The two key ingredients to getting a good story are Trust and Access.
If you want subjects to tell you their stories you have to gain their trust, and in turn they may just grant you access to the truth. As ABC reporter Stephen McDonell, knows too well, that job can be easier in some countiees more than others.
This week on Foreign Correspondent he presents “The Other China Boom,” reporting on the flow of hard drugs from Myanmar into China and beyond, a story that has required weeks of research and filming.
“It’s a side of China that people don’t often see. Drugs are coming out of Mynamar partly because of the political stability there and partly because of the demand for drugs in China,” he says.
“The drugs are also going from Burma through China into other countries, including Australia. We’re talking about not only a big pick-up in Heroin but also Ice and other new drugs.”
Somewhat surprisingly, McDonell was given unfettered access with police drug squads as they undertook all manner of arrests and raids that would never be granted in an equivalent situation in Australia -but it makes his report all the more compelling. Such is the paradox of government access in Communist China.
“We’ve managed to get quite extensive access to the Drug Squad in Yunnan Province following them around, busting people, catching them with drugs on their bodies, smuggling them across borders,” he says.
“In China it’s hard to operate as a journalist at the best of times, especially in television. But the thing with the Chinese is once you get in –you get in. If they give you access it’s real access. So we go along with the Drug Squad and they said, ‘Whatever happens you can film it.’
“It’s pretty gripping fly-on-the-wall style documentary journalism.
“We also go to Shanghai’s nightclub scene and follow the drug trail and even go to a drug rehab centre.
“We go to one that has 100 ex-Heroin addicts there, working in factories.”
McDonell (pictured, second from left) has gathered so much footage on the topic that it will lead the return of Foreign Correspondent, split across two episodes.
The first part follows the drug trade from Burma, into China, through Kunming and up to Shanghai whilst the second looks at the fightback from China’s Drug Squad and their massive resources to thwart the problem.
“They know they’re almost fighting a losing battle but they’re proud of their work and the busts they’re making and the efforts they’re going to to stop Heroin and Ice pouring into China so they’re happy for us to see that. It’s different if we’re filming people doing illegal things like buying and selling drugs. That’s another question. Obviously we’re doing that from a safe distance,” he insists.
“We only get into dangerous situations if it’s a calculated risk. We’re not going to take stupid risks. There’s some element of risk, but it’s always calculated –with an escape strategy.”
Having been an ABC correspondent in China since 2006, McDonell files stories for ABC on television, radio and online on China, Mongolia, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
But in the multitude of potential stories in China there are also those that can’t be told.
“What is really going on in the upper echelons of the Communist Party is virtually impenetrable for foreign correspondents,” he observes.
“Or the military, but that’s to be expected. It’s the same as covering the military in Australia, in a way.
“The Tibetan autonomous region is a no-go zone, pretty much.
“But there’s so much happening in China and it’s a big and changing place that there are so many great stories to be told if you just try. And often we’re surprised by who does let us in and who doesn’t.
“China is an all-consuming story machine.
“But it’s definitely a brilliant, interesting and awesome place to live and work in and to be able to tell people’s stories about. In the case of this (story) there’s everything from little, kooky border towns to 23 million people in Shanghai…. the contrasts in this story are just huge.”
Now in its 21st year, Foreign Correspondent this year made international news with its revelations on “Prisoner X” in Israel, reported to be Australian-Israeli Ben Zygier. The show has traditionally been ABC’s “window on the world.”
But not all stories require an Aussie link to justify their inclusion in the show.
“If a story is a good story about China then we’ll do it. Our viewers don’t need it to be immediately relevant to them to be interesting. It’s like the people who read books about other parts of the world or watch documentaries or dramas about other parts of the world. With Foreign Correspondent we can take them to somewhere they’ve never been,” he says.
“Sure, we may touch their lives but in some ways the more exotic and interesting it is the better.”
Foreign Correspondent returns 8pm Tuesday on ABC1.