A privileged perspective

A privileged perspective

When the news is your life, you have a unique view of the world. Jane Hutcheon reveals hers.












Published Selector Autumn 2008

Google her name and you’ll find Jane Hutcheon listed on hottestontv.com.au To a woman who rates glamour way down on her list of priorities, this revelation is hilarious.

For her, determination, passion, courage, a sense of adventure and a good dose of curiosity are more what it takes to become one of Australia’s finest journalists.

Most well known as an ABC foreign correspondent, Jane developed her love of journalism during her childhood in Hong Kong. Her parents were both journalists and her father was the editor of the main English language newspaper there. Every morning she’d eagerly wait for the paper to be delivered under the door and she remembers that it was the more dramatic stories that had the greatest effect.

“One that really stuck in my mind was about a man who’d swum across from China, (there were a lot of refugees trying to get into Hong Kong) and a shark had bitten his legs off, but he hadn’t felt it. It wasn’t until he’d felt the water getting really warm from his blood that he realised something was wrong. I remember being just so incredulous at this story, it made quite a big impact on me.”

Despite leaving to study in Bathurst, it was back to Hong Kong that Jane always felt drawn. She worked in radio and television there in the summer breaks and the boss, who was Australian, offered her a job when she graduated.

However, when she wrote to him a couple of months before she was due to start, he replied that things were a bit tight and he wasn’t sure there would be a position for her.

Not prepared to take no for an answer, Jane rang his secretary and said, “Tell Warren I’m coming in to see him and I’m ready to start.” So she went and sat outside his office for all of ten minutes before he saw her, backed down and gave her a job.

As a junior reporter in Hong Kong, Jane witnessed things that her more experienced peers elsewhere wouldn’t normally get to cover.

“I saw people lose everything, from fires in squatter estates where a whole hillside went up in flames, to terrible disasters in fishing boats.”

It was reporting on the latter that gave Jane a whole new perspective on her priorities.

“I loved my high heel shoes, bright colours and tight skirts and once when I was wearing pink shoes and a skirt, I had to clamber onto a fishing boat. It was the owner’s second boat, having lost the first along with his wife and three of his children. I remember feeling so ridiculous and thinking, ‘What does he think of this silly woman struggling onto his boat?’ So I chucked the shoes away and thought it’s just not about clothes.”

Jane left Hong Kong in the late 80s after securing a job with SBS on The Tonight Show (which later became Dateline). With this position came the opportunity to travel and after completing a series through Asia, her ambition to become the ABC’s China correspondent was strengthened.

She eventually got a foot in the door at the ABC as the finance correspondent for the news. After a year the China posting came up and, despite having only been with the corporation for a short time, she managed to convince them she was up to the job.

When I suggest that “convincing” her way into jobs was becoming a bit of a theme, she insists it was more about sheer resolve.

“It’s quite funny because I’m a very determined person but I’m not very good at manoeuvring so to speak. With things that I’ve desperately wanted I’ve basically just said at the top of my voice, ‘I want this very badly!’ ”

When Jane first arrived in China in 1995 she was shocked at how underdeveloped it was. But on the flipside this meant that she could visit places whose locals had never seen a foreigner before.

And while the Chinese officials often proved obstructive, the average, everyday people were warm and welcoming.

“They might be really curious and sort of have a bit of a stare but they were really amazed that you would come all that way to see them. I remember a lovely story about a man from the centre of China. He looked after a reservoir but it had dried up years ago and he now lived in a cave. We’d read about him in some tiny book and thought he sounded perfect for a story we were working on. So we found out how to contact him and went out there. He was blown away that a phone call from someone else through someone else in Beijing had eventuated in this trip to his home. While we were there his wife gave me a coin. She had two of them and was going to give the other one to her daughter when she got married. I didn’t want to accept it but she insisted and pushed it into my bag. It was very, very humbling. When we left they all burst into tears, I’ve got photos of them smiling through their tears. It was really touching to have people think that your visit was so important.”

