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Deborah Rayner

Deborah Rayner
Deborah is the Senior Vice President of International Newsgathering at CNN. We discuss Deborah’s humble beginnings sending corporate Christmas cards at Channel 4, finding a mentor in the famous broadcaster Jon Snow, working in Iran and a crazy experience involving a British mercenary.
‎Media Tribe: Deborah Rayner | Being an exec at CNN, broadcasting from Iran & a visit from a mercenary on Apple Podcasts
This episode features Deborah Rayner, the Senior Vice President of International Newsgathering at CNN. Under Deborah’s leadership, CNN has won several prestigious awards including Peabodys, Emmys and Overseas Press Club awards. We discuss Deborah’s humble beginnings sending corporate Christmas cards…
Listen to Deborah Rayner on Apple Podcasts
Listen to Deborah Rayner on Spotify
Media Tribe - Deborah Rayner | Being an exec at CNN, broadcasting from Iran & a visit from a mercenary
This episode features Deborah Rayner, the Senior Vice President of International Newsgathering at CNN. Under Deborah’s leadership, CNN has won several prestigious awards including Peabodys, Emmys and Overseas Press Club awards. We discuss Deborah’s humble beginnings sending corporate Christmas cards…
Listen to Deborah Rayner on Google Podcasts

Shaunagh talks to Deborah Rayner

This episode features Deborah Rayner, the Senior Vice President of International Newsgathering at CNN. Under Deborah's leadership, CNN has won several prestigious awards including Peabodys, Emmys and Overseas Press Club awards. We discuss Deborah’s humble beginnings sending corporate Christmas cards at Channel 4, finding a mentor in the famous broadcaster Jon Snow, working in Iran and a crazy experience involving Simon Mann, the British mercenary.

Episode credits

Hosted and produced by Shaunagh Connaire and edited by Ryan Ferguson.

Episode transcript

Shaunagh Connaire

Welcome to Media Tribe. I'm Shaunagh Connaire, And this is the podcast that tells the story behind the story. It's an opportunity for you and I to step into the shoes of the most extraordinary media folk who cover the issues that matter most.

Deborah Rayner

I have been on the very, very harsh end of the news gathering business. I've repatriated bodies, got people out of jail and been involved in negotiating people's release from kidnap. And it's all very adventurous and glamorous but the harsh end of it is brutal.

Shaunagh Connaire

My guest this week is Deborah Rayner, the Senior Vice President of International News Gathering for TV and Digital at CNN International. Deborah is based in the US and under her leadership, CNN has been recognized with many prestigious awards for its international coverage, including Peabody awards, Overseas Press Club awards, and multiple Emmy awards to name a few. Deborah, thanks a million for coming on the podcast.

Deborah Rayner

Thank you for having me. I was honored to be asked.

Shaunagh Connaire

Listen, Deborah, you are the Senior Vice President of International News Gathering at CNN. How on earth did you get to where you are right now?

Deborah Rayner

Well, I took this job six years ago and when she first contacted me, I realized I've been in the business for 32 years now, so I never thought I would end up being the head of international news gathering for CNN. I started straight out of college, working for an independent production company. And of course from the people you've spoken to about me, working with independents has been a huge fond, satisfying, impactful part of my career. I worked for an independent, they had a program called The World This Week. I was always interested in the world and media. And from there I got a freelance gig at NBC News, actually in London, through somebody I knew just before the Berlin Wall came down. So I was doing my first overnight shift at NBC completely on my own with a security guard and an Alsatian. And it all came tumbling down in Poland. And I think there was a massive train crash and Ayatollah Khamenei died. And it was just a massive night.

Deborah Rayner

It was one of those things I think, in news you sink or swim. So I was there, the fall of communism was underway. I got more work and I left and went to CBS doing the same. I worked all the way through the fall of communism. And then I was told that there was a job going at Channel Four news. And I went over to Channel Four news and I was the assistant desk assistant with the grand task of sending out the corporate Christmas cards. I remember that. And I know you've interviewed John Snow. John was a fabulous friend and mentor to me. I remember on my first week having to take a guest to the studio and seeing him and like where's the studio. And even getting a guest for him in Germany and remembering John looking at the camera and saying, "He doesn't speak English." So, I mean really sort of humble beginnings, much supported by the wonderful John Snow at Channel Four News. And I worked my way through there. I think that was 1989.

