Ben Doherty has reported from more than 30 countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific as a correspondent for The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
As acting Pacific Editor, he’s now leading The Guardian‘s Pacific Project, an initiative supported by the Judith Neilson Institute. He’s stepping in to continue the strong work Kate Lyons — who is on leave — has been doing to share important stories from one of the most under-reported regions in the world.
We caught up with Ben to find out more about the project, the key issues it’s covering, and what Australian journalists can do to improve their understanding and reporting of the region.
Congratulations on the new role Ben. What drew you to the Pacific Project?
What’s not to love? A brief to explore one of the most fascinating and under-reported regions in the world and to bring those stories to the world, working with fantastic reporters from all over. It’s an editor’s dream.
What are some of the stories or issues in the region you’re looking forward to covering?
There are just too many to list. While things are improving, I think the Pacific remains one of the most under-reported and least understood parts of the world.
Obviously, the impact of COVID-19 has profoundly affected the Pacific. While the region has — so far — largely escaped the health crisis that was feared, the economic impacts of the shutdowns are putting families and communities under acute stress, and governments don’t see an immediate way out. The recovery from COVID-19 will be slow in the Pacific.
While the threat of the coronavirus remains ever-present, climate change remains the number one threat to the region, and an enormous concern at every level of society.
I think the geo-strategic issue — the ‘contest’ for influence in the Pacific between the US and its allies, and China — will shape the world in the coming decades.
There are further issues too, around extractive industries, resource management, displacement, human rights and political self-determination. But it’s the human stories too that I look forward to telling. There is so much to reveal about the Pacific through the stories of its people.
You’re working closely with a number of journalists throughout the Pacific. Which reporters should Australian readers be following?
One of the great achievements in the Pacific Project’s short existence has been building a stable of passionate, talented and brave journalists across the region. There’s an extraordinary depth of journalistic talent in the region and it’s a huge privilege, and a great thrill, to be able to work with them at The Guardian.
It is Pacific voices that can best tell Pacific stories — those voices are the most authentic, the most authoritative, and the most nuanced and adroit — and that’s what the Pacific Project is looking to bring to our pages.
I don’t want to name any journalists, for fear of leaving anyone out, but visit the Pacific Project page to see the breadth of coverage from across the region.
How much of an obstacle is the COVID-19 pandemic to covering the region?
The pandemic and its associated shutdowns have obviously wreaked havoc on reporting all over the world. The shutdowns have made it impossible to travel internationally and, for a time, domestically, in some places. And the pandemic itself has dominated news cycles not for days or weeks, but for months, meaning other issues are under-explored or not reported at all. However, the Pacific Project has continued, even thrived, despite the pandemic, because of the way the project works.
Part of the Pacific Project’s rationale has been to prioritise and amplify Pacific voices, particularly those less often heard in mainstream and global debates. And that local reporting, by Pacific journalists in their communities, has been able to continue during the pandemic, when travel has been stopped.
Rather than report the Pacific from the outside looking in, this project seeks to report from the perspective of the Pacific itself, to understand the region on its own terms. The Pacific Project is a dedicated place for the Pacific to tell its stories, to contest its debates, and to reflect its lived experience. It’s a crucial democratic and social tool for an under-reported region.
What can Australian journos do to better understand and report on the Pacific?
I think understanding the complexity and nuance of the region is key. Often, the Pacific is treated as a monolithic whole, a place that thinks and believes and acts broadly in the same way. Seeking to understand the extraordinary diversity of the Pacific — ethnic, social, political, historical, and economic — is a key starting point. And read. Read widely. Read into the debates and the internal machinations of the place. Read people you agree with and people you don’t. There is a lot of strong journalism being practiced, good analysis being written, excellent academic work being done. It’s all there, one just needs to seek it out.
Ben Doherty is a correspondent, photographer, and video journalist, currently working as Pacific Editor for The Guardian, based in the Sydney newsroom.
He was formerly South-East Asia Correspondent for The Guardian, and South Asia Correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. He has reported from more than 30 countries across Asia, the Pacific and Africa.
He has won Australia’s highest journalism honour, a Walkley Award, three times, most recently for his reportage on the systemic — and ultimately fatal — flaws in Australia’s immigration detention regime, and in 2013 for an investigation into Bangladeshi sweatshop labour conditions. He was 2008 Australian Young Print Journalist of the Year, and has been awarded three United Nations Association media peace prizes.