Interview with David Munk, Foreign Editor of the Telegraph

Interview with David Munk, Foreign Editor of the Telegraph David Munk

This article was written by Global Graduates, published on 23rd October 2012 and has been read 8792 times.

Having spoken to lots of students at Study Abroad Fairs (and read your brilliant blogs!) we know how many of you are interested in a career in journalism, so we've interviewed David Munk (@davidmunk), Foreign Editor at The Daily Telegraph in London, to find out where it all began for him. Read about his career path, discover how he uses his language skills and international experience in his role, and take note of his advice for aspiring journalists...

You were at Metropolitan Business School, is that right?

Well at the time it was called City of London Polytechnic, and I did a 4-year Business Studies degree there – though it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I left school with three A Levels, which were not particularly good, so I went to a Poly rather than going to university. I did a four-year vocational Business Studies degree, which was three years of academia and two six-month periods where we went out to do things like banking and finance which were of no real interest to me; it was more to have something to do until I decided what I wanted to do with my life.

What did you do after you graduated?

I left Poly in 1988 and I became a dispatch rider, whizzing around on my motorcycle in London for a year, to get enough money to go to Paris. While I was at school in England my family travelled the world, so I was quite used to living abroad in holidays. I wanted to learn a language and thought that French was a great choice because it was romantic, sounded great, and France was nearby. It wasn’t until later that I became interested in the idea of learning Spanish and going to South America. So I chose Paris and, unlike nowadays when you can arrange everything online and meet friends through Facebook and Twitter, I just got on the ferry and drove over there without any plans for when I arrived. I went with a friend of mine, Ben, to try to make ends meet. He had a job to go to and I didn’t, but I was lucky enough to stumble upon a job at quite a famous French bar called Willi’s Wine Bar where I took the place of a Brit who was leaving. In my interview they asked me if I spoke French, and I replied “a bit!” – and of course I couldn’t! I did O-Level French, but having a job to improve my spoken French was so important for me – I really wanted to learn a language as I thought it would be very useful in my life, irrespective of what I did. It had to be useful because you can communicate with other people and that’s a really important thing.

I spent almost a year in Paris, and while I was there I found my vocation in many ways, because the bar was very near to Place Bourse which is where the headquarters of the main news agency of France, Agence France Presse (AFP), is based. The guys and girls from AFP used to come into my bar and I’d serve them wine – mostly in English because they were often Irish or American – and we’d go and get beers after work. It made me think “I want to be a journalist. This is the life for me, because you can drink and work at the same time which is fantastic!”

So did you go to Journalism College?

After a year I left Paris and I wrote to literally everybody; The Guardian, The Times – all the national newspapers – to say I wanted a job. It was pie in the sky because there was no way I was ever going to get one! I wasn’t trained, I had no qualification for journalism whatsoever, so all the advice I was getting was “you’ve got to go and train.” So I went to live with my parents in Somerset and got a job making sandwiches while I saved up for a National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCJT) course at Highbury College of Technology in Portsmouth. It’s a standard national course which a lot of journalists go through, and is the main qualification for journalists. They take you through a certain level of competence within the disciplines of journalism, so you learn how to write one hundred words a minute in shorthand, you learn about public administration, for example about how Councils work and what to expect when you’re sitting in a council chamber, who you need to talk to and who you need to get information from. You learn about the Law, libel, covering courts, and a couple of other courses, and it took nine months. I came out of Journalism College in 1990 – I think I flunked my shorthand, but I did pretty well in everything else. I then went to Bristol because it was a nice place to live, I thought it would be a good place to do news, there were evening newspapers there so there would be demand for somebody like me, but that didn’t really work out very well because there was no demand at all!

It was a bad time for journalism, like it is now in many ways, so my flatmate and I tried to set up our own agency which we called ‘Wharf News’ because we were living on a wharf, and I remember the first thing we did – we got freebie tickets to some Wine Fair and ended up going and getting very drunk and doing no reports at all, and of course there’s no story there! You need to have a purpose. That taught me that journalism was a serious business and not just about enjoying yourself!

How did you get your first job at a newspaper?

I sent off literally hundreds of letters to local papers and received only rejections, and then the Evening Post, which is Bristol’s local paper, gave me some work experience and I went in and I just made myself really, really useful free of charge and just said, “Let me stay here and I’ll do whatever you want – I’ll write or file or make tea – you name it!” They took me under their wing and paid me about £100 per week and gradually I got in there.

Eventually a job came up in Bridgewater, a tiny town in Somerset, a good news patch, and the Bureau Chief was leaving and they asked me if I would fill the space! I got down there and had to learn on the job because suddenly I had a desk, a phone and a little office with a key and I had papers delivered to me every morning. I’d get in at six every morning and I’d go home at six at night and I’d just write as many stories as I could and I’d be on the end of the phone. They gave me an old laptop and I had to send off my story to Bristol and they’d put it all together in a paper and they’d send it down to newsagents in Somerset. It was called the Somerset Evening Post, and it was great! I learnt loads because I was quite well-guided by the team in Bristol, even though they had no connection to me, and I met loads of people because I was the representative of the newspaper.

