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Interview with Belinda Hawkins

Sarah Hunt chats to producer of Australian Story, Belinda Hawkins, about what it takes to be a good story-teller and Malcolm Turnbull losing his temper.

Belinda Hawkins is the cool aunty everyone wishes they had. She has worked for over 25 years as one of Australia’s most well-recognised journalists on Foreign Correspondent, SBS and now ABC’s popular program Australian Story. She also makes amazing soup, collects art from around the globe and is addicted to Law and Order.

I arrived to meet with her at ABC’s Ripponlea studios and found the office in a state of agitation. The applications for the 2011 Walkley Awards, Australia’s premier journalism prize, needed to be finished within the hour. Belinda and editor Elena Christie were frantically getting the applications done, with much discussion of good stories to enter and why generic application forms are always so confusing.

Of course, there is nothing like a bit of deadline chaos to get a journalist’s blood pumping. I sat eager-eyed beside Belinda as she typed and began to piece together why she has no ordinary, Australian story.

Can you tell me what it’s like to have such insight to the lives of some of Australia’s most interesting people?

It’s such a great honour to step inside someone’s shoes and feel what it is like to be them. If I felt no empathy towards the people I was dealing with, I think I couldn’t convey a sense of them to the audience and we’d be just like any other current affairs program.

I’ve enjoyed doing stories on whistleblowers because they are in such a tenuous position. Their lives are often in danger and they seldom resume anything like a normal life after filming Australian Story. Two people come to mind in particular; Simon Illingworth and Lieutenant Lance Collins. Simon’s story was about the Victoria Police and Lance’s story was about corruption in the military. The Simon Illingworth story came about because someone rang us and told us we should speak to him. I went to meet him and I was fixated to the story he was telling me – it sent shivers up my spine. He is a very charismatic person and obviously very much on the edge.

So how do you create trust between the story talent and yourself?

We go and meet people first of all so they can have a sense if they want to take part in anything, ultimately they will have to develop some trust in me. It’s also for me to get some sense of what is the underlying story and what are the happening things now that we could film so they aren’t just like a CV on television.

Do you think it’s a luxury that once the Australian Story is finished you are able to continue your normal life but the whistleblower in your story cannot?

I think doing an Australian Story can have a lot of terrific consequences for someone and I can’t think of anyone who wasn’t glad they did it. Firstly, even if they got sick of it, they have been in the public eye dealing with someone trailing after them and in a sense felt important. Once something goes to air there is also a sense of being important; but then they go back to obscurity afterwards and I think that’s really difficult. We always stay in touch with people for a long time after the story. When you come to know someone’s situation, you don’t tend to disappear from it.

I’m sure people often disclose very personal information to you during filming. Does that feel like a large responsibility?

Absolutely, I feel if they need to have aspects of their life kept private then it is totally my responsibility to do that. I’ve gotten very upset if there is any suggestion we hand over our material to other programs. People invest a huge amount of faith in trust in us and while they have no say over what goes to air you have to respect that faith and trust.

I am amazed at the scope of the footage you obtain in your stories. How long do you follow people for before the stories go to air?

Well I started the story about Samuel Symons about three years ago. It went through a period where his father [Red Symons] didn’t think it was a good thing to do. I waited until Samuel was in year 12. It was clear then that the story would have a redemptive ending because he was going to get through year 12.

I followed the Symons family on a literal journey through all the years of having treatments, so I got to see Samuel growing up through our filming. The hardest thing with that story was making sure it was always about Samuel and getting his father, Red, to talk. It’s very hard to get public people or actors to speak in their own voice.

I have come to admire Samuel and his family enormously. I think his story has had a massive impact on people whose children are dealing with life threatening diseases. People regularly approach me and talk about that story in particular.

In your story about former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, Paths of Glory, you achieved every journalist’s dream of being present as the ‘Utegate’ affair unfolded. Take me to what you were thinking as the cameras were rolling.

Part of being a journalist is chance and opportunity, but it’s also what you make of the opportunity. The Turnbull story was amazing because I constantly thought I was going to be kicked out and I wasn’t. On the day the Gordon Gretch material was found to be fake,Lucy Turnbull was in the PR office and everyone was finding out what was happening. Malcolm Turnbull would have kicked me out had he been in the house and not at House of Representatives. Lucy and the staff were so consumed by what was going on that they just forgot I was there.

I imagine there would have been some hairy moments afterwards with Malcolm Turnbull?

Malcolm Turnbull was interesting and unnerving at the same time. He would lose his temper with me regularly off camera. He often said to me: ‘I am the leader of the opposition and you are so pushy!’ In this program you have be sensitive with people and you also have to know when to keep going because people all get exasperated at a certain point.

From one leader to another: your Australian Story about PM Julia Gillard, She Who Waits, went to air the same week she took the leadership from then PM Kevin Rudd. Was that an amazing coincidence or did you have an idea something was going to happen?

It was in part serendipity, but it was also informed by calls I made to some who might know about what would be good timing. Another thing that told me something must be going on was because she was so definitely not having anything to do with us. All her close confidents wouldn’t talk to us either, so she wouldn’t be perceived as positioning herself [for the leadership].

So back to the task at hand, tell me what you are entering for this year’s Walkley Awards.

Now I’m entering In My Little Town and we’ve got five more to do. The Walkley Awards look to writing and voiceover which makes it hard for Australian Story to win because, of course, we don’t use voiceover. Australian Story leaves it up to the viewer to make up their own mind, which leads some viewers to think we are being ‘soft’. If you are more didactic then you’ll hit the tick boxes more readily for the Walkley judges.

Do you think that is an old fashioned way of looking at story telling?

Australian Story is still seen as experimental and not current affairs. Australian Story’s style gets mimicked all over the place, but voiceover has been around a lot longer and that’s what people know.

And finally, what television programs do you watch?

I watch Law and Order, Lie to Me and other crime shows. My daughter is addicted so now I am also in the world of crime shows. I also watch straight current affairs on Monday nights on ABC, Foreign Correspondent, Four Corners, 7:30 Report, Lateline and Dateline. You have to watch everything.

Sarah Hunt is a freelance journalist. This was originally published at her blog, Hidden Documentary.

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