Yak Chats with Peter Greste
Yak’s Deputy Managing Editor, Leanne Elliott, chats with journalist, activist, and academic, Peter Greste, in our first Yak Chat series, where they discussed the state of Australian journalism, the importance of student media, what student journalists can expect when they enter the workforce, and the skills they need to have in a news world.
About Peter Greste
Professor Peter Greste is an Australian-born journalist, author, media freedom activist and academic. He is a founding member of the advocacy group, the Alliance for Journalists Freedom, and the UNESCO Chair in Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland. He is also a regular contributor to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Conversation, and The Guardian.
Before joining the university in January 2018, he spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, starting with the civil war in Yugoslavia and elections in South Africa as a freelance reporter in the early 90’s, before joining the BBC as its Afghanistan correspondent in 1995. He went on to cover Latin America, the Middle East and Africa for the BBC.
In 2011 he won a Peabody Award for a BBC documentary on Somalia before joining Al Jazeera as its East Africa correspondent later that year. In December 2013 he was covering Egypt on a short three-week assignment when he was arrested on terrorism charges. After a trial widely dismissed as a sham, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
In February the following year, after 400 days behind bars, and intense international campaign, he was deported under a presidential decree. As a result of the letters he wrote from prison in the defense of freedom of the press, he won a Walkley Award in Australia in 2014, and Royal Television Society and Tribeca Disruptive Innovator’s Awards in 2015.
He has also been awarded the International Association of Press Clubs’ Freedom of Speech Award; Liberty Victoria’s “Voltaire Award”, the Australian Human Rights Commission Medal (all in 2015), the RSL’s 2016 ANZAC Peace Prize, and the Australian Press Council’s 2018 Press Freedom award.
Peter has co-authored his family’s account of their struggle to get him out of Egypt, Freeing Peter, and written his own book on journalism and the War on Terror, The First Casualty published in 2017. He remains an avid advocate of media freedom and journalist safety.
Freeing Peter available from Penguin Book at https://www.penguin.com.au/books/freeing-peter-9780670079315
The First Casualty: a memoir from the front lines of the global war on journalism, available from Penguin Books at https://www.penguin.com.au/books/the-first-casualty-9780670079261
Alliance for Journalists’ Freedoms https://www.journalistsfreedom.com/
Australian Press Council https://www.presscouncil.org.au/
Press Freedom Index https://rsf.org/en/ranking
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (1946) https://www.booktopia.com.au/man-s-search-for-meaning-viktor-e-frankl/book/9781846041242.html
Ryan Reece: Hey everyone. We will just start tonight with our Welcome to Country.
So, we’d like to acknowledge the Awabakal people who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we are today.
We also acknowledge the traditional custodians of country throughout this beautiful nation we go home. We recognise their continuing connection to land say and waters and we pay our respects to elder’s past, present and future.
So just a few housekeeping things if you could please keep your mics on mute. And if you have any questions, please put them in the Zoom chat, or use the hashtag #YakChats hashtag on Twitter. You can also send your questions through Yak Media on Instagram and Facebook. Tara will be sharing these questions, towards the end of the program.
I’ll now pass you over to Leanne so we can get started.
Leanne Elliott: Hi everybody and welcome to the first #YakChats segment. My name is Leanne. I’m the Deputy Managing Editor of Yak Media. I’m also a second year Communication student at the University of Newcastle.
Before we start, I’d like to thank the awesome Yak crew for helping make this time, this event possible. A special thank you to Kaylee Ryan Tara and Alice for helping to organise and promote tonight’s event.
And tonight, we’re speaking with Professor Peter Greste. Peter is an Australian born journalist, author and media freedom activist and academic. He is a founding member of the advocacy group Alliance for Journalists Freedoms and the UNESCO Chair in the [of] Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland. He’s also a regular contributor to the ABC, The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Conversation and The Guardian.
Peter has had an extensive career in journalism. Working as a foreign correspondent Peter has covered social and political events and you can Slavia Africa, Afghanistan, Latin America, the Middle East and Eygpt.
For his commitment to the profession and his outstanding work Peter has received multiple prestigious awards; including a Peabody Award in 2011, a Walkie award in 2014, and the Australian Press Councils 2018 Press Freedom award.
So, there is no doubt when I say Peter has experienced situations and reported on events that we as students can only imagine. He has a keen insight into changes affecting the industry and the profession, and has been outspoken on issues facing the Australian media and journalism.
It is his resilience, and his passion for media freedom and social justice and objective journalism that sets him apart from many other journalists.
So, thank you for being here with us tonight, Peter.
Peter Greste: Thank you for having me.
Leanne Elliott: Um. So, we’ll jump right in.
And I was just curious. I’ve spoken to you before, but I never really touched on the question of whether or not you’ve ever been involved in any kind of student media.
Peter Greste: Not directly and the University here at UQ, we don’t have a student media organisation in the way that you guys would do. We don’t have a student newspaper or, or a news website of our own. What we’ve been trying to do, and what I’ve been encouraging them to do is to actively engage with other news organisations like the ABC and we have a pitching competition where our students pitch ideas to a team of ABC, a panel of ABC producers and the ABC chooses those, the best of the ideas, and puts them to air.
And so we’ve been trying to kind of work on that side of things as you’d probably understand much better than I do, running a student media organisation takes a hell of a lot of time and energy and commitment.
Leanne Elliott: It does.
Peter Greste: Yeah, exactly. We’ve chosen with exactly we’ve chosen to direct our, our energies elsewhere. But having said that, I’m I wish in some respects that we, we did have it you at UQ. But it’s one of the, it’s just a historical thing, I guess, and, and so, as I said my contact with student, student media has really been through our students interface or their work for other news organisations like the ABC.
