Australia has sent forth many outstanding journalists to spend their careers reporting on Asia. Sean Dorney stands with those correspondents but, uniquely, he devoted his life to covering Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific.
Because of Australia’s recurring capacity to forget the Islands, only a handful of Oz hacks will ever approach Dorney’s lifetime of Pacific reporting. His retirement from the ABC after 40 years completes a long journey.
Dorney did dual service—reporting the South Pacific to Australia and the region to itself. His stories were broadcast to PNG and the Islands on Radio Australia shortwave and retransmitted on local FM transmitters in Island capitals. Then he added pictures by becoming Pacific correspondent for the ABC’s international TV service. He truly was a South Pacific correspondent as well as an Australian reporter.
The citation for Dorney’s Order of Australia in 2000 read: ‘For service to journalism as a foreign correspondent.’ And that gets it right, because his service was to journalism in the South Pacific as well as in Australia.
Sean started out as PNG was just beginning the nation-building job bequeathed it at independence. Australia did a reasonable job administering PNG but until the last moment paid no attention to preparing for nationhood; the creation of the sense of a nation had to be done by PNG.
Dorney’s journalism contributed to the understanding PNG developed of itself. He did the same for South Pacific regionalism—the idea that these newly independent island states could have a collective South Pacific identity. Quite an achievement for one man with a microphone.
As a young ABC hack, he went to Port Moresby on secondment in 1974 and spent three years working with PNG’s new NBC radio service. He met and married Pauline, the first female journalist/broadcaster from Manus Province, in late 1976. One of the many things Pauline made him do was pay the proper bride price so Dorney would have status with the village—and he’s been learning ever since. This was a reporter who embraced PNG in every sense.
The family returned to Port Moresby in 1979 when Sean became the ABC correspondent and his Pacific career was set. Correspondents Report has devoted a program to Dorney’s work so let’s cut to the anecdotes.
Start with a Port Moresby demonstration by soldiers angry at poor pay. Troops broke branches off trees and hit parked cars as they marched on parliament. As Dorney was recording this one soldier tried to rip the recorder out of his hands. There was good audio of the scuffle as Dorney grappled to keep his machine. Then the next lot of soldiers came by and the mood turned friendly. ‘Hi, Sean!’ they called with a wave; all the contrasts of covering PNG in one morning.
We’d like to say the recognition was due to his journalism—but Dorney also played for the PNG Rugby League team and captained it in 1976. In one Moresby match, he threw a wayward pass that resulted in a try to a visiting NSW side. The PNG crowd vigorously abused Dorney until a loud voice proclaimed: ‘Leave Sean alone. He’s just helping his wontoks!’ Pauline’s father was at that game, carrying a small axe in his bilum (string bag). When Dorney got heavily tackled, Dad had to be restrained from joining the action with the axe.
The Dorney recognition factor affected Australia’s Foreign Minister, Andrew Peacock, when he landed at a Highlands airport to be greeted by several thousand people. Peacock’s greeting as he emerged from the plane was reasonably enthusiastic. But as the Foreign Minister walked across the tarmac, Dorney came into view at the top of the stairs, and the crowd erupted in cheers. On his return to Canberra, Peacock said one thing he’d discovered in PNG was never to travel with Sean—it was bad for the ego.
Long-time New Caledonia correspodent Helen Fraser said her memory of Dorney is being stuck between the French riot police and right-wing demonstrators —rocks were flying from one direction and tear gas from the other. In the midst of this mayhem, there was Dorney in long socks and shorts, dashing around with a microphone having the time of his life. Helen describes Dorney grabbing her by the hand and pulling her through the riot, recording as he went. Helen’s advice: If you’re ever trapped in a riot, make sure you’re with Sean— he can be very reassuring.
Dorney was expelled by PNG in 1984 as punishment for an ABC Four Corners program on the PNG–Indonesia border. The following year, I interviewed PNG’s Prime Minister, Michael Somare, and during the chat afterwards said to the Chief: ‘How could you throw out your old footy captain?’
‘Ah, it’s not Sean, it’s the bloody ABC’, Somare said.
I replied it was surprising how often I’d heard such blasphemy about my beloved broadcasting service from Australian leaders—not least Bob Hawke.
Somare broke into a broad grin and said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get Sean back. He’s one of ours.’ That’s Dorney’s achievement. Australia can claim him; and so can the South Pacific.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow.