She is usually the one asking the questions, but last Tuesday Debbie Whitmont, an Australian television journalist and writer for ABC’s Four Corners news program, was the one answering the questions as she took part in a Q and A session at the University of New South Wales.
Organised by the faculty of Journalism, the session saw the veteran journalist being interrogated by an audience of aspiring journalist, all eager to know more about reporting abroad.
From 1993 to 1996, Debbie was the ABC’s Middle East Correspondent reporting from war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Iraq and had many anecdotes to share, many revealing the truth about the horrible impact of war on civilian life and the dangers of reporting on the frontline. But when Debbie was asked whether she would go back to these countries as a reporter, she gave a positive response.
“I love the Middle East. I surprised myself by how much I loved it. I would go back in a flash. It’s fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. I’m not going to stop being fascinated by it. I think it would be very different covering it now…it’s much riskier, much more difficult. Don’t tell my family that, by the way,” she said.
As a mother of two and a daughter of a Jewish father and Catholic mother, it is no surprise why Debbie would not want her family to know that she would love to go back to the Middle East as a reporter.
“When I first went to live in an Arab country, I was terrified of anyone finding this out (about my Jewish family). When people asked me what my religion was, I said nothing. And this was the worst thing I could have possible said, because, as you say, they couldn’t conceive that it was nothing. It was like, what is wrong with you? Are you an alien? So, in the end I would confess to people who knew me that I have this Jewish family.”
However, Debbie did not feel alienated by religion, she felt alienated by the way she was treated for being a woman.
“We were in, in Eritrea, and we were filming in this amazing old church, and they wouldn’t let me come in because I was a woman. And I said, ‘But that’s ridiculous! It’s going to be shown on television to a whole lot of women.’ To which the cameraman just went, ‘Shut up and wait in the car.’
“In the Middle East there are people who won’t look you in the eye, people who won’t talk to you, people who want to intimidate you by… making you cover your hair, making you dress in a sort of whole thing, and all of that. So not the religion. Definitely not. But I do think as a woman that there are issues, but you survive. But it’s just offensive.”
Being mistreated for being a woman may have been the least of Debbie’s problems as she constantly received sad news about the death of fellow journalists, killed while also in the Middle East.
“People I know were killed in Syria. I did work in the Middle East. I know people who have been killed. I think it’s had a terrible impact on our ability to report. These are now almost no-go zones for journalists and I think it’s a real concern. Also, what happens is that mainstream journalists don’t go into those dangerous situations, often because their organisation doesn’t want them to,” she said.
Debbie also finds it concerning that the representation of the Middle East in Australian media is very limited.
“I think there’s a lot of good stuff in the newspapers but it [Middle Eastern news] doesn’t often make the news or television. That’s a reflection of what we were talking about, and the difficulty of covering it. When did you last see a story on the seven o’clock news about Iraq? I don’t, I don’t know, there might have been one but I haven’t seen it,” she said.
Debbie left the audience of budding journalists with some wise words on travelling to the Middle East and reporting on news there.
“I would say enjoy it. You’ll have a fabulous time. Don’t be afraid of it. That’s probably really foolish, because it is actually really dangerous. I would say be careful, but it’s fantastically complex and interesting, and good on you. But be careful!”