Leanne Elliott: And so now we’ll take a look at the state of a strain journalism, at the moment, I noticed. We’ve moved down the ranks on the global Press Freedom Index, down five points from last year, what’s behind that dropping the ranking?
Peter Greste: Oh, it’s pretty it’s pretty straightforward. It’s the impact of the AFP raids last year on News Corp and the ABC; and it’s the attention, really, that those raids drew to the state of Federal legislation, particularly when it comes to press freedom issues.
We know that, I mean, this was something that I and my colleagues at the AJF have been talking about for some time. In May last year, three weeks before the raids happened we published a White Paper on press freedom in Australia, and we said then that journalism in Australia had been criminalised because of a lot of these national security laws, we said that whistle-blowers and journalists’ sources were vulnerable to prosecution. We said the journalists, um, journalists notes, journalists data was exposed, was vulnerable to overbearing police investigation.
We said then that the law was having a chilling effect on public interest journalism in Australia. And at the time it all seemed like a very hypothetical compliant because we hadn’t really seen these things actually work. Or the direct impact.
Now, at the time, we still argue, and I think it’s a very legitimate argument. That even though you didn’t even, though you weren’t seeing journalists being locked up at the time, what we saw was, it was still a chilling effect on journalism. And journalists sources were aware of the risks that they’re taking, and so, shutting down a lot of otherwise legitimate journalistic investigations.
And then we of course we had the AFP raids, um that really, that was three weeks after we published it, and seemed to vindicate everything that we said in the White Paper, but it also drew a lot of attention to what was happening in Australia. And that’s really why we saw Australia’s ranking slip in the world press freedom rankings.
Leanne Elliott: Um, and so, why should press, press freedom matter to students and what can we as students do to help improve press freedom in Australia?
Peter Greste: Well, it’s… you don’t have to be working from News Corp or the ABC to be concerned about press freedom issues.
You know, remember the rankings themselves don’t matter, it’s just an indicator, but it shows what’s going on around us, it shows what’s happening in Australia…
Leanne Elliott: …the climate…
Peter Greste: …yeah, the climate in Australia. Exactly.
And if things are not good for journalists who are working the major news organisations, they’re also not good for, ah, student journalists. And, and whether you’re producing content now, or you’re planning to produce content, these laws still affect you now, they’re affecting you now, or they likely to affect you and
That’s not to suggest, like, I don’t think, we need to be very careful not to be intimidated by this, we need to understand, one of the keys, one of the problems that we’ve discovered with a lot of the research that we’ve been doing out of UQ, is that because a lot of working journalists and student journalists don’t really fully understand the law, they don’t really understand how far they can go before they run the risk of crossing the line and doing something illegal. And so there’s a tendency to not probe those boundaries, to not sail too close, there’s a fairly wide margin of error for them.
And that, we’re also seeing that because there, because of the budgets that newsrooms now have and the fact that they can’t afford to pay for, for legal advice, for legal counsel, to discuss these kinds of issues. And of course, if you’re a student journalist that, that’s doubly difficult. And so I think we need, we’ve got a real responsibility to make sure that we understand what the law really says, and what it means, and how far you can go. Of course, you know, student journalists, journalists generally kind of expected to be fully trained lawyers, but we do need to make sure that we’ve got a fairly solid understanding of what the law says so that when we are involved in these kinds of stories we really do understand when we’re running the risk of getting in trouble.
Leanne Elliott: Do you think that could, um, perhaps be something that could be addressed through the education system. So through the university courses?
Peter Greste: I think, I think it needs to be. Yeah, I mean, it’s one of those things where the more you work in a particular field the more you tend to understand, the more you can afforce to engage with the law when you’re dealing with it as a student, it’s always going to be an abstraction. Because it’s not something that you have to actually sit down and work out in practical terms until you’re doing those kinds of stories.
But that doesn’t mean that, that you, that, I don’t think that absolves us, absolves students of the responsibility and the need to, to understand it. Of course, and I want to emphasize, you know, if you’re planning on only working in, you know, say sports journalism, or fashion, or music, or other areas of journalism that don’t take you […] and government, then you’ve probably got a lot less to worry about. You still need to be concerned about things like defamation law, of course, in Australia defamation law is an absolute nightmare, which is why we have a fairly substantial program of reform around defamation law. And that’s something that I think can you can come a cropper on just about any story.
And so it’s really important that we understand defamation or and I think that, that by the way, is a part of also a part of the legal landscape that is pushing our, our rankings down.
Defamation law is a press freedom issue. Very much a press freedom issue, and, and so journalism students really do need to understand that, but outside of defamation law, a lot of the more obscure national security legislation, you probably don’t need to worry too much about if you’re never planning on going there. But having said that, and just by dent of being a journalist means that we are often, whether we plan on it or not, we are still going to find ourselves having to engage with governments and speaking to sources within government.
If you’re dealing, as I said with music, music industry, it’s still likely in time the time that you’ll find yourself, I don’t know, doing report on, on government regulations around music festivals, for example, and we know that stories about pill testing, for example, are the kinds of stories that we see that connection between the music industry, and government, and the security services. And so, if you start to go down those routes you again, you can find yourself coming up against these kinds of, these kinds of laws, so, even though, conceptually, you might imagine that you’re not need, you’re probably not going to need to go there. I promise you, at some point in your career, the chances are that you will.
Leanne Elliott: Um, and just off the top of my head. With it changes to the fees in the university degrees. A lot of that will be affecting the media industry in Australia. How do you think that will affect the future landscape of Australian media and journalism?
Peter Greste: Gosh, you’re talking about the increasing in humanities degrees?
