Interview with Award Winning Foreign Correspondent, Conor O’Clery: Part Two


Last month I had the privilege to sit down with two time Irish Journalist of the Year and author of 8 books, Conor O’Clery, for an interview on travel, expat life, and his many years of hard work as a foreign correspondent. That was actually my second meeting with Conor, as we’d first met two years ago, as our wives are loosely connected in the academic world, and I have my own background in previously covering politics and subsequently contributing to the Irish Independent. To read part one on Conor O’Clery’s illustrious career as an award-winning foreign correspondent and the first segment of my interview, click here.

Thanks to Conor’s career achievements, he was able to write the exclusive autobiography of billionaire Irish American philanthropist Chuck Feeney, in ‘The Billionaire Who Wasn’t‘ (A Business Week best selling book and highly acclaimed by The Economist Magazine). It’s a great read about how a hard working blue collar kid from New Jersey grew up to amass a fortune through a company called Duty Free Shoppers. And how Mr. Feeney eventually became uncomfortable with so much wealth, and decided to give it all back through a once secret charity he founded called Atlantic Philanthropies. While Bell and I don’t personally know Mr. Feeney, he has touched many lives all over the world, including our own, as his organization funds 40% of the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), at Trinity College Dublin, that Bell has worked on for over two years.

View of Dublin from the Wicklow Mountains. After years abroad as an award winning foreign correspondent, Conor O'Clery has returned home to Ireland.
The view just outside of Dublin from the Wicklow Mountains. After over 20 years abroad as an award winning foreign correspondent, Conor O’Clery has returned home to base himself in Ireland.

The second segment of my interview with Conor O’Clery begins with additional questions I asked him over coffee last month, along with a pertinent follow-up question. Other questions came from some of our wonderful readers, and Conor was gracious enough to answer them via email.

Alex Kallimanis: What were the challenges of being the first Irish Times bureau chief in Moscow, just as Mikhail Gorbachev had opened the country to foreign journalists in 1987?

Conor O’Clery: Learning Russian on the run as the action moved from the Kremlin to the streets. If you didn’t know Russian you couldn’t interview Yeltsin despite having access to him on the streets. Often there were conflicting accounts from Russian bureaucrats, and Australian diplomats were the most friendly in helping to decipher and analyze conflicting accounts. They didn’t have the hangups that Americans and Brits had.

Alex Kallimanis: These are certainly *interesting times* pertaining to Russia, Ukraine and world events at the moment. Any guesses on Europe’s response if Russia goes further with annexing any more areas of Ukraine or elsewhere?

Conor O’Clery: More sanctions, and move to become independent of Russian energy supplies.

Alex Kallimanis: What are your favorite and least favorite airports in the world?

Conor O’Clery: My favorite airport is Changi in Singapore. When I was Irish Times bureau chief in Beijing in the late 90’s I’d arrange at least a 6 hour stopover to shop and relax as there were lots of shortages in Beijing at the time. My least favorite airport was Moscow’s international airport, Sheremetyevo, as everything was a big hassle.

Raffles Hotel, Singapore
The Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore is where the ‘Singapore Sling’ cocktail was invented. Conor O’Clery has a chapter in his memoir discussing this famous colonial hotel while he covered political tensions between Singapore and Malaysia in the 90’s. Bell and I scored a free round of Singapore Slings here last year due to second class service in the Long Bar, and complaining American style, a story for another time (Bell and I were not guests in the hotel).

Now on to reader’s questions and answers:

Kate: I was wondering whether Mr. O’Clery and his wife had to deal with cultural differences when they just met and hear some examples of their solutions. When it comes to Mr. O’Clery’s career, I would like to know how his Irish background helps him (or maybe hurts him) while living and working abroad. Also, I was wondering how to get as active abroad as Mr. O’Clery is; any tips for the people out there who have tons of ideas, but who feel restless and stifled at the same time?

