In this Career Spotlight, we have the pleasure of speaking with Daniel Flitton, Managing Editor of The Interpreter at the Lowy Institute, about his career in foreign affairs across journalism, the public sector and academia.
Daniel Flitton is one of Australia’s most experienced foreign affairs journalists and is now Managing Editor of the Lowy Institute’s international magazine, The Interpreter.
Before joining the Institute, he was diplomatic editor and senior correspondent at The Age in Melbourne and was posted as a political correspondent in the parliament house bureau in Canberra. Daniel previously worked as an analyst for the Office of National Assessments, Australia’s peak intelligence assessment agency. He has held academic positions at the Australian National University and at Deakin University, where he developed a breadth of knowledge on Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific. As a Fulbright scholar in 2004, he researched the Australia–United States alliance at Georgetown University in Washington DC.
Going back to the beginning of your career, what did you study at university? What led you to the Fulbright scholarship?
Common story, I wasn’t a dedicated student at first. I intended to study journalism, but was quickly persuaded that more than training, university was a chance to gain a perspective on the world. So I switched to history and international relations, with psychology units, too. I didn’t have much of a career plan in mind – I enjoyed research, so went on to tackle a thesis on the idea of humanitarian intervention, and, like a lot of post-grad students I was pressed into teaching. After a couple of years, I convinced the university to appoint me as an associate lecturer.
The Fulbright was a roll-of-the-dice application, which I missed out on the first time but I was lucky enough the second. The program was terrific. Before I went to America a professor gave me some great advice, that I should accept every invitation, and I did. I went to events across Washington DC on all manner of subjects, often asking “So, where does Australia fit in this?” to some puzzled looks.
You’ve had a diverse career starting in academia, then in the public service, and now in journalism. How did the decisions you made as a young professional impact where you are now?
I can’t point to a specific “decision”. I guess I looked for opportunity, to do what I enjoyed. I always liked writing short form columns, as a chance to offer my perspective on the events in the world. And my computer hard drive resembled a graveyard of failed op-eds – articles I wrote, pitched, and had knocked back. Nothing is ever wasted, you always learn something from trying. So I tried again. Eventually I had something published. Then another. Then I found my way into intelligence analysis, learning a lot about style and better communication (strange though that might sound, given the secrets involved!). So if anything, to be persistent is the best decision you can make.
Tell us more about your current role as the Managing Editor of the Lowy Institute’s publication The Interpreter. What does this role entail?
The Interpreter is a wonderful platform, a place for thoughtful and engaging analysis on Australia’s place in the world, and to look at global events that are crucial for Australians and people in the region to understand. The media landscape is incredibly diverse. The cliché is true, everyone can be a publisher. But in some respects, the coverage has also shrunk. News media has been cut back the number of reporters, priorities have shifted, the time for journalists to offer think pieces has diminished. My hope is The Interpreter helps draw out crucial perspectives that might have otherwise not had an audience and encourage a better debate.
My role is in many ways a facilitator. I’m always open to pitches, I aim to challenge authors to strengthen their argument and suggest clear ways of conveying ideas. But I also have my own views about what to cover, the angles to pursue, and what matters, and seek to engage other writers with these ideas. I see the biggest opportunity as one to draw new voices into debates, particularly from women writers, who have been historically underrepresented in international relations debates.
What has been your greatest professional achievement so far?
I’ve been fortunate. I’ve interviewed prime ministers and foreign ministers, covered major international summits across the world, had challenging assignments in the Pacific, talked my way onto a Sea Shepherd ship for an overnight trip ahead of anti-whaling protests, written on refugees, nuclear weapons and politics. But as much as I enjoy covering the big issues in the world, I’ve also been privileged to be trusted to tell other people’s personal stories. Those times where everyday people are challenged or find a moment of joy. It’s a reminder that for all the talk about countries or militaries or flags, people connect with other people. That sounds sappy, I know, but it’s what I’ve learned. And those little stories can often illustrate a much bigger theme.
Finally, what advice would you give to students and young professionals looking to pursue a career in international affairs?
Don’t limit yourself by thinking international affairs is only about diplomacy or the military or intelligence or journalism. It’s all these things but the Covid-19 experience shows just how cross-cutting international issues can be. Immigration shapes as an extraordinary challenge for Australia in the decade to come. Education will be a sector under stress, and business will always value people with ideas. So offer yours. The ability to get across complex information quickly, make judgments and convey them is an essential skill in almost any field.
On specifics, look to people you admire. Take advice. You can learn something from everyone. And be kind to yourself. That’s often the biggest challenge.