Journalist, Jemima Garrett, has spent more than 30 years reporting on the Pacific, covering the antics of Australian Prime Ministers from Bob Hawke to Malcolm Turnbull and Pacific leaders going back to greats such as Fiji's Ratu Mara, Vanuatu's Walter Lini and New Caledonia's Jean-Marie Tjibaou. She and ABC colleague Jill Emberson produced the first Australian radio series to put the voices of Pacific women talking about issues of concern to them to air. She is author of the book 'Island Exiles' the story of the Nauruans during WWII. In 2013 she won Citibank's Business Journalism award for broadcast in Australia and New Zealand and the UNAA Radio Documentary award for he story on a PNG land scandal. After 7 years as South Pacific Correspondent and more than twenty as Pacific Economic and Business reporter Jemima has left the ABC for new adventures and more time in the region.
Q. Tell us how you became involved in the Pacific?
A. The Pacific first piqued my interest when I was on a family holiday in New Caledonia when I was in high school. I looked out of the window of what was then the sparkling new Club Med on Anse Vata Beach to see Kanak farmers in the field next door looking unhappy and impoverished. The contrast with the opulence of the Club Med got me thinking there must be more to this scene than I’d imagined from the tourist brochures I’d read on the plane.
As it turned out, my first overseas assignment as the ABC’s South Pacific Correspondent was covering the Kanak independence movement’s uprising in 1988, a seminal moment for the region and one in which France brought its full military might to bear (even going as far as to consider using napalm and laser-guided rockets).
Q. You were the ABC’s Pacific correspondent for seven years and after that the Pacific Economic and Business reporter. Can you tell us about the most interesting story you’ve covered and the most interesting person you’ve interviewed?
A. The Pacific is such a gold mine of stories it is hard to choose just one! A story on just what Bank South Pacific’s 460-strong heavily-armed, aircraft-equipped security force had to contend with in getting 3000 deliveries of cash a year safely to its branches in PNG was an eye-opener – matched only by ANZ’s chopper-delivered branch-in-a-container which came with the threat that it could be removed if it was robbed too many times. Despite all the drama and intrigue of politics in the Pacific my favourite stories are often stereotype-busters, such as one profiling PNG’s Dr Raula Kula who went from a village in PNG’s Central province to becoming a Japanese-speaking, J-pop-loving, software engineer doing cutting-edge big data research at Osaka University.
In PNG, a story investigating the SABL (Special Agricultural and Business Lease) land scandal, took me to some of the world’s most beautiful and environmentally significant places. That scandal, which saw millions of hectares of land leased for decades to mostly foreign logging companies without permission of landowners, highlights the complexity of the task for reporters trying to hold governments to account. Increasingly local and foreign media companies do not have the money to send reporters into the field, even for stories like this one which will have an impact for generations to come. When talking to leaders of remote communities it was fascinating to see how accurately they could recount a tortuous series of events, even when the bureaucratic processes behind them were opaque to them. In Nauru, when talking to people who had extraordinary experiences under Japanese occupation and exile during World War II, it was also uncanny to discover how closely their memories matched the historical record. This capacity to recall detail without embellishment is a by-product of the still-strong oral tradition of Pacific societies: one which probably deserves more recognition from outsiders!
Q. Can you share with us your take on the role of the media in Pacific society today and what you perceive to be the greatest opportunities and challenges facing journalists?
A. The media’s role in holding those in power to account in the Pacific is more vital than ever. It is great to see locally-owned magazines such as Islands Business and Business Melanesia and newer online and digital ventures such as Loop Pacific and Pacific Note producing quality journalism and opinion. Pacific media businesses are yet to feel the full impact of the digital revolution which has gutted so many media organisations around the world and they need to be ready. Without a strong financial base and adequate staffing and training, it is impossible to do the sort of investigative journalism needed to ‘follow the money’. Of more concern is the growing pressure on journalists and media organisations in many Pacific countries not to report views or stories that do not sit well with those in power. If media organisations give in to this pressure, their readers will turn to social media, where anonymous leaks will always find a home (thankfully). Perhaps that is why there are moves afoot in a number of countries to tighten controls on social media!
Q. One of the great things about the Pacific is the opportunity to experience a range of different cultures and customs, can you share with us a favourite memory of your experience travelling in the region?
A. In New Caledonia in the mid-1980’s, I was invited by poet, writer and (later) Vice-President Dewe Gorodey, who was one of the leaders of the popular school movement to stay at her village of Ponerihouen. Not many Australians had spent time at Ponerihouen and the traditional welcome was an amazing experience. Despite having just finished a funeral many of the villagers joined us for the usual presentation of custom and stayed for what turned into a three-hour semi-formal dialogue in which people from the village asked me about all aspects of political and social life in Australia and I asked them about Kanak custom and life in the village. The discussion ranged over issues from the most mundane to the philosophical and spiritual. By the time the sun was low and the talk quietened it felt as if something very special had happened. In the days I spent in Ponerihouen I felt as if I had become part of the tribe. The women were a powerful force with a wicked sense of humour. At the village school (which was part of the popular school movement which saw Kanak children withdrawn from the French system to be educated in their own language) the youngest children took their all their classes in Paici (the local Kanak language) while the older children used French and English as well Paici. The integrated curriculum, devised by Dewe and other popular school teachers, left the curriculum at my children’s excellent Australian primary school for dead. Ultimately, funding and staffing the popular schools proved too difficult to sustain but it was an experiment that has left vivid memories.
More recently, travelling anywhere in Vanuatu I am reminded of the invaluable role played by the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and all those who have had links with it. Whether it be meeting the cast of the Oscar-nominated movie Tanna, enjoying the genuine love of culture shown by so many small tourism operators or visiting nakamals from one end of the country to the other, kastom and traditional art is alive and well.
Q. Can you tell us more about what you are doing now?
A. Spending more time in the Pacific for both business and pleasure! A bit of experimental social media blogging recently while on a trip to Vanuatu was fun and illuminating. I am continuing to run a wide range journalism and media training in the region and Australia. Recently, most of my focus has been on economic, business and budget reporting and the annual tuna negotiations between the Pacific and the global tuna powers but I am hoping to get back to a broader agenda including environmental reporting, gender issues, governance and the needs of MSME’s and indigenous businesses. Freelance journalism from the region is an enticing possibility and, in media training and consulting, some work with in Australian with mid-range hotel chains is in the offering.
Q. Controversial question I know – favourite restaurant in the Pacific?
A. Local produce served with love and great conversation is what I like best about a meal in the Pacific so home-cooked lovo is a favourite. In restaurants, it is hard to go past Chez Louis or one of the other locally-owned restaurants along the beachfront at Port Olry on Santo in Vanuatu. The view is to die for and the hospitality a delight!