Leanne Elliott: …Yep…
Peter Greste: Yeah, well. You know, it’s a really good question. I haven’t, I can’t honestly say that I’ve thought it through particularly deeply, which is probably a bit of an embarrassing admission. I have probably been avoiding major like a lot of like a lot of people. I suspect it will have to two effects. The first one that I hope it won’t, it won’t do is, is depress the numbers of students that are coming. We’ll see how that works. I think that a lot of, and one of the things that we hope, is, that is that the numbers are relatively inelastic, that students will still feel, that if they’re committed to a particular career path they’ll, they’ll keep going with it.
But post degrees, I think what that does is place a lot of pressure on students to get jobs that are actually paying the kind of wages that will help them repay student loans. And I think that’s likely to have all sorts of distortions on the industry itself. Um, one of the problems that I think our industry has particularly in the digital revolution, is obviously the depression, the depressing effect its had on wages, but also the increased sensitivity of journalism, journalists to the commercial viability of their stories, the attention that each story gets, you know, in the old pre digital world where most of us earned income from, most, the news organisations earned an income from classified advertising or from, from other, you know the river, the classic rivers a gold.
Um, the newsroom was, was separate from the source of revenue, from the advertising department and there was a, there was a great wall of china between those two, of course. And I’m not telling you guys anything which you guys don’t already know, but the point, my point is that if, um, at the moment journalists are obviously much more sensitive to the commercial, or the, the audience engagement with their stories because that, more engagement means more revenue. And often their bonuses associated with that. And, so what I hope you won’t see, but what I think there is likely to be is an increased pressure to make stories that generate clicks, and of course we know that clickbait isn’t necessarily the same as good journalism.
That’s sort of thinking things through, perhaps a little bit more deeply than, because that looking, that gazing into a crystal ball, I think probably beyond the capacity of the ball to actually see anything. There’s, I mean there’s a lot, there’s also a lot that’s going to happen I think in the industry in the next two or three years.
You know, remember, we’ve, we’ve got the ACCC inquiry, and there’s a lot of talk now about whether or not Google and Facebook will end up having to pay for Australian news content and and that may or may not be a good thing. Personally, I don’t think it’s a great idea.
But, um, you know, we will, we will just have to wait and see how that unfolds. Um, I think that there are, we can have another conversation about that, perhaps, no need to go into that…
Leanne Elliott: …yes…
Peter Greste: …now. But my point is that there is a lot of change, there’s a lot of debate. We know that, and I think if you go into the core of what, what’s driving that a ACCC inquiry, it’s a recognition by government and by the industry, that the current system is broken, that we need to find some new way of re-engineering the news business, to get income back into newsrooms, and, to help support and pay for good independent journalism, good public interest journalism. And the fact that that conversation is happening at all, even if I disagree with the solution, at least the solution they’ve come up with now, the fact that conversation is happening I think is a really important shift in consciousness of government.
Leanne Elliott: …definitely.
Peter Greste: And, and so what it means is that, is that the fundamentals of the of the industry are changing, the earth is shifting. How it, how far it will shift, what we will see out the other side I think is too difficult to predict at this point. But what we are dealing with now is not the kind of media environment that our students will be entering when, when most of them in the next two or three years will, will find when they get out into the workforce.
And I’m reasonably confident that because the conversation’s taking place the environment that students are entering, will be entering will be much better than it is at the moment…
Leanne Elliott: Good news…
Peter Greste: I just can’t say how that’s going to look. That’s the, that’s the, that’s the big unknown.
Leanne Elliott: Um, and so, since starting studying my degree of communication which majors in journalism a blank I’ve learnt a lot of different things, from the theoretical to the practical side of things, that obviously when I enter the workforce putting all of that into play is going to be a whole other ballgame. So what can students expect from a into the workforce as a journalist or maybe a professional, and what are some of the do’s and don’ts of it should be aware of?
Peter Greste: Um. You know, it’s a really difficult thing for me to say what they can expect simply because you know what a student can expect when they’re going into ABC or SBS is very different to what they can expect if they’re going into the Murrumbidgee Irrigator. Um, you know, they’re very different, very different environments and I… so, I don’t think it’s, it’s, it’s difficult for me to generalise and to speculate about what that would look like too; particularly given what I just mentioned about how I think things will change quite radically.
But the one thing, I guess if there is a piece of advice that I’ve got its to hold your ethical line. Because I think fundamentally there, there is always going to be a lot of pressure to go commercial to, to change, or to, to be a bit, to go tabloid, to prioritise speed over accuracy to, prioritise polemic over, over serious analysis.
And I, I think that fundamentally to maintain your credibility and authority as a journalist, you need to hold on to the kind of ethics that I hope you’re being taught.
Leanne Elliott: Yes.
Peter Greste: Those really key ethics and principles that underpin good journalism, because if you can hold that line, then whatever emerges, you will hold your credibility. It’s a really key thing and it’s almost, I think it’s, I think of it as an investment in in your future and your reputation, and that’s, and that’s the thing, maintain that that commitment to standards, to accuracy, to integrity, to balance, to fairness. And if you can do that then I think you’re, you’re in a very good place.
Leanne Elliott: Excellent advice. And so you started off your career as a freelancer. Is that right?
Peter Greste: Um not quite, I started my career as a, I started off in regional television in Shepparton in Northeast Victoria. Um, and I went to Darwin where I worked for freelance production company working on the Ten Network, and then I went to Adelaide for a few years for Channel 10. But I, my career as a foreign correspondent began as a freelancer.
Um, it was when the 10 network went into receivership, and they shut the London Bureau down to save money. I realised, I thought then, well it’s ridiculous, you can’t have one of the main Australian commercial TV networks without a London correspondent. I marched into my boss’s office and said, “look, if I go and work freelance will you, will you hire me?” He said, “sure, why not.” It didn’t cost them anything, and, you know, they knew who I was and so, so I marched off…
Leanne Elliott: …it worked out…
Peter Greste: … started doing some work for the network, for the Ten Network. And I did very little work for Channel 10, I did a whole lot of work for all sorts of other news organisations, but it was just the kind of incentive that I needed to get me out there. so
Leanne Elliott: Sure. So freelancing is something that’s obviously an appealing option for people studying Communications and Media and even in the creative industries these days, so, is there any advice you can give to students who are thinking about starting off as a freelancer?
Peter Greste: Yeah, yeah, there are a few things I’d say.
The first is to back yourself. And by that, I also mean invest in yourself, be prepared to take a hit. So in my case, I went off and the first trip that I did was to Yugoslavia during the war, and I wouldn’t recommend students followed that particular path. But the thing is, and the reason I’m telling this story is that it, I knew it was going to cost me money. What I did was that I had, I had a story that I found that was in, in Yugoslavia. And, I, approached the Australian and the ABC and said, “listen, I’ve got this yarn, you don’t have to commission it from me, you don’t have to buy it from me. But if I can get it, and write it, is it the kind of story you would run?”. And so there was no commitment from them, I wasn’t asking them to pony up. What I was simply asking is, what I was simply saying is, “listen, I’m here, I have this idea. I have a story that I’m going to do. Is it something that you’re interested in?” And they said, “yep, absolutely. And, and by the way, if you’ve got any other ideas, then, then please let us know.”
And so I went to Yugoslavia and as I said it cost me an arm and a leg, and I knew it was going to cost me, but established a relationship with the Australian and the ABC. And they got to know my work, they got to know what I was capable of doing, a few years, and about a year later, when this was back in 1993. 94 when there was elections, the post-apartheid elections in South Africa, I called up my contacts and those are the ABC and the Australian. I said, “listen, I’m going to take myself to South Africa. Would you be interested in freelance stories from there?”, and they said, “Hell yes”.
So I went off again with those contacts. Now again, I didn’t make much money. In fact, I broke even. But I paid for my trip around South Africa and I paid for, paid for the adventure, I paid, I got enough income to pay for the chance to be a part of that, that really historic epoch making period Africa’s history, the end of apartheid, the election Nelson Mandela.
And then a short time after that when I got back from that trip. I was looking for ways of getting into the BBC. I’d been doing a little bit of freelance production work for the BBC, but, World Service, they didn’t know who I was. And so I thought, look what I’ll do is I’ll apply for a job with the BBC. The job wasn’t important. I knew I wasn’t going to get the job, but I wanted to apply for it anyway and make sure the BBC managers would have a chance, would be forced to see my CV.
I didn’t get the job. I then said, “thanks for the opportunity for applying, but by the way, I’m also in the market for freelance work have you got anything?”
I was going to do freelance shift work over there and then once I knew and understood what, how the BBC operated, had a relationship, I was then going to go off and open up a freelance. I started working freelance in an undercovered part of the world. That was my big grand strategy. Well, the first job that came up was the Kabul correspondence job. And I remember when I was researching it thinking, holy shit, thank God I’m not going to get this job because it’s, it’s, it’s suicide. I applied for it and blow me down. They gave me the job and they gave me the job because of the, on the strength of the work that I’d already done in Yugoslavia and South Africa.
And so, again, the whole point of that story is to say, you need to have the confidence to take yourself off to produce stories, to produce content. Not that you should produce it for free. But that you need to approach news guy, news organisations with ideas. And say, okay, “I got to pay for it upfront”, once I establish a relationship, once you know who I am, what I can do, then you need to, then we can talk about commissioning and expenses and so on. But let me at least show what I can do with, with, with a good.
And once you’ve got that relationship going once they know who you are. They recognise your name. What’s your known quantity that’s when things start to develop, but you need to be prepared to, to invest in yourself, I guess what I’m saying.
Leanne Elliott: Put yourself out there.
Peter Greste: Put yourself out there, yep.
Peter Greste: And it can be it can be tough. By the way, I know. Believe me, I’m not diminishing. Isn’t that but, but, um, make sure you have a go. And there is one other thing that I want to mention.
One thing is there is a tendency for all freelancers, and I still do it to self edit it, to over edit it, to come up with a story idea, one moment, think that’s a fantastic idea, and then 15 minutes later talk yourself out of it. Think nah, nah, it’s shit, it’s, no one’s going to buy that, it’s rubbish. And I, even now I still do that. It’s doubly easy if you’re a student.
And so, what I, again what I would say is, is, every time you have an idea jot it down. Once you’ve got a file of ideas. Um, run them past a friend or then pass somebody else, and other jour…, another freelancer, another journalist, or better yet, run them past a Commissioning Editor, in the newspaper, news organisation that you’re thinking of doing. Because I promise you, half of the stuff that you think is rubbish probably won’t be rubbish.
But you’ll never know until you run it past these guys and often they’ll say, well, that kind of works, but why don’t you change it and take it from this particular angle. Yeah, we did something like that a week ago. So thanks but no thanks. But we still think that’s a good idea. But you will never know until you start throwing in ideas. Just keep, keep those ideas flowing, keep pestering the Commissioning Editors and eventually you’ll land on something you’ll, you’ll start to develop a sense of the kinds of ideas that they’re interested in. And then you’ll get em buy.
