Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond.

293 words

Bringing the world back home

30 October 2014

The thirtieth anniversary of SBS’s Dateline is a chance to consider some often-unreported truths, writes Jane Goodall

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Immersive reporting: Dateline’s Amos Roberts with child “rat hole miners” in north east Meghalaya in April this year.

Immersive reporting: Dateline’s Amos Roberts with child “rat hole miners” in north east Meghalaya in April this year.


Thethirtieth-anniversaryeditionofDateline,broadcastonSBSon24October,featuredaselectionoflandmarkstoriesfromtheprogram’shistory.Inthewordsoftheguesthost,LesMurray,itwastime“topulloutafewphotosandhearsomeuntoldtruths.”

Murray,aveteransportsreporter,wasneveronthestaffoftheprogram,buthisquesttotrackdownthepeoplesmugglerwhohelpedhisfamilyescapefromcommunistHungaryfifty-sevenyearsagofeaturedinaDatelinestoryairedin2011.Theyoungmaninquestion,Guyla,heldthehandsofMurrayandhislittlebrotherasheguidedthemacrosstheAustro-Hungarianborderonawinter’snightsodarktheywereabletopassunseenundertowersmannedbyguardswithmachineguns.AlthoughGuylahimselfwasnottobefound,Murraysucceededintrackingdownhisgrandsonandbuyinghimabeer.

It’sawistfulstory,toldquietlyatameasuredpace,anditsmixofhistoricalandcontemporaryrelevancemakesitawell-chosenframingdevice.Otherstoriesrevisitedweremorefraught,moretragicandmoredangerous.TherewasOliviaRousset’sinterviewwithAbuMann,whospentelevenmonthsbeinghumiliatedandtorturedinAbuGhraib;SophieMcNeill’sencounterwithsurvivingmembersofanAfghanfamilywholostfourchildreninamistakenlytargetednightraidbyAustraliansoldiersinFebruary2009;DavidO’SheacaughtincrossfireduringthewholesalemassacreofciviliansinEastTimorin2006;andNickLazaredesvisitingthecrashscenefollowingthedowningofMH17inAugustthisyear.“Ithinkthehorrorofwhattheywentthrough,evenifjustforasplitsecond,butcertainlythehorrorthattheirfamilieshavetolivethroughforalifetime,justallcametomeinanoverwhelmingmoment,”reflectsLazaredes.

Itmadeforcompellingtelevision.Somestoriesdemandtobeseenagain,andsomesituationscallouttoberevisited,thoughtoselectandreviewsomanyoftheminthespaceofanhourwasclearlyachallenge.It’satestamenttoDatelinethatitsjournalistshavewitnessed,andreported,somanycriticalsituationsinsomanypartsoftheworld.

Thesereportersofferedfascinatingretrospectivecommentaryontheirworkduringtheanniversaryprogram.Butanenormousamountalsogoesonbehindthescenes,asIfoundoutwhenItalkedtoexecutiveproducerPeterCharleyandproductionmanagerLauraGrace.

Withanofficestaffoftwelve,Gracedoesthecomplexliaisonworkinvolvedinpreparingstoriesandcoordinatingtheprogram’steamofcontractedjournalists.Itisherresponsibilitytofloatanyprospectiveassignmentswiththeprogram’ssecurityadvisers,InternationalSOS,whohavebasesallovertheworldfromwhichtheyprovidesecurity,medicalassistanceandevacuationarrangements.“Therehavebeennumerouscriseswherewe’vehadtopullpeopleout,”saysCharley.“Moreoftenit’spreventive.Thingshappen.It’saverydangerousworldoutthere.”

Journalistsindangerzonesarecloselytracked,anditistheproductionmanager’sjobtokeepadetailedlog—ofvehiclestheytravelin,routestheytravel,timesofdepartureandarrival.Areporter’sprogressmaybefollowedinrealtimeonGoogleEarth,too.