It’s these stories of everyday people that Jane sees as the stuff of life and Foreign Correspondent gave her a unique opportunity to give them a voice.

“I think that’s what makes life interesting because I think everybody can find something in common and it gives them an insight into other ways of life.”

At the end of her posting, Jane left China to host the World at Noon back in Australia and was “in the chair” on the morning of September 12, 2001. It’s an event that she remembers with a sense of the surreal.

“I was woken up in the middle of the night to be told, ‘you’ve got to be in at 5am, it’s going to be massive, this has already happened, you should turn on the TV now’. So I turned on the TV to see the replay of the second plane going into the tower. At the time there was a bit of a storm outside and the sky was quite green. I remember thinking that the world had really changed on that night and feeling that it was going to be very, very momentous. And sad as well.”

These feelings stayed with her throughout two or three hours of live, often unscripted coverage.

“I wasn’t nervous, everything just flowed and I remember thinking it was like I was watching everything from a little spot on the ceiling and I didn’t really feel like I was in my own skin.”

This world changing event also steered Jane’s career in a new direction.

“In a sense when I took on the job to go to the Middle East it was because of that day. I remember thinking, ‘How could this possibly have happened? How could people have felt so strongly that they would want to kill those people in the planes and knock over the World Trade Centre?’ I wanted to try to discover for myself, to see if I could answer that for myself.”

Jane’s time in the Middle East from 2003-2004 never really provided clear answers to these questions, but it certainly gave her plenty of insight into the assumptions we make about different cultures.

“I remember the first time I went into Jordan I felt a bit daunted. Sometimes you look at people and they look really angry; they’ve got beards, their mouths are hidden and they’ve got furrowed brows. Then you talk to them and you realise they’re not angry, it’s just the way they look.

“It was the same when I used to look at the pictures of Palestinians, at a funeral or something like that in Gaza. I’d sort of think, ‘oh that looks like a really scary place’.”

But the reality was very different.

“I never felt safer. During my visits there, I felt people really looked out for you if you were a woman in Gaza, and if it was looking dangerous people would either shield you or tell you, ‘you should stand over there, it’s much safer, you need to stand over there.’ ”

Despite all the best intentions in the world however, war correspondence is an incredibly dangerous job and ensuring personal safety was Jane and her team’s paramount concern.

“The first priority was to operate safely, not to draw any attention to yourself by wearing something loud that would say, ‘Yes, foreigner here!’ So sometimes that meant putting on a veil and definitely carrying a headcover wherever I went.”

In her early days of reporting from Iraq Jane found herself quite paranoid, which comes as no surprise given some of the situations she faced.

“I remember once we were at a big rally that was taking place in Baghdad at a time when there were suicide car bombings happening. We were waiting for the return of a man whose family was related to the former monarchy, there was talk of him starting a political party. The Iraqis were sacrificing a sheep on the road, which they do as a celebration and all of a sudden I noticed this really huge old American car. They were trying to keep all the cars back but this one was trying to get in the middle of everything. As I watched it I couldn’t open my mouth, all I could think was, ‘oh my God’. And then as it came closer I saw that there were about 10 kids in the back and I realised it was just a regular family’s car. I’d got myself very worked up about nothing.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalism, which was founded in 1981, Iraq has been the deadliest conflict it has documented. 2004 was the second deadliest year for journalists in Iraq and in the period from 2003-2004, 38 journalists were killed. In March 2003, Australian cameraman Paul Moran, on assignment for the ABC, was killed by a suicide bombing and ABC foreign correspondent, Eric Campbell was injured in the attack.

For Jane, learning of the death of a media colleague is obviously traumatic. “It makes you stop in your tracks and all kinds of questions come into your head. It’s a preservation thing I suppose, you think, ‘ok, if I know why something happened to them I might be able to protect myself.’ ”

Although Jane was lucky enough to leave Iraq unscathed, she had her fair share of close calls, including a frightening incident in 2004 in the Marsh Arabs area of southern Iraq.

