Colin Packham on the exclusive reporting inside the U.S. war on China's tech giant
A Reuters Special Report recently revealed that Australia had warned the United States for months about the destructive capacity of 5G technology. Washington is widely seen as having taken the initiative in the global campaign against Huawei Technologies Co Ltd. Yet Reuters interviews with more than two dozen current and former Western officials show it was the Australians who led the way in pressing for action on 5G; that the United States was initially slow to act; and that Britain and other European countries are caught between security concerns and the competitive prices offered by Huawei. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Correspondent Colin Packham gives a behind-the-scenes look at how he reported the story.
Q. How did you land this story?
A. The story was the culmination of lots of reporting. I travelled regularly to Canberra to cover politics and while I was there I would try to meet with senior sources within Australia’s intelligence agencies. Eventually, after earning their trust and confidence, they began to divulge how Australia was the leading player in Western efforts to sideline Huawei.
Q. What types of reporting were involved?
A. Details about Australia’s role was known to just a handful of people. Intelligence officials rarely speak, less still about issues that could upset Australia’s relationship with its largest trading partner, China. After developing relationships, these figures began to trust me enough to speak to me.
Q. What was the hardest part of the reporting?
A. The hardest part was developing the relationships with the right people. These people will not speak with people that they do not know or trust. It took time to cultivate those relationships.
Q. Why was this an important story to tell our customers?
A. Before Reuters published this story, the narrative was that the United States was the leading actor in sidelining Huawei, and Australia was simply complying with the wishes of its ally. Our story showed that Australian concerns were the catalyst for global action against Huawei, one of China’s largest and most successful companies.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. Truth matters. Journalism is key to a functioning democratic society.
Q. What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I originally joined Reuters to cover commodities. But the Australian bureau is small and we all take on different beats when needed. When our political correspondent left, I jumped at the opportunity to cover politics. But politics is murky and challenging. Lawmakers will favor local media who are based in Canberra permanently.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. It’s hard to pinpoint the most rewarding—I’ve been lucky to cover several important stories. But I’ve always enjoyed writing about underreported stories, which are difficult but immensely rewarding. One story that jumps out is the work we did on Australia’s policy of detaining asylum seekers in two camps in the Pacific. The issue exploded into prominence when U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to resettle 1,250 refugees. Our work was able to expose the issues around U.S. vetting of refugees and force Australian lawmakers to address the issue. But it was difficult. The refugees had limited access to mobile phone, so contact was difficult while I couldn’t get to Papua New Guinea to report first-hand the situation.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. I always wanted to be a football (soccer) player. Unfortunately, my lack of talent held me back.
Q. Anything else you’d like to share?
A. Reuters is blessed to have so many talented reporters and editors. On the Huawei story, I was really lucky to work with an immensely talented group.