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The news assignment that taught me never to assume - Anjali Rao (World & Current Affairs Speaker) - 28 September 2017

The news assignment that taught me never to assume - Anjali Rao (World & Current Affairs Speaker)

Anjali Rao is a multi-award-winning journalist, who has spent 20 years in the top tiers of broadcast news and current affairs, including 6 years as an anchor for CNN. She has interviewed some of the world's highest-profile personalities such as Al Gore, John Travolta, Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama, Rhianna and Roger Federer.

In this article, the World Affairs speaker takes us back in time on one of her most terrifying assignments.

 Journalism 101

"Never assume anything.”

These were the first words of my first journalism lecturer on my first day of university. Not the warmest welcome to the hundred or so eager young students assembled in the auditorium, but certainly one of the most valuable lessons I’d come to learn in time as an anchor on the world’s biggest news network.

To assume is natural for most people, yet with its negative connotations, we probably wouldn’t refer to it as an assumption. Rather, we may believe we have arrived at an obvious destination derived from a path of seemingly clear circumstances. Reality, however, often has other plans.

The most hated man in the world

13 years after that lecture, I was an anchor on CNN International, hosting two shows airing worldwide; one weekly, one daily. No sooner had I landed from shooting the weekly show in Mumbai, I was told not to unpack, but to get back on a plane bound for Manila where a gunman had taken a bus full of preschool children hostage in the middle of the city.

CNN, as every other global network, dumped all programming to blanket cover the unfolding siege. Upon arriving in the heaving, humid heart of Manila, my camera crew and I walked right up to the bus which was surrounded by thousands of bemused onlookers, police, the bomb squad, and of course, hoards of other journalists. The gunman, strapped with an explosive vest and brandishing a grenade and an Uzi paced up and down the aisle of the vehicle as his tiny hostages held up hand-written messages to the window.

By the time I went live to the world with this bizarre, yet terrifying situation, I knew nothing other than the assailant was a former politician who owned the kindergarten in the slum where the children lived, and I knew his name, Jun Ducat; not that it mattered as the media had bequeathed him a new name, “the most hated man in the world.”

Neither Ducat’s motive, nor his ransom demands were clear. All that was clear was that this vile, self-serving individual was threatening to blow up 26 little children for his own gain, whatever that was.

Many hours later, and without warning, the doors of the bus wheezed open, and each child cautiously descended the stairs to waiting ambulances, ready to ferry them to Manila’s main hospital where they would be reunited with their frantic parents. My crew and I leaped into the car in hot pursuit (literally the only time I have ever actually chased an ambulance), arriving with countless other media outlets to film the brave little hostages as they were given the all clear and sent home.

In the throng of reporters, cameramen, and sound guys, I felt a tug on my arm and a young lady whispered, ‘Anjali Rao, come with me but don’t let the others know. Jun Ducat is downstairs, and he wants to speak to you.” Alerting my crew as subtly as I could, we snuck outside, and there, handcuffed and flanked by two heavily armed officers was the evil Jun Ducat, and it was at that moment that everything changed.

The most loved man in the world

Ducat, with nothing left to lose in light of the lengthy prison term in front of him, told me with weary pride that his ransom demand had been met. That ransom was for the government to ensure that the education of each of the child hostages was fully funded until the end of university, thereby saving them from the inevitable: no schooling past primary and a life spent scavenging, never to escape the horrendous slum they called home in a nation where 40% of people earn less than AUD2.50 a day. Sacrificing his own freedom and future for that of the kids he loved, the most hated man in the world was, it turned out, a saint.

The thing about books and covers

While the Ducat situation was a fairly extreme, unique example of not taking things for granted, it seemed logical at the time to arrive at the conclusions we, the media, made. For example, how could anyone have known that Ducat’s intentions were honourable, that the deadly weapons he wielded were fakes, or that he was a hero to his young hostages and their families?

While to assume is only human, and an important part of cognition and self-preservation, I learned a vital lesson in mathematics from Jun Ducat; that in this crazy world of ours, two and two rarely equal four.

Learn more about Anjali here.

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