Legendary Papua New Guinea correspondent laments Australian coverage of PNG earthquake

Former ABC journalist Sean Dorney has been reporting on Papua New Guinea and the Pacific for more than 40 years. He’s more well-known throughout the region than most Australian politicians. He told Business Advantage PNG politicians and particularly the Australian media have ‘lost the plot’ in acknowledging PNG, and the region.

Sean Dorney (left) talks to former Australian High Commissioner, Ian Kemish. Credit: Kate Arnott

February’s earthquake in Papua New Guinea has highlighted the importance that Australia places on PNG, and we’ve lost the plot a little when it comes to paying attention not only to PNG but to the entire Pacific, says Dorney.

‘If as many people had been killed in a North American earthquake, we’d have it all over the Australian media with endless stories, endless coverage,’ he tells Business Advantage PNG.

‘It was our former colony. We ran the place for 70 years.

‘It’s our nearest neighbour, there are three Australian islands within almost stone-throwing distance of the PNG mainland. We have a responsibility for our former colony and I’m not suggesting we should be doing anything in a colonial patronising sense, but there is an obligation there for us to pay a bit more attention to this nearest neighbour of ours.

‘If as many people had been killed in a North American earthquake, we’d have it all over the Australian media with endless stories, endless coverage.’

‘The Australian aid program is still far and away the largest aid program that’s provided to PNG and some of the Chinese money is of course loans, which builds up debt.

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‘China is very, very interested in not only PNG but the rest of the Pacific and they are paying a lot more attention.’

On location. PNG-born foreign correspondent, Max Uechtritz.

Role model

Papua New Guinea-born former ABC foreign correspondent, Max Uechtritz agrees the Australian media is ‘appallingly myopic’ when it comes to PNG.

‘If you don’t understand how important is PNG to Australia—or you don’t want to learn why it is—then you shouldn’t be in any major editorial position in the media,’ he tells Business Advantage PNG.

‘The Australian media is collectively diminished by the apathy towards a country that’s been an integral part of our own history since 1914.’

Motor Neurone Disease diagnosis

Sean Dorney was diagnosed with motor neurone disease last year. Last month, friends and colleagues gathered in Brisbane to pay tribute to his life and work.

Dorney and Pacific reporters. Credit: Kate Arnott

More than 150 former diplomats, foreign correspondents (including former ABC PNG Correspondents, Richard Dinnen, Shane Macleod, and Liam Fox), reporters, broadcasters, producers, camera crews, family, neighbours and footy comrades from throughout Australia, the Pacific and PNG attended.

In 1974, Dorney was seconded to work for the newly established National Broadcasting Commission.

He spent a total of 17 years as the ABC’s PNG correspondent—marked by being both deported and awarded an MBE by the PNG government—and a further 10 as its Pacific Correspondent.

He met his wife, Pauline, a Manus islander and NBC broadcaster in Port Moresby. They married in 1976.

He attributes much of his success to Pauline, whom he says ‘is a broadcaster and knows what the business is about’.


Asked what he regards as the highlight of his PNG reporting, Dorney says: ‘In terms of spectacle, nothing can compare with flying over two exploding volcanic vents in the (1994) Rabaul volcanic eruption’.

‘He was fair.’

The trauma of the 1998 Aitape tsunami, which claimed 2500 lives, was the most emotional reporting experiences of his career, he says. He won an award for his reporting on that event.

Dorney with wife Pauline. Credit: Sue Ahearn.

Former PNG prime ministers Sir Rabbie Namaliu and Sir Julius Chan were among those who paid tribute to Dorney’s work.

‘He was not always kind to me but he was fair,’ wrote Sir Julius.

‘Our most intense involvement was during the Sandline period, where he conducted many interviews with me, probably the most of any journalist. His interviews with me were always in-depth, transparent and tough.’

Sir Rabbie added: ‘It is a matter of record that in 1982 I had to sign his “deportation” papers at the direction of the Cabinet. I am proud to say that, as Prime Minister, Sean was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire on my recommendation a decade later.’


‘He’s tackling the disease with his trademark humour and optimism,’ says Liam Fox.

‘Having captained the Kumuls, having won a Walkley award—those things pale into insignificance when you can’t get your socks and shoes on in less than 10 minutes,’ Dorney told his audience, adding that he was overwhelmed by the tribute.


  1. I joined NBC in 1988 straight out of UPNG Journalism School and received the baptism of fire being sent into Bougainville..Sean played a.big role in the way I reported and was a mentor to me ..He respected me assisted me and supported me as I moved up the ranks to being the NBC MD and to be the Pacific Islands News Association President . I will always respect and have time for him. Stay well senior and God Bless You.