Deborah Rayner

I left and became an independent producer for a while in the field and had all kinds of adventures in Iraq and Albania for the fall of communism there, the tail end and made some documentaries for CBC and PBS and some independent films for Channel Four. And then they got me back for a job as the foreign editor. And then I was about to leave again and I was asked to set up the Independence Fund and that was great fun, very hard work. And I worked for some years on that. And then I became the Independent Fund Commissioning Editor. And I was saying to you before you started recording this, that I remember the launch of Unreported World and then stealing all my "Indies" the great [Cyrus Shaw 00:04:20], Liz Jones, who I'd a lot of work with, they all went trotting off to Unreported World. And I started again, which I've done so many times in my career. Start again, start again, start again.

Deborah Rayner

And then I think I was a commissioning editor for Indies for five or six years. And then I was asked to be the senior foreign editor at Channel Four News. So I'd been the day editor, but I was asked to run the whole thing and bring all the independent filmmaking that I'd engendered, worked on into the daily news beat. So I did that night and I think that I started just as the Iraq war began and got sucked back in again. And from there, I think CNN talked to me a couple of times and I decided I went to CNN. I didn't want to do news anymore. I went and worked in what they call their back half now and launched The World's Untold Stories. And within three weeks they told me I was the London Bureau Chief. And I just said, "can I think about that please?" And they said, "No, you bloody can't."

Shaunagh Connaire

So Deborah, back to news again. I mean, it's magnetic.

Deborah Rayner

Back to news. Yeah, my very first day, I started as London Bureau Chief, the former one handed the keys to the office, to me in an airport in Madrid, no handover whatsoever. And my first day, the Mumbai attacks happened. And I remember looking up at the TV thinking, oh, I wonder who's dealing with that. And the next thing is Atlanta screaming at me down the phone saying, "You've got six hours of programming to look after. What are you doing?" I was like, oh, nobody even told me I had six hours of programming to look after.

Shaunagh Connaire

Everything you've described there Deborah, it just sounds like your career has been a series of sink or swim. They've just kind of dangled you over the edge and you've always been a good swimmer by the sounds of it.

Deborah Rayner

I've always loved a challenge, but I think I've been lucky enough to have great mentors and bosses who saw more potential in me than I did in myself. I remember when I was made the London Bureau Chief saying to my then boss, Tony Maddix, that he said, well, it's a pity because he had another job. I won't say what it is because that person might be listening. And I said, "I can't do that." And he said, "Oh, don't be ridiculous. Of course you could with your eyes shut." So I became the London Bureau Chief, and I think it was the same, Dorothy Byrne was a great mentor of mine when she wanted to make me the senior foreign editor at Channel Four News. I didn't think I could do that.

Shaunagh Connaire

It's so interesting to hear you say that Deborah. It's shocking, I would say that there were moments where you didn't think you could do these jobs. Like why is it that kind of, you let that imposter syndrome creep in?

Deborah Rayner

I don't know. I suppose to all the men and boys, I loved in the industry throughout the years, you look at them and a lot of them can give good meeting and they just have such tremendous confidence. And you think, gosh, I wish I had a dose of that. I've been really pushed way beyond what I ever dreamed I could do. I was sent to secretarial college so that I would always have a job. And of course it was there I learned my shorthand and typing, which I've used for my journalism career. I was packed off to finishing school by my parents when I was 16 in the hope that I'd probably marry someone. I mean, they'd be well looked after. That was the grounding that's enabled me to go for lunch in palaces as well as run around in wellington boots in refugee camps.

Shaunagh Connaire

That's amazing. I honestly didn't know any of this background at all. And it really is so striking to hear you say all that. And I think for maybe for non tele people, it's worth explaining and, and correct me if I'm wrong, Deborah, but what you do now as the SVP of News Gathering, you're essentially overseeing all of CNN's international bureaus, all of CNN's international correspondence, international producers and the actual international desk itself.

