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Posted on 7 Jul 2020 in Non-Fiction |

SOPHIE McNEILL: interviewed by Kurt Johnson

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Kurt Johnson talks to Sophie McNeill about her new book We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know: Dispatches from an age of impunity.

I interviewed ABC foreign correspondent Sophie McNeill about her new book We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know as she was driving with her children in the car. We discussed her work as a tireless humanitarian and journalist throughout the Middle East, what happens when those two roles conflict, and her new position as Australian Researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Throughout your work you must have held on to some kernel of idealism that things can improve, that covering the catastrophes of the Middle East would make a difference. What stops you from slipping into the nihilistic void?

What I have learned over the years is, amid all the despair and the trauma that no one cares about, when you do see a small amount of change or difference it’s through one brave individual. This book is really a tribute to those people I met who refused to let everything that stood in their way intimidate them. They refused to be on the wrong side of history. They chose to stand up – and some of them lost, some of them won magnificently. What all the people in the book have in common is [a belief] that life was worth fighting for. That is an amazing idea to stand up and defend.

I didn’t just want to come back and write a memoir because journalism is boring when you make it about the reporter. This book is about these amazingly courageous heroes and I don’t think we hear enough about them in the daily news. Sometimes the tragedy does overwhelm individuals. That was the point of the book – to do the most I could to bring their personal stories to light.

I worry people don’t want to read the book because it’s about war crimes, but it’s actually about amazing people who I think will inspire you.

There are moments in We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know when you come into conflict with your producers at the ABC who seem more pragmatic about what an Australian audience would want to see. You consider what they need to see. Do you think Australian audiences are less caring – have become more insular in recent years?

I think all audiences have and I don’t think it’s through any fault of their own. The world is a scary place and I think through the 24-hour news cycle and social media and having all that horror live on your feed, it makes you want to turn inwards. It’s scary out there. So I don’t blame them at all. But that’s why I try to shake up the news and shove the personal story in people’s faces and using big framed close-ups of the kids and hammer home the idea that these people are just like us. You know Khaled [a nurse working under terrible circumstances in Damascus] is just like us, or Noura or Bassel [the ‘bride and groom of the Syrian revolution’]. Everyone is no different.

I actually think this COVID crisis might wake people up. We like to think that things on the other side of the world won’t affect us. But what I think that COVID has taught us is that you’re only as safe as your neighbour. The only way this world is going to be a better place is if we act a little bit more collectively and globally.

I’m hoping this will jolt us out. We can’t protect our kids from the climate emergency no matter what nice postcode you live in – in Sydney or Melbourne or Perth. It’s our turn to be a bit courageous and do something about what’s not right in this world. Too many of us cruise through and think because we recycle we can sleep well at night.

There is one particular moment in We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know when you helped Rahaf Alqunun in her attempt to flee to Australia. Rahaf had escaped her Saudi family, who had kept her a prisoner. You flew to Bangkok when nobody else would. You had to choose between being a humanitarian and being a journalist. You chose the former. Does that choice come up more often in your line of work than most people think?

Nothing is ever just a story. And I hate journalism that is just a story. It makes it feel like a game. It’s not. It’s deadly serious. It’s people’s lives. If I can ever do something to save someone else’s life or just improve it, of course I’ll choose that. At the end of the day this job is just a story. If being a journalist is just a story then sure, OK – I’ll jump over that line and act like a human being. I think that anyone in similar circumstances would think, ‘I should do this’. They would have made the same choice.

Sophie McNeill
Photo: HarperCollins

Social media plays such a big role in the book. I can remember the promises of social media in the Arab Spring – the people’s voices could be safely heard – a counterbalance to authoritarianism. I’m thinking about Bassel, who did so much work to bring out the truth about the al-Assad regime peddling lies. Today most people’s attitudes towards social media post-Trump are more ambivalent. Does it still have a role in building justice in the Middle East?

Bassel lost his life to tell the world the truth and they didn’t care. Same with the people in Aleppo – we watched that all live on our timeline for years. So what social media has exposed is the fact we have no excuses anymore – that’s why I called the book We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know. We’ve run out of excuses.

This is what I wrestled with in the book. All I wanted to do is grow up and be a journalist and tell people what was going in the world and create change. But if that truth is so devalued, when we’ve been proven to be indifferent to mass slaughter, where does that leave you? That’s what I’m struggling with.

There’s an interesting postscript to the book, too. I’m actually leaving journalism. I’m working for Human Rights Watch. That’s a surprising end to the story. I’m keen to try new ways of making a difference. I thought if [as a journalist] I told people they would care and do things, but I feel really sad that I’ve discovered this is not the case.

This new job will be about advocacy and targeting people in power to pressure them to make decisions based more on human rights. I think it’s much harder than what I’m doing now. You think you’ve achieved a lot, you win the Walkley – but you ask the question ‘Did anything change?’ This is the question we need to ask ourselves more. So this new job is not going to be measured in public acclaim – it’s going to be measured in change.

Sophie pauses to deal with a Nutella-on-white-shirt emergency with one of her children.

Finally, have you started to doubt the power of stories?

That’s the basis of our existence. It’s about how to take that next step – everyone can hear something and be entertained or horrified or gripped, but then what? I’m obsessed with this idea of that next step.

I start the book talking about when I was 15 and I read this book about Timor and I couldn’t keep living knowing what was happening to these people and not doing anything. I don’t know why I was like that. I think times were different because you weren’t so overwhelmed with horror, so it really stood out what was happening in Timor. That’s why I’m on a new journey, to see what works. Maybe I’ll come back to stories and everyone will watch them and change the world. Maybe I just have to wait for Gen Z to rule the world.

Sophie McNeill We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know ABC Books 2020 416pp $32.99

Kurt Johnson is a journalist and author of The Red WakeA hybrid of travel, history and journalism, Random House, 2016.

You can buy We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.