The life of a foreign correspondent
No question, Lisa Millar is one the ABC’s trojan reporters. If you have ever watched ABC news you have seen her. Lisa reports news rather than make it as does too many of her colleagues. Those imaging the life of a foreign correspondent as sweet roses will learn differently.
Returning to Australia after nine years of reporting overseas, Lisa Millar tells of behind-the-scenes dramas, a twitter frenzy over her jacket and meeting people in their worst moments.
Backstory: Lisa Millar on the uncertainty, sleep deprivation and privilege of life as a foreign correspondent
At the time it felt like the biggest screwup of my career.
Terrorists had shot dead 130 people in Paris late one Friday.
I was a brand-new bureau chief in London trying to get my head around the biggest breaking story in the world that night.
It was too late for the Eurostar or any flights, so we drove for two hours to Dover in a desperate bid to catch the 2:00am ferry.
There were three of us, chief foreign correspondent Phil Williams, myself and cameraman Alessandro Pavone.
We calculated if we drove through the night we’d make it to Paris by 9:00am in time for the all-important 7:00pm television news bulletin in Australia.
We made it to Dover on the English coastline where French immigration officials approached our car.
Phil turned back towards me and said: “They want our passports.”
Passport? I knew where mine was — in a handbag near my desk in London, left behind when at the last minute I switched everything to a bigger backpack.
There was only one decision that could be made.
Phil and Alessandro kept heading for Paris and I unfortunately ended up being detained by French officials.
Borders were being shut down and all of Europe was on edge.
Who WAS this woman, thinking she could waltz into a terror zone without identification?
They kept me for what felt like an hour before asking me to sign a four-page document in French.
For all I knew it could have precluded me from ever entering French soil again but I was beyond caring.
I was mentally writing off my career. The rest of the night was a blur.
I found a minicab driver who agreed to get me back to London for 120 pounds — cash up front.
My hands were shaking so much I entered the wrong ATM pin twice and was at risk of being cashless and completely stranded.
Finally, as dawn broke, I was on a plane to Paris with the rest of the team and when we joined Phil Williams there, he assured me no-one would remember my failings.
He was right.
You try your best. Sometimes you screw up. But you just have to get on with it.
Terrorism a recurring story
As I reflect on the highlights and lowlights of this past nine years abroad as an ABC foreign correspondent based in Washington and London, these are the moments I think of.
Not presidential campaigns or royal weddings (although they are exciting to cover), but the stories behind the stories.
Simply getting to the start line can often be the biggest challenge.
I remember vividly September 8, 2001 and getting the call that I’d be posted to the US.
I arrived three months later. The World Trade Centre was still burning.
As I wind up my time in London, terror has been a familiar and a traumatising repeated theme.
2016 had already been a confronting year.
The Nice attack in which more than 80 people were killed on the promenade and the Berlin Christmas market attack had left us on edge.
A friend recalls me saying how determined I was to make 2017 a year of normality.
It was anything but from the very start.
A bloody New Year’s Eve in Istanbul
January 1, 2017 started with a phone call waking me at 1:59am.
I know the exact time because I kept the screenshot as a reminder.
I’d been so sure that there’d be an attack of some sort in Europe that I’d had a champagne and gone to bed early.
A gunman had killed 39 people at a nightclub in Istanbul and producer Emily Street had booked myself and cameraman Niall Lenihan on a 6:00am flight.
Turkey wasn’t normally in our patch, but when you’re the closest on-duty correspondent you’re the next one up.
Our Europe “patch” already felt big enough without having another country added to it unexpectedly for a weekend.
“Do we need visas? Can we get our camera gear in there without a carnet [customs papers]?”
I rattled off questions but had no idea the biggest hurdle would be hailing a cab early on New Year’s Day in London to get into the office, through hordes of drunks shouting “Happy New Year”.
Eighteen-hour days aren’t unusual on a job like that and big events, whether it’s presidential meetings or terror attacks, always involve traffic cordons — which translates to dragging heavy camera gear and tripods kilometres before you actually start filming.
I have grown to have a particular dislike of Rome’s cobbled streets.
We were home from that Turkey assignment in three days.
It was a New Year and I had a new problem.
