Reporting from the bottom of the heap
Peter Cronau, Producer of Four Corners, chats to Jonas Løvschall-Wedel about investigative journalism in Australia, real life experiences and a story he can’t forget.
It was one of those days that just won’t go away. Peter Cronau is sitting leaned back in an office chair in the ABC building. He is wearing an open blue and white striped shirt and a pair of jeans. His voice is deep and he speaks in a slow monotone voice as he recalls the one story that keeps coming back to him, a story of disease, death and bureaucracy.
“Look it was shocking. Dead bodies would be taken to the hospital by the family and left there. And eventual the morgue at the hospital was overcrowded to the point where they were using a couple of ship containers with air conditioners attached to the sides and stacking the bodies up inside the shipping containers. We filmed it … Pretty horrible” he says.
The scene is from Port Moresby and the year was 2006. Peter Cronau and a colleague were in Papua New Guinea to cover the rapid spread of HIV and death that was ravaging through the population of Australia’s nearest neighbour.
Peter Cronau is an experienced TV producer working for Australia’s prime watchdog program Four Corners. He has worked as a producer at Media Watch and a reporter for ABC Radio’s Background Briefing. In 2006 he won the Gold Walkley Award. No doubt he has seen his share, but he still can’t shrug of this story from Papua New Guinea.
The crew had been filming that day at a local hospital in an area where people were too poor to pay for funerals. Instead dead bodies were often just dropped of at the hospital.
Among these bodies where many infants and every now and again there would be a mass burial of dead babies at the hospital. They buried 24 babies at the time.
“It’s shocking stuff. You go to the cemetery and there are row after row of babies. Dropped of at the hospital and then buried in mass graves,” Peter Cronau remembers.
“It does affect you that sort of story. I mean it is shocking to see. It is also a driver to help you push yourself to work harder to make sure that you get the best version of that story out,” he says.
Peter Cronau grew up in Queensland and Sydney. He didn’t get into journalism until his thirties. He had worked in the social welfare sector for more than ten years, but was always quite keen on journalism. He had already been involved in writing articles about the sector for journals and was always involved in media work.
One day he decided to give it a go, so he wrote an article and submitted it to the Sydney Morning Herald and they ran it without a word change.
“So I thought this journalism lark is pretty easy. I mean you can write things you want to, and then get paid for it. That’s not too bad,” he says.
Over the next three or four years he discovered that life as a freelance journalist was less than rosy. But based on his earlier finding that he could get things published easily he had already decided to make a career change and he did a masters of journalism at UTS.
Some people might say that he was a bit old to take up a new career, but Peter Cronau found comfort in hearing a number of journalists like John Pilger saying that the best journalist comes into journalism in their thirties, and come with some real world experience.
“So instead of seeing having done no journalism as a deficit, that point of view encouraged me to give it a try,” he says.
For a long time he purposely stayed away from doing stories on the unemployed, drug users and the homeless, because he needed to separate himself from his former work and didn’t want to face up to that really harsh side of society he had seen through his earlier work. Instead he wanted to develop in other areas. But for about three or four years now he has done lots of stories about people living on the margins of society.
“I think I have done far better stories as a result of my experiences. I just have a depth of knowledge about the subjects, which you can’t get from chatting to people on the phone or running through some files. It really is enormously helpful,” he says.
Cronau feels that his experience has given him an understanding of the social welfare industry, but just as importantly has given him a compassion and empathy for people at the bottom of the heap.
One thing that he has learned is that people in all circumstances have stories to tell, and that it’s worthwhile to listen.
“It may not be a sophisticated story but often it will be heartfelt and worth hearing and putting out there,” he says.
Getting this real world experience is something Peter Cronau would recommend to all young journalists. He believes that as a journalist it’s too easy if you just get your degree and then head straight into a job.
“I think they miss a lot. I think they can probably be really good journalists in many ways and they will learn on the job, but I think that there is other ways of learning how the world works,” he says.
Peter Cronau has spend most of his journalistic career doing investigative stories. Trying to dig out what hides under the surface and bring this to the attention of his audience.
Today he works at Four Corners, which is a bit of an institution in Australian investigative journalism and a workplace that comes with certain privileges.
“The reason I like Four Corners so much is that you don’t change topics everyday. You do spend a lot of time on one story, which is a luxury,” he says.
When looking at investigative journalism in Australia, Peter Cronau does think that they are doing a pretty reasonable job. He says that you do get lots of in depth reports. You do get lots of revelations about things going on behind the scenes.
“However, and there is always a however. Some of the fundamental questions in the nature of our society don’t get addressed and the biggest failure of Australian journalism and obviously international was the gullibility of the Gulf war and the invasion of Iraq,” he says.
In hindsight some might say that if we knew then what we know now, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, it would have been different. Peter Cronau is just not sure how true this is.
He says that there were many people at the time pointing out the lies that were being told by leaders here and overseas. But the media did not give them adequate access.
“They were marginalised and in fact sometimes actively put down and really pushed to the margins,” he says and continues.
“That’s a massive failure of Australian journalism.”
In general he finds Australia to be a rather closed society where organisations fear openness. He does see some progress though, and feels that the system is increasingly more open and that access to information has been improved. However he just did a story on the United States and was surprised how easily he could get information there. He just called someone on a desk in the state department, asked some questions and got answers.
“You can’t do that here. The bureaucracy is far more closed and you constantly get referred back to the media handlers of government departments, who basically refuse to talk, and that’s a lack of openness that is disturbing really because what could there be to hide. Why can’t things be talked about?”
Back in Port Moresby, PNG in 2006 the Four Corners team was also trying to find information, talking to different organisations and people on the ground that were doing hands on support.
They discovered that there actually was a lot of retro-viral medicine, but that it just wasn’t getting into the hands of hospitals and to the people whose lives depended on it.
In a hospital in the highlands one of the nurses was so frustrated in not being able to get the medication delivered that she flew to Port Moresby and spend time turning up at the health department trying to get some medicine. She finally got sent off with only one weeks worth.
On paper the department of health had been ticking off that they were doing a good job that products were getting out to the community, but it wasn’t happening.
“It’s a third world country and it has a very inefficient bureaucracy and it meant that the medicine was sitting in warehouses in Port Moresby,” he says.
So the very drug that can extend the life of an HIV patient to the point where it’s not cured but certainly be held at bay massively, was sitting in a warehouse in Port Moresby and had been sitting there for months and months and were approaching the used by dates on the packages.
“We filmed inside, we filmed the dates on the packages and these drugs had been provided through aid organisations through various countries assisting, but the country wasn’t able to get it to the hands of the people who needed it,” he says.
This is the kind of story that Peter Cronau wants to bring to the Australian people, hoping that it might make a difference. That it might urge someone to take action.
“I don’t pretend that it solves the problem but at least it raises it up so it can’t be forgotten, for a while it can’t be ignored,” he concludes.