Peter Greste: I Would Still Be In Prison If Ordinary People Didn’t Respond To My Story

Editor of The Vocal

Approx 9 minute reading time

We caught up with recently liberated journalist Peter Greste before he told his story live as part of a unique storytelling initiative by Maurice Blackburn Lawyers and non-profit storytelling organisation The Moth

TVCL: Are you nervous about tonight?

“Nervous yes, because it’s a form of storytelling I’ve never been involved with before. Journalism is storytelling fundamentally but, bizarrely it’s not the sort of thing we typically do, to craft storytelling the way The Moth approaches it is not something I’ve ever been part of, and having to perform before a live audience like that, it’s quite intimidating. But I’m also really excited by it. I think that the whole style of it, the whole approach to storytelling is really powerful. Going through the sessions and workshops with The Moth and Maurice Blackburn, I really found it quite inspiring, and learnt an awful lot about a craft I thought I knew really well.

TVCL: How did you come up with the idea for your story?

Well you know the whole point of what Maurice Blackburn’s trying to do is draw people’s attention to human rights and the importance of freedom in particular, with me anyway. So in the workshop they were trying very hard to look at the story, to find and narrow down the story that might make people think about the importance of freedom. Obviously through my experience in Egypt, I was very fortunate to be part of an amazing experience, some of them quite confronting. It was the theme of freedom that helped me focus and hone in on the story I wanted to tell, to straighten and simplify it.

It’s like stripping away the extraneous dross that sometimes clouds the story, chipping away at the coal around the diamond. It’s not always easy or obvious what the actual story is or what you’re trying to say about it. When you understand what meaning you’re trying to draw out of a story, it’s easier to work out which bits are really central to it.

TVCL: I wanted to talk to you about taking action, since one of the central questions here at The Vocal is how can you actually get people to take action effectively. So I wanted to ask you what you think is the most effective and practical way to take action on the social justice issues of today and especially for the next generation?

What Maurice Blackburn have been trying to do with this, something I think is really powerful, it’s about harnessing the power of storytelling. When you tell a great story, people are really able to empathise with other victims of human rights abuses, you’re able to walk in their shoes, to sit in their skin, to feel what they feel. You start to internalise it. That’s when you really start to understand what it means when someone else’s human rights are abused but it’s actually your own rights are abused.

That’s the central thing of The Moth and the Maurice Blackburn campaign – “your rights are my rights”. And so I think with the power of great storytelling, with the tools we’ve got on social media to tell great stories, it helps people to understand and experience great stories. We’ve got extremely powerful ways of not just making people hear and feel when someone else’s rights are abused, but also take action on that. Write to politicians, actively campaign and support these issues. It’s about empathetic storytelling, understanding what it really means when situations are explained in a more human way.

TVCL: I think that’s a great answer. I mean that’s always been the case but it’s more apparent now with social media. You’re actually seeing people putting that into action. So I think it is quite effective since it has that carry on effect and it’s contagious and easier to show your support. I think even with that, people still say but “what does it matter, it’s just awareness, it doesn’t actually change things?!”

Peter: Well I disagree with that. I would still be in prison if ordinary people didn’t respond to my story, empathise with me and my family and then do something about it, even if it was as simple as tweeting a hashtag #FreeAJstaff. The #FreeAJStaff campaign got 3 billion impressions. Each one of those on its own wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference, but collectively it created a form of pressure the Egyptian government was unable to resist. And so my story really is a powerful example of what happens when – forgive my language – but when people give a shit. People responded. People empathised with my parents. My parents were really able to tell a great story. The way they made people feel it, not just hear it. I think if you can keep doing that, then I think you can make people wake up to what these human rights abuses really mean.

TVCL: I think we can forget it can have that effect and how powerful it actually is. On the other hand I guess, the other side of it is that with social media there’s this content overload, people are now talking about post-truth, anti-facts, in the age of the US elections and Donald, and there’s also the outrage cycle. So with all of this that feels quite intense for people, how do you think the media and journalists can cut through that noise and keep telling important stories? And what do you think is missing, or what do we need to see more of for that to happen?