I opened the door and remembered I’d left the heating on in the middle of winter — and I’d cooked fish for dinner the night I’d rushed out the door. The place stank.
I sat on the couch and debated whether to laugh or cry.
A twitter storm over a jacket
I had the same reaction when a viewer criticised me for wearing the same black jacket each day during the 2015 Paris attacks.
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Getting flak for not living up to a viewer’s sartorial standards was too much.
“Huh?” I tweeted back.
He doubled down, telling me to go shopping.
“Funnily enough I didn’t have time to shop. Mental note to self — pack better when covering breaking news tragedies,” I tweeted, not thinking for a second I was starting what would become a global online debate about how women and men are treated differently on television.
I knocked back an interview request from New York and said we needed to remember what we were doing in Paris — covering a real story.
Sleep — who needs it? Me!
The middle of the night calls are part of the job when you work for an Australian company in a different time zone, but we seemed to hit moments when they were relentless.
I anticipated them so keenly that I’d answer the phone on the first ring with, “What’s happened?”
My PB for going from fast asleep at home to being on air for ABC News was 28 minutes.
There’d been a stabbing in Russell Square in London and Australians had been hurt.
I woke at 2:00am, called a cab, applied makeup on the way in, read Twitter and had producers in Sydney briefing me on the phone (which was on speaker on my lap with the camera acting as a mirror for the makeup job) before running into the office, flicking on the studio and remote camera and starting to talk.
And talk and talk.
My favourite down days in this job sometimes involve no talking.
I keep the rolling TV news on mute so I can check for breaking stories but trying to switch your mind off is one of the hardest things to do.
My sleep has been utterly woeful.
I fall into a deep sleep by 11:00pm sometimes only to wake alert at 1:30am, reading emails, checking Twitter and calling family in Australia.
I wake with a start in the middle of the night — like a Pavlovian dog, I’m convinced the silent phone half a metre from my head had been ringing.
I’ve used a strong sleeping tablet on occasions in a desperate bid to get a full night’s sleep.
They get a bad rap but I’ve used them for jetlag without any negative effects and they seemed to work almost instantaneously on me — I’d take a tablet and be asleep within five minutes.
One night in the middle of a particular busy period, I was desperate for eight hours sleep and guiltily swallowed a pill at 11:00pm — just as a news alert lit up my phone screen.
“Up to 70 monks shot dead in terror attack in Southern France”, it screamed out at me.
Bloody hell! What’s the antidote to a sleeping tablet?
My colleague and friend Steve Cannane was getting ready for bed in his home on the other side of London.
“Steve, Steve, listen carefully,” I said (apparently).
“I’ve just taken a sleeping tablet and 70 monks could be dead and you’ve got to ring Sydney and work out how you get there in time and you’ll have to tell Niall (the cameraman) to get the gear and pack a — zzzzzz”.
Thankfully, it was not what initial alerts had predicted.
Trying to make a home
In Washington and in London, I’ve tried to find a semblance of “real” life.
I joined the regular Saturday Parkrun, a book club, bought theatre tickets and signed up for Pilates.
But more often than not I was a “no-show” — on a plane somewhere or utterly exhausted from the days before.
A reporter’s privilege
Although terror and grief have dominated my time overseas it has always been a honour to be allowed into people’s lives, even when they are at their lowest moments.
Viewers move on from stories but I’ve had the privilege to return to some of them — to be trusted to tell people’s stories and be invited back into their lives even though the emotional toll for them and me can be challenging.
I will always admire the strength and wisdom of Veronique Pozner, whose son Noah was killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting and who continues to this day her fight for gun reform.
And I will always remember the Colasanti family.
I first met Kelly Colasanti and her infant daughters Lauren and Cara in 2002, a year after the horrific September 11 attacks.
Nine years later I was in their Manhattan home at the end of a school day listening to Lauren, now 11, reciting the names of people who’d died on that day.
She was rehearsing for the 10-year remembrance service.
The final name on the list — Christopher Michael Colasanti — her dad.
“Don’t rush through that one,” Kelly said as her daughter’s voice dropped.
“Could you do it do it again, one more time?” she quietly asked her, wanting her late husband’s name to be heard.
We stood back in the shadows of the loungeroom, capturing this intimate moment.
“Christopher Michael Colasanti.”
What a privilege to have been there.