Leanne Elliott: Um. So lastly I’d like to touch on what, we’re living in really uncertain and challenging times, obviously. But even before the pandemic the media industry and journalism in particular was, um, in a state of crisis. So this is a question I think many students will be asking themselves, what do you think the future of Australian media and communications industry will look like and what do you think the main challenges we face moving forward from where we are now?
Peter Greste: What goes back to what I was saying earlier about business models. And what and how that’s how that kind of moving landscape is going to, is going to land. How that’s going to look like. I just don’t, I don’t know. I don’t pretend to know. And just when I think I’ve got a sense of how it’s going to look it’s it shifts. But there are a couple of things I would say, first of all, we need to remember that journalists are part of the world’s second oldest profession. The oldest, of course, is prostitution suggested that we go there. But the second oldest professional storytellers.
You know, as long as, as long as we’ve been able, to humans have been able to talk, as long as humans have been able to scrawl, you know, bits of mud, streak bits of mud across the walls of caves, we’ve had storytellers. We’ve had people who tell who whose job it is to relay news of what’s taking place in the world, to make sense of the stories that are unfolding in the world around us. And so in some form or other we will always need those people. Yeah.
And so, journalism will exist. You just need to be flexible enough to adapt to whatever format that journalism eventually evolves into. We are in a state of transition. It’s very difficult to predict how it will, will unfold. But you need to be flexible enough and resilient enough to recognise that, that it will be, it will be necessary, and we are going to figure out a way of making sure that storytellers, good journalists are well paid
And that means being creative. That means exercising your creative muscles. Students are the best, best ones for that kind of thing, you know, you’re the guys that really don’t know the boundaries. You don’t know what can’t be done, and, if you don’t know what can’t be done, you tend to try things. The rest of us think don’t end up doing it anyway. And I think that’s a really, that’s, that’s something, really to hold onto, to nurture and cherish
And, you know, that sort of, hold on to that, that sense of adventure and that, and that passion. Because ultimately, you know, I mean to secret that I became a journalist, partly because I, I still connected with the higher ideals of holding the powerful to account and so on. And being, you know, doing the first draft of history and all that kind of stuff. And that’s really important. Believe me, I get that.
But ultimately, the main reason why I became a journalist was, was because it was a licensed to indulge my curiosity, a license to go off and have adventures. Sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for. Kind of worked a little bit better than I anticipated.
Leanne Elliott: …big adventures…
Peter Greste: …yeah adventures. But, that’s still what, that’s still what [inaudible] that still the thing that I think makes it you know what the best jobs on earth.
Leanne Elliott: And so you’ve obviously had a lot of challenging experiences in your career, how I’ve even maintained your resilience? How have you kept going? You seem very optimistic about the future of journalism and everything, how do you kind of maintain that resilience Peter?
Peter Greste: Um. Because I think. Um. It’s really, it’s a really good question, it’s a big question. That’s a difficult one to answer in the space of a few sentences. Fundamentally, I’ve taken, I haven’t taken things personally. If there’ve been setbacks and it’s not an easy thing to do. We tend to take things personally, we tend to assume that if something isn’t working out, it’s because we’re not, because we’re not trying hard enough. Often, of course, that that’s not to say that you should sit on your arse and not work hard, and blame everybody else for your own failures.
But, I’ve also recognised that a lot of the, a lot of the problems a lot of the challenges, alot of the reasons that you need to tap into those resources of resilience, hasn’t been about me. It’s been about the kind of situation you encounter. And about the kind of situation that you encounter.
And so, there’s a, there was a fantastic book I read when I was in prison called “Man’s Search for Meaning” by a guy called Viktor Frankl. I don’t really believe in a lot of the kind of self-help books or self-improvement books, but Frankel’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” is, is quite, is quite special. It’s, it’s an amazing book and I recommend anybody to read it. It’s also a fairly short book, but Frankl was a survivor of Auschwitz. In fact, a survivor of three of the extermination camps.
And he tried to understand what it was that, that helped people survive the camp. So obviously, there was a degree of randomness. But of those who made it through, what was it that that set them apart? And he said, it wasn’t really physical strength. He said it was invert, it was um, inverting the, the kind of usual question that we asked ourselves about the meaning of life. And, he said it’s really about saying that, how do we answer the questions that life asks of us.
And that’s the key. It’s, it’s, it’s how you respond to the kinds of circumstances that you’re faced with. So you shouldn’t always take responsibility for setbacks, but you do take responsibility for your response to those setbacks. And that’s, that’s the key. I’m not to blame for what happened to us in Egypt. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about anything that we did. But I am responsible for how I responded to that. And that’s, and understanding that where your capacity to, where your control lies and really what’s outside of your control is really key.
And there’s another great quote from Alcoholics Anonymous. Not that I’ve been an alcoholic. But I, I know that they have what they call the Serenity Prayer, which says, Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
And in the Serenity Prayer, you realise that when you think about the tough thing is the last part of that, the wisdom know the difference between what you do have the power to change and what is beyond your control. Once you understand that, and then resilience come kicks into play, because you know what you can do.
Leanne Elliott: …know your boundaries and your capabilities…
Peter Greste: Abilities. Exactly.
And that’s often it’s often I know this is getting diving into the realms of big, kind of philos… philosophy. But the issue of resilience is not just about journalism, it is really also about philosophy, about your, your approach to life in general.
Leanne Elliott: Excellent. Um, well, that was the last of my questions for tonight. So thank you for spending some time with us. For those of you in the chat, um, if you haven’t accessed Peter’s books yet I suggest you do. “Freeing Peter” was a book that was written about the campaign to free Peter from an Egyptian prison in 2013. Also, “The First Casualty: a memoir from the front lines of the global war on journalism“; we’ll be making those, links to those books that are available online available in the show notes.
