Off the Ground: A new generation of foreign correspondents

Nov 12, 2020

Mazoe Ford is billed as the ABC’s ‘Southeast Asia Correspondent’. She’s been reporting on the civil strife in Bangkok – from Sydney.

If TV ‘packages’ on events far away can be cobbled together using agency footage, stories from overseas news services, phone calls to contacts, social media postings, and e-mail interviews, what’s the point in being on the spot?

Since the ABC’s Anne Barker (and Ambassador Gary Quinlan) quit Jakarta in April for fear of Covid-19, the corporation has filled the gap with inputs from its Asia Pacific Newsroom in Melbourne. Apart from the lack of pieces-to-camera at news scenes, the reports are much the same.

A pioneer of the foreign correspondent profession was Australian adventurer and doctor George Ernest ‘Chinese’ Morrison (1862 – 1920). After two years working at Ballarat hospital, he wandered Asia and became The Times’ first permanent correspondent in Beijing, filing scores of scoops.

For a fictional version of the job try Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Australian journalist Guy Hamilton in Peter Weir’s classic The Year of Living Dangerously about the 1965 Jakarta coup.

The Morrison model of journalism has been defeated by authoritarian countries’ visa controls, costs, and more efficient technology. No need for porters to carry copy through jungles or bribe telegraph operators to keep tapping Morse.

When Australian correspondents Bill Birtles and Mike Smith pulled out of China after a five-day diplomatic standoff last month, commentators made the case for keeping foreign bureaux open.

In this website former Asia correspondent Hamish McDonald quoted British journalist Robert Fisk, who died last month, saying ‘you cannot get near the truth without being there.’

Michael Pulch, the EU ambassador in Australia, said: ‘The role of journalists in providing information from around the world is more important than ever, and must be safeguarded with no exception of any kind.’

In The New Daily financial journo Michael Pascoe, who has worked in Hong Kong, wrote: ‘Countries gain from knowing about each other, from being known, from having fewer secrets in situations short of war.

‘A journalist on the ground can do something official communiqués never can: Humanise the concrete facade a government presents. Foreign correspondents can see and report people. They are capable of not confusing the nation with the government.’

Journos who live in the cities where they report have experiences, insights, and contacts those filing from afar cannot replicate. But employing reporters who get to understand the culture through wakening to fajar (the pre-dawn Islamic call to prayer), smelling the pungency of kretek cigarette smoke, and chatting at the roadside grilling of chicken sate is becoming a price too high for media managers.

If Jakarta can be covered from Southbank, then it is logical Victoria’s Covid-19 crisis – or any other Australian story – could be covered from the Indonesian capital. When big corporations still employed humans to answer phones, they found it cheaper to use call centres in India and the Philippines. Those days have gone, but the model remains.

Oz-based reporters can sit at their screens and watch online news conferences, hear expert commentators on webinars, and read all the major newspapers through Press Reader. They’ve never smelt burning tires, heard the pop of tear-gas launchers, or quivered in apprehension at crowd mood changes to give their stories authenticity. Does it matter? Apparently not.

What’s the difference between Mary Smith in Sydney phoning the mayor of Grafton, a city she’s never visited, asking for reports of floods, and Sri Mulyani filing from Jakarta on a disaster in Surabaya, the East Java capital she doesn’t know?

One answer comes from Philippe Massonnet, Global News Director of Agence France-Presse:

‘If we want to offer high-quality news products, we need high-quality content, and high-quality journalism – and there is no high-quality journalism without reporters on the ground,’

‘The media business may not be generating as much money as we would like these days …but journalists have to stick to their positions, and their principles …the risk of manipulation is huge. Journalists have to check and double-check their sources, they have to talk to people, they have to be on the ground for that.’

Well, yes, but this is getting academic – literally. Space fillers of analysis and comment – and sometimes research which generates real news – is widely available from salaried uni staff happy to offer their words for free in exchange for publication. Why bother with journos?

The days when reporters followed soldiers to the front and wandered diplomats’ offices are gone. In the early 1990s, I walked unannounced into our Jakarta Embassy and immediately got an interview with Ambassador Philip Flood. Now the new bomb-resistant building is more fortress than the welcome centre with no chance of a casual encounter which can lead to a story.

The experience of being appointed a foreign correspondent was once described as ‘being knighted in their profession’. A more cynical view was expressed 20 years ago by John Schauble, former Beijing correspondent for The Age and SMH. He wrote:

‘A decade ago, it was suggested that such jobs were more likely doled out as a reward for services rendered or as a means of dealing with a problem within the domestic newsroom. There appears to be little evidence that this situation has changed.’

It has now, with the move towards employing locals. We’re getting new by-lines and more respectful titles (‘assistant correspondent’ instead of ‘fixer’) for on-the-spot reporters, like The Australian’s Chandni Vasandani, the AFR’s Natalia Santi, and Nine’s Karuni Rompies. The ABC’s Max Walden, Erwin Renaldi, and Hellena Souisa are based in Melbourne.

All have impressive CVs, often collecting higher degrees from overseas unis. Souisa, for example, is finishing a PhD at Melbourne Uni.

Indonesian journalists fluent in English and who’ve lived in the West can be hired in Jakarta for little more than AUD 1,000 a month, about 20 per cent of an Australian wage and without the removal and accommodation costs.

With these multi-lingual cosmopolitans at the keyboards knowing more of our ways than us of theirs, the line about needing Australian reporters abroad because they understand readers’ tastes are hard to digest.

The downside is that they’re more vulnerable in police states than foreign reporters who can race home like Birtles and Smith or get deported.

That’s not yet the situation in Indonesia, though the Republic is not taking kindly to critics and has banned overseas academic researchers whose work they dislike.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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