“Humbled and Honoured” – Our Honorary Doctorate Karen Middleton
By Bronwyn Watson
On September 11, 2001, Karen Middleton was staying in the Willard Hotel, near the White House, in Washington DC. Middleton, who was the chief political correspondent for The West Australian newspaper, was in Washington to cover Prime Minister John Howard’s visit to the United States. Knowing she didn’t have an early start, she and some colleagues had been out late the night before.
After she woke that morning, Middleton didn’t turn on the television immediately to watch the news as she normally would. As she got ready ahead of a prime ministerial news conference scheduled for 9.20am, she received a phone call from her office back in Perth, alerting her to what was going on. She turned on the television and, sitting in her hotel room, she watched as the second plane hit the World Trade Center in New York.
It was a day that Middleton recounts in her 2011 book An Unwinnable War: Australia in Afghanistan, the political backstory to how Australia got involved in the war, starting from September 11 when, in that Washington hotel room she saw the plane hit the World Trade Center, right through to 10 years after https://www.mup.com.au/books/an-unwinnable-war-paperback-softback
Looking back, Middleton now describes September 11 as “totally distressing” and a day that “really set a course for my professional life”. “It was a course that I would not have been on if I hadn’t been there on that day,” she explains. “Where it impacted me most professionally was that I became very interested in national security, and issues of defence and foreign relations.” That day ultimately led her to war reporting and three trips to Afghanistan in 2007, 2011, and 2012 while chief political correspondent for SBS Television. During that time in Afghanistan, she was embedded with Australian troops while they battled the Taliban.
Middleton and I are sitting in a Canberra café discussing her journalistic career which spans 30 years reporting on national and international affairs as a political journalist, chief political correspondent, and Canberra bureau chief for numerous media organisations, largely in newspapers, but also 10 years in television.
She first worked in the Press Gallery in Old Parliament House in 1987 and returned in the new Parliament House two years later, and, she says, “I haven’t really left”. She is currently the chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper, as well as a commentator on radio and television both in Australia and overseas. And besides writing the book on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan, she has also written a biography, Albanese: Telling It Straight, (2017), which revealed the personal story of ALP politician and Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese (https://www.penguin.com.au/books/albanese-9781925324723)
More recently Middleton was awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, the University of Canberra. She says she was “gobsmacked” and “very humbled and honoured” to have been selected. UC’s Chancellor, Professor Tom Calma, said she was chosen for her “outstanding career in journalism, and contributions from both within Australia and abroad”. (https://www.canberra.edu.au/about-uc/media/newsroom/2020/october/distinguished-individuals-receive-honorary-doctorates-from-uc)
Initially Middleton never expected to be a journalist, let alone a reporter covering politics and war. She first thought about being a journalist when her primary school teacher, Elaine White, with whom she remains friends, suggested it. “All I knew about journalism at that point, I was 10, was Ita Buttrose and the Women’s Weekly and I didn’t really fancy that,” she says. “I wasn’t a newspaper reader. For a long time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was quite interested in nursing and then gradually through high school I became more and more interested in English and language and expression and by the time I got to Hawker College [in Canberra] I thought I would like to be a journalist.”
Middleton enrolled in an Arts degree and, while studying full-time, she was offered work as a copy person with The Canberra Times. A full-time cadetship followed. “For one of the cadet rotations they sent me to Parliament House and when I heard I was being sent to Parliament I cried,” she says. “But when I got there, I really loved it, and actually politics ended up being the great journalistic love of my life. It is people making decisions that affect everyone. There is the policy side of it, and that this is a place where big decisions are made that affect our lives and the kind of country we are. But also, the politicking as well. I am fascinated by the dynamics of the politics of the networks, of the treachery in some respects. The way the political organism works is very interesting. The contest of ideas is what I really love in politics.”
Journalism, says Middleton, has been a great privilege. It has offered her, she says, “huge opportunities to travel, meet Prime Ministers, and presidents all over the world. It’s a gateway to incredible experiences and often affords its practitioners the privilege of proximity to important events.” One of those opportunities was to spend time in Afghanistan, embedded with the Australian troops, which was not without its fear factor. For instance, while on assignment in Afghanistan in March 2007, Middleton and some other journalists were travelling in an Australian Army Chinook helicopter when it was fired on by a rocket propelled grenade, which just missed hitting the helicopter.
Four years after that incident, in 2011, she was offered the opportunity to go back to Afghanistan, again embedded with the troops. One of the television pieces she did during this time was for SBS’s Dateline program. It aired on September 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VW12K3cFGcU.
For Middleton, the 2011 embed, which lasted about three weeks, was the most eventful in terms of what she was able to see and do. The conflict was at its peak and the Australian Defence Force also allowed more access. She and a SBS cameraman, Jeff Kehl, stayed on the remote Mirwais Forward Operating Base in the Chora Valley, in Uruzgan province, and lived with the soldiers for about 10 days. They went on foot patrols with the troops into the town of Chora and through rural areas.
“It was an amazing, scary experience,” she says. “We were out doing what the soldiers were doing. We were on foot patrol with them with bomb detection equipment. We could have been bombed, we could have been shot, walking through basically what was a hostile town. We went through cornfields with mud up to our knees. It was high adrenaline. All your senses were alert and heightened. This was not play acting. This is what they did to maintain security in the town.
“I learnt more in those weeks than in years of ordinary reporting. You just learn about humanity really and how humans respond in different situations, whether they are making decisions to go to war, the people carrying out the decisions, the people in whose country the war is being fought, you learn how people respond under those stressful situations. I also learnt a huge amount about myself. I did learn about my own breaking point and my own psychology and what mattered to me and how I responded to things. It was just an incredibly informing, enriching experience. I loved it. It was terrifying but I also found it incredible, the opportunity to learn and to see how things work, and it is still more valuable for understanding the conflict than staying at home.”
During this embed, Middleton also had the opportunity to visit a small village, Kala Kala to meet a local tribal elder, Mullah Dad. “This guy had a machine gun magazine slung across his body, like jewellery. We had some aid workers and some soldiers with us. We got to sit down in this tent with all the men and boys from the village. There were no women of course they were all hidden away, and I was the only woman there. And we got to talk about what it was like being at war from an Afghan point of view and what this guy’s hopes and dreams were for his family and for his community. It was an incredible conversation, and I will never forget it. It was a huge privilege to be able to sit down on the ground, cross legged and listen to what he had to say.”
Middleton says she has also been extremely fortunate to be involved with some remarkable people closer to home. For many years she has volunteered with refugees, for example assisting a Vietnamese and a Bosnian family to relocate to Australia. And she has engaged with indigenous communities when she spent time, through the Uniting Church, staying in the Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island, in the north-east Arnhem Land region of the Northern Territory. “It was yet again another experience of life-changing proportions,” she says. “I learnt about history, I learnt about culture, about prejudice, I learnt about life skills and survival. I learnt some language. I developed very intense friendships. It was an incredible experience and it’s been a perspective I’ve carried with me throughout my work life and those are the things I care about.”
Photo Credit: Photographer David Beach – University of Canberra – ‘Distinguished individuals receive Honorary Doctorates from UC’ article.