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Wednesday 21 Feb 2018 | 00:42 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 21 Feb 2018 | 00:42 | SYDNEY
Debates

Foreign Correspondents In The Digital Age

8 Sep 2017 08:20

This is a discussion thread marking the Lowy Institute Media Award, which each year recognises excellence in foreign affairs journalism. Click here to see the short list for this year’s award. The winner will be announced on 23 September.

Editors don't occupy the top rung of the journalistic ladder. Foreign correspondents do. Their exploits, real and imagined, have inspired the careers of legions of reporters down the years. And not just reporters. Authors and publishers, screenwriters, directors and playwrights all get in on the act. They imbue their heroes with virtues, again real and imagined, that speak to the romance, derring-do and hard-won, worldly wisdom that we unconsciously assign to those reporters designated 'Foreign Correspondent'.

Although my career as a working reporter was short-lived, I was not immune. As a 17-year-old copy boy I spent night shifts on a stool in a corner of the sub-editors' room. At my shoulder hummed the pneumatic tubes through which I sent copy speeding to the compositors and linotype operators next door. Behind me was the telex room, its row of clattering machines churning out all the news that was fit to print from the four corners of the world.

I was privileged to witness this last gasp of 19th century newspaper tradition because within a year it had vanished, replaced by computers.

But as the callow lad I was, I spent more than a few of those long nights (between making pots of stewed tea and fetching page proofs and smokes for the subs) imagining my own future covering wars, coups, famines and other stock-in-trade of the fabled 'Foreign Correspondent'.

Alas, it wasn't to be. And, of course, anyone who has actually been a foreign correspondent can quickly demolish the notion that it's all it's cracked up to be.

In my time, the 'Tiser's beloved cadet counsellor Bob Jervis did his best to set us pups straight with recommended reading lists.

We'd all read Evelyn Waugh's Scoop already, and that, we were assured, told us almost everything we needed to know about the mysteries of foreign reporting and how news was really made.

But there were other must-reads that would fill out the picture. Books like Edward Behr's arrestingly titled Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? , a 1978 account of 'the horror and humour, competitiveness and camaraderie' of that veteran's 30-odd years 'behind the lines'. Or Michael Herr's 1977 memoir of the Vietnam War Dispatches, described by John le Carré as 'the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time'.

Another was A Late Education (1970), the slim memoir of Australian journalist and author Alan Moorehead. I re-read it recently and marveled again at the elegant and understated account of a reporter who covered most of the 20th century's great historical events and whose life was lived mostly abroad, and mostly on the road. That led me to Thornton McCamish's biography of Moorehead Our Man Elsewhere (2016). For all its style and sophistication Moorehead's memoir doesn't do his life justice. McCamish's biography does.

I built a growing bedside tower of foreign corro' books as I prepared to judge, with four colleagues, the Lowy Institute's annual Media Award, established five years ago to recognise an Australian journalist who has deepened the knowledge, or shaped the discussion, of international policy issues in our country.

Some are classics like Graham Greene's The Quiet American (1955) and Moorehead's African Trilogy (1945); others are newer contributions to the genre, like Leslie Cockburn's Looking for Trouble: One Woman, Six Wars and a Revolution (1998); Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR's Correspondent Anne Garrels (2003); and Zoe Daniel's Storyteller (2014), a memoir of her time as the ABC's South East Asia correspondent.

Other homework has included re-reading lectures delivered at previous Award nights by distinguished and well-credentialed speakers Nick WarnerMalcolm TurnbullRobert Thomson and Michelle Guthrie – all Australians.

Each lecture was an informed, thoughtful and entertaining reflection on the art and science of reporting on international events. Each conjured up a sense of what it means to be a foreign correspondent, in particular an Australian foreign correspondent.

Each applied the right touch of nostalgia, that indispensable ingredient when contemplating foreign correspondents. But each also offered unflinching insights about what reporting means in this era of citizen journalism and the iPhone.

Later this month we will hear from an equally distinguished and well-credentialed speaker, this time a non-Australian, when Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Bret Stephens will speak on the role of the press in the age of Trump. Bret's audience in Sydney, and the rest of the world, waits for him to make sense of it all. Based on his acclaimed Daniel Pearl Lecture, it will not be a speech to miss.

Every year the judges of the Award spend an increasing amount of time discussing how the upheaval in reporting methods and technology is changing the way news is gathered and consumed by Australians, and how it presents new challenges for reporters and their news organisations.