Peter: Sometimes, obviously you need to hold journalists and the media to the basics of our craft, with professionalism, with integrity, with accuracy and with balance. As long as you respond to the post-truth world with truth, then I think we’re making in roads. People are starting to understand and become more cynical about the loss of truth. At the same time, I think we also need to remember that too much of what appears in the papers dehumanises the victims of human rights abuses, it turns them into numbers, into statistics, into faceless figures. A lot of reporting around asylum seekers, it allows those asylum seekers to become anonymous, threatening caricatures, not human, really. When we give them faces and names and we tell their stories with compassion and integrity, then people again start to understand and have more faith in the media more broadly. They might not necessarily agree with the stories or the opinions expressed, but having trust in what they’re reading is based in fact, is based in truth.

TVCL: That’s a great point. I think people are relying too much on metrics to decide whether people care, how engaged people are to know if they’re cutting through. So I think that’s maybe not the right indication of whether you’re actually cutting through. Instead we need to look at different ideas and see the wider message and how people are responding. And maybe we also need to go out and find the people that are doing that and make sure people are engaged in other ways, that’s maybe one way to start changing the narrative more widely.

Peter: Yes. I agree and that’s really important. Let me just say that, people are starting to recognise the post truth world, and that term is really important and valuable if people recognise the importance of seeking out credible news that they can trust. They learn to filter it out. The old days you had editors who knew and understood what they were doing, understood the difference between truth and bullshit and were able to filter out the bullshit, so that what appeared in print was fundamentally broadly truthful. Now we don’t have those filters. It’s up to each individual to act as a filter. We don’t have the institutional filters. People need to keep that in mind whenever they’re talking about the news. When they’re trying to understand what’s going on around them. Understand what’s bollocks and seek out the credible news sources, so they understand what’s going on. They have a responsibility to do that.

TVCL: I guess the other thing is that here at The Vocal we try not to focus too much on negativity, we make a concerted effort to be more positive. So how would you counteract that onslaught of negativity, even though it’s always been there with the news, but maybe today it feels like a burden and can create anxiety.

Peter: It can but I think that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at the positives, at the good things that come from it or the positive responses we see in people. For every abuse of human rights that I’ve seen, I’ve seen hundreds of examples of compassionate people. That doesn’t necessarily cancel out the impact of abusive acts. But at the same time, for every one person who carries out the abuse, you see dozens, sometimes hundreds of offers reaching out in all sorts of tiny, but profoundly compassionate ways to support those people, not just aid agencies, but other refugees for example, helping their comrades, supporting, carrying something for them, opening up their homes, sharing what food they have. Again when we read these stories, we also need to see, just how much good there is in people and the positivity around that.

The story I want to tell tonight is about the four guys who were in prison with me, perhaps justly or unjustly, perhaps more unjustly than it was for me. And yet these guys gave me tremendous strength as I was in prison, because of their intelligence and their compassion. Now obviously there’s been a lot of focus on what happened to me and the injustice of it. But we should not lose sight of their experience, and that despite their situation these guys found the compassion to reach out and help me in my situation. Millions of people around the world in their own small but significant way cared enough to give a shit, to tweet support. Those are the things that we lose sight of. As I said, 3 billion impressions for FreeAJStaff, but there were many millions of people who were outraged by the acts of those in government. Compassion might not undo the damage caused, but to get the numbers, the sheer weight of numbers and see that it can change the dynamic.

TVCL: Did you know you had that support, that people were tweeting and you had this huge support?

Peter: I had some idea, I knew there was a campaign and it was pretty big. But I really had no idea just how big it was. It’s surreal to have ordinary people now come up to me and shake my hand, and say how pleased they are to see me out of prison, but then also get that from Barack Obama who I met last year.

TVCL: That must have been very humbling, you must have felt overwhelmed by it all.

Peter: …and somewhat undeserving as well (laughs). A lot of people were going through far more difficult situations in that prison, and had a lot less support than I did. Again that’s not their fault or the fault of other people, or how much compassion there is to go around, but it’s something to be aware of.


Peter Greste performing live at Your Right Is My Right, an event by Maurice Blackburn in partnership with The Moth