Thismeansthatreportersoncontractaremorecloselysupervised

thansomefreelancers,whocanmakespur-of-the-momentdecisionstofollowaleadortakeanopportunity.Journalistswhoventureintosituationsofdisasterandcrisistendtobeadventurersbynatureand,asGracesays,“Wewillsometimesbecontactedbyanindividualintendingtocoverastoryontheirowninitiative…Ifwesayyes,weofferwhatsecuritywecan.”

Thoughsomeofthemorehigh-riskstoriesarefromfreelancereporters,itisnotacaseofproducersfightingshyofthemostdemandingsituations.“We’vebeeninsomeprettyheavyscenarios,”PeterCharleystresses,butthereareresponsibilitiesandliabilitiestobefactoredintotheequation.

Willthenewanti-terrorlegislationaddtothose?“Ithasthepotentialtoimpactonusveryseverely,”hesays,“butit’suntested.Ithinkit’sunlikelythatjournalistswouldbedeniedaccesstowarzones—Imean,that’stheworkwedo—butthelegislationmightproduceascenariowherewewouldbesenttoprisonforreportingonanincidentdeemedtobeofflimits.That’schangedthelandscapeveryradically.”

Reportersexhibitdifferentkindsofdaring,andencounterdifferentkindsofdanger.Notallaremaverickadventurers.Somesituationscallforacutepersonalsensitivityandtheintuitivelocalknowledgethatonlysomeonedeeplyimmersedcanprovide.

OneofthemostmemorablestoriesfeaturedintheanniversaryspecialconcernedrefugeesfromNorthKoreawhohadmadetheirwayacrosstheborderintonortheastChinatoescapethefamine.Theywerehidingintheforest,livingindailyfearofbeingdeportedtofaceexecution.PeterCharleywasshownsomefootagetakenbyJung-EunKim,areporterworkinglocallywhohadbeentakenintotheirconfidence.Overthecourseofayear,shefollowedtheirfortunesastheyfaceduptoafuturethatseemedtoofferonlyalternativeformsoftragedy.

Inonecase,theparentsofatoddlermadethedecisiontogivehimuptoaChineseorphanageastheonlywayofensuringhehadsomechanceofalife.Theyareshownplayingwiththelittleboy,indulginghiswhims,whichincludeadeterminationtolearntosmokelikehisfather,andinsistingheposeforafamilyphotograph.Ashefacesthecamera,thechildsomehowrealisesthatthisisanominousmoment,andstartstocryandbegnottobesentaway.Idoubtanyonewhohaswatchedthescenewilleverforgetit.

Jung-EunKimhasworkedforDatelinesubsequentlyasafixer(employedtoestablishlocalnetworksforajournalistcominginfromAustralia)buthasneverwantedtoappearoncamera.“Sheisaverycourageouswoman,”saysCharley,whowastheproducerofthestory.“Shewasontenterhooksthroughout,goingtoenormouslengthstoconcealtheidentitiesoftheparticipants.”

Thisstoryisastarkreminderofhowhumandestinyislockedinbythedeterminingfactorsofbirthrightandhomeland.Refugeesfromwar,persecutionordisasterhavelosttherighttobeanywhere,andthoseunabletogetawaymustlivewithoutanysenseoffreedomorsecurity.Ajournalistwhofliesintocovertheirstoryisinastrangeposition,providingavitallineofconnectionouttotheworldatlarge,yetinsulatedfromtheirplightbyvirtueofaforeignpassport.Ifthingsbecomecritical,heorshecangetout;comehellorhighwater,theycannot.

Butareturningjournalistcarriesmemoriesandexperiencesthatmaycontinuetoreverberatelongafterthestoryhasgonetoair.Supportsystemshavebeensetuptoassistwiththetransitionbacktoanormalitythatmaynowseemalien.Counsellingisavailable,andaconfidentialhotline,butPeterCharleyspendsmanyhoursinprivateconversationwiththosewhoarebattlingwithongoingpsychologicalturbulencebroughtfromthetraumazone.

