A journalist’s memoirs: From minefields to Mandela

“Welcome to the world of BLEEP.” That was a former executive producer calling to congratulate me on being appointed supervising producer of the Channel Nine Sunday Program in the mid-90s.
Yes, the missing word is rude and banned from most conversations, even frowned upon by social media outlets. But the congratulatory call was also close to the truth. Once you became a member of management in television you were expected to be a bastard. I was never good at treating staff badly, and I wondered: Should I include it in my memoirs? On second thought, should I write my memoirs?
Those thoughts occurred to me after reading a cracker of a book, Minefields, the recollections of a friend and former colleague, Hugh Riminton (Photo above: by John Appleyard), one of Australia’s best journalists and a Walkley-Award winner, who spent nearly three decades as a foreign correspondent with 3AW, Channel Nine and CNN, and is now a newsreader on the Ten Network. It is an honest, eloquent, at times poetic, account of what it was like to be a reporter in the days before the Age of Disruption.
Hugh begins with an author’s note praising some of the wonderful memoirs by the best reporters: Anthony Lloyd, Fergal Keane, Edward Behr, Philip Knightly, to name a few, and he describes the late Mark Colvin’s Light and Shadow as a “gentle masterpiece.” He also said he’d like to see Australian reporters publish their memoirs: Among them, Michael Ware, Sally Sara, Peter Cave, Steve Levitt, Robert Penfold, Matt Brown, and Sophie McNeill. Hmm, how about a producer or two?
Born in Sri Lanka to an Irish nurse in the RAF and a tea planter from Jersey, Jackie and John, who are still married 60 years later, Hugh wasn’t quite as lucky. He’s been married three times. He writes: “Helen Garner reckoned every time she wrote a book she lost a husband. It seemed every time I got a foreign posting I lost a wife.” And he had a plethora of postings from Fiji to PNG, London, Moscow, South Africa, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Israel, Iraq, the Western Front, Albania, Sarajevo and Afghanistan.
Back to the Riminton family. Hugh, two of his three brothers (the third would be born in Christchurch), and his parents moved to New Zealand where he fell in love with reading and rugby and became a student at Christchurch High School in 1974. Soon afterwards, he started drinking, suffered depression and tried to take his own life at the age of 15. Incredibly, his parents never knew about it.
After a job cleaning rats’ poo out of cages at a teaching hospital that did experiments on animals, Hugh was ready for anything. A 4-week radio course led him to a regional station where the news director called him in and asked why he wanted to be a journalist. He was planning on law school, didn’t really want to be a journo but he said the first thing he could think of: “Because it would be fun.”
Hugh became a cadet reporter at Radio Avon, aged 17. He was learning how to report and read the news. In fact, reading a bulletin while under the influence of marijuana may have saved his life. The grass interfered with his presentation and the sentences made no sense to him. He vowed never to do that again, reduced his alcoholic intake, and stopped getting sick from drinking. He writes: “Plenty of journalists have been alcoholics, including some of the best. I am a rare case. I was saved from alcoholism by journalism.”
His first big scoop was a year later in Auckland when he received a telegram at 9.30pm on a Wednesday night to ring work urgently. An Air New Zealand DC-10 carrying 257 passengers on a tourist flight over Antarctica had lost contact. At the search and rescue headquarters, Hugh kept his eye on the telex machine. Up came the message: WRECKAGE SIGHTED. MOUNT EREBUS. NO SIGN SURVIVORS. He filed reports and updates throughout the night, and in the morning was one of two radio journalists sent on an Air Force transport plane to the crash site. Hugh Riminton was now a full-fledged reporter at the age of 18.

(Photo above of Hugh in Moscow in 1993 after rebels tried to take over the Kremlin.)
There are many stories in the 415 pages of Minefields, but a few stand out. The title, by the way, refers to a piece to camera Hugh did in a grain field in central Somalia that turned out to be a minefield: quite a good story. In 1993 when Hugh was the London correspondent for Nine, he covered the return of 14 Australian veterans of WWI to the Western Front. Their average age was 95, and the crew only expected to do a few stories at the start, but the diggers’ spirt and courage won the nation’s hearts. Soon-to-be PM John Howard was on the tour to pay homage to his father and grandfather, but it was the surviving veterans who shone. Howard Pope, a digger aged nearly 100, visited the grave of his older brother for the first time, “remembering a youth who had not grown old.” Hugh sums up the veterans with eloquence and emotion: “There is the courage of youth and the courage of age. They had known them both. I have wept only twice while writing a script. Once was at Port Arthur. But the first time was there, feeling the precious, fading fragile link between these men and the times they had known.”
