Lessons of a lifetime help to deliver Thomson Foundation’s mission

As he retires as Thomson Foundation chief executive – after a decade at the helm – Nigel Baker reflects on his previous 35-year career in journalism and lessons learnt along the way.

Posted by Nigel Baker

Few jobs offer the opportunity to be bombed in Baghdad, set up an international TV news organisation and “dance” with the Pope.

I experienced all three during more than 35 years in journalism before being appointed chief executive of the Thomson Foundation in 2011. Each provided vital lessons in helping me to carry out the foundation’s main purpose: supporting journalists in improving their skills and strengthening their businesses to help everyone get an honest account of what is happening in the world.

The moral of the story is you learn something from every experience. No-one can take away that knowledge, and the trick is to turn it to good use on a future occasion. You often learn more from the negatives than the positives: for example, working for a bad boss is dispiriting but can show you how not to behave when you are in charge.

I have been fortunate in my career that the bad bosses have been few and far between. From newspapers to local radio, national and international news agencies, and editing national and international television news services, I’ve had the privilege to work for – and learn from – some of the world’s finest. So, what about those seminal experiences?


Image: Nigel interviewing Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, in Baghdad in January 1991, shortly before the outbreak of bombing in the first Gulf War


The value of training

In 1991, I found myself as the producer for the UK television news network, ITN, in Baghdad when it was bombed by coalition forces after Iraq invaded Kuwait. While I was an experienced TV journalist, it was my first foreign assignment, and first in a war zone – a situation for which I had had no formal training.

Lessons learnt: The right training is vital for you to feel comfortable in the job and perform at your best; and whichever side of a conflict you may find yourself on, the overwhelming majority of ordinary people in any situation are decent, friendly and you get the best results as a journalist by treating them with respect. 



Understanding cultures

In 1994, I helped set up the international television wing of the Associated Press news agency and, as head of news, led the merger of its services with those of rival WTN which it bought in 1998. 

Lessons learnt: As a provider of news coverage to most countries in the world, every nation has its own news culture and values. It is important to understand the local culture of wherever you are working. As digital technology evolved, it became important for journalists to understand the best technology to gather and distribute their stories. 



Watch: Nigel as head of news at APTV in the mid-1990s (from 0:43)


Storytelling skills

And finally…. dancing with the Pope. In 1982, as a reporter for the British national news agency, the Press Association, I covered the visit of the Pope to Liverpool. Outside the city’s Catholic cathedral, I was standing next to John Paul II as he sang and swayed to the music with an ecstatic crowd. A colleague from the British tabloid, The Sun, reported a more colourful version that the Pope “danced a jig of joy.”

Lessons learnt: While my version was more strait-laced – and accurate – the idea of “dancing with the Pope” was more likely to keep the reader’s interest then – and now! While being a news agency reporter instilled the importance of accuracy, the story is a reminder that telling a good story well is the essence of journalism. If we don’t think about engaging an audience, we are talking to ourselves.



More from the archives: Nigel as an ITN TV producer in 1986, at a Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth, UK 


Nigel with an ITN cameraman filming at the Red October Mine in Donetsk, Ukraine, during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991


Telling a good story well is the essence of journalism. If we don’t think about engaging an audience, we are talking to ourselves.

Nigel Baker, chief executive, Thomson Foundation

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