Every year we fail to come up with neat answers. But no matter. The Award exists not to solve these problems but simply to recognise the best of what foreign correspondents have always done – to deliver the facts in compelling ways and in so doing help make sense of the world.

And you don't have to be stationed in Beijing, Kinshasa or Washington to do that. In 2015 The Australian's Paul Maley won the award for his outstanding and sustained reporting on the impact of foreign fighters on Australia. He did almost all of it from Sydney.

The award process – coming up with suggestions for the long list; the lively debate over the short list at the final judging lunch, which necessarily extends well into the afternoon – was again rewarding this year. And I look forward to the annual dinner and lecture at which the winner is announced.

I'm proud that the Lowy Institute makes this Award possible. In its modest way it seeks to nurture the same spirit Moorehead inspired in many young Australians of his time, people like Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and Clive James.

As McCamish notes in his Moorehead biography: 'Perhaps his most enduring legacy lies in those driven by his example to go out into the world in search of astonishing stories.'

COMMENTS

12 Sep 2017 17:09

This is a discussion thread marking the Lowy Institute Media Award, which each year recognises excellence in foreign affairs journalism. Click here to see the short list for this year’s award. The winner will be announced on 23 September.

The drive south from San Francisco reaches Silicon Valley as soon as you turn your car onto Highway 280 and put your foot to the floor. On a good day, with blue sky over the bay and a cool fog on the hills, you can cruise at 130 kilometres an hour in the sure knowledge there will be a rich kid in a Porsche to keep the Highway Patrol busy. It is a glorious drive. To purists, Silicon Valley does not begin until you pass Hillsborough, but the Valley is a state of mind. It is not about geography – it’s about speed.

This was my world at a time when the pace of change left everyone gasping for breath. I was the San Francisco correspondent for The Australian Financial Review during the dot com boom of the late 1990s, when readers were hungry for news about the explosion of ideas, and dollars, on the internet. There were stories to be found on brilliant minds wanting to change the world and upmarket swindlers trying to make their pile before the crash came.

The place was crawling with journalists on the lookout for the next trend, the next venture capital deal or (the most valuable news tip) the next company to go public on the Nasdaq. I remember a big investor telling a roomful of suits in 1999 that they all knew the bubble was going to burst, they just didn’t know when. They found out the next April.

The Australian angle was central to everything I did. The American media was all over the main stories. My task was to find what mattered to an Australian reader. Sometimes it was a tale of success or failure for an Australian who had a big idea, sometimes it was an American trend or company that was about to hit Australian shores. It could be hard work persuading the rich and powerful to do an interview with a journalist from a small country a long way away, but I loved the chance to convey how a shockwave in California was about to change life back home.

One day I had lunch with Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page in the staff cafeteria of their run-down office park, decorated with lava lamps. It was 1999 and they had 50 staff. Now they have 57,000. 'The ideal search engine should do everything, answer any question,' Page told me. I smiled at this naïve hope as we swapped opinions on the food – Page and Brin were testing a different chef every day and planned to pay with stock options when they found the right one. Maybe I should have asked for a job as a kitchenhand.

This was a long time ago – 126 years to be exact, given that internet years are like dog years. Google ended up eating my lunch. We could all see the enormous change coming to the media but the scale of the upheaval is still shocking. It was obvious the internet would destroy the 'rivers of gold' of classified advertising but the brutal force of Google, Apple and Facebook was yet to be revealed. I interviewed executives at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal who were struggling then with the threat to their advertising revenue. 'The genie will not be put back in the bottle,' one told me. The fact that good journalism survives under this relentless financial pressure is a tribute to great journalists and loyal subscribers. Next time you are asked to subscribe, please click on the link.

Readers have won from this explosion. News about the world travels further and faster than the world has ever known. And the job of the foreign correspondent has to change.

Australian journalists working overseas are guided by two imperatives. The first is the need to see events on the ground with Australian eyes, something no wire service or foreign media affiliate can do. The second is the sense of confidence in the audience at home, the knowledge that the story is being seen by Australian eyes. This connection is vital. If you don’t have it, game over.

