2021 Kea World Class Award winner – Anna Fifield
Anna Fifield won a global exclusive in 2018 when she found herself talking to the aunt of Kim Jong-un… The resulting interview sent ripples around the world, shining a rare light on the secretive dictator’s life and cementing Anna’s position as a leading, influential journalist.
Now back in New Zealand as Dominion Post editor Anna can reflect on a career that has seen her working in exciting and challenging destinations. including Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya and she was the first person to Facebook Live from Pyongyang.
All of that is a long way from a Hastings childhood. Anna began her journalism career writing for the Rotorua Daily Post. At 24 she won a job at London’s Financial Times and worked as a foreign correspondent for 13 years. A ferocious work ethic set her apart from other aspirants. Anna recalls volunteering for reporting shifts on public holiday weekends when nobody else wanted to work, as a way to get some reporting under her belt.
Being on the spot at the right time paid dividends. “I was very lucky in that the Queen Mother considerately died one Easter on the holiday weekend, and I got a front-page story out of it because I’d volunteered to work,” she says.
“And I think that was a very Kiwi thing to do, throwing myself into situations, with a strong work ethic. I distinctly remember some posh British guy saying to me quite early on, “It’s not the done thing to show ambition around here…”
“And I just remember thinking “This is who I am, and I’m not from around here.” So I had this real sense from the get go at the Financial Times of being a New Zealander and not being British. So I continued putting myself forward for roles that I was unqualified for, just to signal my ambition and to create opportunities to audition.
That ambition paid dividends in 20013 when the Australia correspondent went on maternity leave in 2003. “They looked around and saw I was young and cheap and flexible and saw potential in me, and sent me off. That was really my big break,” she said.
Her next big posting to Seoul in 2004, gave rise to feelings of both excitement and terror. This would be her first experience of Asia; she had never eaten kimchi and couldn’t even say ‘hello’ in Korean. It proved a defining experience and led to her coverage of the first North Korean nuclear test in 2006.
Anna’s next assignment was Tehran, but the Ahmadinejad regime emphasised its hostility to foreign journalists by refusing her a visa. Undeterred, she maintained an exhausting schedule of commuting from Seoul.
After another year Anna was sent to Beirut to cover the Middle East during what proved to be an uncharacteristically quiet period in the region. Her coverage included the disputed Iranian presidential election of 2009, but soon she was on the move yet again, missing the tumult of the Arab Spring by months. This time she was appointed US Political Correspondent at the Obama White House.
Anna hated Washington. She says she prefers getting out and about, getting her boots dirty and mixing with “real people”. After four years an opportunity beckoned as Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University 2013-14. The coverage she’d done of North Korea and Iran encouraged her to study how change happens in closed societies.
Anna returned to Asia in 2014, taking up the role of Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post and focusing her attention on news and issues in Japan and the Koreas. She began work on her first book, interviewing dozens of people who have met Kim Jong-un. Not interested in lampooning or satirising her subject, she portrayed him as a strategic and ruthless dictator prepared to kill members of his own family to retain power. Her work, The Great Successor: The Perfectly Divine Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, was published in June 2019.
“On the human level, especially in Asia, New Zealand is considered this kind of utopia, because of the nature. But on the more geopolitical level, Anna believes “we do have more sway than our size would suggest. Because I think we are considered to be relatively independent and principled. We don’t always go along with Five Eyes partners or with allies, and that we will make our own decisions. Things like the nuclear-free decision in 1984 is something that people kept talking to me about. I think people look at us as principled and living up to our values, and that that is our guiding force. It’s not ideological or political in that sense.”
Anna was at the peak of her craft when she returned to New Zealand with her young son in 2020 and accepted the role of Editor of Wellington’s Dominion Post – her return prompted in part by the pandemic and partly by the advent of the Trump era ‘fake news’ and the demonising of journalism.
“We saw, last year and the year before, what happens to a society when the media stops working properly or when fake news takes over. And really, I don’t think it’s too much hyperbole to say it became a matter of life and death during a pandemic. So, I came home with a real sense of mission that we, the media, could be playing a positive role in contributing to the functioning of our our democracy.”
But how does the media report on the pandemic, but not join in with some of the conspiracy rhetoric that’s out there, when it’s all so good at gaining clicks and getting media coverage.
“A big part of the reason that I chose to make that big call and leave behind the Washington Post and Jeff Bezos’s deep pockets was because I really believe that Sinead Boucher’s heart is in this enterprise (Stuff.co.nz), and that she is turning it into a company that serves the viewers’ interests.
“Our metric is not clicks anymore, it’s trust, which is obviously extremely difficult to measure. But I think that even having that framework in our minds is extremely liberating. I’ve made decisions in the past few months where we will not write stories that are about anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theories, even if they would generate lots of clicks, but they would not contribute to the functioning of our country in a good way.
“Call me idealistic, but I want to believe it. Yeah. I’m up for the challenge of trying to make it become reality.”
Read more about Anna Fifield’s return to Aotearoa in her interview with Melanie Carroll