Where Are They Now? An Interview With 2014 Social Innovation Winner Prue Clarke

Prue Clarke is an award-winning international journalist, the recipient of the 2014 Advance Social Innovation Award, and a global Australian if there ever was one.  

She was covering war, poverty and development across Africa for the BBC when it became clear to her that she was reporting for the wrong people. Her audiences in the US, UK, Canada and Australia had much better information about the causes of African wars and poverty than the people themselves. Much of the news available in Africa was biased and journalists lacked the training and resources Prue’s colleagues in the West took for granted. In a 2007 reporting trip to a refugee camp in the war-ravaged Eastern Congo, women told Prue it was simply their lot in life to endure rape. They knew nothing about the mineral riches in the land beneath their feet or the warlords who were funding the fighting to steal it. Prue knew as long as the people didn’t know the reason for their suffering they were powerless to stand up and fight it. 

As a result, Prue started New Narratives, a non-profit organisation to provide the resources, editorial and business support that media organisations needed to deliver accurate news in their home country. Boosting the number of female journalists was a particular focus of the project.

Since winning the Award – a lot of things have changed for Prue – Advance recently caught up with her in New York to find out exactly what.

 

You were the recipient of the 2014 Social Innovation Award. What’s changed since then?  

Personally, a lot of things have changed; I was living in London at the time and was working for the BBC across West Africa on Ebola projects. I’m now back in New York, working at City University of New York (CUNY) and on New Narratives.

Professionally, a lot has changed also. I received the Advance Social Innovation Award just as Ebola was kicking up in West Africa. During that period, my worst fear was picking up the phone and hearing that one of my journalists had contacted the disease. There was a conspiracy theory at the time that the government was exacerbating the hype of the disease just to receive international aid, which was a serious suspicion to have. My journalists were doing really ground-breaking work to negate this, and also spreading the knowledge of the epidemic. Some of our reporters were literally going out with a video camera and were filming burial teams burying dead bodies, which played an incredibly important role in spreading the message to Liberians that what was happening was real.  

Shortly after receiving the Award, I took on a new role at the BBC, and went to Liberia in the middle of the Ebola crisis where the journalists were creating programs in their own languages for people inside the country. Seeing the culmination of the New Narratives work and being there working for the BBC – being able to marry those two things together was incredibly gratifying.  

The other thing that has changed is forming a partnership with the Thompson Reuters Foundation, funded by the Norweigan government, to look at oil and gas reporting. We’re working with the best reporters in the country at the most influential publications to hold global leaders accountable.

 

What was it like going to Liberia in the thick of the Ebola crisis?  

I had been working on the project for a while so I wasn’t afraid. I had spoken to the best doctors in America and in Europe and it was very clear that if you weren’t in contact with someone who was violently ill, you could not get Ebola. This fact was not one that was conveyed in the media around the world. Even if someone had a fever and a sore throat – the classic first symptoms of Ebola – they’re not contagious. It’s not until they’re vomiting, sweating, having profuse diarrhoea (at which stage it’s pretty obvious) are they contagious. I knew if I had no contact with people who were violently ill there was very little chance of me having Ebola. I found that I was more worried with the overreaction of everybody upon my return!

 

Did being the winner of the Award open any doors or create any opportunities for you?

It did – however I wish the ensuing year wasn’t as busy as it was! Following the Awards, I had a one year old baby, had just gone back to work, Ebola was happening, and then we moved to New York. It would have been so great to have some time to follow up with Australian funders and some other people interested in what we were doing. 

The projects I’m working on are so innovative and different – sometimes it’s hard for corporate donors who can be stuck in a bureaucratic mindset to recognise the value of them. An Award like this acts as validity that what these global Australians are working on is real.  The Awards definitely gave me some credibility and visibility that I never would have had otherwise.

 

In your opinion, in what ways did it highlight the skill and talent of global Australians?

