Sometimes the best stories aren’t found in what you set out to achieve. They develop from situations you’re thrust into and the question is, do you abandon your original plans, or do you take it in your stride? For journalists, the tales behind the printed story tend to get left on the cutting room floor.
From the highlands of Afghanistan, to chasing paedophiles from prison to prison, three of Australia’s best journalists shared some of their untold stories on the Bloomberg Stage in a session, Back Story, hosted by JJJ Hack presenter, Tom Tilley.
Andrew Quilty spent most of his career in Australia, until he decided to pack up and move to Afghanistan six months ago. Mr Quilty was freelancing when he caught news of severe flooding in the northwest provinces and knew he had to capture it.
“I started making enquiries with the United Nations and other non-government organisations, because travel is quite difficult within Afghanistan,” he said. “After about a week, the UN eventually put me on a flight.”
Twenty-four hours after confirming a flight, Mr Quilty learnt that the same flooding was affecting the northeast, and had caused a landslide. Ditching his plans, he started combing for a flight to the Badakhshan region. He was lucky enough to be taken up by Time, which wanted him to cover the event. Mr Quilty and his fixer were told to join a flight with carrying Afghanistan’s vice president. But on arrival at Kabul military airport the next morning, he discovered the flight had been seriously overbooked. This was a big problem, as Mr Quilty needed to get on that flight. “You can’t muck up as a freelancer,” he says. “Otherwise they won’t call you again.”
After talking their way past several security points, the pair found themselves on the tarmac. Luckily, something happened that allowed Mr Quilty to literally get his foot in the door. “Chaos rules completely,” he says. “While it can be your worst enemy, you’ve kinda got to run with it and play it to your advantage.
“There was this massive crowd trying to get into the backdoor of the plane; it was a scrum. It got to a point where the person in charge gave the signal to put the door up. I was lucky enough to be close, and could put a knee on it. The fixer shoved me up and I pretty much crawled through the press secretary’s legs onto the plane. I buried my head in a scarf and pretended I was asleep until we took off.”
This stroke of luck meant Mr Quilty was one of only three foreign reporters to reach the Badakhshan region, where he soon realised the main story wasn’t the landslide, but the insufficient foreign aid being supplied to the disaster area.
Quick decisions are often needed when chasing news. ABC’s Caro Meldrum-Hanna had to think on her feet while piecing together a story for Four Corners that would help expose an international ring of high-profile paedophiles.
The Boy with the Henna Tattoo explored the story of Peter Truong who, along with his partner, Mark Newton, adopted a young boy and groomed the child for sexual exploitation. During her investigation, Ms Meldrum-Hanna discovered a deeper story scratching the surface of Truong’s dark past.
She began with a single photo of the young boy with his face blurred out, and a promise of an interview with Truong. “Everything hinged on that interview. I pitched it that way to my executive producer. That interview fell over,” she says. “Truong was moved from prison, to prison, to prison, to prison, and I was trying to get access while we were on the road in America.”
Ms Meldrum-Hanna recalls “frantically begging each prison” to let her meet Truong, but each time she was turned down. “When it looked like I wasn’t going to get the interview, we had to turn the program on its head,” she says. “We had to think of something else, and that came from Task Force Argos in Queensland. The police trusted us, remarkably.”
With the help of the specialist online child abuse and exploitation unit, Ms Meldrum-Hanna was able to put together information about Truong and gain access to his chat logs and home videos.
By the time Ms Meldrum-Hanna and her team went over to the US to track Truong down, she was also trying to crack open a second conspiracy linking him to a much larger paedophile ring. “We brought this ring to life, but we needed to show how the police caught these guys,” she says. “They were so secret; they’d operated for 20 years. Always changing internet channels, constantly changing their locations and they all had aliases.”
The one thing linking the American and Australian investigations together was the fact that the young boy in the images had a mole on his stomach, and a large temporary tattoo across his chest. The exact same one displayed in countless seized photos of Truong’s son.
By now, Ms Meldrum-Hanna was close to giving up on her interview with Truong, and the story itself. “The big, terrible moment of making this film was when Peter Truong had been moved, for the umpteenth time, to his final destination in Marianna, Florida. It was a female warden this time, and she just gave me a flat ‘no’.”
Crying in the back of the car, the reporter thought her story has fallen flat. Until there was a suggestion they simply call the prison phone. Ms Meldrum-Hanna was about to board a flight when she gained access to Truong through his attorney, and began a phone interview.
“It’s the time where I’ve got to ask him some hard questions,” she says. “(But) I can’t go too hard, because he’ll hang up. It’s not like a face-to-face interview where I would have had no qualms in being probably quite aggressive.”
However the interview revealed that the paedophile ring in which Truong was so notoriously involved had also exploited him. From a young age, Truong was psychologically coerced into believing that men having relations with a young boy was okay and natural.
“It was difficult as a journalist because I needed to give him time to explain where he came from,” Ms Meldrum-Hanna says. “It was a challenging program on a personal level, as well as a professional level, because you’re balancing a lot of competing things.”
Daniel Stacey was placed into a situation of reporting the unknown when he went to Perth to cover the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight, MH370. He arrived at Pearce Airbase, north of Perth, just as the plane was believed to have flown deep into the Indian Ocean. “Pearce Airbase has kind of got an atmosphere of a scout camp or country club,” he says. “We all camped out in a grass car park with no water, or shade, or food.”
Mr Stacey was faced with assisting with the search as well as filing stories for The Wall Street Journal. Every search flight hoped to be the one to find the aircraft, and his was no different. “The expectation was that we would all stare out the windows and find the plane,” he says. “You’re surrounded by hundreds of whitecaps. The way these guys look for things is if the whitecap dissipates, it’s just water. But if it remains, then it’s churn from a piece of debris. Within a few minutes, you really kind of give up.”
Mr Stacey got rid of his motion sickness in a most unusual way. “We were on the plane for 10 hours, I actually got really sick from trying to write and fly at the same time,” he says. “So they let me fly the plane, which is the way you get over that.”
For Mr Stacey, the most challenging part was reporting on the continuing story when there was very little new information. When other publications were happily feeding off conspiracy and false claims, he admits it was hard to decide what to publish. “We tried to stick to the news of the day, but there was a bombardment of conspiracy theories. It was a daily job just to decide how not to report most of them.”
So it seems the untold tales behind the published story are often just as interesting as the story itself. Though each is unique, each of these journalists’ experiences are alive with struggles and snap decisions. Their encounters cement why they’re considered the best in the country.