Asutalia has been well served in foreign parts by a number of eminent journalists over the years, but during 1999 the plaudits began to overtake the actual work being done.
Australia has been well served in foreign parts by a number of eminent journalists over the years, but during 1999 the plaudits began to overtake the actual work being done. Perhaps it is time to reassess the qualities and characteristics required to report on increasingly complex international issues.

Foreign correspondent postings are prime jobs in the competitive world of journalism – covering exciting stories from exotic locations is every cadet’s dream. Correspondents are tough men and women, so the legend goes. Their work is not only glamorous but dangerous.

The ABC, for example, prides itself (and spends a substantial proportion of its budget) on the work of its foreign correspondents. These hard working, talented men and women traditionally provide Australian audiences with a vital perspective missing from syndicated reports or agency material. They are our eyes and ears in the world, but 1999 was not their most distinguished year.

In a pre-Christmas interview on the 7.30 Report North American ABC correspondent Jonathan Holmes described the non-union protesters at the WTO conference in Seattle as “what one might call the ‘ratbags’, the extraordinary coalition of environmentalists and anarchists and strange people with funny hats”. He seemed genuinely perplexed about the reasons for the unity between apparently disparate groups. Without wishing to single out Mr Holmes, one would expect that a journalist of his skill and reputation could provide a more adequate description.

The WTO protest is only a recent example of the complex political, economic and social stories that foreign correspondents are expected to come to terms with as part of their job. But it illustrates a problem that is becoming ever more pressing as technology allows immediate transmission of reports and analyses to and from almost any part of the globe. How much should we rely on one relatively uninformed perspective when expert independent assessment, even though it is not Australian, is available? It’s easy to become sceptical about the clear unbridled truth of any single voice, however well-intentioned. No two eyes can see everything. It is dangerous to believe so, all the more in dispatches from a combat zone.

The contrast between last year’s coverage of NATO’s bombing of Kosovo and that of the crisis in East Timor underlined this. Greg Wilesmith’s reporting for the ABC from Belgrade during the NATO bombing campaign was a study in cool professionalism, but even he succumbed to the US constructed spin of a humanitarian war. As recently as mid-December (7.30 Report, 9/12) he was still supporting the rationale: “We don’t yet know — we may never know — how many people were murdered. But 10,000 is probably a conservative estimate.” Analysis by all reporters covering the campaign was consistently restricted to criticising NATO’s preference for arial bombardment over the use of ground troops.

Other Australian correspondents, prevented from entering Yugoslavia, reported either from the border areas and refugee camps or from NATO briefings in Brussels. The refugee stories simply confirmed the moral right of NATO by emphasising the suffering of women and children, and Jaime Shea’s NATO briefings were pure performance art lapped up by credulous reporters. Recent speculation about the role of Care Australia workers in transmitting sensitive information emphasises the lack of scrutiny by correspondents. The Australian’s European correspondent at the time, Matthew Stevens, even had the gall to publish a piece (“I spied plenty of cloak and dagger”, 3/2/00) where he claimed to have known about Steve Pratt’s compromised position all along. One wonders why he didn’t mentioned it until SBS broke the story.

Reporting of the East Timor crisis, on the other hand, demonstrated a greater understanding by Australian journalists of the political situation and the historical background. It’s this sort of knowledge that should form the basis of all foreign correspondents’ work. An assertive, colourful character with three months preparation will not in the future be able to sally forth from an Australian newsroom and adequately report the complexities of international politics.

Good journalism is still good journalism but the expertise that a reporter needs to bring to the job is changing. As T.D. Allman, said: “Genuinely objective journalism not only gets the facts right-it gets the meaning of events right. Objective journalism is compelling not only today. It stands the test of time. It is validated not only by ‘reliable sources’ but by the unfolding of history. It is reporting that not only seems right the day after it’s published. It is journalism that ten, twenty, fifty years after the fact still holds up a true and intelligent mirror to events…”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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