A journalist abroad

Zoe Daniel talks to Ezreena Yahya about her life as an ABC South East Asia correspondent and the challenges of balancing her feminist ambitions with motherhood.


At her book launch at Gleebooks, former ABC foreign correspondent Zoe Daniel is dressed casually in a canary yellow top, denim jeans, subtle jewellery and low heels. It is hard to imagine not too long ago, she was scurrying about the streets of Bangkok, bringing news to Australians in a flak jacket, helmet and gas mask.

A heavyweight in the journalism scene, Daniel has covered stories such as the Khmer Rouge war crimes trials, the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Christmas Island asylum seeker boat crash, the sectarian violence in Burma’s Rakhine state, the Delhi rape case and Typhoon Haiyan, amongst others. Often times, during her stints abroad as the ABC’s Africa then South East Asia correspondent, she had to shoot, edit, write her own materials and send them back to Australia via satellite phone – all of this while meeting rolling deadlines. But more than anything, it was the dangerous and risky situations which made her nervous.

Her first assignment as the ABC’s Africa correspondent was in Sierra Leone. On her way there, she found out that friend and colleague Kate Peyton, who worked for the BBC at the time, had been shot dead in Mogadishu, Somalia.

“It was shockingly sad and very confronting, especially for a young journalist… I had to confront a lot of my own fears and question whether I was brave enough to do it.”

Daniel had a fraught childhood; her parents divorced while she was still young. Having grown up being surrounded by friends with strong families, she had set out to have one herself someday, “I didn’t want a disrupted family life for my kids. And I was lucky that I found the right man, Rowan.”

She had initially hesitated about taking the posting, but it was Rowan, her husband who picked her up, dusted her off and told her to get her “act together and go.” Daniel cherishes the great pillar of strength and support she has found in him.

Two years into the posting, Daniel eventually left after discovering she was pregnant with her first child, Arkie. Soon after, a new position opened up – the ABC needed a new South East Asia correspondent. With her expansive knowledge of and experience in the region, Daniel was poised for the job. But Pearl, her second child was only 18 months old. A tough decision was to be made.

“Travelling solo, covering nine countries, very remote difficult travel, conflict, disease and famine don’t gel with motherhood very well. I didn’t think the two jobs could coexist.”

In her recently published memoir, Storyteller, she writes, “I’ve gone through life planning to meet my own feminist expectations of shattering the glass ceiling, and then realized that’s not what actually makes my heart sing.”

The complexities and costs of being a foreign correspondent and a parent to two children are endless. Constantly worrying whether the kids will cope without her when she is travelling and wondering if she will get hurt covering a conflict or a natural disaster just comes with the territory of Daniel’s juggling act.

It is a situation many female journalists are familiar with: managing an insatiable longing for the next big challenge yet pulled and pressured by a desire to settle down. But Daniel questions how we have been conditioned to think that having a career and a strong family life is always an either/or situation – that one could never have time for both. She expresses how though the two roles are different, often times, they complement each other.

“The world of a foreign correspondent is hard-nosed and tough. You have to constantly face fear and push through. Being a mum [on the other hand] involves a lot of patience and softness, which can be a strength when reporting stories of humanity.”

Nevertheless, Storyteller is a story of bravery and commitment – not just of Daniel’s but also of her cameraman and confidante, David Leland. Unlike your everyday correspondent-cameraman relationship, theirs is also based on shared experiences of witnessing heart-breaking and traumatic events.

“David’s a veteran in the region; he covered the 2004 tsunami, Bali bombings, Schapelle Corby… He’s witnessed much more than I have so it’s good to talk through these things with him. On the way to an assignment, we’ll talk about logistics and on the way back, we’ll talk about what had just happened.”

“No one else knows, no else was there. Any trauma experienced, we experience it together, even though we might interpret it differently,” she says.

Storyteller also chronicles Daniel’s vulnerable side with utmost honesty. In one incident involving a ruined cricket ground cake the kids had picked out from the Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake book for Rowan’s birthday, she had lost control of her emotions. This was after covering a story about people smugglers and asylum seekers in Malaysia. Switching back-and-forth from correspondent to mother is never always smooth – or easy.

In another incident, she recounts screaming feverishly at a woman in Thailand, standing with two young children in the middle of the road in front of the approaching Thai army while bullets were flying everywhere to go to a safe zone-declared temple – and breaking down after. One of the children was the same age as Pearl. She could not help but step in.

“It was a dangerous, scary and unpredictable situation. I was wound up, trying not to get hurt. It’s a motherly instinct to protect your children.”

If there is one important lesson readers can take away from Storyteller is the value of empathy, a quality Daniel considers “a strength, not a weakness.” Daniel attributes her empathy to having spent an extensive period of time talking to farmers and people in rural and regional Australia in her early career days as a reporter in Adelaide, Lismore, to name a few. Her time in these places helped her develop a personal connection with the locals, something Daniel believes is important to give them a personal voice – something they would not have otherwise.

“I have ceased looking at whatever I’m doing as ‘stories’; I’ve started objecting to the term. I’ve realised more and more as I grow older and through conversations that life continues beyond the story. That’s why I’m encouraged to revisit people.”

“You have to respect people, communicate with them… Keep in mind that they are people who live in remote areas, in difficult situations who may not necessarily be media performers; these are all the things which need be taken account.”

Despite having witnessed so much trauma and grief, Daniel is convinced that her job has made her “more sensitive in a way… and softened to things.” She believes it should not be treated as a bad thing as it has allowed her to retell the stories in a manner which draws audiences and enables them “to understand the real situation.”

Regrets are few and far between for Daniel. Through her postings, she has had “many satisfying life moments.” “The things I got to do and see, the people I got to meet are experiences I could have only achieved through the job.”

Her stint as the ABC’s South East Asia correspondent ended last December. Daniel has started a new chapter of her life; she now co-presents a new, ABC daily international current affairs programme, ‘The World’ with Jim Middleton. The process of redefining herself will not be straightforward.

“I’m not really a studio girl,” she admits to a laughing audience.

“Looking at international issues from the outside in feels unnatural. But it’s a new skill and something different to do.”

On her plans for the future, “Rowan and I have always let things evolve. Nothing’s permanent but that doesn’t mean things are not either. It’s loose.”

Daniel has shown that women who want to be mothers and go down extremely challenging and risky career paths should not think that it is impossible to do both. Baking butterfly cakes and ladybird cupcakes for your daughter’s birthday and putting yourself in some of the world’s most dangerous and unpredictable environments to bring news can be done. And as Daniel proves, it can be done well.