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Prue Clarke grew up in rural NSW knowing her calling was to expose injustice. Now the award-winning international journalist has taken her fight to the nations of Africa. By Andrew Purcell.

Journalist Prue Clarke and New Narratives

Prue Clarke reporting in Ghana, 2006.
Credit: SUPPLIED

The realisation that no one was listening came gradually to Prue Clarke. For as long as she could remember, she had wanted to be a war correspondent, and by her mid-30s she had fulfilled that ambition. She had been to the front lines and witnessed the horror, and had the awards and the post-traumatic stress disorder to prove it.

She had reported from New York on the day people fell from the sky on fire and a new and endless war began. She had seen Liberia ripped apart for its resources by men leading militias of child soldiers, high on drugs and witchcraft, who raped and burned and brutalised a path across the country. “There were so many stories that were so dark I couldn’t report them, because my audience couldn’t take it,” she says. “I couldn’t get my family to listen anymore. They were like, ‘Yeah, rape and horrible things are happening in Africa, but there’s nothing we can do about it.’ ”

In Ghana, she reported on boys and girls sold into slavery, their growth stunted by working on Lake Volta’s fleet of fishing boats from dawn until sundown. One boy had a long scar on his arm where he had been thrashed with a plank with a nail in it. A girl told her she had seen
a boy beaten to death and tossed overboard.

The report, for US public radio, won the New York Festivals Gold World Medal. Oprah’s producers picked it up and repackaged it as a human-interest story. Isn’t it sad? Aren’t these Africans strange? There was no mention of the World Trade Organisation driving down tariffs and undercutting Ghanaian rice farmers; no attempt to explain why Ghanaian men had so many children and so little money that selling them had become a sensible option.

“I aired that story in Ghana and it had absolutely no impact; it was amazing,” Clarke says. “If you have never trusted the media, never understood the media’s role in democracy…” When she broadcast scoops about multinational corporations defrauding the Ghanaian government, listeners just shrugged.

As a girl, growing up in rural New South Wales, journalism was the only career Clarke seriously considered. A documentary filmmaker or a lawyer, perhaps, but “always with the same goal: exposing injustices”. Yet the more corruption and human misery she uncovered, the more powerless she felt. Although her work appeared in Newsweek and The Times, and millions tuned in to her reports on BBC Radio, it often seemed as if no one could hear what she was saying.

The turning point came in 2006, at a camp for rape survivors in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The first four stories she taped were too traumatic to broadcast. One 14-year-old girl, a pygmy, was carrying the child of a full-sized man and likely to die in childbirth.

“For once I wasn’t sorry for them – I was angry. ‘Why don’t you do something?’ So I asked them why it was happening to them and one after another they said ‘witchcraft’. They had no idea about the militias that were being backed by different countries in the region, no idea about the mineral wealth in the mines that were under their feet.”

To sophisticated news audiences, the postcolonial scramble for mineral wealth in Africa is a tragically familiar story, but without strong, independent local media, Congolese women couldn’t understand why war had upended their lives. “They just weren’t hearing the truth,” Clarke says. “If you don’t know what it’s about, you can’t rise up and say, ‘Stop this!’ ”

Her response was to found a non-government organisation: New Narratives – Africans Reporting Africa. Liberia had recently elected the continent’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In partnership with a newspaper there, Front Page Africa, the organisation has created a culture of journalism from scratch in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Before, journalists were paid not by the newspapers and radio stations they worked for, but by the people they reported on – a system guaranteed to serve the powerful. The nearest thing to an independent media was a man with a blackboard in the capital, Monrovia, chalking up stories gleaned from his sources around the country each morning.

Now Front Page Africa sets the agenda for the talk shows, with in-depth investigative reporting of issues, including female genital cutting, teenage prostitution and child rape, that were previously ignored. Almost all of its star reporters, paid as “fellows” by New Narratives, are women. At the 2015 Press Union of Liberia Awards, one of them, Mae Azango, won in almost half the categories.

“One in 10 pregnancies in Liberia ends in the death of the mother. That’s a major news story,” Clarke says. “If we put it in context and show everybody how big a problem it is for Liberia, it will have a big impact.” A step back from the front line, she has found her space to make a difference.

 

Clarke earned her first headline the day she turned one year old. Her mother, Penelope Plummer, was Australia’s first Miss World, in 1968, and The Daily Telegraph considered Prue’s birthday worthy of the front page. At school, she found fame a mixed blessing – “She’s Miss World. How come you turned out like that?” – but in her kitchen in Brooklyn she has a framed photo of her mother in a Mary Quant-style mini-dress.

Penelope Plummer could trace her ancestry back to the First Fleet. Prue’s father’s father, on the other hand, was put on a boat from Belfast at 14 to escape the Irish Republican Army, after his father, policeman Christopher Clarke, was murdered. According to family lore, he spent his first night under Wingham bridge, on the NSW Mid North Coast, with 50 cents in his pocket.

