Zoe Daniel began her reporting career as a regional radio reporter in the ABC’s Adelaide office in 1993. She had various presenting roles with National Rural News and Radio National’s A Country Breakfast before shifting her focus to Business Reporter/Presenter with ABC Radio current Affairs in Melbourne. She had television reporting roles for local and national news as well as the Stateline and Lateline between 2002 and 2004. In August 2004, Zoe covered the Athens Olympics Games for ABC radio news and current affairs.
As Africa correspondent from 2005-2007 Zoe frequently filmed her own television reports and often travelled alone, editing and sending material back to Australia via sattelite phone from remote locations. She has presented ABC Melbourne’s television news and Australia Network News across Asia. In 2009 Zoe was based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and covered the Khmer Rouge war crimes trials for the ABC.
Emma Alberici currently presents Lateline and was previously the ABC’s Europe Correspondent based in London, where she was living when this interview was conducted.
Emma began her career at The Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne before joining Channel 9 where she presented business programs and reported on news and current affairs. At the ABC, Emma was host of the morning business program, Business Breakfast before joining The 7.30 Report as Finance Editor. Emma has also variously worked on Lateline Business, as well as reporting and presenting for AM, The World Today and PM.
Emma has twice been a finalist at the Walkley Awards for journalism. Both times were for investigative reports, first on the death of a patron at Star City Casino in 1998 and then in 2001 for uncovering the Tax Office’s treatment of taxpayers who participated in mass marketed schemes.
Anne Barker is the ABC’s Middle East correspondent. She has worked for the ABC for more than two decades, beginning as a radio news cadet in Melbourne straight out of university. Since then she has worked in Federal Parliament, in Sydney, Adelaide, and Darwin, where she was the ABC’s Northern Territory correspondent for AM, The World Today and PM.
From 2002 Anne was also been responsible for covering events in East Timor, including the civil unrest and the assassination attempt on President Jose Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.
In 2007 Anne won a Walkley award in Radio Current Affairs, for her coverage of the Northern Territory intervention.
Sally Heath Was it the allure of the unknown that attracted you to being a foreign correspondent?
Zoe Daniel When I started my first posting in Africa I was attracted by the potential for adventure, amazing travel, different cultures, but I think my main motivation was a desire to challenge myself and to work in a place that was outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t disappointed. That job involved mostly solo travel with camera, radio equipment and satellite phone, filing independently from the remotest of remote places. Over time that’s developed into a sincere desire to meet people on their own turf, and to give them a chance to tell their stories in their own words. I see myself as a ‘field reporter’. I always prefer to be there and tell the story from where it’s happening rather than reporting it from a distance. We’re lucky as correspondents because we get to actually see things unfolding. That can be a great privilege I think, whether it’s being allowed in to witness something very personal with people or to witness a major news event.
Emma Alberici In part it was a thirst for something different that drove me overseas rather than something ‘unknown’. After twenty years as a journalist in Australia, the time came to tell different stories involving people with different cultures and different backgrounds. It was and is still exciting to learn how we are different to each other and to explore why that might be. Engaging with people on their terms is exhilarating as a correspondent because it can truly open our minds to previously unexplored perspectives.
Anne Barker It’s a combination of the unknown—different people, cultures, geography etcera (the same things that appeal when you travel)—and the buzz of the story. After so many years reporting on domestic events in Australia—Federal Parliament, indigenous affairs, asylum seekers, cyclones and crocodiles and so on—there is an excitement in reporting on stories that are very different, and the Middle East is about as different as it gets. I came here knowing next to nothing about the Israel-Palestinian conflict and have been on the steepest learning curve of my life since. Then there’s the adrenaline rush of covering wars and danger, whether it’s a gunfight in Libya, clashes in Tahrir Square in Cairo, or rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel.
SH What becomes more evident, the differences or similarities between people of diverse cultures?
ZD Both really. When you do these jobs you feel much closer to those nameless people in the ‘in Briefs’ who have lost their homes in a flood or lost their children in an earthquake. They feel pain, grief, hunger, desperation the same way someone in Melbourne or Sydney would regardless of their colour or religion. That’s a big part of our job, to bring about understanding and to make stories personal, bridging cultural and racial divides. On the other hand, people in developing countries are just so resilient when they are caught up in a disaster or experiencing grief. The way the poorest people adapt to awful circumstances is pretty extraordinary.