  2. Les Seymour says:

    I spent two weeks travelling with Sean around the Pacific
    filming for ABC loved his company and frendship a true pro
    and love a beer.
    It was such an horour to have worked beside such a legend
    thank you Sean.
    Les Seymour

  3. Steve Day says:

    I once witnessed the breaking of a Dam caused by an earthquake. To have seen such a terrifying force of nature in action, I hold great fears for those people living downstream of this area. As to the Australian Press, well John Wilkinson had got it right “The Australian Media is more interested in closed door & bedroom affairs”. Other than a small mention on ABC TV, I have seen nothing on the Australian News Broadcasts.

  4. Ian Baird says:

    Australia should be treating PNG as if the earthquake had happened here, on the mainland Australian continent. Australia is travelling steadily northward, joined st the hip, on the same tectonic plate as PNG. Clearly there is one country that Australia shares its unique flora and fauna and culture with: PNG. Not only that, PNG was essential to Australia’s defence in WW2 and our foreign policy It should also be central to our thinking now and in the future. PNG people mae the ultimate sacrifice for us then, so we should rise to the challenge to help them now. Shame on Australua for its selfish complacency.

  5. john wilkinson says:

    Sean Dorney is absolutely right.
    Australia’s attitude is appalling. On the environmental issue alone, the earthquake has triggered a catastrophe the effects of which are only now starting to be felt. The blockages upstream in the Hegigio are bringing down polluted water into the Kikori basin. People drink at their own risk and diarrhoea is starting to occur. Dead wildlife litters the river banks, fish, snakes, even crocodiles. The Kikori is a major basin in the Gulf. Working with Chevron in 1990, we recognised this and lobbied successfully with the developers to ask them to bring in WWF, who came into the project. This became one of the only projects in the world where a major International Resource Developer worked with a major International wildlife and environmental organisation not as protagonists but jointly, with the Developers providing funds and premises on site, at Moro and Kikori. WWF’s rep at the time was Don Henry, and he assisted Chevron Business Development in setting up sustainable sawmills for landowners, amongst many other activities resulting in the study and recording of the unique wildlife from Bosave to Kikori,
    After Construction finished, Oil Search to their great credit provided significant ongoing support, and were able to gain tax advantages for doing so, for a number of years. WWF until recently continued to retain a small degree of support.
    Right now funds should be requested from international agencies to carry out a survey of the environmental damage, to give a picture of what is needed to mitigate the impact of the earthquake on the thousands of people in downstream communities, whose livelihood dependence on the waterways, fishing and sago are at risk.
    On the economic issues, well how much time and paper can I have? PNG is a part of Australia’s family, and vice-versa, no matter which way you look at it. As Sean says, Australia really does not appear to be fully aware of what is going on in PNG, and the Pacific in general, although I am sure this cannot be the case.
    PNG was already in significant financial difficulties before the earthquake. This disastrous event will have unimaginable economic impacts, and is going to need very significant recognition and help from proven friends. PNG has to look beyond the smiling Shylocks’ that will extract their pound of flesh and more in the long-term pursuit of their own agendas in the Pacific. I do not need to name the most obvious one.
    PNG is facing very grave economic danger, and Australia must do more than lay back and observe, and trickle in assistance. PNGs problems are very much Australia’s. Now is not the time to quibble over a history of shortfalls in financial management, but to set things right first.

    Lastly, the Press. These disasters in PNG have received only a fraction of the coverage of other disasters a long, long way from home shores. Why? Pictures tell a story to the world and bring is sympathy, understanding and assistance.

    • Brian Dyson says:

      Well said John…I have worked throughout PNG on Telecommunication Projects for over thirty years and have observed first hand the lack of comprehension Australians have for the need to support PNG in achieving the growth needed to ensure the rising generation of young people lead better lives. The need for training to secure actual jobs is paramount in order to alleviate the considerable distress the youth endure and the subsequent soaring crime rates in the towns. The potential for tourism in particular is immense but that wont happen until the crime rates in Port Moresby and Lae in particular are addressed. Might I suggest funds are provided to enable jobs to clean up these towns as a starting point. Self respect and pride for their Country will create more Tourism and many more jobs. The people of PNG should know they have many friends that wish them well.

    • John Wiilkinson says:

      Spot on.
      If Australia sits on its hands,another country or countries will move in.It will be too late then!
      PNG is a sitting duck for the picking.
      The Australian Media is more interreted in closed door & bedroom affairs than the BIG picture around us…
      Get with the flow Media and Australian Govt & Politicians.

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