So now we’ll start with the Q&A part of tonight. And so, I’ll pass you over to Tara. Thank you, Peter.
Tara Louis: Hi Peter. Thank you so much, you’ve provided some amazing advice and shared some really interesting stories; you’re very inspiring and I’m so glad we got a chance to talk to you this evening.
Peter Greste: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for, thanks for the chance to talk to you guys.
Tara Louis: We’ve got a faire few questions from our audience across social media. I will start with one from Carlos has posted in the chat.
He said, kind of journalists and activists to provide some context with this and he says, Tim Davey, the new BBC boss said, if you want to be an opinionated columnist or partisan campaign on social media than that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC. What do you think about that?
So. The answer to both those are, both parts of that is yes. A journalist can be an activist, but the baby sees a particular form of, of journalism, particularly because of the role that the BBC plays in British public life in the same way the ABC plays, plays here, um, you have to, you have to accept that, um you know as a, as a BBC employee, and I spent 15 years working for BBC, you’ve got to maintain a very dry, nonpartisan, non-activist line.
But having said that, I think we still need to, and this is something to be, this is something that I don’t think Tim Davey is suggesting at all, that we go for, for what’s, for the kind of false equivalence of saying, well, you know, climate change, the climate change scientists are predicting that, the climate, that the globe is going to warm by a factor of three degrees over the next 20 to 30 years. On the other hand, there are those that didn’t, that say that climate chan.. that climate science is, is, has been corrupted by, by special interest, um, you can’t do, that kind of false equivalence is something that we cannot get into as a journalist, you have a responsibility to pass out the truth. And that doesn’t mean it, and sometimes that can appear to be an activist when you’re dealing with contentious issues, particularly around things like climate change or vaccination signs, for example.
You need to avoid the kind of false equivalence. Just because somebody says, the earth is flat, doesn’t mean that you give them equal airtime to scientists, that telling, that actually, telling us that actually it’s round. And as I said, sometimes that can you look like an activist. Sometimes people will accuse you of being an activist. But ultimately, that’s just being a good journalist. I, you know I think that we need to, we need to understand that distinction. But that doesn’t mean when you work for the BBC, for example, that you are necessarily therefore, a campaigner.
You know, things like gay marriage, for example, or, abortion contentious social issues where there is, where there is a serious difference of opinion, and you need to reflect that difference fairly and accurately. And that’s where not being a campaigner comes into play. Again there is there is absolutely every reason why, if you go and work for an LGBT Q magazine that you should then take an active stance as a journalist, that’s fine, because that’s where we know what that, what the policy of that paper is likely to be, but it’s inappropriate for an organisation like the BBC or the ABC.
Tara Louis: Very interesting. We’ve got another question from Delilah. What is your impression Friendly Jordi’s, and do you think Jordi’s impacts younger generations politically?
Are you aware of who that is?
Peter Greste: …no…
Tara Louis: Okay, fair enough. His name is Jordan Shanks. He is a political commentator and comedian in Australia. He mainly does his work on YouTube. So there you are, someone for you to look up maybe.
We’ll go to another question. So, from Phoebe. She asks, do you think integrity in journalism still exists or have our platforms become so restricted that we don’t have freedoms to be unbiased.
Peter Greste: Look, integrity, of course, absolutely still exists.
You know, every news organisation, even though, even news organisations that have been accused of being quite biased, or quite, abandoning their integrity still has journalists…[Peter removes eye glasses] I’m going to put these down. When I read in close it becomes an issue. But anyway, it keeps sliding down my nose. I need to get them adjusted.
So, integrity. It’s, it’s, of course it still exists. And I really think, I really encourage you to hold on to your principles and ethics and integrity as, as a journalist; and because ultimately it is what separates journalism, I think, from, and I’m not saying those are activists don’t have integrity, what I’m saying that your integrity as a journalist, or your reputation as a journalist depends on your integrity, and your fidelity to those higher ethical principles of good journalism.
And, and I think that’s really what, what um, Tim, Tim Davies is saying, that you need to hold on to those really core ethical principles if you’re going to work for an organisation like the BBC. You can set aside some of those principles, a bias if you like, and take a particular active stance if you’re not working there, but that’s a different form of journalism.
Just tell me again. The second part of the question, because I…
Tara Louis: And so…do you, because we have so many platforms, um, do you feel as though we are restricted and don’t have the freedom to be unbiased?
Peter Greste: I’m not entirely sure I understand the question to be honest with you. I mean the freedom to be unbiased, I mean when I talk about, and I’m sure your lecture is discussed this too, that bias is, is an inherent part of who we are. We all have a particular view on things. Um, and we all, we all need to recognise what that subjective position is. That’s why I always talk about fairness, accuracy, and balance and the principal, principal things that we need, the principal ethics that we need to hold on to. Um, bias..as far as possible, we need to step away from it and acknowledge our own biases and counter for those biases.
Just have to make subjective choices in the journalism that you do. The idea that you have the freedom to be unbiased means, suggests to me that you’re taking an activist stance. And again, that’s fine as long as you declare that upfront, as long as that’s very clear, that that is what you are setting out to do, that you’re making an argument, that you’re pushing a particular, promoting particular line.
That you’re taking a political position or if you’re taking a position in a particular story, if that’s made clear if readers understand that’s what’s driving you. If you stand on a platform, if you work in a platform that encourages that, or says that that’s who we are, then I think that’s okay. But the key is to make sure that your audience understands that, that you’re not pretending to be a neutral journalist in the middle, that you’re showing up front what it is that you’re trying to achieve. That’s I think what we need to be, we need to be transparent about.