Three years later, Hugh was back in Australia having just accepted a Logie Award for “Outstanding Achievement in News” for Nine for its coverage of the French Nuclear Tests in the Pacific, sparking violent protests in Tahiti. A few months afterwards, Hugh confronted “the worst story I have ever covered in Australia,” the massacre at Port Arthur in Tasmania. He and Rob Hopkins, who had just won a Walkley for camera coverage in Tahiti, and sound recordist, Ilankovan Frank, headed to Tassie to report on two harrowing days of slaughter by a lone crazed gunman. Martin Bryant shot dead 35 people and wounded 23 in the deadliest mass shooting in Australian history in April 1996.
Nine reporters Charles Slade and John Vause had covered the survivors and the relatives and Bryant’s background, but Riminton had to tell the main story, with the deadline approaching. Everyone was asking “Why this happened,” and all Hugh could think of was Bryant shooting six-year-old Allanah Mikac, after he killed her mother and three-year-old sister. Hugh wrote these last three paragraphs: “There is no why. There are no reasons. There are no words.” Not surprisingly, he had difficulty doing the voiceover, choked up by emotion. Later he felt guilty that he had let emotions get to him. Then News and Current Affairs director Peter Meakin told him: “You said what all Australia was thinking.”
The massacre led to gun law reforms driven by the new Prime Minister John Howard, which have so far prevented a repeat of mass murders in Australia for 21 years, but no one was able to answer “why,” least of all Martin Bryant, still in prison never to be released.
Riminton had more questions after covering a story about genocide in Rwanda. Former PM Malcolm Fraser, then head of CARE International, Hugh and cameraman Richard Malone were in Tanzania when they came across a crowd of refugees crossing the border into Rwanda. Hugh noticed they were not as desperate as those he had seen on a previous mission to Somalia. A Red Cross worker explained: “These people are not starving. Don’t feel too much sympathy for them – these are the Hutus. These are the ones who have been carrying out the genocide.”
But Riminton spotted bands of young men with machetes at the fringes of the crowd. One looked at him as he passed by, as if to say: “I’ve got you if I want you. You are nothing to me.” Then they crossed the bridge from Rwanda to Tanzania over the Kagera River, the water thick with corpses. “An endless, piteous soup of lost humanity,” Hugh writes, “Malcolm Fraser and I stood a little distance apart, saying nothing, trying to absorb what we were witnessing.” The UN calculated five million people died in the war between the Tutsis and the Hutus.

When he got back to London, one of his questions was: “How could so many people … be slaughtered in a matter of weeks and so little be known about it?” Hugh’s answer: the champagne cocktail theory – a drink with 22 per cent alcohol, slight sweet and effervescent. A cocktail perfect for a foreign correspondent trying to get people to watch distressing news: “You can’t write the full horror. People recoil as it were poison. You lose them … You must concoct your own champagne cocktail – strong enough to leave no doubt what is going on, light enough to give the viewer permission to keep watching.” As I write this, I fear readers may be reaching for a champagne cocktail.
My favourite story from Minefields: A trip to South Africa to cover the 1994 elections: the first interracial ballot in a country once ruled by apartheid. (I was there producing a feature story for Sunday with Jim Waley and a Nine crew, including the excellent editor Mike Fleming and cameraman Ben Herbertson. A bomb exploded in Johannesburg’s CBD on our way from the airport to the Carlton hotel, killing 9 people. A shaken Jim Waley did a piece to camera. We expected a week of violence.) Hugh was there with Richard Malone and editor Mark Douglas, reporting for Nightline, when a second bomb exploded in the racially mixed suburb of Germiston. Ten people died that day in more than a dozen bombings.
During the election campaign, Hugh got to see Nelson Mandela in action. He and Malone and NZ colleague Cameron Bennett watched as Mandela calmed a crowd in Soweto football stadium after gunfire erupted. He lectured those who fired the guns, saying the new South Africa had no place for such failings. But he did not try to rouse the crowd, as Hugh puts it: “He wanted not triumphalism but empathy.”