Sadly, the economics worked best when Australian readers had to wait weeks for a hard copy of The New York Times. These days they can see the best writing from around the world in an instant. Why read an Australian take on Donald Trump when The Washington Post can take you inside the White House and give you the full transcript of the president’s phone call with Malcolm Turnbull? Australian journalism can be crowded out in a marketplace of free online content that erodes advertising revenue, discourages subscriptions and lures readers elsewhere. This is a precarious future for any correspondent outside the ABC.

Yet the Australian view of the world remains compelling. Great foreign correspondents still drop everything in London to get to a terrorist attack in Barcelona or Berlin. They have a bigger audience than ever before, online and in real time. And those who are not 'foreign' correspondents can also reach this global audience: witness Chris Uhlmann’s verdict on Trump at the G20 in Hamburg last July, a two-minute piece-to-camera that went viral.

Cost pressures have culled the ranks of Australian foreign correspondents but good reportage continues. There are new ways to tell a story, like using Skype to interview local and Australian witnesses to global events. There are new sources to be found, like live bloggers or social media users, although the risk of spreading a falsehood rises in line with the proliferation in content. The deeper analysis from think tanks and universities becomes even more important.

But nothing has emerged so far to replace a dedicated foreign correspondent who is on the ground where things happen, with time to settle in and the financial stability to report in depth.

I remember talking to LookSmart founder Evan Thornley when this revolution was just starting. He had survived 'dialling for dollars' with angel investors to keep his internet search company alive and on track for what became a $1 billion IPO. 'What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,' he said. This line from Nietzsche is how Silicon Valley has always seen the world. Journalism has no choice but to see things the same way.

COMMENTS

14 Sep 2017 12:10

Living quietly now in Sydney's suburbs it is easy to forget the time I was a tyro war correspondent. That was 1991 and, while working in London as a finance reporter, I had the crazy/brave idea to down tools, head to the Middle East and do some freelancing during the First Gulf War.

It did not start well. My mum was stricken and over the phone to Sydney started to cry, scared her only child would be killed. Likewise, my girlfriend was unimpressed and sniffed that I was off on a great adventure without her.

What about visas and flights and accreditation? I hurriedly arranged some strings (journo talk for a loose arrangement to take overseas copy) with the ABC, The Bulletin magazine and my old paper, the Australian Financial Review.

A visa to Saudi Arabia proved illusory and the war made flights prohibitive. The only way to get to the the Middle East, it became clear, was a seat on El Al to Tel Aviv.

I was a lad in my 20s - amiable, trusting, possibly naïve. I lobbed up to Heathrow Airport expecting to be waved through security. What unfolded was a two-hour interrogation, where Israeli officers cross-examined me, analysed absolutely everything in my bag and stripped me to my underwear.

I made the flight eventually and sat next to an Orthodox Jewish family whose mother, not long into the trip, began arguing with flight attendants that while all meals might be kosher, her family's were not kosher enough. The highlight was our plane touching down in Israel and everyone cheering and clapping and crying that they had arrived safely in the Promised Land.

I headed to Jerusalem and sought out Australian journalists who I hoped might give me a hand. Enter veteran News Limited reporter Bruce Wilson (father of the late Rebecca Wilson), who was set up in the lovely American Colony Hotel and invited me over for beers, rugby gossip and a crash course in West Bank politics ('Listen son, let me tell you about the Izzies and the Pals'.)

The Intifada was in full swing with much to report including protests, rock throwing and burned out vehicles. A visit from US Secretary of State James Baker meant the place was brimming with important people and serious policy. But an encounter with a beautiful Israeli woman shouldering an assault rifle gave this intellectual topsoil some real-world context ('Why wouldn’t I carry a rifle? They want to kill me and I won't let that happen,' she told me.)

I got into Jordan and spent three weeks during Ramadan waiting on a visa to Syria. That time was interesting but no party, with eating and drinking outlawed during daylight and not much in the way of western entertainment. Damascus was run by the French and is a beautiful city. But during my time in Syria I was tailed constantly by police who quizzed me on my reporting and likely meetings. I made friends with journos from the Detroit Free Press and Philadelphia Inquirer, who were headed to northern Iraq and allowed me to free-ride on their big expense accounts. Over Easter 1991 we drove north-east to the Iraqi border, first to the Roman city of Palmyra (since demolished by ISIS) and then on to Qamishly where we entered disputed Kurdish land and were duchessed around by charming and multi-lingual Peshmerga fighters.

