Thursday, April 21, 2011


This column, originally published in the T2 Section of the Canberra Times on Thursday 14 April, describes some of the difficulties faced by a Foreign Correspondent in attempting to find out what's really going on.


As a journalist, I’m used to faking it. It’s what we’re paid to do -- waiting and listening until whoever is being interviewed suddenly drops their nugget of gold that can be repackaged and delivered to the reader. The gold is necessary to lift your story beyond the pedestrian. It’s the sudden insight that allows the reader to feel as if they were ‘there’. And it’s vital for your own credibility as a journalist, or, in my case, self-respect.

I’d begun writing opinion pieces on Afghanistan a decade ago. The first time the country forced itself into a column was on September 11, 2001. I was quite proud of that. Just a couple of hours after the second tower of the World Trade Centre had collapsed I was submitting a short piece of analysis for a special wrap-around put out by the Canberra Times. The next morning, readers of this paper were the first in the world to see Osama bin Laden’s name linked to the bobbing. There was more, of course, but it was all just me repeating ideas I’d borrowed from others – nothing original.

For many years that didn’t seem to matter. The world’s focus moved onto Iraq, and mine onto Australian politics. Afghanistan faded into the background. It was just another part of the “long war”. Julia Gillard announced we’d be there for a decade. Stories were regularly put out by Defence Public Affairs indicating that another couple of terrorists had been killed or that, accidentally and regrettably, an innocent person had been shot. It was obvious that, ‘news-wise’ at any rate, nothing much was happening.

I’d requested to go over with the Army as an embedded reporter back in 2006. In the subsequent years I’d occasionally checked on the progress of my application. It was lost once and resubmitted a couple of times, but I’d never jumped up and down about my need to go. And that’s where things sat until last year, when I was invited to Angus Houston’s Christmas media drinks party. I’d been chatting pleasantly with the Chief when I asked again what my chances were of getting embedded with our detachment in Or√ľzgan. Angus smiled and placed his hand on my shoulder.

“Nick,” he said, in a warm and friendly tone, “there are some things that it’s just better that you don’t see”.

Now he wasn’t warning me off or anything like that, but it was obvious that I wasn’t going to get over with the ADF. The military claims that it attempts to accommodate journalists so that they can report on what’s happening in Afghanistan, but the reality is otherwise. The first “embedded” reporter Ian McPhedran, who once worked with the Canberra Times. His trip apparently didn’t go as smoothly as expected. McPhedran had wanted to get out into the field with the diggers; the PR people had apparently been more keen on him reporting on how happy the soldiers were. That was, of course, until he did a story about how the Dutch (who were co-located at the base) were eating better than our men. Changes were made to the diet, but after that experience there was considerably less enthusiasm at the prospect of having embedded reporters around.

The big advantage of being attached to the military is that you’re much safer than if you just try to wander around by yourself. This was something I quickly discovered as I attempted to plan my own trip. I spoke to a person who’d been over on a special tour arranged by the NATO military. He told me he’d worn armoured vests virtually all the time and even movement around the capital had been in protective convoys of specially modified vehicles. I was beginning to think it was all going to be far too difficult and I think it’s only fair to say that the idea of going on my jaunt hadn’t been receiving a great deal of support at home. I was about to pack it all in and give up the idea of ever getting over to the place that I was quite happily, and regularly, pontificating about on the comment pages of the paper.

Then, fortunately, and just before I did give up completely, I spoke to Bill, or, as he’s more appropriately known, Professor William Maley. The Foundation Director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, a Visiting Professor in Russia and a Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford, Maley also happens to be a world-renown expert on Afghanistan, having written numerous books on the history of the country (one of which I was later to pick-up in one of Kabul’s few bookshops).

Unintentionally perhaps, but Maley does a brilliant impersonation of the absent-minded professor. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry”, he said, dismissively waving a hand in the air. “You just need to be careful, that’s all. I wander around the city all the time; catch cabs, you know the sort of thing. Just be careful, that’s all.”

What hadn’t occurred to me – but might have gone some way towards explaining the ease with which Maley traverses Kabul – is that he can actually speak Pashto, Dari (or ‘Persian’, as he calls it) and various other dialects whereas I am somewhat more linguistically challenged. But then he pressed some gold dust into my hand.

Now, you must first understand a bit about journalism. In order to make my trip worthwhile I needed to have some people who could unlock the meaning of the country for me. I was a voyeur, but I still needed to justify my expenses. Editors (and wives) don’t react well when you return from a journey announcing that you’ve simply “had an enjoyable time”. For the past decade I’d been making do with other people’s ideas and explanations of what was happening in Afghanistan, this trip was meant to be my chance to fill in the reality behind the stories.

The trouble had been that nearly everyone I’d asked had tried to tell me what they thought about the country, what they believed the problems were and what needed to be done to fix it. Maley didn’t. He was offering me something far more precious, the ability to discover something for myself. I grasped the key to understanding that he offered me with gratitude.

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