Freelance journalism: Telling stories you’re interested in is the most gratifying part

Rebekah Holt with the Nadesalingam girls, Kopika and Tharnicaa. Picture supplied.
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Journalist Rebekah Holt says being a freelancer gave her the chance to focus on what's important. Journalism's future lies in diversity and mentorship, she says. Saredo Miguil reports.

Freelance journalist Rebekah Holt says she loves the freedom of the freelance work and has “literally the opposite of what other people have expected”.

She has reported on important issues about immigration detention, including the Nadesalingam family, who were finally able to return to their home in Biloela, Queensland this year, after years in detention, including on Christmas Island.

How did you get into Journalism?

I didn’t officially train as a journalist. I didn’t finish high school, I come from a very working-class background, there is a very much like a polytechnic system in New Zealand and they accepted people into the radio broadcasting course. 

I did get a job straight out of that course as a radio announcer. I used to read the news headlines sometimes and I was always more interested in what was going on in the newsroom. 

What drew you to focus on detention centres?

I got into a detention centre in 2016 and I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to keep going once they realised I was a journalist. I didn’t write about it for at least a year and a little bit. My instinct was to wait and get to know what I was seeing because immigration wasn’t an area I was familiar with. I thought, sure I could write one piece and then they’ll ban me, and I’ll never get the access again. But if I kind of build-up a presence here by the time I write about it, I’ll really know what I’m talking about.

What were your biggest challenges?

Going in (to a detention centre), I’ve had uncomfortable experiences. There are guards, you have to go through a metal detector, you have to be wand-searched; you have to be tested for drugs. I have had experiences with guards that have felt uncomfortable and you’re aware that you’re a woman working alone and everything that comes with that. 

Why did you choose to be a freelancer?

There was a very pivotal moment, just before the 2019 election. Where I had been reporting on the health issues that the Nadesalingam girls were facing and several of the kids in detention.

I thought this is not sustainable, it’s just too unbelievable. And then as you know, they (the Liberal Party) won again, and I had to make up my mind at that point because I thought, what’s the right thing for me to do? Will I regret telling other stories? And so I thought I need to do another three years concentrating on the detention environment. 

What story are you most proud of?

I remember when I interviewed Kopika (eldest child of the Nadesalingam family) on Christmas Island and I got audio of her for SBS where she said, “I don’t like living in detention.”

It’s very gruelling to go through that when you are trying to work out what the right thing to do is and not retraumatise a child. I never want to get them to a place that they can’t get out of, but I also want to give them the chance to say something that is observably true.

Freelance journalism: Telling stories you’re interested in is the most gratifying part
Rebekah Holt and the Nadesalingam family on election night. Picture supplied

Welcoming diversity and mentorship into newsrooms is the future of journalism

The future of journalism lies in increasing diversity and mentorship opportunities in newsrooms, freelance journalist Rebekah Holt says.

A report by the Australian Rights Commission found that one in four of Australia’s 25 million population were born overseas and 46 per cent have at least one parent who was born overseas.

“I used to hope diversity would get better, but I actually feel like it’s at risk of getting worse, because journalism doesn’t pay particularly really well,” Holt says.

“I’m really quite worried that the people that are going to make journalism interesting and do more interesting journalism can’t afford to do it.”

According to a report by Media Diversity Australia “Who Gets to Tell Australian Stories?”, only 6 per cent of media presenters, commentators and reporters come from minority backgrounds. 

Holt says the only way to change that is to implement “meaningful diversity hiring practices, and I mean that across class structures as well”.

A diverse newsroom delivers better news and represents us better.

In a 2019 interview with the Diversity Council of Australia, ABC journalist and television presenter Jeremy Fernandez said the organisation was making progress in the area.

“At the ABC, we’re making headway with opening up a greater conversation and effort to make sure we reach thinkers, newsmakers, and leaders who might otherwise be overlooked,” he said.

While there is some progress in addressing the lack of diversity, newsrooms have also seen a loss in multiple roles, particularly senior ones. 

Holt says: “The other thing that I hoped that the change of government sees funding return to certain organisations.” 

Last year, as part of a financial and business strategy, News Corp Australia axed 25 positions across their organisation.

This has resulted in job stability becoming a concern among journalists and many are leaving the industry completely. 

“There are a bunch of journalists who are very good and experienced that have retired early because they are worn out who are really good at looking after and fostering young talent,” he says.

Holt believes that conversations held in newsrooms can give context to young journalists and help guide their career journeys.

“So, I think if we can fatten those (senior roles) up, I’d feel more confident and coupled with diversity.”