They took us across the border into Iraq where our Kurdish hosts played the propaganda war showing us reporters their readiness to fight (I fired a AK-47), along with the misery Iraqi soldiers had inflicted on the local people. Nothing prepared me for the sight of kids with phosphorus burns and bullet wounds. I was homesick but the seasoned practitioners with me lapped it up. It was then I realised covering wars was not for me. There might be the danger of death but the constant travel, loneliness and dislocation would, I sensed, wear me down.

War reporters do an important job but the toll can be high – everyone I met had broken relationships and an unhealthy addiction to the adrenalin of battle. My mate from Philadelphia bought a Syrian painting but then realised, as he traveled full time, he would never really get to enjoy it.

I was ready for routine. I flew back to London into my girlfriend's embrace and the calm monotony of the sharemarket.

COMMENTS

15 Sep 2017 10:51

Not every foreign correspondent spends their days in a flak jacket and lop-sided helmet. Many lead more prosaic lives and I was one of those.

Having left the bright lights of Wonthaggi in the early ‘70s I began my career at WA Newspapers before landing my dream job as an ABC radio and TV reporter. In the mid-‘80s I was posted to London where my new wife and I set up home in an Islington terrace formerly occupied by members of the Bay City Rollers. As a musical force they were highly forgettable but we were to be constantly reminded of them courtesy of debt collectors’ letters addressed to Woody, Derek and Co.

The ABC was in a stately building in Portland Place where BBC radio and TV bulletins were recorded and then quarried for our reports.

Each day correspondents, or 'stringers', telephoned in stories from Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Some were memorable characters like 'Stumbles' McIvor in Moscow who couldn’t read a sentence without mangling it, or Jack 'Gin Bottle', our man in Paris, who could prepare a coherent report, but only before 4pm.

Technologically we were at the cutting edge: a ticker tape machine called Bertha sent the written word to Sydney, we edited audio tapes with scissors and sticky-tape, and all our stories were poured down to Sydney each evening on a connection not much better than a phone line. You can imagine the amazement with which we witnessed the operation of our first fax machine.

It was a small newsroom, with three radio journos and two from TV. Our five healthy egos were too often undernourished as much of our output involved turning around the work of others. Speaking of egos, during my time the British Parliament lit up over Maggie Thatcher’s attempt to have the book Spycatcher banned in Australia. The publisher was represented by a young barrister named Malcolm Turnbull and the action was defeated. It worked wonders for Malcolm’s confidence.

Other memorable news included the Zeebrugge ferry capsize, the Kings Cross Underground fire, the Piper Alpha oil rig explosion, and the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, which resulted in almost 700 deaths.

Mixed in with these big and genuine news events was the weird and the wonderful. I interviewed Bob Geldof, who had just been knighted. He brought along his tiny dog Growler, made famous for having once eaten Mick Jagger’s breakfast in the rocker’s hotel room.

Decades before tweets were part of mainstream journalism I was one of a horde of reporters who turned up to cover the return of a lost budgie. True story.

It had been reunited with its owner (we were assured) only because its cage was positioned adjacent to the home phone. Whenever the owner answered a call he would recite the number, which the budgie duly committed to memory. When the lost bird was found it tweeted out the number, and presto, was returned unharmed to its owners. Expectant TV crews from all over Britain turned up at the bird’s cage, microphones primed, to capture a re-enactment of the miraculous telephone tweet. Unsurprisingly the adage about never working with children or animals was borne out - the budgie refused to perform.

The movie star Douglas Fairbanks Jr honoured me with a visit to promote his book. The old fellow battled up the stairs to the studio bemoaning the fact we did not have a lift.

Sir John Gielgud and the glamourous Jane Seymour also graced 54 Portland Place, but provided scant news, being there merely to promote an American TV soap.

It seemed I could not shake popular culture wherever I went. In Northern Ireland in 1987 I stayed at the heavily-fortified Europa Hotel. I drove down the pot-holed Falls Road where a bus had been torched the previous day and still smouldered. I ventured to Sinn Fein headquarters for an interview. Security was tight. Announcing myself nervously through the intercom I was finally ushered into the inner sanctum. The atmosphere was grim and tense but I was soon put at ease when my talent, a hard-man from the IRA, greeted me with: 'So, you must be a fan of Neighbours?'