Tara Louis (Lead Promotions Officer) Yep. I’ve got an interesting one for you. Do you believe shock jocks lack of moral compass?
Peter Greste: Um.
Tara Louis: There’s a lot of layers to this one I feel.
Peter Greste: there are a lot of layers there…
Tara Louis: You’ve frozen Peter…we’ve lost you… hang on. Oh yep, no, there you go.
Peter Greste: I’m back. I’m saying I’m going to avoid the question, because I think it’s too general to give a comfortable safe answer to, because I think there is some will, some that do have and some that don’t. Also, I’d argue that there are some who, some, some people who others might call shock jocks would not consider themselves to be shock jocks, that’s simply saying that their… you know, you know, I know Chris Kenny, for example, very well, a columnist for the Australian and I think he’s, a lot of people would consider him, in the middle of his Twitter feed, you know, if you look at some of his, his work on Sky after dark. He takes a very strong political position on the right of politics. He says, that in fact he’s simply, he’s being a neutral, he’s being, is taking neutral stance because the rest of the media has shifted so far to the left, that they’ve, they’ve, they’ve lost sight of where the centre ground is.
Chris would argue, and I think that to a certain extent he does have a moral compass, whether that’s the same compass that I have, I think that’s probably questionable. But to say that he doesn’t, is to engage in a really difficult, ethical debate. So again, I’m going to avoid that overly general question I’m afraid.
Tara Louis: That’s fine. Um. How significant was the role of Ogilvie PR in bringing you back home to Australia?
Peter Greste: Of what PR?
Tara Louis: Ogilvie PR
Peter Greste: Ogilvy, Ogilvy. So Ogilvy was hired by the, by Al Jazeera, by the network to help manage PR to help manage social media and they were really important, I won’t say that they’re necessarily the only thing that did it. But were a part of that really key social media campaign, and we really couldn’t have done it without them. Oh, well maybe we could have but it would have looked different, but they were certainly, and so I think they were really key in helping shape the kind of social media message and help, helping my family, understand. Of course, they weren’t the only people that were part of that, of the kind of team that we’re running the social media campaign. There were a lot of others that really did understand also how social media worked.
But Ogilvy were really, really helpful in organising in distributing and elevating, a lot of the kind of social media messages that we, that we developed. And so in that respect, they were really crucial to it. The point is that the social media campaign was vital to getting me out of prison, if we didn’t have that and I’m convinced I would still be stuck in a tip today.
You know that the #FreeAJStaff hashtag got something like 3 billion impressions. That’s billion with a B.
Tara Louise: …crazy…
Peter Greste: It was absolutely nuts. I know my, my own family was probably responsible for half of those. But, you know, by any measure it was, it was a colossal social media campaign and no politician could really ignore just how big it was. Now the whole host of factors to what made that so successful, my family, and then my parents and their capacity to connect and engage with the media was part of that. The support that I had from my colleagues, my journalism colleagues, both here in Australia, but also all over the world was a big part of that and so, but Ogilvy was was undeniably a part of that that overall machine.
Tara Louis: As a PR student myself I’m quite interested in the relationship between journalism and PR, and I was just wanting to know what of your personal experiences been with that relationship that dynamic between a journalist and a public relation practitioner? And what do you think of their relationship?
Peter Greste: So I think that our, the journalists’ connection, or journalists’ relationship with, with PR people, with PR folks, with media guys is, is to understand first of all that you have a particular issue that you’re trying to push. But, that I think, I’ve always considered PR people as facilitators for stories, as sources of stories. As people who can help help like kinds of connections that I want. Sometimes they’re, they become managers of the story, and that’s where it becomes, it obviously there becomes a certain tension where you’re trying to block, where a lot of PR people trying to block access to a story, or protect the company from a particular story, which often think is the wrong approach by the way.
Because I think and, I hope that what you’re told is a good PR people understand the need for for transparency, the best way to solve a PR crisis is to, is to be, to be frank and honest about it, quickly, to own up to the mistakes and, and be clear about accepting the mistakes that have been made and then addressing those mistakes, and that’s really the best way to run a PR crisis campaign, crisis management.
And so if it’s, when it’s working well the PR people are the ones that help journalists, help direct journalists to the resources and the information that they need within a company or within a sector within a government agency. And likewise, they’re the ones who come to us with, with stories because they understand what we as journalists need, and the help they, they’re able to package up the information in a way that makes it easy for journalists to get to those kinds of stories.
And I think when it works really well there’s a strong, there’s a really good symbiosis. But you need to understand where the, what, how those two roles are different, that the PR person’s job is to represent the company, to advocate for the company, and their ideas and to help generate attention, publicity for that company, good attention, good publicity. Whereas a journalist doesn’t have that kind of particular special interest that, your job is to get to that without pushing a particular company line. And if you understand what those roles are and you understand where those, when those boundaries start to blur that things become difficult
Tara Louis: Yes. Yeah, I can understand that completely we’ve received a lot of questions mainly about, what would your main advice be to young journalists young, PR practitioners, anyone entering the media industry now? What advice would you give them to get work or how they can succeed in the workforce?
Peter Greste: Look, it comes back to what I was saying to you earlier about freelancing, whether you’re doing it as a freelance or you trying to get a job. What you need to do is demonstrate your capacity as a, as a journalist and that means backing yourself showing potential employers, what you can do. And that means taking punts on the story, even if you’re not entirely sure whether it’s going to get, get aclined, or going to get bought. If you’ve got a story idea, and you need to keep coming up with ideas, keep generating stories.
And, and i think that that’s, that’s really the key thing is to is to is to get out and have a ago. And again, by doing it, you will learn what works and what doesn’t, you start to practice. You know when you’re producing a story for production.
