A trainee's view of Reuters in the 1970s
Thursday 9 August 2018
Reuters in the 1970s was at a transformational stage in its long history, with the launch of the Reuter Monitor. My entry came, like so many others, via the graduate training scheme. There was the usual test where you had to submit a written piece, putting the paragraphs of a story in the right order. Then the interviews, the final one with senior editors and quite intimidating. They asked if I would be prepared to be posted to Vietnam, which in 1972 was still engulfed in war. For some reason I said sorry, but no, and thought I’d ruined my chances. In fact, they accepted me, one of 12 from more than 800 applicants, and assigned me to Reuters Economic Services.
As a trainee, I was the lowest of the low, and assigned to the different economic desks at 85 Fleet Street: financial desk, commodities desk, and equities desk. Toughest was money desk, staffed by seasoned journalists - Mike Topliss as desk editor with John Evans and Wayne Lintott as reporters - who had little patience with a raw trainee. Commodities was easiest, run by veterans Bill Manktelow and Dennis Savage, under editor David Harkavy. They were relaxed and always joking. We were advised not to touch the correspondents' copy, rather odd in view of the fact we were supposedly there to edit. On commodities, you could easily find yourself in a career backwater, so it was best to brave the storms of money desk, or equities as a slightly less harrowing option.
The three RES trainees - Peter Montagnon (later FT), Nick Bray (later WSJ) and myself - knew that eventually we would be posted abroad. It was part of the training scheme. After two years, I was off to Paris, to replace Peter. The offices were in Rue du Sentier, a bustling area in central Paris. We worked on typewriters, which made a deafening noise that made it hard to hear on the phone. The trainee had to do the chores - which meant reporting the marché de sucre and the foreign exchange market, phoning dealers and getting closing quotes plus a quick comment if lucky.
I just couldn’t get the numbers. After the third time of asking them to repeat they’d hang up, typically Parisien but understandable under the circumstances. They were busy and I was a nuisance. So rather than admit failure, I'm afraid I made up the rates, with a bit of fairly neutral narrative. It wasn't hard, you just had to look at what other European markets were doing, as well as the dollar, to get the general trend. The important stuff was done by Humphrey Hudson, the always cheerful RES bureau chief, and the effusive Mike Duggan.
In January 1974 I got my big break. It was a weekend and the trainee was of course on duty. France floated the franc, breaking up the Common Market's monetary agreement, and I went with Humphrey to the Matignon to hear then finance minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing make the announcement. I rushed to the phone and called in the snap, only six words long, but I was terrified of getting it wrong.
After six months I was transferred to Brussels, working with Barry Simpson and Alan Spence, among others, and 18 months later was posted back to London, with a taste for working abroad. I left in 1976, to be told by Manfred Pagel that there was no return for a Reuters journalist who resigned. Six years later I was back, in Latin America. Times change.
PS: After eight years reporting Latin America's coups, hurricanes, political upheavals and debt crisis, with François Raitberger as regional news editor, there were another six in Madrid, working initially with bureau chief Bob Hart.
I left Reuters in 1996 and took up a post as head of international media relations for Banco Santander in Madrid. This led to re-connecting with Martin Leeburn, one of my graduate trainee intake in 1972 who by 2004 was working at PR agency Maitland, which Santander hired to advise on the acquisition of Abbey National. Leaving Santander for a similar post at Spanish power company Iberdrola, I then met up again with Colin McSeveny, another graduate trainee, who in 2006 headed corporate communications at ScottishPower, which Iberdrola was taking over. The last time we'd crossed paths was during the Grenada invasion in 1983. Needless to say, our shared Reuters training helped us enormously in dealing with problems in the corporate context.
PHOTO: Trainee journalists of the 1972 intake L-R standing Anne Rubinstein, Nick Bray, Peter Calvert, course instructor, sitting Richard Wallis, Martin Leeburn, Doug Gerwin, Peter Montagnon, Keith Grant and David Storey ■