EA It’s definitely the differences that have become more evident during my time in Europe and it has given me even greater scope to examine different cultures. I live in the UK but I travel around the continent so it has been interesting to see the differences that can exist in cultures that are geographically so close. The similarities that bind us become obvious quickly. It’s the stuff that transcends boundaries—the emotional ties of empathy, loss, hope. What often strikes me is that real sense that no matter how much money someone has or hasn’t got, whether they live in a nice neighbourhood or in a dump, what they’re feeling is always the same when some calamity strikes.
AB I’d have to say both. When you’re working in the Middle East, for instance in the Arab world, Palestinian territory, Israel, you are constantly reminded of the differences. In Jerusalem for example you can’t go anywhere without seeing ultra orthodox Jews in their black hats and suits and long curly sidelocks. In the West Bank you hear the call to prayer at the mosque several times a day. In Gaza, where the Islamist Hamas organisation rules, you might see women swimming in the ocean in a full length burkah. In Cairo you’ll see women in the niqab—the full face veil. So you are constantly reminded of the differences in religion, culture, language, food, politics and lifestyle. But then you are constantly reminded too of the similarities: across cultures people simply want to live decent lives, in good health, with jobs, and enough to raise and educate kids. When anyone dies in a war–it’s the same grief we all feel.
SH How do you deal with cultural and moral norms that don’t match your own?
ZD It can be a bit tricky and in general I just try to go with the flow, within reason. That applies to dress codes, for example I’m always very conservative at work. In Thailand the colour you wear can be very important too! Clearly some religions have rules that are different for women and men, it’s not up to me to fight that, I ask what’s appropriate and follow what I’m told. So far it hasn’t affected my ability to do a story, it just means sometimes taking another approach.
The gender issues among Muslims, for example, means that I often spend a lot of time sitting and talking with the women of the community. They can often be more open and direct with me than the men are, and that has really helped me better understand their situation. One thing I’ve struck a few times is different attitudes to death and dying, something that we have to unfortunately deal with often in this job. At first the openness about death and dead bodies was confronting, but over time I’ve realised that the way Muslims and Buddhists treat death is probably healthier than the Western approach, there’s no mystique, it takes away the fear.
AB So long as you are aware of and respect others, then different cultures and morals are part of the fascination of being a correspondent. That’s not to say you won’t encounter people who challenge your moral outlook—I interviewed a young man who admitted to beating his own sister to death, by bashing her head repeatedly against the wall, supposedly as an ‘honour killing’ to protect the family’s reputation. That was one of the most confronting interviews I’ve ever done. But as a journalist I’m here to observe and report without necessarily judging—at least not publicly.
EA One of the most important parts of my role as a journalist is to understand the cultural and moral norms of a country I am reporting in. It’s impossible to tell a story about a certain person or city if you don’t understand how it looks from where they stand. I am a guest in their country and it is not my place to expect any type of behavior. I think the audience expects me to deliver stories that are free of judgment and full of respect for the cultural and moral norms of the particular country I am visiting. Luckily I have not had to confront the challenge of reporting in a country whose culture is fundamentally at odds with mine.
SH Is language a barrier?
ZD It can be, particularly in sensitive situations where it would be so much easier to talk directly to the people rather than speaking through a translator. But it’s amazing how much facial expressions and body language reveal, often I can get a real sense of what’s being said by just understanding a few words and watching the way the person is expressing a point of view—this is obviously easier when there’s lots of emotion involved. There are also many other ways of communicating though, a smile, a handshake, a cuddle for a kid, they all go a long way. Sometimes lack of direct communication means we spend more time with people too, so that we understand each other properly, that’s definitely a good thing. I really struggle with the sort of quick and dirty eight-second grab and run reporting these days. Sometimes deadlines make that necessary, but when the issues are sensitive you need time to talk and connect.
AB Language is definitely a barrier in the Middle East. Few people you meet or interview will speak English fluently or as a native tongue. Many will not speak it at all. You have to rely on translators to conduct the interview for you—some of whom don’t have fantastic English themselves. It can restrict your understanding of an issue and can make it harder to write or edit a story. When language differences are combined with cultural misunderstandings too, it can make it that much harder to grasp the full story. Sometimes you come away from an interview or story feeling that you haven’t really got your head around something properly. It’s one of the biggest challenges in reporting in a place like the Middle East.
EA This is where an excellent fixer is key. We rely entirely on the strength, empathy and common sense of our local staff. We don’t generally go to a non-English speaking country without hiring local camera operators or translators or fixers or drivers or all of the above! These people are absolutely invaluable to the stories we tell in their countries. We need them not only to translate the words but to explain cultural nuances that might not otherwise be obvious.
