“The essence of an independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” – Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian.
I thought it apt to begin my blog with a quote from Hitchens, a journalist and author who has influenced me greatly. Reading the works of Hitchens, Marie Colvin, Robert Fisk to name but a few are just some of the reasons I am currently studying journalism at Jschool.
I thought I would begin by sharing my impressions of a journalism “masterclass” I attended, along with my fellow students, at the Brisbane Convention Centre last Monday. The event was organised by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association and featured talks from Nigel Brennan, the Australian photojournalist who was kidnapped in Somalia in 2008 and held hostage for over a year, and by ABC foreign correspondent Sally Sara who has reported from many countries around the world including most recently Afghanistan.
Nigel Brennan’s talk naturally focused on his arduous experience in captivity. He talked openly about being held in solitary confinement and the psychological impact of not knowing when or if the cold hand of death was just around the corner. He spoke of how his “belief in humanity was sorely tested” as he watched his colleague and friend Amanda Lindhout being tortured.
Brennan has struggled to come to terms with how humans are capable of inflicting such unspeakable horrors on another member of their species. And who can blame him. He spoke of an occasion where in desperate need for human interaction he laughed at the attempts of his captors to practise yoga alongside him. Afterwards he was ashamed or as he not so delicately put it “felt like a cheap prostitute.” at longing for the basic human wish to connect.
The most chilling moment of the entire afternoon came when Brennan played back an audio recording of a phone call between Lindhout and her mother. Lindhout had spent the past three days being tortured and this was quite evident as the woman on the phone was clearly a broken woman. She was barely coherent and I instantly imagined a child crying out to her mother. The mother on the other end of the line was clear and concise and had obviously being trained in how to handle this conversation but how on earth she didn’t break down herself, I’ll never know.
I found Brennan’s speech had more to do with the psychological implications of being held hostage rather than journalism. As compelling as it was he only began to touch on journalistic aspects when he questioned what journalists ethical responsibilities were in a hostile environment. A noble question which I’ll come back to later.
The second speaker Sally Sara’s speech may have lacked the dramatic impetus of her predecessor but I still found her talk utterly fascinating. She was initially knocked back an astonishing 22 times before given her first opportunity. She advised the audience of aspiring journalists to apply for positions in rural areas as it was here they would hone their skills learning to be self reliant and find good stories.
She spoke of the day to day practicalities of being a foreign correspondent. The isolation, the adrenalin of being in a foreign if not hostile environment, the freedom to chase whatever story she felt needed to be told, the importance of being familiar with your equipment, all of this was paramount as there was nobody else there to assist you.
As a female journalist she was given access to stories her male counterparts were not so her sex became an advantage rather than a disadvantage, as many may have assumed would be the case in a patriarchal society such as those found in Afghanistan.
Reporting in hostile environments meant the likelihood of covering some unsettling stories and Sara hinted at the possibility of becoming desensitised to the violence. She recommended that any journalist experiencing a traumatic event should talk to someone immediately.
“I wouldn’t go out with a broken camera – don’t go out as a broken journo.” Sara said. Wise words indeed.
Both journalists reiterated the ethical challenges journalists face in these hostile environments. An example given of this was the Pulitzer award winning photograph by Massoud Hossani which shows a young Afghan girl screaming in the aftermath of a suicide bomb explosion. Sara said people around Hossani at the time were urging him to take the photograph as evidence for what had just occurred.
The question being are journalists praying on the misery of others or are they there to record this moment in history accurately? How far would you go to get a story? Would you risk your life? These are not easy questions to answer and anybody who says otherwise is deluding themselves. They are important questions and should be considered carefully before embarking on this career path.
As a person interested in foreign correspondence it was great to hear from two journalists who have been in the field. They were insightful and offered sage advice. There is a lot of romanticism associated with being a foreign correspondent and both speakers dissuaded this particular notion very quickly. If it is fame and glory you seek there are much easier ways to obtain them.