APJC fellow finds a world of stories

Ben Doherty won the Walkley Award for Social Equity Journalism in 2013 for a series of articles exposing exploitation in the Bangladeshi garment industry making clothes for Australia. In 2008, he was a finalist in the United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Awards for a feature on East Timorese asylum seekers stranded in Indonesian West Timor. He wrote the story while on an APJC fellowship.

Here Ben explains how the APJC fellowship he undertook to Indonesia and East Timor kick-started his career as a foreign correspondent, writing for The Guardian, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Photo: Fairfax Media

Photo: Fairfax Media

Don’t let anybody tell you any different: journalism is the best job in the world, and foreign correspondent is the best job in journalism.

There is a lot of gloomy talk around journalism at the moment, particularly in my branch – newspapers.

But the world will need journalists in the future. The formats we will work in will be, I suspect, unrecognisable from those we know today. But whatever future comes to pass, the world will still need journalists to make sense of it all, to hold power to account, to sort truth from lies, to expose injustice and celebrate achievement.

The world will still need correspondents to go out into the world and explain that strange and sometimes hostile place to an audience back home who can’t know it themselves. It is a grave responsibility.

I’d always thought I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. Less for the supposed attendant glamour (I promise you, it doesn’t exist) but more for the simple experience, the chance to travel, to meet people from backgrounds unlike mine, to hear and to tell their stories.

My fellowship with the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre, to Indonesia and East Timor in 2008, taught me two things.

One, I was right. I did want to be a foreign correspondent.

And two, I knew nothing about how to be one.

The two-week fellowship unveiled for me the way it could be done, that there were stories all over the world, if you were prepared to listen and to look for them, and willing to equip yourself with the skills to find them.

I learned about the value of planning – and of the value of equanimity when those plans invariably fail.

I learned that the story is not always where you think it will be.

And I learned the value of local knowledge and of listening to local advice. Wherever you go, there will always be people who know more than you.

My time with the APJC convinced me not only that I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, but also that I could be one. A path to working overseas wasn’t some impossible dream, but a realistic goal.

I learned how important the role of the correspondent is, particularly covering this region in the world.

Australia is sui generis in the Asia Pacific, but a hugely influential and important country. Australians need to understand the world and the region they live in.

Australians need to know why it matters that Hazara are being persecuted in Pakistan, not only for the fact they might appear as asylum seekers on Australia’s doorstep, but for the basic human rights issues their oppression raises.

Australians need to know what a change of government might do for the Indian economy, not only because of its impact on trade with Australia, but for its impact on the lives of more than a thousand million people on the subcontinent.

Since my time with the APJC, I’ve been South East Asia Correspondent for The Guardian, as well as South Asia Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

I’ve reported from more than 20 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia.

I’ve met Aung San Suu Kyi just after she was released from a decade of house arrest in Burma. I’ve interviewed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she toured India. I’ve spoken with murderers on death row in Pakistan, and asylum seekers imprisoned in camps in Laos.

This job allows you to see history up close, to meet extraordinary people, as well as the ordinary in extraordinary situations.

Mine has been a fortunate ride. Any journalist will tell you there is a lot of right-place, right-time in this line of work.

But I can say, without fear of straying into the realms of the hyperbolic, the opportunities I’ve had in my career, and all that’s been attendant to it, would not have been possible without that first chance afforded to me by the APJC and their sponsor, the Myer Foundation.

If you are fortunate enough to be part of one of the APJC’s programs I urge you to embrace it wholeheartedly. Don’t worry too much about bringing home scoops (though chances are you’ll find one or two along the way, and often in the unlikeliest of places). Rather, simply learn from the experience, talk to anyone and everyone, the Presidents and the paupers, your mentors and your fellow journalists.

Most of all, hear the stories the world around you has to tell.