SH How do you leave people and their stories and situations?
ZD The longer I do these jobs the harder I find it to just do a story and leave. Obviously it depends on the issue but the reality is that most of what we do involves grief or trauma. With the help of the ABC team in Bangkok and also the local fixers that we employ around the place we tend to keep tabs on people if we can, check in occasionally, see how they’re getting on. Sometimes if I’m back in their area we pop in. Usually if we’ve been spending time with people who are very poor or desperate we try to help them out with some food or simple supplies. It’s hard, some of the people I’ve met have had a big impact on me, particularly those who seem to be so powerless to change their circumstances—like most of the refugees we’ve met in Malaysia.
One of the saddest interviews I’ve ever done was with a twelve-year-old year old Afghan girl who just wept and wept as if her heart was broken because she isn’t allowed to go to school. We’ve been back to see them, but of course they’re frustrated because nothing’s changing and they want us to be able to fix it. That’s understandable. On our second visit one of the mothers just yelled and berated me for about half an hour about why our stories hadn’t solved their problems. I get that, so I just sat there and acknowledged that she was right and that we couldn’t fix it. In the end she burst into simultaneous tears and laughter and gave me a big hug and thanked me for listening. It’s such a simple gift to allow people to at least have the chance to argue their case.
AB I don’t allow myself to get caught up in tragedy or grief—if this is what you mean. I have covered some heart wrenching stories (everyone has) and you have to learn to treat them like stories and not get caught up in the emotion. Sometimes this is easier said than done. But if you allowed yourself to feel the same grief each time as the people involved, you would not be able to function. There have been a handful of stories where I couldn’t help but be emotionally affected, and one time I found myself crying during an interview with a woman who had lost six family members including her husband and three sons in a white phosphorous attack during the Gaza war. Her two-year old grand daughter was so badly burnt she had needed six skin grafts since the war. The woman I interviewed lifted her own dress and showed me the burns on her legs and abdomen. She said she and the grand daughter suffered so much pain they still could not sleep at night. It was heart wrenching. I ended up giving the woman some money as I left because she was impoverished. It was very hard not to be touched by her story. In the end you can’t interview someone like her without being affected. I have never forgotten her story or her plight. But it does take a certain approach to be able to do the story without being overcome by that sort of tragedy.
EA I find it important to stay in touch with people whose lives I have become so familiar with. As a journalist, I’m hungry for information so I like to keep in touch with people I have interviewed and profiled to learn about how their stories might have changed.
SH Why do people want to tell their stories?
EA In my experience, it’s usually for one of three reasons: They want other people to learn from their experiences and not to repeat their mistakes; they want to put the record straight and then some simply crave the publicity as a vehicle for promoting a cause or for simply gaining exposure.
ZD I think people understand that if they tell their story there might be some change to their situation—particularly in developing countries. Officials and politicians are one thing but the ordinary people are normally keen to explain and help us understand their situation, they appreciate genuine interest. Even in a place like Burma where there’s a great risk to people from speaking out. If anyone is reluctant I try not to pressure them. These countries are not like Australia—political and community retribution can be very harsh.
AB Some people have a barrow to push and recognise the power of the media to help tell their story. Most Palestinians perhaps would fall into that category—they want the world to know their story, their plight, and feel that the US and other western powers side with Israel and are not empathetic to the Palestinian cause. Many others simply recognise that their story is of interest to the wider world and are persuaded that there is a public interest in talking. Many people don’t want to tell their stories at all, and take considerable persuasion. They usually fall into the category of professional politicians, lobbyists or advocates—people who realise that by talking they might do their cause harm.
SH How do you live? Is it very different to how you live in Australia?
ZD Like all correspondents, I work A LOT and when I’m not at work I’m on call 24/7. I’m a bit of a hermit when I’m not travelling: I love just being at home with my husband and my kids, trying to find a little bit of normality. It is hard to do this job with young children (ours are now three and four) because when you walk back in the door from a tough shoot the kids don’t know where I’ve been or what trauma I’ve experienced, they just want to read a story or show me their work from kinder. That can be exhausting but it’s good because it brings me straight back to home life.
The hardest thing by far is being away from my family, sometimes in dangerous circumstances, but the pressure of the job ebbs and flows. As a female correspondent with kids I think it’s crucial to have a good support system. Sometimes I literally get up and leave the country in the middle of the night. Home has to keep functioning when I’m away to allow my husband to work and have a life and to give the kids a solid routine. For that reason we have a nanny and a housekeeper who keep everything ticking over. We’re very lucky because that gives us an extended family here because we dearly love our staff and so do the kids. It also means that I barely do any housework whatsoever! But more importantly that home time is not wasted by cleaning the bathroom. As a mother of small children it would be impossible to do this job without that kind of support network.
