This month we sat down with George Negus, one of Australia’s most enduring and respected journalistic figures. He’s spent years globe-trotting for programs like Nine’s 60 Minutes, the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent and SBS TV’s Dateline, and in 2017 is leading a Travel For The Mind trip to Iran to discover the REAL Iran. We got the inside scoop on how what has drawn him to this line of work, some of the most intriguing people he’s met, and how he goes beneath the surface and explores some of the most topical and important issues and events around the world.
Listen to the interview here, or scroll to read the interview!
You hosted the foreign themes current affairs foreign correspondence. What insights did you get from that time and how has it shaped your views of the world?
Good question. I mean, I think as an international correspondent and a journalist generally who’s interested in world affairs, your perceptions of the world change with monotonous regularity. But post Sept 11 changed everything for everybody. It would be a tossup in my mind to decide whether the Berlin Wall coming down or the Twin Towers coming down had the most lengthy ramifications on human kind.
I don’t know whether it shapes your perceptions but it sharpens them up because until you have to be confronted by these things as an individual or as a professional, you’re not quite sure exactly what you feel about them. No doubt, Foreign Correspondent was my baby. I was the first presenter, proud of my involvement and it was almost like getting paid for doing something that I do for nothing - but I shouldn’t say that as somebody told me once if that’s the case then we won’t pay you for anything.
As one of Australia’s most respected journalists, you are known for getting beneath the surface of important issues and events. What is your motivation for exploring such topical issues?
I think the answer to that question goes right back to my beginning with journalism. I was a secondary school teacher and more or less, I ‘conned my way’ into journalism via a Diploma of Journalism at Queensland University.
The single word question ‘why’ has always intrigued me and I discovered in a way, the motivation for exploring all sorts of issues and events is to try to throw a little into the dark corners of our existence, our planet and our politics to get beneath the surface and explain why these things are happening. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped doing that and I doubt I ever will. Iran is a classic example – things are changing there so much. I think one way to get to know Iran - I’ve been there twice in war situations, unpleasant situations to say the least - but if you don’t get to know the locals, you don’t ever get to know what they’re about and getting beneath the surface of important issues means not just being interested for pseudo-intellectual reasons but for human reasons. These places are populated by people, they may be Muslims, they may be one particular kind of Muslim, Shi’a, but we’re not going to understand them unless we understand their identity.
You’ve spoken to many influential people over the years. Margaret Thatcher for example. Who has been the most interesting person you’ve ever met?
Every time I’m asked that question, I hesitate - which is a bit ironic considering I’m a question-asker not question-answerer. If I listed not just the most interesting person I’ve ever met, but the most interesting people I’ve ever met, I would’ve thought of half a dozen at least. Margaret Thatcher was interesting for one reason. Bill Clinton was interesting for another again. Bob Dylan was interesting further again. Muammar Gaddafi was interesting further again. If you ask that question, you’ll get a disgusting display of names dropping but I’m sorry, I can only apologise for that but it’s what I’ve done for a living. For a long time, what I’ve tried to do is get in the heads of famous and influential people and I got lucky enough to do that. I’d like to think that’s helped other people understand these people - more than they might have before I started getting into their heads.
You’ve had some incredible life experiences globetrotting for programs like NINE’s 60 minutes, ABC’s Foreign Correspondent and SBS tv’s Dateline. Do you have a favourite region to visit and why?
Where work is concerned, I’ve always found a way to turn somwehere into a place that I wanted to go to. If it wasn’t a place I didn’t want to go to, when I got there pretty quickly I found out why it was. They were either places I was interested in or places I found interesting. It’s almost like journalism full stop. You either do it because it’s interesting or because you like to make other people interested.
Over the years as a professional working for the ABC and the other commercial networks, I got paid to visit... I’ve lost count of how many countries. There are 208 of them and I’ve been to at least half of them but the more you learn about the world, the more you want to discover about it which is one of the reasons why Kirsty and I have a relationship with World Expeditions. We can keep taking expeditions to different parts of the world. It’s travel. It doesn’t just broaden the mind – it fertilises it. So favourite region privately – our favourite non-Australian place is probably Italy. People ask my ‘Why Italy? It’s loony’. Interestingly enough despite all the hiccups along the way, Italy remain amongst the top ten countries in the world economically despite everything. I could go on forever about why the Italians are different. We are upset in this country every time in this country a politician makes a mistake. The Italians are surprised when the politicians get something right – that’s why I love them. The world has been my oyster so favourite regions, countries, and cities are very hard for me to nominate.
In 2004 you lead a group of travellers to Venezuela and Cuba. Both countries have had controversial politics and have not been very popular with travellers in the past. In 2017, you’re travelling to Iran with World Expeditions on a travel of the mind trip. What draws you to these types of countries?