“Things were beginning to get quite dangerous for foreigners to move around and the trouble with some of the roads was there was only one way in and one way out. We had bypassed a tribe just because we didn’t think they were particularly interesting. But they were apparently quite aggressive and all their men had guns. The interpreter we worked with had said they were a cruel tribe, well known for putting the heads of their enemies on sticks.

“They stopped us on the way back from visiting a different tribe and said, ‘how come you didn’t come and talk to us? You know we were ready for you, we had food and everything.’ And all the guys with guns were surrounding the car and I thought, ‘God this is going to be really, really bad and I’ll have my picture in the paper with my head on a stake’.

“They seemed to talk forever and ever until eventually we were allowed to leave. Afterwards I asked the interpreter if it was really dangerous, but apparently that tribe had wanted to know what the other tribe was saying because they didn’t want them to tell horrible things about their tribe! So it was all about internal politics but I really realised that out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a group of men with AK47s, if we were to go missing, no-one would know about it for quite some time. So that was a bit scary.”

Reporting as a woman from this area of the world can present some challenges. A lot of men were affronted by the thought of being interviewed by a woman and there were times, such as when she spoke to a famous Iraqi Ayatollah, (who was later killed in a massive suicide bombing) that they refused to look her in the eye.

Despite these difficulties, being a woman also gave her moments of insight into the experience of the local women. Things like having to wear a hejab (veil) and chador (long black gown) presented some pretty confronting identity issues. “I felt invisible, like I was kind of shoved into the background. I couldn’t see out of the sides, I didn’t really have peripheral vision.”

This experience made her more interested in finding out more about “life behind the veil” but opportunities for local women to speak publicly were limited.

“I remember an incident in Gaza where we were doing a story about a family whose sons had been killed by Israeli soldiers. I thought it was strange that it was the father of the sons who was doing all the talking as I knew one of the men had been married. But when I asked to speak to the wife they insisted that only the father would speak to us.

“Afterwards the cameraman wanted to get some shots of the kids outside in the yard so they all left me alone in the room. As I was sitting there the wife suddenly walked out, she’d been hiding in the room next door. She was wearing full veil but had a sort of netting over her face. In perfect English she told me how she’d been studying at university but now had to stop. As she was telling me this story I thought, ‘this is the woman I really want to talk to.’ The next day we were both attending the same ceremony (Saddam Hussein was giving money to all Gazans whose family members had been killed by the Israelis) and I asked whether we could get some shots of her there but she said, ‘oh please don’t take any shots of me, I’m just telling you this because you’re a woman’.

“At the ceremony I saw her walking out with her father and for the first time I saw past the veil and she smiled at me through the netting. Before I’d sort of seen Islamic women in Islamic dress as solid blocks. But for the first time we made contact through the gauze and I could see her smiling at me because we’d had this secret chat in the house. It was really special.”

Today Jane lives in London where she’s been the ABC’s Europe correspondent since 2005. The world of journalism has changed dramatically since September 11, 2001 and although she’s a long way from the Middle East, the reporting Jane now does is still mostly to do with terrorism or events relating to terrorism.

Jane has played a big part in delivering to our screens coverage of many of the last two decades’ most significant events. And it’s a responsibility she feels privileged to have taken on. “What I have seen has been pretty amazing. When I think back on the places I’ve been and the stories I’ve done, I feel incredibly grateful for having a little window on history.”

But at the end of the day, Jane still sees herself as much the same woman who sat outside that office in Hong Kong, waiting for a job. “I haven’t lost my curiosity, I’m still curious and even when there’s nothing specific on the agenda, that’s what gets me up in the morning.”


Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.

2 Responses

  1. Alan Suett. says:

    I admire you tremendously and always love watching you on tv. You personify honesty in your interviews and you have great courage.

  2. tanya salehian says:

    Jane I think you are an inspiration and I would be very happy indeed of my granddaughters have
    ha;f your courage and get up and go as well as the decency I feel sure you have. Tanya.

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