AB The lifestyle of many Israelis in Jerusalem (west Jerusalem at least–which is in Israel proper) is mostly far more religious than in Australia. You don’t fully realise how secular Australia is until you live in a place like Jerusalem where most people are religious—some much more so than others. So Friday evening to Saturday evening is the Jewish Sabbath, and there are strict rules on what can or can’t be done for Orthodox Jews. As a result everything is shut in Jerusalem in that period. Orthodox Jews won’t drive, won’t use electricity in any form, and so can’t easily go anywhere. As a result, for the non-religious Jerusalem at least, it is a difficult place to live, especially on Shabbat. There are also rules on kosher food and most restaurants are kosher. You can’t eat meat and dairy products in the same meal, so eating at a restaurant becomes interesting. Although for the most part I eat at non-kosher restaurants many of which are open on Shabbat. And I often find myself leaving town and going to say, Tel Aviv or the West Bank on Saturdays to avoid the religious side of life on Shabbat.
EA The life of a foreign correspondent is relentless. There is also a lot of travel so the time spent with friends and family becomes extremely precious. I’ve never been as organized as I’ve had to be in this job when you are forced to juggle the demands of multiple programs at the ABC as well as multiple mediums (radio, tv and online). This is a tough job for someone with young children because the support networks (nannies and housekeepers) are expensive in a country like the UK. On the flipside, London is a wonderful place to get around. Public transport is reliable and fast and I’ve even taking to riding my bicycle to get to work quicker. It’s the best form of exercise for someone with very little spare time because you manage to get exercise while avoiding the chaos of the underground rush hour.
SH Are access and fixers important? Or can you tell the story as an observer?
ZD Access is absolutely crucial and in the kind of work that we do I think fixers are too. That’s partly because of the deadline pressure and the number of outlets that require material. It’s certainly possible to do a story without a fixer and I have done many times, but you need a lot more time. A good fixer will set up things ahead so you don’t waste a lot of time (and budget!) in the field. Fixers also double as translators and I see our better fixers as lead producers to a degree—in general their knowledge is better than mine and I try to mine that to extend my understanding of their country, their culture and the story we are doing. We have a couple of amazing fixers who have allowed us to do terrific pieces that I never could have done on my own because of the access they’ve been able to get.
AB When you go somewhere where the language is an issue you definitely need a fixer to set up interviews, find the location, translate the questions and the interview. Without fixers you mostly couldn’t do the job very well in such places. You can do your job as an observer, but you’d be reliant on the wire services or agencies to understand what is happening. If you are able to find good English speakers you can do a lot without a fixer. Even in Egypt, in Tahrir Square during the mass protests this year there were plenty of Egyptians who speak fluent English. That makes the job much easier. But you do still need to speak to fixers, even as an observer the job would be near impossible. You simply wouldn’t have the knowledge or depth of understanding of any issue without them.
EA Fixers are integral to the process. I always tell my stories as an observer but I need to understand not only what people are saying but the context within which they are expressing themselves. This is why it is critical that our fixers are trustworthy and it also helps if they have had some experience as journalists. In certain countries, it can be a challenge to find people to help us who don’t come to us with preconceived ideas of what the story should be about or how it should be told. The challenge is then to identify this before it begins to frame our reporting.
SH When do you know you have started to understand a place? (And what do you do to help you get a sense of a place?)
ZD I think it just takes quite a lot of time. Thailand is one of the more complex places I have been and after almost two years here I’m only just starting to really feel like I’m beginning to develop ‘insight’ into what drives a lot of the politics for example. I cover nine countries, fully understanding all of them is impossible, which is why I have to assume that I don’t, and try to be really careful about making blanket statements or judgments. I’m slowly developing a deep love for Thailand, the sort of affection that makes me wonder how I will ever leave. There’s a degree of loyalty to a place that develops when you’re part of some of its toughest times.
EA I think the only way to truly understand a place is to spend a lot of time there. I know Italy very well from both my childhood and travel. It’s a culture I understand well because I grew up with it. The British culture is one that my family and I have gotten to know very well because we are immersed in our community with three children in the school system. It also helps to meet lots of people from all walks of life in any country. Talking to many different people is the best way to learn about their culture.