I was at Wimbledon in 1987 when a brash and cocky Pat Cash won the final, the first Australian male to do so in 16 years. I watched him demolish the humourless Ivan Lendl (or 'Eye-van' as Pat pronounced it). A wag said of Lendl that he spoke six languages and smiled in none of them. After the victory Cash broke with tradition and, ignoring the waiting Royals, clambered over spectators to celebrate with friends and family in the players’ box. I remember thinking: I am actually being paid to witness this.

During my three-year posting, the legendary Peter 'The Bear' Cave arrived. I quickly came to love him despite his grumpy, disagreeable nature. He was to become an award-winning reporter, recognised around the globe, and he did indeed spend much of his time in a flak jacket. He exhibited the traits of the successful foreign correspondent: rampant individuality and disdain for bureaucracy.

He repeatedly complained about our ancient typewriters and when these complaints went unheeded the keys mysteriously began to fly off whenever we used them. New electronic keyboards soon arrived. Earlier, in Brisbane, he was rumoured to have put 50,000 volts through an old recorder in order to get a new one. Again, mission accomplished.

1988 was a huge year for me with the birth of our first child, Ben. ABC veteran Ian Henderson and Peter Cave also celebrated the arrival of sons, Tom and Elliot. All three were delivered at the nearby Portland Hospital which, unknown to me then, was the hospital of choice for the great and the good of London. All was well until August of that year when the media staked out the hospital for the arrival of Princess Beatrice. Word filtered through that the bean counters back home were demanding to know how journos on ABC salaries could afford to have babies delivered in such august surrounds. I’m sure that grand tradition of penny pinching continues to this day.

After my stint on the 'front line' I returned to Australia and a quieter life on the dark side of PR. But I still fondly recall my days as a dashing foreign correspondent and bore young journalists witless with the gratuitous advice that, in their chosen profession, life will never pass them by.

Photo by Flickr user R Barraez D'Lucca.

COMMENTS

19 Sep 2017 11:45

This month I joined the judging panel for the annual Lowy Institute Media Awards. No spoilers – the award ceremony takes place this Saturday, 23 September, and our lips are sealed right up until the winner is announced. But I can say that the quality of the nominees was fantastic, and I enjoyed the opportunity to get acquainted with the work of some of Australia’s most able, courageous and expert journalists who write or broadcast on foreign policy issues.

This got me thinking about the relationship between journalists – particularly those working as foreign correspondents – and diplomats. While it’s true this can be adversarial, we in fact have a lot in common.

First, we are often maligned: people seem to dislike journalists almost as much as they dislike diplomats! US Novelist Norman Mailer wrote: 'If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.'

And our very own Ted Heath was, I suspect, not the only British PM to have jaundiced views about diplomats, saying: 'A diplomat is a man who thinks twice before he says nothing.' (In those days it was all men of course, something which I’m happy to say has changed.)   

Second (and there’s no polite way to say this), there is the presumed role of booze in our professions. Yes, I admit it: alcohol has, over the years, lubricated many conversations between diplomats and their contacts, as it has between journalists and their sources.  Hence jokes like:

Q: What is the difference between a camel and a diplomat?

A: A camel works for days without drinking; a diplomat drinks for days without working.

This works just as well (nay, better!) if you substitute journalist for diplomat. That said, the hard drinking-and-smoking era of Fleet Street is behind us; we are all a bit more clean-living these days. Less 'Cigarettes and Alcohol' (Oasis);  more 'Nice Cup of Tea' (The Damned).

Third, each of our professions is being massively disrupted by technology. In a way it was ever thus. The reported reaction of British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, on receiving the first telegraph message in the 1860s was:'My God, this is the end of diplomacy!'

He was wrong, of course. But the subsequent arrival of the telephone, the computer, the internet, social media, the smart-phone, the digital age – never mind international air travel – has made diplomacy a much more contested space, putting greater emphasis on deep expertise and analysis – but also flexibility, diversity and agility. 

It’s a similar story for journalists, who must run ahead of an ever shorter, faster, 24/7 news cycle; and adapt profoundly to the internet age, with print media – itself, once, a transformative innovation – in a steepening decline.

In both cases, our ability to adapt and to innovate will determine our relevance and our success in the future.

So there you have it: more allies than adversaries, with plenty in common. Diplomats and journalists aim to speak truth to power. We are often like-minded souls. With foreign correspondents in particular, we share the pleasure and pain of peripatetic lives, moving ourselves and our families around the world.