Patrick Clarke made good in his new homeland – good enough to become mayor of Wingham and buy up half the town, including several sawmills and a 120-hectare cattle farm – but the injustice of his exile was never forgotten. “That narrative appealed to me and dominated my life,” Prue says. Her dad rooted for the underdog, and passed the condition on.

Prue read economics and social science at Sydney University, and at 23 won a cadetship in the ABC Sydney newsroom. After three weeks’ training, she was thrown onto the air to learn from her mistakes. The old hands ripped up her scripts. One live insert began with a Chinese swimmer banned for doping at the World Championships attacking her cameraman and ended with anchor Richard Morecroft asking Clarke, “So that’s all you have to add?” when she dried up.

Six months in, she ran a story about an Aboriginal leader criticising the government. It was a Saturday, and nobody was available to give an official response. The Prime Minister’s Office complained strenuously to ABC management the next day, and John Howard never forgot it. The way Clarke tells it, this was the best training imaginable.

She moved to New York to study journalism at Columbia University, met her future husband Eric de Cavaignac, and stayed. On September 11, 2001, she was interning in the Financial Times newsroom when reports came in that an aeroplane had hit the World Trade Centre. Thinking that a light aircraft flying into a skyscraper was a story worth checking out, she hailed a cab downtown and continued on foot once the flow of people walking in the other direction became too intense.

“There were things falling out of the building, but your mind plays these tricks on you. I was convinced that they were just bits of debris that were aflame,” she says. From her vantage point on Vesey Street, one block north, she watched the first tower collapse as if in slow motion. To avoid being crushed underfoot, she stood behind a lamppost, as people stampeded around her. “It took a while to realise that I hadn’t died.”

The ABC’s nearest correspondent was in Washington, DC. Clarke seized her chance. Twenty-one Australians had died in the attacks and there were countless others among the survivors. At the hospitals, family members were desperate to talk, hoping their missing loved ones would see the report and come home.

In the first few days of reporting, she received phone calls from two of her mentors, veteran Australian journalists Robert Thomson and Max Uechtritz. “Both of them had been in Tiananmen Square. And they called me, separately, and said, ‘Expect this to take a toll,’ ” she recalls. “Now I know what they’re talking about.” Clarke spent time in therapy, and still avoids going anywhere near Ground Zero if she can help it.

Her first child, Lucca Banjo, was born in 2008. A daughter, Aurelia, followed in 2013. Clarke replayed every child rape and child slavery and child neglect story she’d ever written, and imagined her own kids suffering. She took her current teaching post at the City University of New York in the conviction that she could make a difference, but also because of the stability and time at home it affords.

“I honestly think that, having had a choice to step away from [war reporting], that some people who get locked into it, it’s a mental health problem,” she says. “At first I thought it was a privilege. I wanted to talk to these women that had suffered things I couldn’t possibly imagine, to try to understand it. And I did, for a few years.”

Her role at New Narratives takes her to Liberia every few months, to oversee projects that require her editorial input. In July, the NGO signed a two-year partnership with the Thomson Reuters Foundation to investigate the country’s oil industry. The regulatory body that held an auction for drilling rights at the peak of last year’s Ebola crisis promises to be a rich vein of stories.

President Sirleaf, on her international victory laps since being awarded the 2011 Nobel peace prize, takes pride in Liberia’s free press, but in practice, journalism is still a dangerous business there. Rodney Sieh, the founder of Front Page Africa, got too close to government corruption and was sentenced to 5000 years in prison when he couldn’t pay a $1.5 million fine on a trumped-up libel charge. He was only freed as a result of a sustained popular campaign, at home and abroad, for his release.

When Mae Azango reported on the widespread practice of female genital cutting on International Women’s Day in 2012, she received death threats and had to go into hiding. “To be independent in these places, you have to be willing to withstand threats to your family, be jailed, and say no to huge bribes,” Clarke says. “Those people are very rare.”

Since Azango’s story, women have begun speaking out against genital cutting, from Sirleaf’s fellow Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee to girls from the Liberian bush, telling their mothers they don’t want to be cut. Sirleaf is a notable exception, but there is a bill in parliament to ban the practice. “Liberia is changing itself,” Clarke says.

Clarke is sceptical about the capacity of foreign NGOs to make a difference – “Africa chews up and spits out 99 per cent of the do-gooders who go in there” – and is upset about the way they hire the best African journalists and put them to work in public relations.

One of the best young reporters at New Narratives, Sonnie Morris, was poached by the United Nations at 16 times her radio station salary, but Wade Williams, who shot the first video of a Liberian Ebola victim being buried, at a time when the government was trying to keep the outbreak quiet and NGOs were reporting that it had been contained in Liberia, has stayed on, as has Azango, even though both could earn much more in the aid sector.  

In her conversations with them, Clarke stresses that no matter how strong their desire to change Liberia for the better, they are journalists, not activists. “I hate that ‘activist journalism’ term,” she says. “As a journalist, you’re just telling the facts. Africa has plenty of people spouting their opinions. There are too few people doing the research to expose the truth.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 17, 2016 as "Truth teller". Subscribe here.

Andrew Purcell
is a British freelance journalist based in New York.