AB After a few weeks of living somewhere, after reading as much as possible about a story or a place, and after reporting on as many issues as possible you do start to understand a place. You start to find your way around. You start to absorb the nuances of a story or issue. I sometimes wish I’d written down what I did know and what I thought I didn’t know–about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict when I first arrived, so I could look back and see how much I learnt.
SH How important is referencing where you are and what you are living through to life in Australia?
AB It is not that important. It is not as if I am comparing everything in Israel or the Middle East to life back home. But being Australian — and having those references whether or not I am aware of them—informs your coverage of a story, so that you know what might interest listeners or viewers back home, and why.
EA It depends on the stories we’re telling. Sometimes it gives critical perspective to draw on experiences from home. The stories I have done on immigration in Europe have been helped by referencing Australia. It is compelling to compare the 10,000 people who landed on Italian shores on one weekend to the equal number or so arriving in Australia in a year.
ZD For work I think it’s important that we do, because otherwise you can really lose perspective on what Australian life is like and what’s relevant to people.
I miss Australia sometimes—the ease of life, the sparkling clean streets, the parks and gardens, friends and family. But we’ve been away now for five of the last seven years so being away feels normal. Having young children however, we put a big emphasis on being ‘Australian’—they’ve both spent most of their lives away, but they need to know that’s actually their home. They obviously have a very different perspective on what’s ‘normal’ compared to kids who have grown up in Australia, because they see so much poverty. When we were living in Cambodia our house was next door to a squatter camp and our son spent much of his time playing with the kids in the street. When we left we gave away all the kids spare clothes and toys and things to them. During the redshirts protests too, when there were lots of kids living in the protest site for weeks on end we took some toys down for them. To my kids that seems only fair, that’s good but it’s something we have to be aware of because we live in an expat bubble.
ZD And a question for the other correspondents. How do you achieve your work/life balance, does it exist for you?
AB I often don’t achieve a very good work-life balance. The job can be so full-on, so time consuming, so demanding that I find I work very, very long days. I often work at night–because that is the time I am most likely to be filing for programs back home. I often find it hard to go out for dinner for that reason. And many is the time when I might be having friends over for dinner on a Friday or Saturday night (Friday/Saturday are the weekend here, not Saturday/Sunday), and I get a phone call from Sydney demanding I suddenly file a story on something happening in the region. I more or less have to leave things on the stove, or ask a friend to take over the cooking while I disappear for half an hour or an hour–to file. It is exhausting at times. And when you have to travel for the job—to Egypt or Libya or wherever—it is even more of an encroachment on your personal life. But every correspondent is aware of this before they come. And it takes a certain dedication to the job to be able to commit to this kind of lifestyle. It is why most postings are only three or four years. It would be hard to continue this sort of dedication for longer.
EA My husband and I decided that to achieve real work life balance we needed to spend a significant part of my salary in the UK on home help. As a proportion of salary, housekeepers and nannies are extremely expensive in Europe. While the financial burden is high, without this help, I would have little chance to spend quality time with my family. Having a network of support has freed the family up to spend precious time together in a more fulfilling way than scrubbing floors. Without the home help, every spare moment at home would be spent doing chores. There is no real solution to this question… it is a constant battle as my role as a foreign correspondent is all consuming and so very little time is left for enjoying the simple pleasures of home life. We try to make sure that every moment we do spend together is spent doing something fun. We want to soak up every bit of Britain and beyond, knowing that it will come to an end at some point. We want to see as much as possible and come away with a network of foreign friends who will be part of our lives forever.
ZD And in these days of tabloid journalism and demand for the quick turnaround, how do you keep faith in what we do?
EA It’s really tough to keep standards high when output is also expected to be high. Since becoming a foreign correspondent, the ABC itself has evolved into a hungry beast whose appetite is rarely sated. News24 was launched last year and the online news service is now also a significant vehicle for our work. Twitter has become a valuable way to keep in touch with contacts and to develop networks. We often joke in London that we could never file enough stories to satisfy the demand. This creates pressure to produce which can compromise quality. The challenge is not to allow yourself to overlook important checks and balances in the production … this can easily happen when you are trying to keep everyone happy. The answer, I think, is to manage ABC expectations … which is perhaps toughest of all.
AB I guess every journalist–hopes that they can make a difference. At the ABC news standards are sometimes in danger of being jeopardised because of ever diminishing resources and increasing demands on your time. It can be hard to keep going in such times. But most correspondents are committed to the product and will put in that little extra to ensure the story gets to air, or a program gets what it is asking for. It is important to take holidays regularly in a place like the Middle East, and important to find ways to release stress on days off so you don’t burn out.