Of course there are differences, and there is a degree of inevitable caution in our dealings with each other. But there is also deep respect. When I looked at the body of work before us as the judging panel for the Media Award, I was struck that journalists continue to work in places like Yemen, Raqqa, Mosul and Damascus, long after the Embassies have shut down and the diplomats have left, for reasons of politics and/or personal safety.

So let me end with a personal tribute to all those working today in conflict zones; and remember that at least 48 journalists were killed just doing their job in 2016; and 1253 have been killed since 1992. As a diplomat, that makes me feel horrified and humbled. We still have much to do to protect freedoms and try to make the world a better, safer place.

COMMENTS

20 Sep 2017 10:55

I have a confession to make. I’ve spent my working life in opinion journalism: newspaper comment pages, political magazines, think-tank journals, radio broadcasting. Yet I recoil from the increasing tendency of journalists to give their opinions about the events they cover rather than to provide a fair, balanced and detailed account of those news events.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in international affairs. The media feed us a daily diet of what should be happening in the world rather than what is happening in the world.

At one level, this trend is hardly surprising. Since the onset of the Internet and social media, serious coverage of international affairs has been in steady decline in the Australian media.

The technological upheaval in the industry has dramatically changed the way news is gathered and consumed around the world. As a result, foreign correspondents and their news outlets face tremendous financial pressures and constraints on time to place events in a broader context.

At another level, it is nothing short of outrageous that so many of our media outlets dedicate little serious treatment to the world. There is a plethora of cable channels and web site sites dedicated to international affairs. And yet, with rare exceptions, nightly bulletins on commercial television and radio across the country do not feature serious segments on the big international news of the day.

Even our public broadcaster is not immune to criticism. Although the ABC showcases many outstanding journalists and correspondents - some are candidates in this year’s Lowy Institute Media Award - editorial staff sometimes miss the significance of important global events.

A case study: When Lee Kuan Yew died two and a half years ago, much of the Australian media missed the significance of the story. Here was arguably the most consequential and influential figure of post-war Asia. Yet neither ABC television’s 7.30 nor Lateline  - the leading news and current affairs programs on our public broadcaster - featured any segments on Singapore’s founding father. No reports. No debates. Nothing.

All of this is why the Lowy Institute should be commended for raising the profile and prestige of quality journalists who are dedicated to covering international affairs. As a judge of this year’s media award, it has been my great pleasure to review the work of some outstanding local reporters on the global stage.

The distinguished British journalist and historian, Sir Max Hastings, has spent the 50 fifty years covering international affairs. His byline popped up from every trouble spot in the world: Vietnam, Israel, Pakistan, Angola, Rhodesia, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and the Falklands. And he did it before the advent of smart phones, laptops and Twitter.

Writing in Going to the Wars (2000), his memoirs of reporting from 11 wars and 60 countries, Hastings sets out the defining qualities of a sound foreign correspondent or journalist covering the world.

Being a superb natural journalist helps: if you are clever, well read and can write or speak with speed and fluency under pressure, the chances are you’re likely to make an excellent reporter abroad.

It also helps to make profitable contacts among senior players (military, political, local). And a refusal to hunt with the rest of the pack – to not just challenge authority but the prevailing media narrative - is imperative.  

Reporting wars is an especially dangerous activity. It is for each correspondent to come to terms with his or her physical and mental limits. But you should not be afraid about ducking bullets. And you need to be an adventurer at heart, the type of journalist who is prepared to take that extra risk to get the scoop.

In a pre-recorded interview for my Radio National program Between the Lines last week, I asked Hastings to assess the current state of the media coverage of world affairs. He said that, in the digital age, there are plenty of ways to gather and spread information, but there is very little knowledge. He attributes this to not just the lack of specialists in the field, but to a failure of journalists to get out, meet ordinary people, and report their circumstances in the proper context.

Few illustrate better the importance of dispassionate, truth-telling international-relations journalism than those selected for this year’s Lowy Institute Media Award shortlist (the winning individual or team will be announced on Saturday night at NSW Parliament House). In my judgment, all on this list have demonstrated tenacity, determination and personal courage: they are all ornaments to the journalism profession in Australia. Max Hastings would agree.

COMMENTS

3 Oct 2017 13:11

The digital age has changed the work of foreign correspondents for ever, delivering breaking news and raw video from far flung places at unprecedented speed.

It’s allowed faster filing from more locations than ever before.

But the fundamentals of good journalism remain and the value of reporting from foreign correspondents has only increased.

