Interview with Tim Palmer
As the ABC’s Indonesia correspondent, Tim Palmer earned himself a Gold Walkley with his coverage of the Boxing Day Tsunami. He talks to Jenna Thompson and Wendy Wong about the dangers of the job.
Why South East Asia or the Middle East?
The first place I went to overseas was Sumatra…I loved it and I travelled through Indonesia extensively for the next seven or eight years. I was very interested in Indonesian affairs as a result. So at the ABC I applied a couple of times for the job and missed out.
Then it just happened. I had a lot of big exclusive stories in the one year. Just by one of those great happenstances you hope happens as a journalist, I bothered to go and see the Anwar Ibrahim, the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia who was stood down by the time of the games. The night they arrested him, and there were a few other journalists there, but when they came to get him, about two hundred guys came in balaclavas and started knocking down his front door.
Everyone ran around except for Anwar Ibrahim and me and so in the time it took for them to break through the door, I did a one on one interview with him– all recorded. And I was sort of the only person on the docks when the Waterfront dispute happened… when you have a good year like that, that’s when you go for your overseas job. The one that came up was the Middle East… it was the best thing I ever did. It’s just the most amazing place… it was intoxicating from the second I got there and professionally I loved every minute of it.
I finally got to Indonesia and in the end, living in Jakarta. I’ve had some great stories. I mean the tsunami was horrendous. We again just made the right guess when everyone else didn’t and when you do that and all your gear works then everything pays off.
When you first stepped out there just after the Boxing Day Tsunami hit, how did you cope?
The first place was pretty bad. The next place was really bad at daybreak and they were pulling in dozens of people straight out of the water. Lots of little children …that was horrendous…It’s very, very difficult to take.
Then by the time we got to Aceh it was so bad that we were struggling for petrol and water…there was no one there to tell us– that we’re in this hell with bodies all around us in the mud at midnight. You stop having that shock…and you go into survival mode. I didn’t feel hungry for two and a half days. My body shut down and said ‘I’m going to get by on what I’ve got and don’t eat anything here. There’s lots of bodies, don’t eat.’ Seeing a child killed in front of you is by far the worst thing. Even with something massive, like the Bali bombing, only a few hours later, it is a few hours later, it’s totally different. If you’re standing there in the five minutes after it happens…there’s this psychological shockwave that goes out behind the explosion that is so damaging.
What have been your family’s thoughts about what you do?
When you know something’s dangerous you rationalise. And you do the same thing in very dangerous situations. My wife was very good at rationalising but everything changes on that when you have children.
Once we had a child in Jerusalem we decided we could handle that risk, but I didn’t want to go to Iraq. I’ve been there. I didn’t want to face the Iraq war. But I just did not want to put my family through that.
I’d done the Afghanistan war before and that was enough. So we went to Indonesia where it had been quiet, then the Bali bomb went of five days later so you can never predict what’s going to be bad And it is exhilarating living on the edge of history.
Do you think foreign correspondents will become extinct due to budget cuts and the rise of the Internet?
Budget cuts won’t help but some things are changing dramatically and it’s not just the Internet. Yes, if people are good and provide journalistically satisfying coverage that will challenge journalists
If you look at most blogs, ninety five percent of them are commenting on other media. When it comes to the point of generating your own coverage, it is expensive …certainly, internet / individual journalism – there’s really going to be a place for it. It won’t kill off print media, but it will run alongside it.
Last time I interviewed Anwar Ibrahim – after he was released from prison, I couldn’t get a satellite, I ran to the nearest hotel, plugged in my DV [camcorder], complied the story, and sent it in. Fifteen minutes for twenty-five dollars. Now it would have taken me fifteen minutes to drive to where the satellite feed point was, so what does that tell you? It tells you that not only can you now reduce one of the massive ‘barriers of entry’ for journalists, which is the cost of transmission overseas, but you also open up the prospect of syndication because I could have simultaneously sent that story to thirty stations around the world.
You’ve got to be first and be good. If you can do it you no longer have to wait to be a foreign correspondent at a network.
Finally, what are your plans for 2006?
I’m going back to a desk job. I want to have weekends and afternoons off. I’m going to produce ‘The World Today’. I’ll probably do that for a couple of years and pick up my son from day care every day, which will be nice.