Australians are so great! You run in to Australians everywhere you go, and we have this innate common sense and work ethic and practical approach to the world. I don’t work very well in big bureaucracies because I just want to get there and do it. That’s just the Australian in me.

 

Was there any sole impetus for starting New Narratives, perhaps an ah-ha moment, or did the gradual exposure to the types of atrocities you saw prompt you to take action?

Having covered horrific stories in Africa for years, I always thought that I would go off independently and expose them myself. I spoke about it so much it got to the point where even my family wasn’t listening anymore! I remember one day I was in the Congo and it was a really dark afternoon – doing interview after interview for about four hours, of one rape victim after the other. There are so many stories that happen in warzones that you’ll never hear about in the media because we just can’t tell them. I was being told that by mothers that their children contacted HIV by witchcraft – they had no idea why this fighting was happening – they had no idea about the international community, nothing.

It made me want to empower them to tell these stories to each other, as nothing was being achieved by simply telling these stories to western countries. I started New Narratives in Liberia because they were recovering from a horrific civil war – horrible things were happening to women and children that I couldn’t live with – stories that gave me horrific nightmares and PTSD. Almost everything cleared up the moment New Narratives was started and we started having some wins – I now feel great about the fact that they are saving girls and women from things like female genital cutting.

 

What direct affect have you seen New Narratives have on social change in Liberia? In what other countries do you see its impact?

There are just so many stories being told in Liberia that would have never been told before. Outside of women’s issues – we did the first gay rights story, and as a result more people are starting to talk about gay rights.

 

Do you ever get any backlash for it? 

We have. One journalist who spoke about female cutting – her daughter has now claimed asylum in the US because they were also threatening to cut her. The editor of one of the newspapers went to jail, and we had to fight to get him out – part of that fight included a New York Times opinion piece, complete with a letter from his jail cell. The top journalists of the country are now women, it’s still an incredibly patriarchal culture, so to have female journalists has many repercussions for the organisation and the women themselves. They are very high profile just because of their job so they are role models for other women, they tell stories that men don’t recognise as stories. Men do ‘testosterone’ stories, which is generally politics and scandal, whereas women write stories that affect everybody. I would say that the media in Liberia has had a revolution in the last six years in terms of understanding what is news, and what is a story.

 

How do you hope to see New Narratives grow over the course of the next few years?

I would love to see New Narratives grow in to surrounding countries over the next few years. We’ve got it down to a tight model now. We focus on the best journalists. That focus could be implemented in any of the English speaking countries in West Africa and have a huge impact.

 

How has the field of journalism changed in the past 15 years – do you think there’s still scope for young Australians go overseas and have the same opportunities as there once was? Or has the industry become far too crowded and competitive?  

It’s done a complete revolution in the past 15 years – to the point where it has become unrecognisable. And we still don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know whether Vice or Buzzfeed and the like are going to be the new media. The program that I teach here at CUNY is something that could not have happened 15 years ago. Back then, we had to make our way up through newsrooms or a cadetship to get to where we are – watching foreign correspondence stories and the like. I came to New York to get some international experience, but pretty soon after I came here in 2000 all the foreign bureaucrats were slashed and you could go out and be a young freelancer and be working for a publications like the New York Times or the ABC. Now, young reporters don’t have to wait to be foreign correspondents. If they’re willing to go work from somewhere like Liberia and report for all the media around the world – they can make a living and do very well. There are a bunch of Australians that have done that exact thing – gone through the Middle East to get to this position.

 

What do you like most about being the Director of the International Reporting Program at CUNY?

I am in the centre of one of the best pool of international reporting, and I’m learning from professors and journalists who have a wealth of experience that come in and speak to the students. The students are great too – a lot of them go on to do some incredible things. I’m teaching them all the things I learnt at the ABC, which I have to say is the best training that anyone could ever have. It also gives me the flexibility to run this project from Liberia, to come and go – what more could you want?