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January 19, 2022
Business News

Legendary Papua New Guinea correspondent laments Australian coverage of PNG earthquake

Former ABC journalist Sean Dorney has been reporting on Papua New Guinea and the Pacific for more than 40 years. He’s more well-known throughout the region than most Australian politicians. He told Business Advantage PNG politicians and particularly the Australian media have ‘lost the plot’ in acknowledging PNG, and the region.

Sean Dorney (left) talks to former Australian High Commissioner, Ian Kemish. Credit: Kate Arnott
Sean Dorney (left) talks to former Australian High Commissioner, Ian Kemish. Credit: Kate Arnott.

February’s earthquake in Papua New Guinea has highlighted the importance that Australia places on PNG, and we’ve lost the plot a little when it comes to paying attention not only to PNG but to the entire Pacific, says Dorney.

‘If as many people had been killed in a North American earthquake, we’d have it all over the Australian media with endless stories, endless coverage,’ he tells Business Advantage PNG.

‘It was our former colony. We ran the place for 70 years.

‘It’s our nearest neighbour, there are three Australian islands within almost stone-throwing distance of the PNG mainland. We have a responsibility for our former colony and I’m not suggesting we should be doing anything in a colonial patronising sense, but there is an obligation there for us to pay a bit more attention to this nearest neighbour of ours.

‘If as many people had been killed in a North American earthquake, we’d have it all over the Australian media with endless stories, endless coverage.’

‘The Australian aid program is still far and away the largest aid program that’s provided to PNG and some of the Chinese money is of course loans, which builds up debt.

‘China is very, very interested in not only PNG but the rest of the Pacific and they are paying a lot more attention.’

On location. PNG-born foreign correspondent, Max Uechtritz.
On location. PNG-born foreign correspondent, Max Uechtritz.

Role model

Papua New Guinea-born former ABC foreign correspondent, Max Uechtritz agrees the Australian media is ‘appallingly myopic’ when it comes to PNG.

‘If you don’t understand how important is PNG to Australia—or you don’t want to learn why it is—then you shouldn’t be in any major editorial position in the media,’ he tells Business Advantage PNG.

‘The Australian media is collectively diminished by the apathy towards a country that’s been an integral part of our own history since 1914.’

Motor Neurone Disease diagnosis

Sean Dorney was diagnosed with motor neurone disease last year. Last month, friends and colleagues gathered in Brisbane to pay tribute to his life and work.

Dorney and Pacific reporters. Credit: Kate Arnott
Dorney and Pacific reporters. Credit: Kate Arnott

More than 150 former diplomats, foreign correspondents (including former ABC PNG Correspondents, Richard Dinnen, Shane Macleod, and Liam Fox), reporters, broadcasters, producers, camera crews, family, neighbours and footy comrades from throughout Australia, the Pacific and PNG attended.

In 1974, Dorney was seconded to work for the newly established National Broadcasting Commission.

He spent a total of 17 years as the ABC’s PNG correspondent—marked by being both deported and awarded an MBE by the PNG government—and a further 10 as its Pacific Correspondent.

He met his wife, Pauline, a Manus islander and NBC broadcaster in Port Moresby. They married in 1976.

He attributes much of his success to Pauline, whom he says ‘is a broadcaster and knows what the business is about’.

Highlights

Asked what he regards as the highlight of his PNG reporting, Dorney says: ‘In terms of spectacle, nothing can compare with flying over two exploding volcanic vents in the (1994) Rabaul volcanic eruption’.

‘He was fair.’

The trauma of the 1998 Aitape tsunami, which claimed 2500 lives, was the most emotional reporting experiences of his career, he says. He won an award for his reporting on that event.

Dorney with wife Pauline. Credit: Sue Ahearn.
Dorney with wife Pauline. Credit: Sue Ahearn.

Former PNG prime ministers Sir Rabbie Namaliu and Sir Julius Chan were among those who paid tribute to Dorney’s work.

‘He was not always kind to me but he was fair,’ wrote Sir Julius.

‘Our most intense involvement was during the Sandline period, where he conducted many interviews with me, probably the most of any journalist. His interviews with me were always in-depth, transparent and tough.’

Sir Rabbie added: ‘It is a matter of record that in 1982 I had to sign his “deportation” papers at the direction of the Cabinet. I am proud to say that, as Prime Minister, Sean was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire on my recommendation a decade later.’

Humour

‘He’s tackling the disease with his trademark humour and optimism,’ says Liam Fox.

‘Having captained the Kumuls, having won a Walkley award—those things pale into insignificance when you can’t get your socks and shoes on in less than 10 minutes,’ Dorney told his audience, adding that he was overwhelmed by the tribute.

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