When Benazir Bhutto was blown up on December 27, he spoke to three analysts and had an investment analysis piece on the wire in the space of a couple of hours. ‘Now, that’s fast in anyone’s terms,’says Peter Apps, a reporter on the emerging markets desk at Reuters in London’s Canary Wharf. And especially when you consider this is a journalist who can’t move his arms or legs, let alone type.
Peter is paralysed. He needs help to get out of bed, to eat and to travel. But when it comes to work, things are really not that much different. ‘I don’t think most people expected I would get back to the stage of doing what is essentially a frontline markets reporting job where I’d be able to travel, go out and do interviews,’he says. ‘That wasn’t something people visualised at the time of the accident. But I visualised it.”
Peter went to Sri Lanka in October 2005, 10 months after the tsunami and about three years into the ceasefire between the government and the Tamil Tigers. He was covering general news, finance and whatever was going on until an election boycott by the Tamil Tigers led to an escalation of violence by late August 2006.
Everything changed for him in the September when the minibus he was travelling in collided with a tractor. Peter broke his neck in the accident, which also left three other people badly injured. He was helicoptered back to the Sri Lankan capital, where he stayed for two weeks.Then he was flown back to London to convalesce at King’s College Hospital and a private nursing home in Buckinghamshire.
‘I got out of hospital on 4 June 2007 and I got back to work on 5 June,’explains Apps. ‘There was a fairly widespread view that it wasn’t going to be possible for me to get back to doing very much. The principle problem is that I can’t type.”
This is where technology helps. He uses some specialist equipment to help him in his work, and although he’s experienced a few teething troubles for the most part it’s a reliable and quick method of reporting.
‘A piece of voice recognition software called Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9 allows me to dictate and control all the basic functions of my laptop and a second screen I have with markets on,’he explains. ‘Then I have a head mouse, which is basically a webcam that scans my face and scans the dot on the end of my microphone, so wherever I turn my head to on the screen it’s where the mouse pointer goes. That is essentially it.
‘The software takes dictation slowly, slower than average talking pace, which is incredibly fast. It probably makes about one mistake in 10. Once you’ve corrected that mistake I reckon I’m about the same speed as my old typing.
‘I record on tape and play it back, and when I hear a good quote I use the software to transcribe that. It’s not a perfect system, but it works.”
Apps’s first job back at work was with AlertNet, a web-based platform run by the Reuters Foundation to cover humanitarian news.
In September last year he made a 10-day trip to Scandinavia to report and help market Alertnet. From that he went on to work on the commodities team, the UK bureau and then on to emerging markets.
Apps says that his new working methods are essentially the same as they ever were and that having to speak the words into print has made him a better writer: ‘It’s probably improved my writing style a bit. On the other hand, that was something I was trying to do before the accident. It’s probably a healthy thing in that respect. It’s more difficult to write a nonsensical sentence.”
In an era of less staff, more deadlines, and more demand for words, Apps adheres to an old-school approach. He makes sure he gets out of the office several times a week and insists that face-to-face contact can’t be replaced with phone calls and emails.
‘I’m still a great believer in actually seeing things on the ground and talking to people in person,’he says. ‘As people have to write more stories a day it gets more difficult to do that. I would still say it’s very important. I think it’d be a great pity if we get to the stage when we cover all these things without going out into the real world. That’s certainly a risk.”
He admits that he is not what most interviewees expect to meet when he arranges face-to-face-meetings.
‘I try to warn them in advance that I haven’t got working arms or legs. People don’t seem to be that taken aback. I haven’t, so far, arranged to meet someone and forgotten to mention that in advance, but I’m sure one day it’ll happen,’he says.
‘It does mean if you’re arranging lunch with a contact, if it’s someone you’re pretty comfortable with, you have to ask them to feed you, but that’s not the end of the world. I don’t think things have changed that much – maybe to less of an extent than most people expect.”
It was his determination to get back to work and to avoid going into a nursing home that drove him on after the accident.
‘I made it very clear I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t get back to work. If anything, I was deliberately over confident to try and make it as hard as possible to wriggle out of it. Now I’m here it’s not a problem.”
As for the future, he enjoys the world of finance and emerging markets, but he likes the idea of being overseas again.
‘I’d like to get back to an emerging bureau. I don’t see any reason why that’s physically undoable. Johannesburg, Jerusalem or somewhere like that. I do quite enjoy being able to bury myself in one story , which I don’t have the option of doing here because it’s much more a global role. However, given what’s going on in the global economy at the moment emerging markets is an interesting place to be.”
Graham Holliday works for the Frontline Club, www.frontlineclub.com