Well Venezuela is a dysfunctional country, and Cuba is a completely mysterious so called Castro-ed, communist country... Not the sort of places you would automatically choose to visit but we did. In the case of Cuba, we came away enthralled right before this big monumental change has occurred over the sanctions being lifted on Cuba by the Yanks. Venezuela was regarded – Caracas, the capital was regarded the most dangerous city in the world, but I got our group from World Expeditions in and out of there without a scratch and anybody losing their wallet (or their life!) and we made some interesting friends in the barrios - the slums if you like - that surround the capital. Six million people in Caracas and four million people live in the slums. I thought I could take off my tour host hat and put on my journalist hat, so made a few enquiries, knocked on a few doors, and our lot from World Expeditions got in and out of there without anything happening towards. I’ve spoken to the people from the group who rave about the fact that they never thought they’d be going into a slum in Caracas – five deaths a day apparently – as part of their holidays, there you go. Iran, I think same thing, it’s on the cusp of changing dramatically. Are they nuclear enemies we should fear rather than a country changing? I think they’re more a country changing than a nuclear threat. I think that’s becoming less and less the case. It gives me a chance to explain the Travel For The Mind trip – which is international excursions for the politically and culturally curious. If you’re not curious about what you’re going on in the world and why, then you wouldn’t go to these places - whether it was for professional reasons or as a trip like this World Expeditions trip. But the whole Travel For The Mind idea is to come away with something more for you to think about. Pretending while you’re overseas that you’re one of the locals... in this case Iran, pretending you’re an Iranian, in Cuba pretending you’re a Cuban, watch what they do, copy them, get to meet them. That’s the way you learn more – by talking to the locals, going through a translator if you need to. It’s almost like coming away, saying “for a while there I got to understand what an Iranian was thinking”. Another reason why I think most people have never been in what is predominately nine-tenths in the case of Iran is the Muslim people. There are so many misconceptions about Islam and Muslim people because of a very, very small minority. Fifty thousand people are in ISIS, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Homicidal maniacs killing people in the name of God, is distinct from 1.5 billion Muslims - 99.99% of which are definitely not terrorists. Anyways, who knows what we discover when we go to Iran.
You have to be careful because you have to be careful everywhere you go. It’s like walking across a street in New York, run over by a bus in George St, Sydney. You can do some silly things in Bondi beach. Just play it by the local rules. It doesn’t mean you do as you’re told necessarily. You just make sure you don’t offend the locals so you don’t spoil what is going to be an amazing experience.
As a journalist, you’ve travelled twice across the country to the Iraq/Iran border during the darker years of the conflict. What were your memories of the country then and are you anticipating any changes for when you visit next year?
Yes, lost of changes. It’s modernized, to some extent westernised which may or may not be a good thing. It’s still not properly democratic so it’s still an emerging nation. The nuclear threat we seemed to have at least placed on hold, if not, eliminated. I was there on the Iraq/Iran border after desert storm and during the 80s war when there were child soldiers being used. I remember Iran in its darker years of the conflict, but I’m looking forward to seeing it in its lighter years, post conflict. I think my memories of those days will be quite different from the experiences that we will have on the trip.
In 2003, you published a best seller trip ‘The World from Islam’ where you demystified the issues, misconceptions and prejudices that Islam received. How will you incorporate these influences and topics on your trip?
I guess that depends on what questions people ask. The World from Islam is a book that I’m extremely proud of, and will try to get copies of it for anybody who comes on the trip. It doesn’t really include Iran but it does talk about Muslims and what they’re about it and they do vary from country to country. I’ll be incorporating a whole lot of those topics on the trip. Anytime anybody asks me about Islam, about Muslims, about Iranian Muslims in particular, and we’ll turn to the locals for their opinion. I don’t think they’re going to be terribly surprised to hear you’re having seriously doubts about some of the things, about their religion, about their culture... they expect it. But I think they have doubts and suspicions about our culture as well, keep that in the back of your mind.
How important is it for you to challenge your beliefs both politically and culturally when you’re travelling?
I don’t know whether it’s a case of challenging your beliefs. I would say you will be challenged to keep your mind open and not to compare what you’re seeing with what you know, or compare what you’re seeing with maybe something you’ve never seen before. Whether it’s the architecture or the marketplaces. Whether it’s the food you eat or the people you meet. Celebrate and enjoy the difference between Iran and Islam and what you know from your own existence. If you’re not prepared to accept you may see things you may not necessarily like or agree with or understand, then don’t bother going. That why this sort of wonderful World Expeditions concept exists and why Travel For The Mind exists within it. Shake your brain a little and you’ll come away a smarter, more worldly person.
You mentioned in the past that your ambition with the Iran Travel For The Mind trip is to go beneath the surface and discover the real Iran. How do you hope to achieve that?
By getting to know the locals, by keeping our mind and eyes open and discover not necessarily the real Iran, but the Iran that they are going to pass on to you - the Iran that you are getting to know. It’s just by not going to Iran and treating it just like any country. It is very different in its own way but the most interesting thing I’ve heard about Iran is that it is regarded as the friendliest, most hospitable, warm and welcoming place in the planet. Even a guy like Tony Wheeler from Lonely Planet magazine said “it’s probably the greatest surprise destination in the world at the moment”. He went there expecting the dark days to still be obvious. According to Tony, who’s opinion I respect, that is no longer the case.
Anyway, let’s see how much of what I’ve said to you is right and what is garbage, but you’re going to get plenty of time on our trip there to be able to tell me how much you agree or disagree, or how much you liked it explained a bit more but keep your mind open and you’ll do it yourself.
Look forward to meeting to you... This trip is something Kirsty and I are both looking forward to it and we hope you are as well. It will be quite the experience.
Book now on the 2017 Travel For The Mind - Iran with George Negus Trip to unveil the Iran you never knew existed!