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Axing the Walkley for international reporting: another nail in the coffin

ABC journalist Adam Harvey was shot in the neck while reporting in the Philippines in June 2017. AAP Image/Twitter

Axing the Walkley for international reporting: another nail in the coffin

The decision by the Walkley advisory board to update Australia’s top journalistic awards in line with a changing media landscape was to be welcomed. But its decision to cut the international reporting category is shortsighted and rams another nail into the coffin of international journalism.

It has infuriated journalists and journalism educators alike, with angry debates on social media, and petitions calling for the reinstatement of the category. There is even talk of boycotting the awards or resigning from the union.

Other major international journalism awards, including the Pulitzer prize and the UK Press awards, still include a category for international reporting. While the Walkley advisory board insists that international reporting can still be entered and win in other categories, this does not do justice to the specific and vital skills that foreign correspondents bring to journalism. These skills are increasingly under threat in the changing media landscape. There has never been a more important time to recognise them.

Separate recognition deserved

In their justification for axing the international journalism category, the outgoing and current chairs acknowledge that they do not value international journalism less:

These stories are critical to our understanding of the world. Foreign correspondents often risk their safety and Australia has a long and proud history of international journalism.

They say that “international journalism can be entered in any Walkley Award category and these stories frequently win. Journalists producing international stories won at least 18 Walkleys plus the Gold in the past 4 years.”

All this shows is that these journalists deserved to win, they were better than the other entries in those categories - full stop. It also means that we are hungry for news, analysis and context in a world that is becoming more complex and violent. International stories topped those categories because they gave us an Australian understanding of these events and this was much more important in those categories than the other stories submitted.

The rationale put forward by the advisory board seems weak given other types of journalism are still awarded in separate categories, including investigative reporting and the new category of public service journalism to “celebrate journalism’s role in informing citizens as part of our democratic system”. On the other hand, photography still has three categories: news, sport, and feature/photographic essay, suggesting that it is worth recognising different types of reporting.

The new international journalists

In 1992 I won the Walkley award for the best international report for my series on the collapse of the Soviet Union for SBS’s Dateline program. I have also been a Walkley judge several times. I spent weeks watching, reading, listening, comparing entries and then narrowed them down to the top three. The other judges and I then met and compared, analysed, argued and agreed on the top three. These then went to the Walkley advisory board which selected the winners.

The advisory board is right, journalism is changing. The 2017 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index details some of these changes, including:

high profile media bashing, a highly toxic anti-media discourse that drove the world into a new era of post truth, disinformation and fake news. Media freedom has retreated wherever the authoritarian strongman model has triumphed.

This has come at a time when foreign bureaux are transitioning to hubs and one-person posts, where once they had teams of correspondents, cinematographers and local hires. Peter Greste, who spent 400 days in jail for doing his job in Egypt, told ABC’s Foreign Correspondent:

News editors are withdrawing foreign correspondents because foreign news is expensive, its unpalatable and yet we need the foreign news more than ever now because we are now more connected with the outside world than ever before so I think it’s a very dangerous and worrying trend.

Jonathan Holmes said in the same program that the gap is being filled by young, uninsured, unprotected journalists:

desperate to make a name for themselves [and] take greater risks than they would ever be allowed to take if they were employed by the New York Times or the BBC and they go out there with very little protection and they’re the ones that tend to end up in underground cells.

What’s this got to do with the Walkleys?

This is about more than a pen nib-shaped trophy. It’s about making decisions about the changing face of the media and holding on to things that matter. On any given day in newsrooms around the country, journalists are asked to volunteer for assignments in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Only a few will ever put their hands up. This is about honouring them.

Former journalist Yves Daccord, the director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, has been very concerned at the disappearance of journalism from international trouble spots. He has been holding panel discussions around the world on this issue and I was part of the panel in Canberra recently.

Daccord said without the expertise of international reporters it has been difficult to understand the complexity of events like Aleppo despite the presence of citizen journalists and social media:

You are almost two clicks away from people directly from Aleppo but having somebody, a trusted figure somewhat, who can explain to me, maybe during weeks, months what’s happening, that is missing.

He said what he is seeing now is very reactive media, or anecdotal media, with people going to Facebook in search of information that reinforces their own opinions.

What I find the most worrying right now when I’m going into a country is people find difficult to understand what is happening in Yemen, in Syria … they find it very very difficult to find a place, a platform, a newspaper, whatever where they got complex information, different elements.

Australians got that information last year on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program “Yemen: The War on Children”. A team of four – two in Yemen and two in Sydney – worked through a logistical minefield to get the story done: the boycott, security issues, presence of ISIS, the threat of kidnapping and being bombed. The team was rewarded for its bravery and storytelling with the Walkley Award for international reporting.

In what is likely to be the final award of its kind, the judges commended the team for “courageous journalism”:

reporters persisted through government interference and airstrikes to document a war that has killed more than 6,500 people but been largely ignored by the world.

The ABC’s South East Asia correspondent Adam Harvey, producer Geoff Thompson and cinematographer Phil Hemingway recently went to the Philippines to cover the seizure of Marawi City by fighters loyal to ISIS. For his efforts, reporter Adam Harvey copped a stray bullet in the neck, which he shared on Twitter.

If his story is Walkley material, he’ll need to look for a different category. Perhaps the revised category for headlines, captions, or hooks, which welcomes tweets.