

Overseas, everyone works together to feed the animal that is ABC News. Each day, senior producer of operations Robin Wiener calls the “Good Morning America” staff in New York to outline stories the morning broadcast might find relevant to U.S. viewers. “The Hong Kong stock exchange is very much tied to the U.S. stock exchange. It’s tied to the dollar,” she pitches during calls made Oct. 27. “It’s a good bellwether.” Wiener, who moved to the London bureau six days before Diana’s death, is responsible for making sure all news is edited and sent to various programs.

Wiener is an ABC News veteran with 22 years previous experience in Rome, Los Angeles and D.C. “Overseas bureaus, hands down, are the best,” she says. “They provide the most interesting, the most varied stories. Dealing with different countries, different lives, different events. What happens overseas affects Americans, whether they realize it or not. And London is the repository of all foreign news.”

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