Behind the news

One of the curses, or blessings, of being a journalist is that everyone else’s story seems more interesting than your own. It’s great to meet the famous and powerful, and be in that ringside seat to history, but seldom does anyone else care about the reporter who acts as the conduit. JFK, Castro and Nixon changed history; Cronkite, Walters and Frost just got to talk to or about them. The best we can hope for is “Oh, the humanity”, a headline or phrase that will be forever linked with the event to which it was connected.

At first glance, everyone else’s story in Zoe Daniel’s memoir, Storyteller, is more interesting than the author’s. But that idea is flawed — everyone else’s story has been told, and hers is compelling in its own right.

A former Southeast Asia correspondent for the Australian ABC, Daniel arrived in Bangkok a little more than four years ago in time for the military crackdown on red shirt protesters that left 96 people dead. She left after covering Typhoon Haiyan, which killed at least 5,000 people in the Philippines late last year. In between, she interviewed Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra (at a time when only one of the siblings had been ousted as prime minister), Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (sneaking in when she was still under house arrest) and reported on the region’s various disasters, tragedies, elections and social upheavals.

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It is tempting, in a month when Ms Yingluck was dismissed and martial law was imposed, to read through Storyteller and look for insight into Thailand’s current crisis. On that front, Daniel offers nothing new — it is amusing to read of Thaksin greeting her warmly in Dubai, and insisting all he wants to do with his life is lecture at university, play golf and advise his children. “My youngest sister is already there, so no need for me to go back as prime minister,” he told her.

Storyteller serves well enough as a potted history of the region’s past four years. Myanmar’s haphazard reopening to the world and continuing ethnic violence, Cambodia’s belated trial of ageing and ailing Khmer Rouge leaders and Thailand’s flood disaster of 2011 are all covered.

But the surprising parts of Daniel’s memoir are the stories that happen between the news reports — her desire to balance career ambition with starting a family is complicated by reporting in Africa and Asia. The litany of poverty and conflict she witnesses stands in stark contrast to the comfort and safety she and husband Rowan wish for their children, and could have provided had they chosen a different life in Australia.

“In Sudan, a woman gives birth shaded only by a sheet of Unicef plastic held up with four strong sticks. It’s around 50C. Still, I want a baby. Go figure.”

In Bangkok, Daniel has help from her supportive husband and housekeepers, but she tortured herself over a ruined birthday cake and swearing in front of her two young children. A desire for a third child results in struggles with IVF and miscarriages. There are deaths in the family during her posting as a foreign correspondent.

Daniel doesn’t dwell on what motivates her to seek world exclusive stories while trying to be Supermum, but the contrast between the two makes for an interesting read. Without ever getting bogged down in analysis, Daniel has shown some of the sacrifices involved in telling important stories from difficult places — and Bangkok is one of them.

Originally published in Brunch magazine in May 2014. I read the book on a plane from Bangkok to Brisbane, and it was during that flight Thailand’s constitutional court stripped Yingluck Shinawatra and several of her cabinet members of their jobs, leading to the coup a few weeks later. I may have been harsh in saying Daniel offered nothing new to our knowledge on Thailand; that’s not really the book’s purpose. 

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