Deborah Rayner

Absolutely. Yes. There are other managers that look after these departments, but it's digital and TV news gathering. There's all the crews and the engineers as well. The news desk is based in Atlanta, but there's a big news desk in London. There's one in Hong Kong and there's a smaller one in Abu Dhabi. So I run all of those as well.

Shaunagh Connaire

I mean, so it's completely insane basically is the point I'm trying to illustrate.

Deborah Rayner

It is, it's round clock insane.

Shaunagh Connaire

It is bonkers. So would it be accurate of me to say you are essentially setting the foreign news agenda for CNN?

Deborah Rayner

Well, I certainly set editorially, which assignments we're going to go on, but I think it's far more collaborative than that because it's such a big beast that we have to ensure that we're delivering to what we call clients. So CNN international, CNN US, digital, and a lot of them will have their own ideas about what it is that they want. We've got very specific shows so we have business shows and sport shows, domestic shows and our international shows. So while I will run the individual assignments and the correspondents speak about all the elective investigations, the ones that Nima works on and the like, and what I call elective or distinctive journalism, there's a great amount. I mean, I didn't set the COVID agenda. I didn't set the ISIS agenda. So a lot of it is responding to breaking news. A lot of it is responding to sometimes really kind of, whoa, okay. If you really want that, I suppose we'll have to do it requests. And then we do have the opportunity to set the agenda with our investigations and with our enterprise journalism.

Shaunagh Connaire

Yeah, which has had so much impact along the way and hopefully people will have listened to Nima's episode as well, and where she talks about her piece from Libya and human slave auctions, which it's staggering journalism as well as being completely disturbing. So moving on Deborah to, I guess, more the nitty gritty of this interview. Is there a moment and I'm sure there is in your career where you can really take a step back and say, you're really proud of that moment? Maybe it was something, a story or a project that had real impact, real and tangible impact?

Deborah Rayner

If you were to ask me about my own journalism and my own production in the field, I would say nobody would be surprised at Channel Four News to hear me say the project I did with John Snow in Iran was groundbreaking. It was a huge effort and it was a wonderful project because nobody thought it could be done. Dorothy Byrne was the Commissioning Editor at Channel Four. And it wouldn't have happened without her very instructive attitude to me, which was well, all right, I'll give you double digit thousands. And if you get one program live from Iran, I will be [inaudible 00:11:48] and then we got three and she was just whoop whooping in the control room as she saw it all come in, and it had never been done. And it involved me completely trusting a wonderful Iranian producer who was just like, "You just have to trust me." So just believing and just trusting is a really important lesson.

Deborah Rayner

And I still to this day, have no idea how, why or when the Iranians changed their mind. But I can tell you that to this day, as the Senior Vice President of International News Gathering at CNN, governments like the Iranians and the Chinese, they remember me from Channel Four. They remember me from Channel Four. The foreign ministry in China are like we remember you before the Olympics, when you with Channel Four. And the Iranians do, the Iranians always remember John Snow and this incredible run of live broadcast that had never been done before. I mean, the stories from it are hilarious, trying, informative. As we moved across Iran, it was a big adventure. It was a huge success. It was a great leap of faith for me and everybody in Iran and for Dorothy Byrne. So I would say that.

Shaunagh Connaire

And was that during the elections Deborah? Did that happen during elections?

Deborah Rayner

No, it was before that. It was 2006, yeah.

Shaunagh Connaire

Oh, wow. Okay. And I guess maybe people don't know, but it's really, really hard to even get into Iran, let alone operate in Iran sometimes. I'm not sure if you guys struggle in CNN now, I'm guessing it might be more difficult to go in as CNN than it would be as Channel Four.

Deborah Rayner

Yes. But as I was saying, I mean, I've been back a couple of times and I went to Tehran, I haven't been back for two years, but I go to New York to go to the mission just to try and facilitate our correspondence going on. And they remember John Snow and Channel Four News and the news from Iran. So it has helped me get CNN in.

Shaunagh Connaire

That's great.

Deborah Rayner

And so we can pretty much go in and out as we please because of that really, I would say. Well not just because of that. I mean, [inaudible 00:13:58] correspondent there has built his own relationships. And as an executive, I mean, it's really living vicariously through the tremendous courage of people like Nima, who not only went off to a slave auction, dressed as a maid, trying to buy a slave for a master, but got herself trafficked in Nigeria. She does nail biting stuff. And then I had to go visit her once in Dubai, where she was being quarantined, having been to the heart of Ebola.

