Development journalism, Alex Perrottet

Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face: Media, Mayhem and Human Rights in the Pacific
David Robie
Little Island Press
ISBN 9781877484254

It’s easy to read a book written by a journalist, especially if it covers wars, environmental disasters, independence struggles, and what happens when you try to report on them.

In this book, David Robie includes a bundle of his own articles and how he got them published (or how he didn’t) over a career spanning four decades. The Pacific journalist and educator makes no apology for walking down his own memory lane, but just as well, as it gives a clear idea of his motivations by the time he arrives at the final chapter: his theory on media models and journalism education.

After all, you don’t drive across the trans-African highway (before it was actually built), sub-edit a South African paper during apartheid, teach journalism students to report on a coup – as it is happening – and learn nothing. Common threads in the survey of his reporting are human rights and indigenous struggles for self-determination. And, alongside those passions, emerges one other very strong one – media freedom.

It doesn’t seem to matter where or when, such as reporting on nuclear testing in the Pacific on board the Rainbow Warrior, or trying to get books and articles on sensitive issues like Indonesian or French neo-colonialism published in his own country, Robie has faced the censors and taken them to task.

During the 2000 Fiji coup, he had students’ stories published online through Australia when the military shut down the press, and he was arrested at gunpoint in New Caledonia for publishing Kanak views on self-determination and freedom. But his ever-watching eye has more recently turned to efforts by Western and Pacific governments alike to curtail the media – including Fiji’s draconian Media Industry Development Decree of 2010, or the Australian government’s Finkelstein Inquiry and Convergence Review in the wake of the British phone-hacking scandal.

Robie has his own theory of a “deliberative journalism” model, which calls for the media to play a greater role in the building of a young nation, without becoming too close a partner with political leaders, of course. The failure of the media to keep that line, in developing Asian and Pacific nations in the past, leave many in the industry sceptical that it is possible. Legitimate claims of self-censorship in the Pacific are used to argue it can only be a theory – but Robie is quick to point out that “development journalists” can and should equally be campaigners of media freedom – even if Fiji’s current Media Industry Development Authority has told them they can only be one or the other.

Robie argues that his model would be just as useful in Western media, which are often just as guilty of self-censorship, when they neglect to cover the real issues threatening people and their survival, in real cases, right on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand.

In New Zealand, Fiji and its coup culture, or the easy-pickings of cyclone or tsunami stories tend to grab the limelight, while a very real struggle for self-determination in West Papua receives scant attention, despite the activism of some of New Zealand’s minor political parties and NGOs devoted to the awareness cause. Robie also includes a frank and scathing bullet-point list of what he sees as lacking and incompetent in both Pacific and Western media organisations – not holding back from naming and shaming programmes and organisations.

But Robie probably shows more dissatisfaction for those who discount the significant achievements of Pacific media figures over the decades – veterans alongside bright and daring students. He remains optimistic and is critical of those who overlook the gains. The reporting of indigenous communities as they emerge through self-determination, and increasingly do so in their own languages and dialects, is seen as something to be carefully nurtured.

The attractive cover and its beautiful photo of a ni-Vanuatu girl at an anti-nuclear rally set the scene for what’s inside this treasure-trove of Pacific stories. You can read about a young Gaston Flosse and Oscar Temaru – a battle in Tahiti still being waged as we report today. You see Sitiveni Rabuka, Michael Somare, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, and not only those who played politics, but those who built media industries, like Kalafi Moala in Tonga. Robie also laments those who once stood for media freedom, but turned against it once tasting political power.

There’s a healthy scepticism in the industry of those who are seen to retreat to the ivory tower of academia, but Robie has remained a working journalist at AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre, with a philosophy that students will learn by doing. Alongside his professorship and research papers (he produces Pacific Journalism Review, the only research journal to investigate media issues in the Pacific), he edits the student-generated news site Pacific Scoop, and founded and co-edits the Pacific Media Watch service.

But a journalist’s first skill is to tell a story – and the tusitala is alive and well in Robie. Here’s proof – taken from the opening lines of Chapter 16 on the Bougainville conflict:

Apart from convoys with soldiers riding shotgun and yellow ochre Bougainville Copper Limited trucks packed with security forces sporting M16s, you would hardly guess that a guerrilla war was in progress near the Bougainville provincial capital of Arawa. But once you reached the sandbagged machinegun nest in Birempa village at the foot of the rugged mountain jungles of the Crown Prince Range, the tension started to rise.


Happy reading.


Alex Perrottet is a journalist for Radio New Zealand International.


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Posted in Media, Non-fiction, Pacific, Review
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