Down Memory Lane Part 2 – by Joëlle Dietrich

Down Memory Lane Part 2

By Joëlle Dietrich

Correspondent of Le Figaro and Radio France Info

When BBC’s correspondent and FCA’s president Red Harrison abruptly resigned in early 1996, I found myself in a position similar to Jimmy Carter’s becoming president by default. As if that wasn’t daunting enough, my first official mission as such was to introduce the new Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer who had wisely chosen the FCA to make his maiden speech. You could say we were both beginners but, so far, he has outlasted me by 11 years at the post! (Who would have thought?) The function was held in the ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel and was packed with foreign correspondents and local media.

Being elected president was no less of a surprise, but I had good little helpers with Jeff Spencer as Vice President, John Shaw as Secretary, Maggie Scully as Treasurer and Ann Oakford who became our first indispensable Executive Secretary. I was proud to be the first of a long line of women to become president of the FCA, as Esther Blank, Ruth Pitchford and Agneta Didrikson followed.

This was around the time of the Port Arthur massacre with everybody dashing to Tasmania and back for a week. April Pressler was Manager, with Barbara Whiteman as second-in-charge, and sweet Liz O’Neill (who tragically lost her life in the Yogjakarta plane crash last March and is sadly missed) joined the International Media Centre team as Public Affairs officer later that year, along with Mark Fraser.

In February ‘97, Jeff Spencer was posted as bureau chief of Associated Press in Jakarta and I took some time off from the FCA for a while, spending almost a year in Germany to keep company with my husband who had a long assignment there. Thus, Esther Blank was elected President with Trevor Watson as VP, John Shaw as Secretary and Edwina McDonald as Treasurer.

I rejoined the board the following year as VP and Jürgen Corleis made his debut as Treasurer with impeccable book keeping skills which impressed even the FCA’s official accountant! In 1998, Nina Fudala joined as Director of the IMC, eventually replacing April Pressler who had left at the end of 1996. 1998 was also the year we finally got our website going under the guide of webmaster Christopher Wright.

In late ‘98, Geoffrey Lee Martin, who had been the editor of our magazine The Correspondent for the past six years, announced that he was off to Tuscany for a year or two on a book project. He asked me if I would be interested in producing the mag as there had been no rush of volunteers. Without thinking, I said OK and dived head first, with more gusto than flair. The trouble was that I couldn’t do it the way he had because he used a Mac whereas I worked with a PC which, at the time, was incompatible with the Quark Express program favoured by the printing shop. So I decided to produce it in colour manually with my home office equipment then have the master copy photocopied. It was an ad hoc solution which worked with more or less success for a couple of years, with the added benefit of my occasional co-editor John Shaw’s experience and sometimes savage criticism.

In July 1999, the FCA’s millennium board was elected. Ruth Pitchford (Reuters’ bureau chief) replaced Esther Blank (German TV and Radio) as President, I remained VP, Christopher Zinn became secretary and Jürgen Corleis remained treasurer. Sid Astbury and Agneta Didrikson replaced Peter O’Loughlin and Michael Perry on the board with John Shaw and Wakako Yuri staying on under the watchful supervision of our long time executive secretary Ann Oakford.

It was a momentous year. On top of having Alexander Downer addressing two of our newsmaker luncheons, guest speakers included Australia’s IOC’s representative Kevan Gosper, then Louise Appleby and Troy Sax from the Paralympic committee; Minister Peter Reith; Malcolm Turnbull talked about his views on an Australian Republic prior to the ill-fated referendum; Senator Aden Ridgeway about reconciliation and the situation of Aboriginal Australians; and Philip Ruddock, Minister for Immigration and Reconciliation spoke about the same issues from the government’s point of view. We also scored our first business speaker in the person of Western Mining Chief Executive Hugh Morgan.

Apart from these serious, work related functions, we also had fun with the annual cricket match, pitting the FCA against AAP in Bowral which the FCA invariably lost (except on one historical occasion the following year), and our first DFAT organised expedition to Canberra where we were locked up during the budget announcement. DFAT’s Amanda Buckley and Nina Fudala took good care of us but balked at Christopher Zinn’s suggestion that we get acquainted with Canberra’s legal sex industry aboard the Love Bus. Although this outing was never sanctioned by DFAT, we all went anyway and actually got quite a few stories from that impromptu whistle stop tour of Canberra after dark.