Shaunagh Connaire

I mean, she's extraordinary. She's kind of on a different level. I think she really is something else. It sounds to be maybe Deborah, do you miss being out in the field? Like, it's obviously quite a different position that you're in now as an executive.

Deborah Rayner

I did for a long time. And I think now there are way better people than me to be out. Even the people I worked with at CNN, Arwa Damon is amazing. We had her follow all the migrant refugees as they came across from Libya and worked their way through Europe. I mean, she lived with them, she traveled on the train with them. She ran through fields with them broadcasting on a live. I mean, unbelievable.

Shaunagh Connaire

I want to move on Deborah then to the next question. Again, I know you'll probably have a hard time picking one moment, but is there a really crazy experience that you can allude to that the audience might know about, possibly a story that never made it to air?

Deborah Rayner

I need to switch to CNN because right now I'm hopping back to Channel Four quite a lot. I mean, when Simon, this is one that crossed the two, Simon Mann who you may remember from the Wonga Coup that Mark Thatcher was involved in. When he was arrested and then put on trial in Equatorial Guinea, we actually got into the jail and interviewed him and ended up in high court. His family sued us and said that he'd given the interview under duress. And I remember just sitting on the bench in high court, having your emails produced, that's always horrible. There's no better way to learn the publish and be damned rule. And don't commit anything to email that you don't want to surface then sort of ending up in high court. And [inaudible 00:16:17] the correspondent actually got to the Equatorial Guinean President, and I told her that she wasn't to leave without asking him if you did indeed eat testicles. And she did.

Deborah Rayner

I mean, she was tremendously courageous and we got this sort of really groundbreaking interview with Simon Mann. And when we were standing in court, his sister went out to see him. And he told her that he had willingly given the interview to us and that he'd wanted it to happen. So that was it, drop hands in court with QCs on both sides. But to move on to CNN, I was in the London Bureau of CNN in like my jeans and cowboy boots, I think getting ready for the royal wedding and in walks Simon Mann, and I didn't recognize him saying, "You know my inside leg measurement. And I just wanted to see you eyeball to eyeball." He actually walked into the London Bureau of CNN to find out who I was.

Shaunagh Connaire

Oh my God.

Deborah Rayner

That was crazy all around. It did get to air, but there's this part of this that didn't get to air, which was an interview that Sue subsequently did having lunch with him in jail, in Equatorial Guinea, which she said was extraordinary because he was served wine and eating, was pretty well looked after. In which he really, really dished the dirt on who had put him up to the coup and dished the dirt on Mark Thatcher, dished the dirt on the businessman who had financed the coup.

Shaunagh Connaire

Wow.

Deborah Rayner

And that for all kinds of reasons, ended up under lock and key in a safe in Channel Four. But John Snow and I were called by a very famous PR company to a meeting with this businessman. And I don't know if John told you about this, but it's a very well-known PR company. And John and I went to this meeting and we had everything taken off us as soon as we arrived, no pencils, no phones, no means recording it. It was only ever going to be my word and John's what happened at this meeting. And we went down to a basement face to face with this man who had, according to Simon Mann, orchestrates the coup. He's not alive anymore. And he basically threatened to kill John.

Shaunagh Connaire

God, John is always getting into situations, isn't he?

Deborah Rayner

John was like, well, "Oh, I better wear a flat jacket now." He just looked at him and said, "Well, you could always just fall off your bike one day and nobody would know."

Shaunagh Connaire

Wow.

Deborah Rayner

So that story never made it to air under threat of John's life and some obviously big legal concerns. The tape still exists somewhere.

Shaunagh Connaire

Wow. Good inside info. I certainly did not know that bit of information. And do you, Deborah then, I mean, CNN and Channel Four are quite different in the sense that CNN, you've got news going on all day everyday. Whereas Channel Four News at the moment is one particular program in the evening. There must be quite a big difference between those two jobs, what you were doing?