The tension disappeared on April 27 as millions of black Africans were allowed to vote for the first time. The Star newspaper in Johannesburg had this splash headline: “Vote, the beloved country,” with the first sentence: “Apartheid died today.” Mandy, our terrific South African fixer (she helped both Sunday and Nightline), managed to get Hugh and his crew passes for the African National Congress (ANC) victory party in the Carlton hotel. On the night victory was declared, Nelson Mandela came to the hotel to announce the result. The ANC had won with more than 62% of the vote. Mandela concluded his remarks: “Now we know the true meaning of the words: ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.” The closing words of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.
Mandela disappeared from hotel, while the crowd outside had grown to hundreds of thousands. Hugh and Richard were surrounded by the dancing, exuberant crowd. Richard filmed a white guy driving out of the basement car park, looking a bit frightened, but he stuck his arm out of the car, and yelled “Amandla” – a cry of black solidarity. He had no trouble getting out of the huge celebrations. Hugh said it was the biggest story he ever covered, although he admits he’s not sure what the biggest story even means. This is what he wrote: “This was a night radiant with freedom and joy, a night of biblical promise, when the yoke of an enslaved people was finally throw down. In life – in history – there are few moments of such power.”
Hugh Riminton sets the scene with potted profiles of the places he’s reporting from: London in winter is “The Old Grey Lady, dark and shrouded in mists until 8.30am, the darkness falling again by mid-afternoon”; Soweto, “a dark triumph of apartheid’s social engineering”; Albania, “a sad old place”; Christmas Island, “A dot of rock resembling a stretching cat, it was best known for its profusion of land crabs”; and Jerusalem: “To walk among ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus had walked before his betrayal and crucifixion, was powerful indeed.”
He also fights the good fight against employers when he thinks they’ve made the wrong decision. After Channel Nine ordered him and his crew to leave Baghdad as invasion day approached in 2003, Riminton went ballistic: “It was the worst journalistic decision I ever saw at Nine. They were gutless. They had lost their nerve.” When he got back to Sydney, the boss told him: “No story is worth dying for.” Hugh replied: “No story is worth the certainty of dying for. We are not suicide bombers. But any story that big is worth taking a risk for.”
And he loved working for CNN, anchoring the news from Hong Kong and covering big stories in Asia, from the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, to the huge snowstorm in China in January 2008, and four months later, the gigantic earthquake in Sichuan Province which killed 90 thousand people, and left five million homeless. CNN also sent him back to Baghdad during the Bush administration’s surge, a counter-insurgency plan that didn’t work. A US Staff Sergeant, Matt St Pierre, who led a convoy Riminton joined, told him: “This is our generation’s Vietnam. I don’t think this can be won. We’re caught in the middle of a civil war.” (Photo below of Hugh — lower left — in pre-invasion Baghdad. Photo: Richard Moran)

Riminton says to be part of the CNN Baghdad operation was the greatest privilege of his reporting life, but he finally left the network because of its culture, which was relentless work. His friend and colleague at CNN, Stan Grant, wrote about his mental breakdown in his book Talking to my Country, after working insane hours at the Beijing bureau. Grant is now with the ABC. And Hugh writes CNN “ran their star reporter Michael Ware, until his mental health utterly collapsed.” Riminton says: “All in all, CNN were wonderful people to work with, terrible people to work for.”
Hugh moved back to Australia as bureau chief of the Ten Network in Canberra in 2009, with his third wife Mary Lloyd, who he met while in Hong Kong as a producer with CNN. It’s a love story for the ages. Hugh now has four children, two with Mary, Jacob and Holly, and Caitlin with his first wife, Sue, and Coco with his second wife, Kumi Taguchi. In 2014, he moved back to Sydney to take on a newsreading job at Ten and spend more time with his children and support Mary’s career: “I became, at last, a proper family man.”
What does Hugh Riminton think about the future of journalism? He says journalism is in a state of financial collapse, but this is his last word from Minefields: “Sound information will always be in demand. It seems shonky information will be in even greater demand. But whatever shape the future takes, the old model of the journalist as the well-paid reporter and interpreter of the times is gone. For better or worse. I hope I have done my bit to do my calling justice. It has been a hell of a ride.”
Minefields: A life in the news game, Hugh Riminton, Hachette Australia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s