A Pacific media legend looks back
Sean Dorney speaks about ABC cutbacks and reflects on 40 years covering the Pacific.
It has been widely documented that the significant cutbacks in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's international operations will mean a significantly diminished Australian presence in the Pacific.
After budget cuts the television service, Australia Network, has gone and services at Radio Australia have been severely cut back.
Among a number of key staff who have been made redundant is Sean Dorney, one of the best known names and faces across the Pacific after covering it for 40 years.
Don Wiseman spoke with Sean Dorney about the impact of the cutbacks but began by asking him if there was one story he had covered that stood out as he looked back.
SEAN DORNEY: There'd be lots of them of course, but I suppose the story that had its greatest impact on me, was covering the tsunami that hit the north coast of the PNG mainland in 1998 and killed two and a half to three thousand people. An under-sea earthquake created the tsunami, which just swept ashore and wiped out villages, like Arop village, just completely of the strips of land they were on, between the ocean and the lagoon behind the village. It was a very, very difficult story to cover too logistically, because the Aitape area is a long, long way from Port Moresby and you had to cross the mountain range and there aren't all that many facilities in Aitape. So every day we had to organise sort of pre-dawn flights, to get across there and then try and collect as much information as you could and then get back to Port Moresby, to send it out. I went at that story for about two weeks I suppose, but about halfway through it, I had a really gut wrenching experience when I was speaking to Radio Australia, in a early morning cross and I came of the phone and just put my hands in my head and wept, because the trauma of that situation was just something, you know, unbelievable.
DON WISEMAN: Is it an area you've been back to since?
SD: Yes, I went back a few years later and I found myself tearing up again, I must say, because we did a documentary on the first 25 years of Papua New Guinea's Independence. So this is about two years after that tsunami. And I went back to the area with a camera crew and I was invited by the school headmaster, at one of the schools there, to address the student population and I realised in that audience, there were kids who had lost their parents or lost their brothers and sisters. And it was a place that I went back to several times actually and in fact, this school teacher from Arop, Job Tuluarai, I had run into a few times. And we actually took Job and his wife, this is during the disaster, took him and his wife back to that village and of his 315 students, 160 were killed in that tsunami. And I managed, actually, to run into him again when we were doing that documentary and we spoke about the situation and what had changed and how the people of Arop were trying to piece their lives back together.
DW: What about spectacular positive events - there have been a few of those as well. What can you point to?
SD: Ah look, there have been extraordinary things that I have managed to see. The volcanic eruption in Rabaul in 1994 was something just unbelievable to be in a helicopter flying above Mount Vulcan and Tavurvur when both on opposite sides of Rabaul harbour were, Simpson harbour, in Rabaul were just exploding and the huge broccoli like, grey clouds, were just spewing forth out of these two volcanic vents and rocks were being propelled skyward - not far from the helicopter that we were flying around filming it in! They actually had a terrific evacuation plan in Rabaul and only, I think five or six people died in that volcanic eruption. In terms of spectacle that was, was quite extraordinary. But in Papua New Guinea you get used to covering these events. I've been to various places, where there have been landslides and villages have been wiped out when the side of a mountain has collapsed on top of them. Geologically, Papua New Guinea is extremely young and there is a lot of activity going on, seismic activity going on, in lots of these places and so it is a country prone to natural disaster.
DW: In terms of these cutbacks are they bad for the region or is it just Australia's loss?
SD: Well I think that, a bit like Radio New Zealand International, Radio Australia has helped a lot of these Pacific Island countries learn about what is going on in there neighbours, in the other Pacific countries. I mean those organisations have been very, very good, at chasing down stories in these countries and then broadcasting them regionally, so everyone in the Pacific finds out about what is going on in the other island countries in the Pacific. Now, our ability to do that in Radio Australia, is now nowhere near as strong as it used to be. So I think that for a lot of people, out in the Pacific, who might have relied on Radio Australia quite a bit to find out what is going on in the region, well that's going to be considerably reduced. It's not gone altogether, we still have Pacific Beat going out but it doesn't have the resources that it used to have.
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