People used to come to my office, knock on the door and say “I’ve got a story to tell you about a horrible guy who lives down the road”, and then I’d go and talk to the horrible guy, and realise that a feud had been going on for years and there was no story there at all. There were court cases, murders, traffic accidents and all sorts of terrible things that went on, and then some fun things too, like the carnival. Soon after I got promoted and made Bureau Chief in Taunton, which was the Somerset Bureau Chief, although I was still on my own. Then a year later I became a headquarters reporter in Bristol and did reasonably well there for about a year and a half.

Was that when you decided to move to London?

It was one of those things where you go have to choose between staying in a provincial newspaper or trying for the Big Time, which was London. Everybody wants to come to London and be on a National, which is a big wrench because you have to give up your job and chance it in the capital. So I wrote off to all the papers; the Mail, the Express, the Today Newspaper, the Guardian, Times, FT, everyone, and they all wrote back and said they’d give me a week’s work experience to try me out on shifts. And so they did. I did loads of shifts initially but they all dried up, and so as a journalist you’d left your job and were wondering what to do but then suddenly you’d get a call – you just had to be really willing to drop everything. If you want to make it, you have to be flexible. You’re on your way to meet a friend, and they phone up and say “Are you anywhere near so-and-so, because we need you to get to Bristol immediately and do this story!” and you reply “Of course I am, I’m on the road, I’m going now.” That’s all they really want to hear; that you’re really flexible, you’re available all the time, 24-hours a day for them - then you build up a reputation of being somebody who’s able to do it, and you also deliver at the end of the day by doing the story. 

So I did that, and I eventually got a job at Today Newspaper, a left-of-centre tabloid owned by Murdoch at the time, and I got regular contracted shifts there. I did that for about a year until they closed down in 1995. The Mail then phoned me up and asked me to work for them. So I did! You go from being a freelancer to being a contracted reporter on a six-month contract, and you end up getting a staff job, which is the Holy Grail of being a national newspaper reporter. I was a reporter at the Mail for about a year, and then they decided that they wanted me to be a news editor – they thought that was where my skills lay, which I disagreed with. I thought my skills were as a writer and as a reporter, but in fact the person who made that decision is now the Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Ian MacGregor, who I get on very well with, and he took me aside and told me he thought I was a great Editor but not a great reporter – it’s one of those things you’ve got to swallow, really.

I did that for two years and then a few of my friends went from the Mail to the Guardian and so, as I’d always wanted to work for the Guardian, I wrote Alan Rusbridger a letter, he passed it on to the Home Editor, she invited me in to have a conversation, and they offered me a job about a year later. So I went to the Guardian in 2000 and stayed there until 2011. I started off on the Home Desk as Assistant Home Editor and then went to the Foreign Desk as Assistant Foreign Editor, then Deputy Foreign Editor, and then I was made Foreign Editor here at the Telegraph, where I’ve been for nearly a year and a half.


[Telegraph Newsroom by Antony Mayfield]

What is your role exactly? Do you get to travel at all?

I travel a bit, mainly to see people. We have correspondents in Australia, China, Thailand, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then we’ve got bureaus in Israel, Cairo, Kenya and South Africa, we then have Paris, Rome, Madrid, Moscow, we don’t have anyone in Berlin but we have someone in Warsaw, and about six people in America – LA, Washington and New York – and we have a stringer starting in South America. Quite a few people! My purpose is a certain amount of pastoral care – to show my face to make sure that they know that I care about them, to tell them where they’re doing really well and to correct them if they’re not doing the things they should be doing, but also to show that there is energy and there is a commitment to them, their endeavours and what they’re up to. So let’s say if I go to Washington, I meet the reporters, take them out to dinner, tell them they can talk to me about their concerns and how we can progress our journalism, and then also meet some other people, maybe from other magazines or newspapers, and see how they can lend us ideas. But likewise I’m going to Jerusalem in about 2-3 weeks’ time and that’s to sort the bureau out, which is not closing but it’s being rationalised, and we’ve also got someone moving on so I’ve got to find someone for that post.

At the Guardian I used to travel and do a bit of writing as well, so I’d go to Japan and write a couple of pieces or South America and write some pieces, as well as doing other things, but now it’s more management of people rather than place – it’s not about writing, it’s about having that relationship with people.

Do you miss the writing?

I do miss it. It means you concentrate on one thing, such as a subject like Israel or the Middle East, you learn and master that subject – you can weave around it and get really involved in it, while my job now is far more about being an overseer of many different bureaus in lots of different countries and to make sure that each of those bureaus is soaking up and understanding exactly what is going on in those countries, so I have to have a very broad knowledge of the world without being an expert in the world. I need to know about the origins and the complexities of the Israel-Palestine problem, for example, but I’m not going to know the first ten pages of the Oslo Accords which my correspondent may well do, or indeed speak Hebrew or Arabic which they may well do. The thing I miss is being able to tell a story, which is essentially why we’re here: to tell stories, to say this is what’s happening, this is why it’s important, and this is why you should read it, and to try and translate it in the most easily understandable way – not naïvely or simply, but in an understandable way for people who don’t know what’s going on.