Encouraged by this first successful cooperation between DFAT and the FCA, the Department organised another trip, this time to Weipa, in distant Cape York, where we were offered an exceptional chance to be introduced to Aboriginal culture and experience life in this remote mining town.

Thanks to Peter O’Loughlin’s and Michael Perry’s relentless efforts, we finally got our own little social corner at the Sportsclub in Hunter street, which we tried, but eventually failed to turn into to the equivalent of the famed Foreign Correspondents’ Bar of Hong Kong, perhaps because no one can be really culturally isolated in Sydney or perhaps because many correspondents work from home or far from the CBD.

All in all, 1999 was a pretty good year for the FCA and our treasurer Jürgen Corleis was proud to report on our healthy financial situation with the promise of a $40,000 sponsorship over 2 years from Telstra for which we had to give up our then sponsor Optus. The deal eventually collapsed a year later when the FCA and Telstra could not agree on most of the terms of their proposed 18-page contract, which failed to understand the voluntary nature of our association and demanded we grant them rights that were not ours to give. This non-event nearly sent us broke as we had not been allowed to pursue another sponsor while our respective silks argued over the terms of the contract. Luckily, a few months later, we were rescued in-extremis by Macquarie Bank who offered us a $12,500 a year sponsorship on a one-page agreement. The French hotel group Accor also came to the party with a sponsorship in kind through subsidised use of their facilities.

But perhaps the most memorable achievement of the FCA that summer was the historic cricket victory of our team against AAP. For the first time in 15 years – the first time ever! – we won this annual contest and it was great fun to witness AAP’s incredulous players swallow their discomfiture, their clean white flannels contrasting with the FCA’s motley crew’s eclectic attire.

2000, the Olympic year, was probably our most eventful one, news wise, with the war for independence in East Timor, the two coups in the Pacific region, the failed Republic referendum, the elusive Y2K bug which kept us working until the wee hours of the new year and, of course the Olympic Games themselves. It was also a triumphant year for the FCA, which hosted over 10 newsmaker lunches and 15 briefings and whose membership soared to 230. Sydney saw so many foreign journalists come and go during the months preceding the Games that we even envisaged issuing temporary FCA cards. It was also a fabulous time for correspondents who didn’t cover sporting events (most overseas media sent their own armies of specialist sport writers). Indulging in the international spotlight on our resplendent city, we were free to write just about anything we liked – Aborigines, the arts, tourism, food, wine, animals, business, pearls, sharks, you name it – and as often as we liked. Some FCA members, namely Jimmy Pozarik and Carl Robinson, joined the 45,000-strong army of Olympic volunteers to help athletes and visitors while others exchanged the numerous event invitations according to their respective interests. We also enjoyed more interesting trips, notably to the gold fields of Orange and Bathurst as guests of NSW Tourism.

At the 2000 AGM. Ruth Pitchford announced that she was going back home to England and FCA stalwart Jürgen Corleis, from the Springer media group, was elected president with the rest of the board pretty much unchanged except for Wakako Yuri who was replaced by AP’s office manager, the indispensable Maggie Scully who had helped birthing the FCA 15 years earlier.

We finished the calendar year on a happy note with the annual Xmas lunch at the Wharf restaurant on the harbour where three of our prominent members announced their retirement. Associated Press bureau chief Peter O’Loughlin, who founded the FCA 15 years earlier and served as president twice took early retirement in December 2000 to become a full-time vigneron in the Hunter Valley; Newsweek Sydney bureau chief Tony Clifton also retired, returning to his native Melbourne which he had left 40 years earlier to roam the world; last but not least, Barbara Whiteman, who was recovering from a brain tumour operation, retired from the International Media Centre after a 20 year career working in government as a public affairs specialist and left our shores to settle in her French countryside house in Normandy.

To an extent, POL’s retirement marked the end of an era for the FCA as we missed his clout and Maggie’s energy and resources. I also left the board, figuring that 10 years was long enough and that new blood was needed. December 2000 was the last issue of The Correspondent I produced, as Geoffrey Lee Martin came back and continued on. But that’s another story …