Deborah Rayner

There's a huge difference. But part of the reason I went to CNN is I thought that if I was allowed to do some of the enterprise and investigative journalism storytelling that we did at Channel Four to a much bigger audience and across so many more platforms, that it would be impactful and it would be rewarding. And they weren't doing very much of that at the time, they had very, very good correspondents, don't get me wrong, but there wasn't that culture of enterprise and distinctive journalism. It was very much a breaking news organization. It still wins awards for best breaking news. It's still very much the core promise of CNN, but it was the ability to be able to add in enterprise journalism and investigative journalism and a different kind of storytelling. That was what attracted me over there to a much larger audience. And I took with me Nima and Nick Peyton Walsh and Nick Glass, and one of our editors, Dan Wright, who was the home news editor at Channel Four News, is there. So I took some of that culture across with me over time, not all in one go.

Deborah Rayner

And yes, I had to learn it's a very different beast. It's all very well and good to have three days to make a great film, which sometimes you had the luxury of at Channel Four, but you just don't have that luxury at CNN. So it was a try and up the quality of the storytelling and the filmmaking while still delivering at speed. Yes, and of course, if you make a mistake on CNN, the penalties and the calamity that follows, it's vastly different crisis management on social media as well, which obviously wasn't around when I was at Channel Four. I mean, you really have a big problem on your hands if you make a mistake, you're unfair or all the problems that you can have in a smaller organization with a smaller audience are amplified massively across the world. And you have people on the ground all around the world. So we've got a bureau with two correspondents in Moscow. So all these Russian stories of the past year and a half, they can have a physical and business and professional impact on our teams there.

Shaunagh Connaire

The larger theme there is your duty of care. And like, I would love to know what kind of security protocol and meeting looks like at CNN, like who's at the table, what kind of boxes do you have to tick?

Deborah Rayner

There was always a good infrastructure. When I joined CNN, they had run the Baghdad bureau with one security company in Iraq throughout the war. And then when I joined the story and the agenda changed and the nature of the threat changed. So when I became head of news gathering, it was one of the things that I took on straight away, which was to change our security setup. I mean, the protocols remain pretty much the same actually, but we have security experts in each of our major hubs, so that there's somebody around the clock for anyone to call in an emergency and get advice from. Those experts give advice before anybody goes into the field and they do a risk assessment. Now you can never eradicate risk, but you can mitigate it. So anyone that you talk to from the BBC or anywhere else will always say, so you always have your exit strategy planned. You always mitigate risk. And we'd done some really daring journalism in the six years that I've been head of news gathering, which is obviously since the Iraq war.

Deborah Rayner

We've really done some daring assignments and Nima getting trafficked and going undercover are amongst them. But our mantra is go there. So I like to think until there's an Icelandic volcano or a COVID pandemic, that there is nowhere we can't go. And that's always a great challenge and we all enjoy getting around those obstacles as safely as you possibly can. So for those really hair raising assignments, I will stay up myself and I'm really a stickler about people phoning in, because if I don't hear from them, I assume the worst. And sometimes they get upset about that. And I was like well how long would you really like me to wait before we find out that you have been kidnapped? And I have been on the very, very harsh end of the news gathering business. I've repatriated bodies, got people out of jail and been involved in negotiating people's release from kidnap. It's all very adventurous and glamorous, but the harsh end of it is brutal.

Shaunagh Connaire

Bad stuff happens, bad stuff happens.

Deborah Rayner

Really bad stuff happens. So if you've been there, like I have, you really, really, really don't want it to happen. You don't want it to happen to the people you so care about and you don't want it to happen on your watch.

Shaunagh Connaire

Yeah. Well, it's a very somber note to end the podcast on Deborah, but also really, really important note and I think it just absolutely amplifies exactly what you're doing and the level of responsibility you have in the job that you're doing at CNN. So thank you so much for joining me. You're very good. I know how busy you are. So thanks a million Deborah.

Shaunagh Connaire

If you liked what you heard on this episode of Media Tribe, tune in next week, as I'll be dropping new shows every week with all sorts of legendary folk from the industry. And if he could leave me a review and rating, that would be really appreciated. Also get in touch on social media at Shaunagh on Twitter, or at Shaunagh Connaire on Instagram. And feel free to suggest new guests. Right, that's it. Until next week, see you then. This episode is edited by Ryan Ferguson.