How good is your French now?

I’m not fluent now, but if I go on holiday I can get by. My objective was to be fluent and, in fact, during my time at the Guardian they gave us sabbaticals whereby every four years of service you’re given a month off paid on top of your six weeks’ holiday, and you’re supposed to go and better yourself. I took six weeks and did an intensive Spanish course in Seville. I learnt French to the point that I can have a reasonable conversation with somebody, and I wanted to be able to do that in Spanish as well because I liked the idea of being a reporter in South America, in Argentina or somewhere like that, which I never got round to doing.

How useful is being able to understand French for work?

It is quite useful because if you’re on Twitter you can actually recognise what French and Spanish people are saying – it could be Arabic for many people – it’s a completely different world. It’s especially useful if you’re an editor or a reporter and you can understand other languages. We have people who are sent from the Telegraph to Paris to cover stories but they can’t speak French so they are at an immediate disadvantage to either a British reporter who’s a fluent speaker, or a local reporter. That said, the British newspaper reporter will usually win out because they know exactly what’s required and will go after it like a terrier, while the French will be a bit more relaxed about things, but if you’ve got language skills it’s a double. If you’ve got two languages it’s even better because you can be sent to so many different places. Basically it’s like having a very narrow road and suddenly you’re on a motorway – there are far more options for you in terms of the lanes you travel, and you’re able to use your skills in a way which I think can only enhance the product you’re working for and also make your life more interesting, as well as getting you the opportunities.

I think languages are really vital – I mean, if we sent someone to Moscow we would expect them to learn Russian and if we send someone to China we expect them to learn Mandarin and they have to – we pay for them to do intensive classes. So for two hours a day our reporters may be doing Mandarin lessons and then they’ve got their day’s work ahead of them, because that way you can understand the culture so much better.

How important is it to understand the culture, as year abroad students do? Is it more valuable to have writing experience and journalism training or to see the world and understand how it works?

My advice would be go out into the world. Do it now. It’s a great time to do it because there aren’t a huge number of jobs around in journalism – you can get trained up and then go and do it, but if you’re in your twenties you have loads of advantages – you’re time-rich, you may not have dependents, you’ve got the energy to go out there and learn and travel, and you’ve got a certain recklessness in a way as well.

If I were to have that time again, I would definitely go to South America, to Quito or Santiago, where I’d learn Spanish, and figure out what I wanted to do. Whether or not you do a course first, you’re well prepared for how to do things. It’s all very well turning up in a country, learning the language, and thinking you’re ready for journalism, but that’s not quite the way it is because you don’t know how to write, you don’t know what to offer, you don’t know what’s required – you need to know those techniques. But if you went out there and learnt languages when you were young, and you came back, did your journalism training and then looked for opportunities, you would be ahead of the crowd because you’ve got a lot of cultural understanding, you’ve got linguistic understanding, now you’re doing academic or training understanding, and you can then come to employer and they’ll say “Actually, you’re quite well-rounded!”

Having said that, there are some people who do it a completely different way; I’ve got a correspondent who went out and had no journalism training at all. She learnt on the job because she knew she wanted to do it and she just immersed herself in journalism, hung around loads of other people who were great at what they did, and was able to learn really well.

Finally, do you have any advice for students who want to become Journalists?

I wouldn’t go too far down the academic route. If you think about it you can do a degree in Journalism followed by a Masters in Journalism followed by a Doctorate in Journalism I’m sure, but realistically what you need is experience. It’s experience which is going to help you – it’s not going to be the academics. I think writing practice is really useful because you’re practising your own writing but you’re also learning from other people and reading their blogs – you should be reading ravenously – whoever it may be; Jonathan Freedland (@j_freedland) or Matthew Parris or whoever – they’ve got great styles as writers and you can see why they’re good. If you read news stories in this country they’re very, very well structured, and it’s because we’ve all been taught how to structure a story - intro, secondary paragraph, substance – we all know how to do it, and if something doesn’t read like that it’s a bit surprising. Sometimes you can get away with it, and that’s how different styles of writing develop – you get people who tell a story in a new way and you think “Wow! That’s a fantastic read!” You can’t often do that in terms of pure news, because news is about telling people very directly what’s going on in the place where it’s going on in the world. You have to be very direct about it. If your reader already knows that’s something’s going on, you can tell it in a much more florid sort of way.

Do you love your job?

It’s great fun! You learn something every day. Something will happen that you didn’t know about. Today there’s a trial with the Pope’s butler and he’s claiming that he was kept in a broom cupboard for 28 days with the lights on for 24 hours a day. I knew the Vatican was its own state, but I didn’t realise it had 130 members of its own police force, with Swiss Guards on watch too. You learn so much about everything; it’s fascinating!

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