Home Book editor John Tulloh, ABC TV’s first foreign editor, is remembered for his talent and people skills before the digital revolution

John Tulloh, ABC TV’s first foreign editor, is remembered for his talent and people skills before the digital revolution


ABC News’ first foreign editor, John Tulloh, was a much-loved legendary figure who inspired generations of journalists, encouraging them to go out into the world and tell compelling stories.

Former ABC Northeast Asia correspondent Wally Hamilton, who worked alongside Tulloh, paid tribute to him for ABC Backstory.

How is international news covered?

These days, a story can be filmed on a cell phone, edited on a laptop, and delivered via email. This was not always the case.

Previously, news cameras were Bell and Howells or hand-cranked Sony CP16s that held 400 feet, or 10 minutes, of film that had to be chemically processed and manually cut into a story.

The script was often recorded on tape and sent to be adapted later.

Customs formalities, an airline strike, censorship or bad weather could easily prevent an item from reaching its destination.

Over a 40-year television career, John Tulloh has witnessed the transition from film to digital file, from telex to email, from shipping to satellite feed.

He started at the Visnews news agency in London and later became the first foreign editor of Sydney-based ABC TV before retiring as head of international operations in 2004.

His recent passing, at the age of 82, brought back memories of a golden age of news.

John Tulloh this year with Jacquie Sheppard, the widow of close friend Jack Sheppard, and her daughter Stephanie(Provided)

Born in 1940 as one of four siblings including a twin sister, Tulloh grew up in Adelaide by the beach.

His father worked for The News, an afternoon daily, before setting up a public relations firm.

After serving as a cadet at The News, Tulloh sailed for the UK in 1961 seeking adventure and career opportunities.

He was eventually hired by Visnews as a screenwriter at its London headquarters.

Missions have taken him to Mexico, Calcutta, Cairo, Hong Kong, New York… the list is long.

The success of “analog” journalism depended more on human and human skills than on technology, and Tulloh had both.

David Brill, a distinguished cameraman who knew him well, said, “The great thing about Tulloh was the consistency and loyalty of his friendships.”

This has allowed him to form and maintain friendships with key people in the media around the world.

These contacts have often allowed ABC correspondents to connect to a wider and richer network of resources.

When President Marcos of the Philippines was ousted in a coup in 1986, Ian Macintosh led the company’s coverage team in Manila.

The ABC teamed up with the BBC and NBC, beating out Australian commercial stations scrambling to cover the story.

“I couldn’t have gotten the ABC accepted as a junior partner in the consortium – that was John’s job,” Macintosh recalls.

So it was when Macintosh reopened the ABC office in Jakarta in 1991, after years of being sidelined by the Suharto regime.

Trying to book a satellite to send a report was often a nightmare.

“Where I couldn’t get permission through official lines in Indonesia, he could through his contacts at TVRI [the national broadcaster]“said Macintosh.

Jill Colgan found herself “in the desert in Afghanistan, without means of communication and without reinforcement”, and trouble is looming.

Using a satellite phone recovered from another reporter, she dialed “JT”, as he was affectionately known.

“We have been brought into the fold of the BBC, more secure, supported and able to give evidence on the coming war without running out of time,” she said.

“He was a lifesaver.”

John Tulloh and Jane
John Tulloh with former ABC Hong Kong correspondent Jane Hutcheon.(Provided )

Greg Wilesmith, who reported from war-torn Belgrade in 1998, said Tulloh was a “master organizer”.

“After NATO bombed the main TV station, communications became a bit more difficult, and we had to get the video tapes across the Romanian border,” he said.

“That kind of logistics was meat and drink to him.”

In 1991, after the Gulf War, Trevor Bormann was tasked with setting up a new office in Amman, Jordan.

Tulloh handled the “almost daily” requests for extra expenses with good humor, as this excerpt from a note to Trevor shows:

“We are so concerned about your aversion to walking around the seven djebels[hillsofAmmanthatwehaveconcludedyour4W-driveproposalisagoodone”[collinesd’Ammanquenousavonsconcluquevotrepropositionde4W-driveestbonne”[hills’ ofAmmanthatwehaveconcludedyour4W-driveproposalisagoodone”

Driver: “No problem, go ahead. What’s your next request, a butler?”

During the Cambodian civil war in the 1970s, a freelance Korean cameraman working for Visnews disappeared for weeks and it was feared that he was dead.

Tulloh “inflated” the story fee and flew to Seoul with a large sum of money for his family.

Fortunately, the man escaped his captors and found himself safe and sound in Phnom Penh.

His biggest problem then was explaining to his wife how he made so much money while sending little home.

Tulloh knew all too well the dangers of the job.

His friend Neil Davis died in 1985 when he was hit by shrapnel while filming during a coup in Thailand.

Tulloh described Davis as “always calm, unflappable, and ever so unassuming about his experiences”.

He shared the same personal qualities, which earned him a place among the best foreign publishers in the world.

In 2003, ABC contract cameraman Paul Moran was killed in northern Iraq by a suicide bomber.

Tulloh handled the terrible aftermath with his usual tact and delicacy.

Moran’s widow would receive a call from JT on every birthday thereafter.

The first Gulf War, the overthrow of the Twin Towers, the invasion of Iraq and the scourge of terrorism made the protection of personnel stationed in hostile areas a greater challenge.

“Survival training” before deployment, the wearing of NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) suits, even armored vehicles have become requirements.

While reporting from Bosnia in 1993, Max Uechtriz heard “the ping of a sniper bullet” hit the fortified Range Rover they called “The Hog”.

“There were different sized tires on each of the four wheels and the heating system had been stolen,” he said.

“We had a very cold winter there in Sarajevo.”

A man in a suit sitting on the ground next to a dog.
John Tulloh in Adelaide around 1961, before he left for Europe. (Provided )

Uechtriz had covered the Tiananmen Square protests and military crackdown in Beijing in 1989, where Singapore-based cameraman Willie Phua captured famous footage of the “tank-man” carrying his shopping bags and restraining the PLA.

Tulloh’s ability to anticipate story development, source coverage and keep lines of communication open once again proved crucial.

A former Washington correspondent, now ABC’s editorial director, Craig McMurtrie described Tulloh as calm in times of crisis and unwaveringly supportive.

“JT seemed to watch, read and listen to everything you dropped off and didn’t dodge tough comments when necessary,” McMurtrie said.

Tulloh once wrote, “News is a serious commodity.”

He hated it turning into gossip or rumor, and he swooped like a hawk on sloppy language, jargon, or slang in the scripts.

John Cameron, a foreign correspondent who became director of news and current affairs, commented: “You knew what was expected of you.

“His comments were carefully worded as encouragement rather than criticism,” he said.

“And yes – he was a follower of standards, but never in a superior way.”

Tulloh wanted value-added stories from his correspondents, not articles re-edited from briefings or documents.

He wanted stories that captured the mood and attitudes of ordinary people in Central America or downtown Tokyo, not just the competing elites.

A man smiles with a camera around his neck.
In his 40-year career in journalism, John Tulloh has seen the shift from film to digital. He is remembered for his dedication to his craft. (Provided)

He deeply regretted the homogenization of information.

“Such international coverage is due to the ripple effect of what is happening in the most powerful country in the world,” he said.

“So many journalists based in the United States, especially inside the Washington beltway, are influenced by what they read on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post and, to some extent, by the newsletters network evening news.

“It’s like an infection.”

How is international news covered?

Tulloh’s own simple description of himself as a boy offers an answer: “I was not a curious child, but I learned to be observant.”