08 — My South Sydney Herald feature article November 2007

Inside the Whale

Former ABC Middle East correspondent Mark Willacy doesn’t just take you into the news or even behind the news. He takes you under the news – and I for one wanted to scream. Not at Willacy, but at the leaders of this world…

Mark Willacy will be at Politics in the Pub on Friday 23 November from 6 pm to 7.45 at the Gaelic Club, Level 1, 64 Devonshire St., Surry Hills (across from Chalmers St exit and Devonshire St tunnel at Central Station). Parking is usually available in side streets. Afterwards you may have dinner at the Royal Exhibition Hotel across the road.

Imagine this. “The 17-year-old was just a torso and a head. His legs had been blown away, and his stomach had been peeled open. He looked like the android from the movie Aliens after the alien queen has torn him in two with her stabbing, serrated tail.”

This was a suicide bomber. It is the first scene to confront Mark Willacy as he takes up his appointment as ABC correspondent in Jerusalem in 2002. It is the first paragraph in his recently published The View from the Valley of Hell: Four Years in the Middle East (Macmillan Australia 2007 $35rrp).

He was to see worse, in Gaza, in Israel, in Iraq.

And yet he is able to say, speaking to SBS: “I’m optimistic. I’m pessimistic about the political classes. But I’m optimistic about the human condition of the ordinary citizen. I met people over there who showed boundless compassion to other people who were supposed to be their enemy, and I saw other people do amazing things that they didn’t have to do on behalf of people they didn’t really know.”

He told The South Sydney Herald that the thing to remember about Israel, Palestine, Iraq – indeed the whole Middle East – is that not everyone is a terrorist, a fanatic, or a military or political power tripper. On all sides there are wonderful people quite capable of getting on with one another. But we have been witnessing tragedies that will resonate probably for generations to come. No one side has a monopoly either on violence or hypocrisy – or virtue.

Asked what someone attending Politics in the Pub might take away with them, Mark Willacy said: “I hope they might be sceptical about what the media and politicians say, especially about the Middle East, and be prepared to do some digging of their own. I hope they leave my talk with renewed interest in the subject.”

In 2003 veteran journalist Phillip Knightley wrote: “…the age of the war correspondent as hero appears to be over. Whether war correspondents would wish to continue as propagandists and myth-makers, plying their craft subservient to those who wage wars, is a decision they will need to make for themselves.”

What Mark Willacy’s decision was is obvious from The View from the Valley of Hell.

Not unexpectedly that has led to some seeing him as a propagandist. In our age true impartiality is not valued, is indeed suspect.

I imagine Mark Willacy is too modest, or too realistic, to wear the “hero” tag comfortably, but I don’t think he would mind my borrowing “Inside the Whale” from George Orwell to head this story. Honesty is clearly one of this reporter’s values.

There is also a depth of humour and compassion that comes through his book and speaking to Mark Willacy confirms this.

Today he lives a quiet family life and after a period working for the ABC’s rural program Landline he now is with The 7.30 Report. What he saw in the Middle East during those four years has led him to treasure his family above all else.

But there is still plenty of fire in the belly. There are those for whom The View from the Valley of Hell will be uncomfortable reading. Buy or borrow the book. Read the “Epilogue” several times. All the hypocrisy, humanity, complexity and tragedy are summed up there.

On election eve you can hear him for yourself at the Gaelic Club. I am looking forward to it.

If you feel like screaming afterwards, carry your anger to the ballot box.

— South Sydney Herald November 2007.