I’m sure as Leanne, or as anyone who works for Leanne would know, it’s a very different thing to producing stories for publication on a public facing website, in a student news service or a real new service than it is for producing classroom essays. And so your education doesn’t stop when you leave, when you finish your degree, that’s when it really starts. That’s when, that’s when the rubber hits the road.
The other thing I would say, and this does come back to what I was saying to my, also my own experience, is to don’t be, is to not be afraid to get out into, into the bush, into regional news, into small newsrooms, um, because I think that’s where you learn, that’s where you hone your skills. I can honestly say that the skills that I learned, the skills that I, that made me a good foreign correspondent are the skills that I learned, as a, in regional newsrooms, in a regional newsroom in Shepparton. Because, it’s about, the thing that a regional newsroom teaches you is how to tell stories that might seem quite small and minor, to give them meaning, how to make them relevant to people, to entire communities. To cover the local dog show and find a way of covering that dog show in a way that makes it interesting, engaging for audiences that just don’t really, wouldn’t otherwise care about it.
It also taught me about the need for speed and accuracy, and accuracy in particular, because in a regional newsroom you engage with the readers, with your audiences the very next day, they bump into you into the street now Tony Robbins, I might, you know, you miss pronounced my, my cousin’s, my cousins son’s friend, best friend’s name in that, when you did the report last night. You know they pull you up, they, they show you, because you, you engage with them on a routine basis. You go into a story about some local business and those people are advertising with your newspaper, they will tell you if you screwed up, you know it’s, it’s, it’s where you get to try things out, because these are often smaller and I won’t say inconsequential, it matters if you screw up. But there is a flexibility for you to try, try ideas, to test new ways of doing it. I once did a piece to camera hanging upside down out of a mango tree.
Peter Greste: I was never didn’t get again…It was an experiment, I was young. I was having a go, but I was able to get away with it. And so, you know it’s, it’s, it’s way you, it’s where you learn those really basic craft skills, get a high turnover of stuff, you having to do stories every single day, and often two or three stories.
And I, you know, I’m not saying that, that everyone has to get out to the regions. What I’m saying is, look for opportunities in regional newsrooms, and I guess Newcastle, you guys would understand, you know, often understand, it’s regional news is, is where it’s happening. And one other thing is that even though we know that a lot of region newsrooms are closing there are news rooms that are starting to open up again, that are looking to hire, that are starting to develop new business models, that a lot of local news, a lot of local businesses are starting to recognise that, that they need local news for the identity of their, of their news, of their of their towns, of their communities that a lot of the online platforms just don’t work. They don’t engage the community, they don’t hold the communities together well. And so that’s, in the long run. It’s a really great place to develop and sharpen your skills.
Tara Louis: That’s great. I think you’ve given us some really great advice. I might pop you back through to Leanne. And we can wrap it up from there. Thank you so much again.
Leanne Elliott: I’m sorry, I’ve just got one last question before we finish because I personally interested, personal interest to me as well. So my Mia Hinton has asked in the chat. What’s your opinion on Kevin Rudd’s petition to the Australian Government regarding Murdoch Industries?
Peter Greste: Well, Kevin’s, Kevin’s petition isn’t just about Murdoch. I’m a little bit wary about, about pointing the finger at Murdoch, um, or anyone news organisation. Because I think when you do that, what it does is that it makes it personal, in a way that I don’t think is, is, is conducive to good debate, the fundamental thing that, that’s driving, um, that’s driving, that’s driving his, his, his petition is called the concentration of Meteor ownership in Australia. And that is an issue. It’s not just Murdoch, the Nine papers, the Nine Network, Nine empire if you like, is also highly concentrated and between Murdoch and Nine. And then, you know, sort of someone out there the ABC and even smaller out there The Guardian and others, we have the most concentrated media landscape in the world, and that is not healthy. It’s just not healthy.
And so I think that, on that basis, I really support it, but I’m a little bit wary about making it just about Murdoch, because it looks like a vendetta, and I think, we know that Kevin Mur…, Kevin Rudd has an, has an issue. And I’m not going to, you know, I think a lot of these arguments. You can see why he makes the arguments that he does, but I am concerned with more specifically about the concentration of media ownership, and I do think that justifies the government inquiry.
Leanne Elliott: Well, thank you very much for your time tonight. It’s been awesome. And you’ve given us so much food for thought, for students to think about once we enter the workforce.
Peter Greste: It’s been a pleasure too, just very quickly, jump in but, Gemma has quickly asked, saying that she’s not getting replies to email pitches. And I understand that, what you need to do is get on the damn phone, you know, send your email in, if you don’t get a reply send a follow up. And if you don’t get another applied to the follow up, get on the damn phone. And don’t be afraid. Again, if you are sitting there, you’ll be swamped by things, and you won’t always had the chance to reply and if someone, it’s much harder to ignore a phone call and sometimes you need to be that mosquito in the room, you know, you need to be the fly, the fly in their ears. Because, and I know it can be difficult, and know it can be discouraging, I know it can be really depressing and frustrating.
But all I can suggest is that, is that you can…and if they say, ilsten, I’m sorry. It just wasn’t our thing”. You can ask for, for some sort of guidance. And if they say, “look, I’m sorry, I haven’t got time”. It’s okay, just put it down and leave it, you know, except that that’s not, that your not going to engage with them and go somewhere else. But just don’t give up. Please don’t give up.
Leanne Elliott: Yes, thank you. Peter, you have a good evening, and we might speak to you down the track. See how the state of Australian media is in a years’ time.
Peter Greste: Okay, it’s a pleasure.
Leanne Elliott: Thank you. Bye.
Peter Greste: Thanks guys.