Conor O’Clery: People are people everywhere and every marriage involves coping with cultural differences – e.g., even someone from the North of Ireland would find cultural differences with a spouse from the South. Likewise California and New York, Ireland and Russia. Key to overcoming cultural differences – know each other’s language. My Irish background was enormously helpful working abroad as a journalist – Ireland has no record of colonization and is perceived across Africa and Asia to be neutral, and in the US the Irish are part of the national fabric. To get abroad – go abroad. Pick a country, get a letter of accreditation from your local newspaper, start sending news features, look for a job in an English language newspaper in whatever country you choose. Long shot, but it has worked for others in the past.

John Pagnotti: Given your long career in journalism, what do you consider the greatest threat today to the mainstream free press in western countries? What can we do (if anything) to protect it? What is the most difficult lesson you have learned as you have covered the events of the last several decades?

Conor O’Clery: The greatest threat to the mainstream free press is the fact that young people are no longer reading hard copies of newspapers and the media has not yet worked a financially-sustainable internet model. This means less foreign bureau and diminishing of quality of news from abroad. Lessons I have learned? Never assume, and always get out of the office and away from the computer when researching a story.

Ianca Flores: Juarez, Mexico has been called by some as the most dangerous place on earth and journalists have been targeted by the local drug cartel. What’s the best solution in getting investigative reporting in this area again?

The second question relates to the state of journalism today. It used to be that newspapers were (and probably still are to a degree) the main source of journalistic reporting. However, that is definitely on the downtrend and you’re seeing more interesting online sources of news that are picking up the slack. Do you see more serious journalists moving away from traditional media to these other venues?

One of my favorite journalists is Matt Taibbi for the Rolling Stones. Who is someone who is putting stories out there that you respect the most?

Conor O’Clery: I can’t answer the first as I have never been there. Re the interesting online stories – beware! They are often written without professional journalistic verification. I stick to online versions of reliable newspapers like the Guardian. They use professional services like Storyful to verify stories/clips that appear online, e.g., a YouTube video of an alleged atrocity in Syria. Serious journalists are using the Internet of course but often not as journalist/reporters but as journalist/analysts/commentators. Clever, insightful, advocacy journalism is part of the media world, but most of its practitioners never leave their computers and rely on show-leather information in the mainstream media. I’m old-fashioned and stick to the mainstream media and if I were to select one analyst/commentator I respect I would mention Andrew Sullivan of the Sunday Times.

We greatly thank Conor O’Clery for partaking in this interview and highly recommend reading his memoir of life as an award-winning foreign correspondent in ‘May You Live in Interesting Times.’ Political junkies would be interested to read his biography on the fall of the Soviet Union in ‘Moscow: December 25, 1991. The Last Day of the Soviet Union.’ This is certainly a relevant read given Russia’s return to being a global power. What will Putin and Obama’s next major moves be, given the state of current world affairs and past historical events?


  • Alex&Bell

    Alex and Bell originally met while solo traveling after finishing university in 2002, in Brugge, Belgium. Alex grew up in the USA and Bell hails from Australia. During our nearly 20 year marriage we've lived around the world, including spending six years living in the Netherlands and Ireland. We have traveled to nearly 70 countries and enjoy giving readers authentic and quality travel tips. Alex is an award winning travel journalist and travel planner, who also freelances for other outlets. Bell is an award winning PhD scientist who currently works for a non-profit lung cancer advocacy research organization called Lungevity. Happy travels and if you have any questions leave a comment or drop an email!

4 thoughts on “Interview with Award Winning Foreign Correspondent, Conor O’Clery: Part Two

  1. Great article as it is the burning question is whether newspapers can survive in the age of electronic media. He is right in that who verifies the stories if not reliable on the ground journalists and reliable sources. Thank you

    1. Thank you and indeed reliable eyewitness sources on the ground are huge. There is unfortunately too much noise out there at the moment- people just saying things to get attention, speculating or not verifying/lazy journalism. This is a challenging transitional time for serious news outlets trying to transition to the digital age. So many newspapers have gone under and so many writers have lost their jobs, particularly since the economic crash of 2008 and ad revenue drying up.

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