Journalist Spotlight | Interview with Sarah Clarke, Senior Correspondent for Al Jazeera
Sarah Clarke, Senior Correspondent for Al Jazeera, sat down with Medianet to discuss her exhilarating career so far. From 8 years of living through, and reporting on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, presenting and producing ABC’s AuzBiz Asia, and a 10-year stint with ABC as an Environment and Science reporter, there’s no challenge too great for Sarah.
Have you always wanted to be a journalist?
I have, surprisingly. I did journalism, economics and government at uni because I wanted to diversify what options I had down the track. I even went down the path of doing work experience early at ABC and Channel 7, purely because I knew it would be a battle to get a job. I wanted to get in there and get ahead of anyone I could, and I say that in the nicest way possible. 30 plus years down the road - I’m still here.
You’ve led quite an exciting career so far, going from Political Reporter, to Environment and Science Reporter, to producing and presenting AuzBizAsia and now you’re a Senior Australian Correspondent at Al Jazeera. Did you always have an end goal in mind of what type of journalism you liked to pursue?
I didn’t, the Hong Kong element was kind of thrown at me through my husband's work. I was with the ABC for about 20 years, and then my husband got a job with a bank in Hong Kong.
The AuzBiz Asia job was an opportunity that I sort of just threw at the ABC. I was over there and thought I would just slide into an easy retirement, but after the first few months I was bored and I wanted to work in this new city, which was exciting. I ran into a camera man I used to work with in the streets of Hong Kong, and I said ‘let's talk'. That job was exciting in itself, because it was a whole different perspective on journalism. It was writing, editing, researching, travelling and presenting a half hour program.
So I was lucky enough to have that opportunity with the ABC to report on a pretty turbulent time. We arrived in Hong Kong in 2013, and in 2014, the pro-democracy movement kicked off. The protests were probably a career highlight, we covered them day-in, day-out. We went through seasons, starting in the summer and going through to winter. Covering such a story was extraordinary because you are seeing a committed pro-democracy movement that will stop at nothing.
What was it like being an expat, living through it and reporting on it? Was that an interesting perspective to have?
It was appreciated, I can tell you that. We would go to have lunch somewhere and people would shout our lunches because they were so appreciative of the international spotlight being put on Hong Kong.
So as an expat, it was great because the coverage was being oppressed and clamped down on in Hong Kong to a certain extent, deathly now. There’s an overlying censorship on anything now. Everyone’s too scared to talk because of the national security law, which can be interpreted to anything that mainland China wants. Covid pushed a lot of the foreign bureaus out, so we were literally some of the last guys there covering it.
I could be at a protest and if I needed quiet because I couldn’t hear the live cross, I’d just wave my arms and thousands of people would suddenly stop, like an orchestra, it was amazing. I felt pretty honoured to be able to stay in Hong Kong longer and push through covid, because obviously foreign bureaus had to get out because of travel restrictions, so it was a different perspective, but it was a good one.
Do you see any major differences between Australian and Hong Kong media?
There are so many differences, well I think there are differences. The Australian press is more obliged to adhere to the rules, thinking just from a behavioural perspective at press conferences, in Hong Kong you had to fight for your life to get in there.
Also, journalism has changed so much when it comes to the fact that anyone can deliver anything now with a phone, that phenomenon is big in Asia with lots of media outlets literally using a phone and a mini tripod. As opposed to the days (which I still use) of a cameraman, an editor and myself. Whereas these guys are chopping up, shooting and presenting themselves. So the media perspectives are different, Hong Kong is just a bigger operation on a daily basis.
What was it like having a front-row seat to the impact of the media on political events?
That's what we love about journalism, it’s getting a window into and a front row seat to everything. I was in Canberra for four years as a junior reporter under the likes of Jim Middelton and Russel Barton at the ABC, and that was great fun. That was exciting at the time, you get a different perspective living there as it’s a bit obscure. I say that because I can see a completely different perspective now, living out of Canberra - it’s a small bubble, but it’s great.
From the Hong Kong perspective, that was amazing to watch from where it started to where it is now. While also very sad, looking at the number of people that I interviewed, most of them are in jail, and quite a few of them won’t get out. A lot of them are in jail under allegations or charges that potentially, or I think, are fraudulently made up. Simply because they want to clamp down on the protests. So, sad and honoured, would be the way I would describe the political coverage opportunities in Hong Kong.
How did you get your news in Hong Kong? Was it press releases, tip-offs, social media? It must be very different to Australia.
Yeah it was. We had an amazing and very connected producer called Bertha Wang, who kept us in tune and connected with what was going on. Everything was in Cantonese or we’d be covering press conferences out of Beijing that were in Mandarin. There were lots of different platforms that the protesters were using, which were of course in Cantonese. Those were clues as to movements of the protests, because they were trying to avoid police. Bertha is much more connected to all these platforms, she was great, and crucial to have a producer like her in that perspective. Since you are dealing with foreign languages and the threat of the police or authorities.
What’s it like working for an international company like Al Jazeera?
I love Al Jazeera, it’s a different perspective. I think it’s one of the most committed journalist operations internationally, we don’t leave a stone unturned. They have a solid group of journalists working internationally, in places where some networks probably wouldn’t even know the name of. Al Jazeera will provide the story that other networks may not, because we rate our stories based on priority of importance, as opposed to what the audience might want to see.
Which is exciting, the interest level of Australia is high, but my stories have got to compete with an earthquake, or a political coup in Africa. So my stories have got to have high importance, and high international interest.
How do you navigate some of those cross-cultural challenges, like something that might be a touchy subject, and then reporting on it?
That was Hong Kong in itself, and that’s why we had Bertha, our producer. She could help us navigate those situations. Also living there helped, we weren't blow-ins, as we called some of the big networks who would fly-in their reporters. Since we were lucky enough to be residents, we gained a level of respect that you get if you live in the place that you are reporting on. Nothing against blow-ins, of course we’ve all been a blow-in at some stage. In terms of cross-cultural differences, that’s where the language difficulty posed a problem, but we had the solution in our producer.
Do you have any favourite moments from your career so far?
Look, they're all pretty good, I can't complain. Throughout my chapter in Hong Kong, you were on your toes. I don’t say running around in a press vest with a gas mask and a helmet should be exciting, but you can’t forget those times. Those protests would be called at any time of the night or day and you always ran the risk of getting in the way of the police. The relationship between the authorities shifted from the beginning to the end. On the first night, they helped me pull suitcases up when they were chasing us, and helped us get trolleys and other bits and pieces over the traffic islands, and by the end, they were raising their guns at us. It became more risky, but it became more exciting at the same time. I know that sounds dreadful, but that was by far a highlight.
I loved the environment and science round that I did for ten years. It was dealing with good people and covering some big issues that sadly still exist now. Despite being in that role for 10 years, I don't think the issue of climate change is still being addressed properly by anyone, or governments. I was lucky enough to be at ABC in Sydney when the helicopter was still being used, they used to call it our chariot. We tracked up and down the Murray-Darling Basin, we went out to Broken Hill in the helicopters, seeing life from that perspective and getting to go to places I would never travel to as a tourist, getting to meet these people and cover these stories was a pretty big honour.
Do you have any advice for budding journalists out there who want to pursue a similar career path?
Never rule out going overseas. If you want to be a journalist, stay committed and explore all options. I think travelling and working internationally as a journalist gives you a really big perspective on the industry, gives you career gains, and is exciting and fun. I love travel, I love peering into other people’s lives. I know that sounds dreadful but that’s what journalism kind of is, you get to explore so many different options. Stay committed, push through and go overseas.