Currently a correspondent for TRT World, Nicole Johnston previously spent a decade reporting on the Middle East for Al Jazeera. She was the only foreign TV news journalist living inside, and reporting from, Gaza in 2011. She also covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Jerusalem and Ramallah, and was in Gaza for the 2012 and 2014 wars. She spent four months in Egypt in 2013, covering the coup. Her last assignments with Al Jazeera were in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
At TRT World, the Australian journalist reported from Libya on the operation to retake Sirte from Daesh. And she spent many months reporting from Iraq before and during the battle for Mosul.
Johnston left Australia and national broadcaster, the ABC, in 2007, to spend a year backpacking. She ended up in London, studying for a Masters degree in Middle East studies at SOAS. Thirteen years later she is still abroad.
It's a long way from the Australian Outback farm on which she grew up.
How has being a war journalist changed you?
NICOLE JOHNSTON: I guess it’s changed me in the respect that I’ve been able to see and witness things that I never would have imagined. You see humanity at its absolute best and its absolute worst. When that happens, you know, sometimes it sort of destroys your faith in humanity, at different times, but other times you see how extraordinary it can be in terms of the hospitality that you receive from the people in the field, the lengths they go to to try and make you feel at home, to try and give you something from the nothing that they have.
It makes you become attached to people and places that you never would have [encountered], under any other circumstances, except for the fact that you’ve been there and reported and spent long periods of time [there]. [It gives] you an amazing sort of network of friends in different countries who are living under hardship or difficult regimes. So I don’t know if that answers the question of how it’s changed me. I think it’s just opened and exposed me to another side of life that, as a privileged Westerner, you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
What do you do when you’re in the field to relax and stay sane?
NJ: On my last deployment in Iraq I was on assignment with my friend (and TRT World colleague) Zeina Awad. So sometimes you’re lucky enough to have colleagues and friends in the field you can spend times with, [and] have a chat [with].
Otherwise, I’ll get on the phone, I’ll call my family, I’ll call friends in other countries, I’ll go to the gym. If there’s really time I’ll go for a swim, I’ll go have a manicure and a pedicure, or read my books. I’ll watch a bit of television. So if there’s any opportunity to relax, I’ll find something to do.
What’s the biggest change you’ve witnessed in journalism during the course of your career?
NJ: The first big change for me would have been the introduction of 24-hour news, which was not something I’d worked in Australia (where Johnston worked for the ABC).
Then, moving to the UK and then international news, dealing with being constantly on call, constantly having to – while on assignment – know what’s going on, responding to emails, and at the same time then trying to switch off from that on occasion.
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So firstly, the 24-hour news schedule and its demands, and then secondly, obviously what we’ve seen in the last five years, with Facebook and Twitter now being able to have access to people from different countries, to get information and to find contacts, to find stories, to get ideas through people you’ve never met and not having to pick up the telephone and go person by person by person. Just having a sort of a global network available on your phone through all of these different apps.
And then, the other change being not just filing to whether it’s news or radio television or radio, having to file – I think for most journalists – across multi-platforms or thinking about tweeting or instagramming... And I think now also people may not be watching [television] news. But if you can get your stories out on a digital platform, and people start liking them and tweeting them, then obviously we’re having a much wider and broader audience than we ever would have before.