Luke Hunt’s lecture at the red-brick, colonnaded building that houses the Department of Journalism and Communication at the University of Madras, is full of geo-political parables. The 56-year-old Australian journalist who was in Chennai recently speaks of his moment of glory on a night of blistering gunfire, when travelling with US forces on a road pock-marked with shells.
“Being the first journalist to cross the Diyala river into Baghdad with the Marines and beating Associated Press (AP) by 10 minutes was one of them. I was with Agence France-Presse (AFP) then,” he laughs, then adds softly, “Seeing an execution go wrong in Afghanistan; witnessing a woman being flogged to death by the Taliban; suicide bombings in Sri Lanka... you are pouring sweat and standing in a slush of dead people, these were some of the lows. Nothing changes in combat. To not have the Vietnam War, there should not have been the Cold War or the World Wars or the French Revolution. The world is a train of individual experiences that keeps going forward and no matter how many nasty wars happen, nothing stops the brutality.”
A senior lecturer at Pannasastra University, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he wrote the course War, Media and International Relations, Hunt has been AFP’s bureau chief in Afghanistan and Cambodia, and written for The Age in his native Melbourne, The New York Times, The Times, The Economist and is a columnist on Southeast Asia for The Diplomat .
He’s also authored books — his latest, Punji Trap — Pham Xuan An: The Spy Who Didn’t Love Us, bears stories from the Vietnam War and was almost 20 years in the writing. “I had a lot of information off the record and after mulling over it and meeting An, I decided to tell the story of how An, a journalist for Time, Reuters and New York Herald Tribune, was also simultaneously spying for Vietnam.”
Be fore Hunt came of age professionally at a time when there was more aura around frontline journalism, working in situations that would’ve pinned most people to the ground in terror, he grew up in Springvale, a working-class suburb in Melbourne.
“I loved to write and never argued with my mother. Instead I wrote her notes. I had a bond with newspapers that celebrated Asian cultures and knew people who went off to the Vietnam War. I was encouraged to leave school and worked as a painter and decorator for a while. I hated it, went back to university at Deakin and studied journalism.”
Hunt’s attempts to catalogue life on the battlefield have won him awards from the World Association of Newspapers and Amnesty, among accolades from the UN for his coverage in Afghanistan. “Journalists keep a check on combatants by telling the world what’s going on. Only then can other people act.”
Hunt adds, “no one needs to die for me to get a story. And no journalist should have to die to get a story. If the situation demands that I put my camera down and help, I’ll help. We’ve abandoned stories to help refugees and people in the frontline. If you think your job is too noble to help, that’s nonsense.”
In three decades of being on ground in Asia, Hunt says that politics hasn’t changed as much as the nature of the coverage of news. “It’s now all about technology. There was a time when we had to get to the frontline to confirm what was happening. With technology, you can pass on a smartphone to someone headed there and get a story faster on Facebook. That’s not great journalism but if you are an editor and have to weigh the risks, the costs versus news that’s already coming in from the frontline, it’s not worth putting someone’s life in danger.”
He adds, “Although media houses have done tremendous damage to themselves by cashing in on the Internet game, you still need to get there and verify. The world gets fatigued with conflict news. But, if you tell a story well, despite language barriers, you will find an audience.”
Has there been a conflict he wished he had covered? “In my entire career I’ve maintained one maxim,” says Hunt. “It’s important to be of your time. I can’t wish I had covered the Second World War. I need to be concerned about what’s happening now.”
How does he deal with the uncertainty of being a civilian covering a war? When headed to conflict zones Hunt says he carries a little stuffed dog gifted by his nephew with him, as a talisman. And the blood and gore, the horror of crossing a child amputee on the run or the terror of being in the sights of a gun-toting mujahid? How does he shake off the trauma of what he has seen? He smiles — “I just go drink beer.”