“WhenIwasatLateline,”hesays,“itwasoneofmyjobstolookatthevideosofbeheadingsthatwereoccurringduringtheIraqwar,toinstructtheeditorwheretostopthereplayforbroadcast.Editorsweresaying,‘Wecan’tdothis…We’renotsleeping…We’redrinkingtoomuch…We’renotcoping.’Wewerealldrawnintothishideoussituation,evenpeoplewhojustwalkedpastthedooraswewereworking.”

“Humankindcannotbearverymuchreality,”asT.S.Eliotsaid.Viewerswillreactvariouslytowhattheyareshown,butthedailynewsprovidesbriefencounterswithallmannerofhorrorsfromwhichmostofusareabletomaintainahighdegreeofpsychologicalinsulation.PartoftheDatelinebriefistopushtheboundariesofwhatweareaskedtobear;butalsotodrawtheline.Thereis,literallyandspecifically,apointatwhichtheexposuremaybestoppedintheeditingsuite.

Thethirtiethanniversaryofoneofourpremiercurrentaffairsprogramshighlightstheimportanceofthiskindofreportingasacomplement(andsometimesasacounterpoint)totherunningheadlinesofthenews.Reportingthatarisesfromlong-termengagementallowscitizensinonepartoftheworldtoenteratleastpartiallyintotherealityofthoseinanother.Indoingso,itpromotesasenseofresponsibilityforeventsandsituationsinthelargersphereofhumanexperience.

Inamediaenvironmentinwhichbudgetsandratings—evenforpublicbroadcasters—areincreasinglythedriversofprogrammingdecisions,thecommitmentsandresourcesrequiredforinternationalcurrentaffairscomeunderscrutiny.“There’saviewintheindustrythatthebite-sizedchunksarewhatthepublicwants,”saysLauraGrace. “ButnewsmanagementatSBShavecontinuedtobesupportiveofourapproach.”Datelinehasacorefollowingofviewerswhokeeptheratingsclosetothequartermillion,butmanymorepeopleareaccessingstoriesonlinewithoutthisbeingreflectedinthefigures.Sheseesacertainironyhere.“There’sapushforprogram-makerstodealwiththenewmedialandscapebutthetoolusedformeasuringthesuccesshasn’titselfbeenupdated.”

Theratings-firstapproachiscreatingatrendtowardspanel-baseddiscussionofnewsitems,withcelebrityparticipantsandpublictalkback.Knowledgestocksarefallingasthecurrencyinopinionrises.Howfardowewantthistrendtogo?Weriskbecomingaself-regardingculture,foreverminingourownproblemsinaprotectivenationalistbubble.OnesuspectedcaseofebolainQueenslandlastweekwasfeaturedasheadlinenews,whiletheWorldHealthOrganizationannouncementthatcasesinAfricahadpassedthe10,000markwentlargelyunreported.

Dateline’sinauguralprograminOctober1984coveredthestoryoftheIRAbombingoftheBritishConservativePartyconference.MargaretThatcherfrontedthecameraswithadefiantstatement.“Youhearabouttheseatrocities…youdon’texpectthemtohappentoyou.Butlifewillgoon.Asusual.”Suchastatementpresupposestheluxuryofa“lifeasusual,”freefromthekindsoffearsthatareaconstantexperienceforpeopleinpartsoftheworldwheretheworstthatcanhappeniswhatyoudoexpect,dayafterday.•

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Fed up with elites: a participant in the Sunflower Movement directs protesters on 30 March opposed to the legislature’s passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement by what they consider undemocratic means. tomscy2000/Flickr

Fed up with elites: a participant in the Sunflower Movement directs protesters on 30 March opposed to the legislature’s passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement by what they consider undemocratic means. tomscy2000/Flickr