Karen Ashford: Engaging a new sector

After 21 years as SBS’s sole South Australian correspondent, Karen Ashford embarks on a new career.

On a rainy Adelaide day back in 2007, Karen Ashford made a rather spectacular first foray into television news. After 13 years as a radio and current affairs journalist for SBS, the national broadcaster gave Ashford a video camera and a four-hour crash course on how to use it, then sent her on her way. Just a few days later, Ashford found herself down at Federal Court on Angas Street before a camera she barely knew how to operate, reporting her first TV news story: developments in the momentous David Hicks terrorism case. “My make-up was running, my hair was wet and frizzy, just everything was wrong,” the 46-year-old recalls. “I looked like this weird wild creature in the headlights, completely out of her comfort zone. But I just thought, you start at that level and it can only get better from here.” Thrown in the deep end, Ashford quickly found her feet. It’s a common thread that runs through her expansive three-decade career as a journalist, including 21 years as SBS’s sole South Australian correspondent – a post she relinquished only this May after she was appointed Flinders University’s director of media and communications. Ashford’s career began in 1985 at just 16, when she landed a cadetship with ABC Radio while still finishing her final high school exams. She’d grown up on a dairy farm in Woodside and says heading down to Adelaide for the job interview was “one of only a handful of times I’d been down to the big smoke”. “I was their youngest ever cadet, still on my P-plates driving. Now I think: ‘Oh my god, how did I get away with it?’” Ashford, who now lives in Glandore, says. She spent six years at the national broadcaster, for a time working as chief of staff and sub-editing news bulletins from the Gulf War. Then in 1991, and aged only 21, Ashford was head-hunted to become former South Australian Labor minister Kym Mayes’ media advisor. She worked on Adelaide’s (ultimately unsuccessful) 1998 Commonwealth Games bid and across Mayes’ diverse portfolios, including environmental affairs, housing, emergency services and, importantly, Aboriginal affairs. The latter sparked a passion that endured throughout her journalism career. After Mayes lost the 1993 state election, Ashford applied for a gig with SBS. She insisted the multicultural and multilingual broadcaster hire her despite its preference for ethnic employees. “I said: ‘You need to employ me because I’m not ethnic. I come in without any fear or favour, I have no biases, no preconceived notions, I’ll be in it for every language group,’” she says. Ashford joined SBS Radio in 1994 and over the next two decades, enjoyed a unique ringside seat to some of South Australia’s biggest and most controversial developments. As her role expanded to include television and online, she raced all over the state, almost always solo and lugging 25kg of camera gear, covering everything from detention centres, asylum seekers and bushfire disasters to sharks and Kangaroo Island gin. “If a story was good, I didn’t mind how I did it or whom I did it with,” she says. “A good story deserves to be told and I’d just go for it, push it as far as I could on as many platforms as I could.” Always, she says, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs were at the front of her mind. “I noticed so much of the mainstream coverage was shock, horror, ‘look at this scandal, isn’t this terrible’,” she says. “My way of approaching that same story was ‘Okay, there’s a problem here but what’s been done about it, how’s the community working to solve it?’ I was always looking for the constructive angle. Some people might say it’s a soft way of going but I think it challenges the community itself to be more galvanised in terms of solutions.” Ashford travelled to the APY Lands in South Australia’s northwest countless times, as well as communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory while covering those states for SBS, too. She says one of her most memorable stories involved Indigenous schoolteacher Felicity Hayes, who was living in abject squalor in a town camp on Alice Springs’ outskirts. “This was particularly confronting because it was less than 200-metres from brand new two-storey manicured houses with running water and green lawns and electricity, and literally over the hill there’s a single tap, a power line running across the ground for the radio and not even a stove or laundry facilities,” she says. “I wanted the story to be just one woman’s voice because what we’d never heard was the voice of the people on the ground. It was really emotionally challenging because it was just so extraordinary. It is one of Australia’s great shames.” After the story was published in 2012, on the fifth anniversary of the Northern Territory intervention, Ashford won “best coverage of social equity affairs” at the SA Media Awards, plus an Archbishop of Adelaide media award. As she exuberantly recounts tales from the road, it’s clear Ashford’s passion for South Australian stories has not waned. She’s relished the chance to represent the state she loves on a national level but also believes one must “go while on a high”. Besides, dragging all that heavy camera gear about and the increasing demands of the 24-hour digital news cycle were starting to take a toll. So when the Flinders University gig popped up this year, Ashford jumped at the chance to throw herself in the career deep end yet again. She took a month off — her longest holiday in two decades — before starting as media and communications director on June 1. “I’m looking to become engaged in a sector I really know very little about,” she says. “It’s a bit like there’s Everest and here’s my teaspoon. But give me a little while and it will be like there’s Kilimanjaro and here’s my shovel.” Ashford believes South Australia is “on the cusp of a new wave of cleverness” and says education is key. “This is where clever is born and I love the idea of being part of that,” she says. “I have complete passion for news and media and after such a lovely opportunity to be a storyteller for society, moving into Flinders University is giving me an opportunity to help shape that message. I’m still doing media, just in a different format – helping to shape stories rather than simply reflecting them.”

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