Joseph Ataman (Class of 2011)

Joseph Ataman (Class of 2011), read Geography with a choral scholarship at St John’s College, Cambridge before heading to Beirut to begin a career in journalism. After working in Turkey and completing a masters in Turkish, Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, Joseph is now back in London and working for CNN. 

How did you come to be a pupil at City of London School?
I came to CLS from Westminster Cathedral Choir School where I'd been a chorister for five years. Before that I'd gone to primary school out in East London and Essex, where I grew up. 

Can you remember your first day?
I remember the Head Boy welcoming me across the threshold with a handshake. Five years later, as one of the school captains wearing the same scarlet tie, I was doing the same and it felt like a great honour. 

Which teachers most inspired you at CLS?
There was never a dull or unhappy moment in Mr Allwright’s Russian classes. Doing ‘fine’ was never enough. It felt like we were being enveloped in another culture. It didn’t feel like learning for learning’s sake. So many teachers at CLS had a passion for their chosen field that was infectious and that was especially true for him. Although I never carried on using my Russian, he and some of my French teachers like Mr Laidlaw and Mr Dowler, really cemented my love of other cultures and languages. I still try to cling on to as many languages as I can. Geography and music were always great loves of mine and they still are. Without those two departments, I don’t think I would be where I am today.

Which extra-curricular activities did you do?
I had a pretty hectic time at School – not trying to blow my own trumpet, but I was there early every day and I left late. I would have clubs or music practice in the morning and after School there’d be orchestra practice or a water polo match or CCF on a Monday. I lived in Brentwood – which is now in Zone 9. I used to get a 6.37am train that would get me in for 7.30am. I honestly don’t know how I did it. I was a keen musician; playing in the orchestra, singing, playing the organ; in my later years CLS bought the Steinway grand piano and I still remember the privilege and joy of playing that in the Great Hall. I loved the RAF Cadets. You would have to be a fool to say ‘no’ to free flying lessons, but I also loved the camaraderie and the chance to mix with boys from across the School in a completely alien environment. I found it incredibly rewarding mentoring younger boys.

What was your first experience of work?
It was a bit unusual for me. My first kind-of job was singing every weekend at a Cathedral in Essex, which carried on into when I was a choral scholar at Cambridge. But my first ‘proper’ job? When I left Cambridge, I traipsed round every possible newsroom in London, handing out CVs and being met with a lot of silence and rejection until I eventually was offered work at the Islington and Hackney Gazette. I spent a summer working there before I moved to Lebanon.

What first inspired you to become a journalist?
I saw a Channel 4 documentary about Sri Lanka and the ongoing war there. It really hit me how one person being in a place could make a record of what was going on there and hopefully hold people accountable. That idea of being witness and holding people and institutions to account is incredibly powerful and that’s what gets me up in the morning.

Moving to Beirut, off your own bat, seems a massive step to take. How did that happen?
I knew I wanted to work in conflict zones, or areas of humanitarian interest, I guess. I always knew I wanted to get to the Middle East – I’m half Turkish and I have a strong affinity with that part of the world. I was determined to get my hands dirty and get out there, rather than spend a few years in London trying to get someone to send me out there. So I moved out there on my own, to see if I could learn Arabic and see what I could pick up. Within a few months, I had sold my first story – it was about migrants from Sri Lanka being banned from playing cricket and being harassed in Beirut [click to read the article]. And over the course of a year to 18 months, I found my feet as a journalist. Hunger was the best motivation. I learned more than I ever could have learned back in London. It was a very alien environment and you needed to pick up the skills that are critical for journalism – the people skills, being able to find stories and research things. I wrote for a big Catholic magazine at first, covering the Christian community in the Middle East. I was also doing features for Lebanese magazines and I did some time editing for an English-language newspaper there.

How does doing video journalism for CNN compare to your background in written journalism?
It is very different but it is still about trying to master the written word. I love scripting – it’s the same skills writing a 6000-word feature as scripting a 60-70 word video.

What has been your best work so far?
I would choose two. Firstly, a CNN article and video piece that I hoped would make us think - not merely remember - that WW1 and its poisons are still eating away at Europe 100 years after the guns fell silent. [Click here to view] Secondly, a story I did for the Wall Street Journal in Belgium, about unaccompanied migrant children [Click here to read]. It ended up on the European edition’s front cover. There's usually so much noise around the daily turnover of news and I was really proud to write a piece that cut through that, even just for a few minutes. On the back of this, I won an award with the Overseas Press Club Foundation in New York. 

What advice would you give to current pupils looking ahead to the world of work?
Just go out and do it. Never be put off by someone demanding a certain qualification or certificate. If you can find a way to practice that profession or passion in however small a way, you will learn far more than you will get from a certificate or a one-year diploma.
I think the confidence that being at CLS gives you serves you very well in taking that kind of path. I am never surprised to see what Old Citizens get up to. My other tip would be: ‘Just go out and travel’.

How did having a bursary to CLS change your life?
Without a bursary, I could never have gone to CLS; and going there gave me opportunities that I would never have had otherwise. Before CLS, even the idea of going to university was completely alien to me.

In which direction would you like your career to go next?
I aim to have a body of work that gets more investigative. I want to shine light on situations we never hear about or choose to look away from – and also to put a degree of accountability into how these situations have come about. I have done a fair bit of work around migration and refugees and I am working on a big story that centres on that subject for CNN. Doing stories around migration, especially refugees, you never lose that sense of privilege that comes from someone opening up their life to you. It’s an incredible experience and honour to be able to do it.

Without a bursary, I could never have gone to CLS; and going there gave me opportunities that I would never have had otherwise.