House debates

Tuesday, 26 August 2014


Foreign Correspondents

9:00 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

We are all aware of the shocking video of the beheading of American journalist James Foley. For those of us who follow the news, it has been unavoidable. Even the still photograph that many television channels and newspapers have used, of the journalist standing beside his killer, is horrific enough, because we know what follows. This was a remarkable manifestation of the globalised world that we live in: a group with a medieval, barbaric, extremist ideology making sophisticated use of modern social media.

I want to reflect tonight on the role played by Mr Foley in his career as a journalist in a war zone and on the role of war correspondents through history.

Mr Foley was a man of immense courage who paid the ultimate price for pursuing a noble profession. A free press is one of the most important institutions in a democracy, and journalists working in dangerous locations exemplify the very best of their profession. They shine a light on dark events of great importance. They help us understand a complex world. They make real to us the people suffering in foreign wars who otherwise would fall into abstraction.

Mr Foley was captured by Islamic State when he was reporting in Syria. Australian journalist Martin Chulov writes that Mr Foley's luck ran out while covering the most dangerous conflict for reporters anywhere in the world. Chulov argues that Mr Foley was an example of a new kind of journalist: freelancers taking high risks in dangerous regions as established media outlets cut back their budgets and cut back their support for their own dedicated correspondents. He wrote:

Foley, an affable, former reporter for the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes, was typical of the new band. He arrived with a sense of purpose and opportunity and, at times, immunity to the dangers.

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Foley's luck ran out in November 2012. He was seized near the Syrian town of Binnish, along with another photographer with whom he had entered the country.

Mr Foley's death came just two months after the regrettable and unjustified decision by a Cairo court against Australian journalist Peter Greste, found guilty of supposedly 'spreading false news and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood'. Like Mr Foley, Mr Greste had chosen to take some risks to keep the world informed. Our community relies on brave people to take those risks, although we wish the worst would never come to pass.

Australia has a proud tradition of reporters taking such risks, going back before Federation when several newspapers sent correspondents to the Boer War—the most famous of them, of course, Banjo Paterson. Unusually for those days, a woman, Edith Charlotte Musgrave Dickenson, reported from South Africa for the Adelaide Advertiser in 1901, under the by-line 'ECM Dickenson'.

The World War I correspondent Charles Bean landed at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915, just a few hours after the first troops landed. His reports are informing us on this centenary. Bean and his modern counterparts play a vital role but, regrettably, media organisations are spending less on foreign correspondents as the economics of the media changes. The proliferation of social media and the internet is undermining the economics of the traditional news organisations, making it harder to afford to put correspondents in such dangerous situations with all the security that they need.

With the cuts by commercial news organisations, it becomes all the more important that our national broadcaster, the ABC—a wellspring of quality journalism—continues its important work. Of course, the ABC also faces further cuts in the months ahead, and the closure of the Australia Network means that experienced journalists of many years are losing their jobs right now, while their colleagues like Matt Brown, in northern Iraq, and Stephen McDonnell, reporting from the MH17 crash site continue to risk their lives.

We fervently hope that no more journalists meet the fate of James Foley, Peter Greste, or the many journalists who have given their lives or liberty to bring the stories of the world into our living rooms. But we celebrate and honour the role they play in protecting and expanding democracy.