Alan Cowell, ‘The Paris Correspondent’

By Thomas Lowe

How to send stories by carrier pigeon, when to run when you are under fire and the best way to brush off tweets were amongst titbits of information from Alan Cowell’s discussion of his new book ‘The Paris Correspondent.’

Cowell has long been a correspondent with the New York Times, and before that worked for Reuters. This is his third book.

In discussion with Charles Glass, freelance writer and former chief Middle East correspondent with ABC News in Beirut, Cowell says that reporting and producing news has changed for good. The book’s two male protagonists grapple with the fast pace of this change in the news industry. Cowell reads an excerpt:

“News men and newswomen were going down with the ships on which they had once sailed the kindly oceans of expense account lunches, five-star hotels and mortal peril. Print, that great, gorgeous messy alchemy of ink and hot type and whirring reals of paper and working stiffs in stained overalls was expiring, but not quite finished.”

And as Cowell suggests, there is no reason not to reminisce a little about how things used to be:

“I remember in N’Djamena I was doing an interview with [President] Goukouni Oueddei… you had to go across the river to Cameroon to be able to find a phone… and on the bar there, there was a direct dial telephone… located next to an ice bucket where there was always a fresh bottle of champagne…”

“And there was also a curfew… and you had to be poled across the Chari River in a dugout canoe. And I remember saying to President Oueddei, “I’m sorry I’m going to have to cut this short because I have to catch the last pirogue before curfew.”

Those times have gone, says Cowell:

“If you say ‘Is that a more pleasant way of earning a living than slaving over a computer screen all day trying to bat off tweets like mosquitoes?’ Then yes, sure. But we can’t turn the clock back and what we have to do now is… bringing the standards and the values that have always made newspapers sell, into this new era.”

It was in Zimbabwe reporting shortly before independence, that Cowel was able to hone his carrier pigeon sending techniques. With no way to send his stories back he was given a huddle of “cooing carrier pigeons” by the last white mayor of Bulawayo and the last editor of the Bulawayo chronicle.

“…we didn’t know exactly how we were supposed to cope with them and he said look, Sid said “you hold the birds legs between those fingers, you put your thumb over the neck, you give it a little kiss and whisper something nice to it, then you loft it up to the air… And you write the story on a 30 packet of Madison cigarettes – there was a small bit of tissue paper inside and you could write 400 words of spidery script on it.

It is hard to avoid the feeling that news has definitely changed.