As government forces lay siege to the opposition held east of Aleppo last year, and Russian airstrikes rained down, we were still able to conduct interviews, and in some cases see footage of the bombs falling just an hour or two after they exploded, thanks to the wonders of social media and digital communications. They are incredibly powerful tools.

I conducted an interview by Skype as a makeshift ambulance raced off to the latest airstrike. And I received voiced messages from activists, documenting the dying days of opposition control over a city that had become an icon of the uprising against Bashar al Assad, then the descent into civil war and jihad.

And yet for all of that so called 'connectivity', the pitfalls are many. Fake posts and imprecise sources abound. Distressing images fuel waves of Twitter outrage that soon break on the shores of Realpolitik and a hard power that remains immune to the sentiment of audiences far from the fray.

And, while you might think this odd coming from someone who has spent most of his professional life documenting these outrages, I have an ill-defined feeling that the more remote we are, the more exploitative our use of those images can become.

The immediacy and frequency of images, flooding in via WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, can also rob us of one of the few benefits of being at a distance: the chance to seek a broader view.

While the tools of journalism are changing, the rules have not. Scepticism and cross referencing remain essential. You’ve got to be a bit old school to make the new school worthwhile. 

I tend to only use digital sources I’ve already met in person. I’ll go one level out from them if the accounts of those people are consistent with the broader context, other sources or have been proved correct in previous conversations.

And the fact is, despite the joys of connectivity, nothing substitutes for simply being there; for having the time and money to go into the field, hike across the border, or visit the aid workers and displaced locals nearby, to speak face-to-face with people at the centre of the story.

The body of work that won this year’s Lowy Institute Media Award was generated over seven months, covering the battle against the Islamic State group in Mosul. Some of it was produced from a distance but it was all based on repeated reporting trips to the front lines and refugee camps of northern Iraq.

Only by returning to the field were we able to follow up with a Kurdish fighter who had, as he’d hoped, been reunited with his mother after she’d lived for two years under IS rule. And only once we were sitting with him in that village did we discover, in a bitter irony, that his sister’s house and her entire family had also been wiped out in an airstrike as his forces, backed by the US-led Coalition advanced on the area.

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On the march with Iraqi troops in Mosul

When I’m not in the field, as a sort of antidote to the flood of information, I’ve also found myself referring increasingly to the products of the first information revolution: books. Reference books, atlases and accounts by academics, human rights workers, diplomats and soldiers provide critical context and history.

In another mix of old and new, when there’s a lull, I use an internet connection to the Australian National University’s library, to access peer reviewed journal articles, dipping into the sharpest accounts of work by some of the world’s greatest researchers.

To be truthful there isn’t often a lull and at home, the digital age has allowed a far greater intrusion on family life as 4G technology, internet video, and increasingly rapid file transfers allow gathering and filing at all hours.

The filing cycle often demands work in the evenings to cater to the morning bulletins in Australia, If there’s a big story, I’ll grab a quick bite of dinner, then cross live into News Breakfast somewhere between 9pm and 11pm my time, depending on the seasons.

But for all the digital transformation, for me, it would be impossible to manage without a crucial, non-digital resource: the support of a generous partner. My wife, Toni O’Loughlin, gave up her job as a journalist in the press gallery at parliament house in Canberra to come with me to Jerusalem in 2005. And since then she’s acted as chief financial, logistical and editorial counsel.

Like the partners of many a foreign correspondent she has frequently had to raise our child single handed. When Syria was blowing up and Egypt was melting down in 2013, I think I spent more than five months out of the country. More often than not she is the one here in Beirut doing the shopping, and ordering the gas bottles for cooking, and the diesel fuel deliveries for hot water.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the torn shoulder ligament she now suffers is due in large part to carrying that load.

But she hasn’t backed off. She is completing a Master’s degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies and frequently comes up with story ideas and crucial analysis. In fact, if you’re wondering about the role of unions in unrest on the Arabian Peninsula in the 1950s, or holes in Saudi Arabia’s plans to reform its oil economy, then you can just drop in to our place for coffee between breakfast and school drop-off time when the conversation delivers far more insights than Twitter and Facebook combined.

The digital revolution has certainly transformed the work of a foreign correspondent but the information, no matter how abundant, is only as good as the people behind it. And that’s a rule that’s held true through every age.

All photos by the author

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