Joanna Lester (with drone) during production of “Power Meri”


“Women’s sport is about far more than what happens on the field. [It’s] the potential of a sporting environment to create female leaders and change the way that the people in the community see women”

Even within sport, women’s sport is about far more than what happens on the field. [It’s] the potential of a sporting environment to create female leaders and change the way that the people in the community see women; this is a really important part of the story of “Power Meri”. To win an award that brings together women’s leadership with what the story says, is just perfect, really.

Tell us a little bit of the story behind story. How did you come across the story of this football team and how did it develop? What were some of the challenges or obstacles you bumped into along the way?

“I was in a country where rugby league is the national sport, but it’s one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman in terms of lack of opportunity, gender-based violence”

I went there for the first time in 2009, but I actually moved there to live in 2014, and I was working on a rugby league community program. Most of my colleagues were female, and all of them were rugby league players. I’d actually never had anything to do with women’s rugby league before that. Here I was in a country where rugby league is the national sport, but it’s one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman in terms of lack of opportunity, gender-based violence, all these things. There was this really interesting dichotomy where the women that I was getting to know, working alongside, were making change through playing rugby league. I really wanted to tell that story on a wider scale.

When Papua New Guinea got a place in the last Women’s League Rugby World Cup, that was the perfect opportunity to follow their journey, through the lives of some of the players, and see what impact it had on a wider scale.

It’s only early days, but what impacts have you seen the film have upon individuals, and also perhaps at a societal level or legislative level?
Quite a few actually. One of the challenges I had at the beginning of this project was how far people within sport saw women’s sport as a force for social change. Obviously, I did, which is why I was telling the story, and the players that we focused on in the documentary did as well.

The team itself and the management of the team have really embraced this. The players go to a lot of community screenings, they speak about their own story and about the film. They’re really seen as pioneers in the community, not just as female rugby league players but generally as female leaders. That’s been one big impact.

“The team has also received quite a lot more funding as a result of being profiled in the film, but particularly being profiled as a team of extraordinary women making change”

The team has also received quite a lot more funding as a result of being profiled in the film, but particularly being profiled as a team of extraordinary women making change. That reshaping of women’s sport, and its bigger impact on society, has actually helped the team as well.

Image via “Power Meri”

But still, within the mainstream media newsrooms in Australia, there’s not that much interest in producing Pacific content. In some of my previous journalistic roles, I’ve pitched stuff often and there wasn’t a great deal of uptake, but Papua New Guinea is our nearest neighbour, with a population twice the size of New Zealand, with so many interesting parts to the relationship, which is only going to develop and get stronger from a strategic perspective. I do think it’s crazy how little we hear about the Pacific in general, but Papua New Guinea in particular, in the Australian media. I really hope that we will see that increase.

On the topic of representation, Australia obviously has a long way to go towards achieving full gender equity in newsrooms and media, particularly management roles. What are some of the positive things, or what do you think are some of the things that could be done, improve gender equity in Australian media?

It’s a very tough question. I think the diversity in Australian newsrooms is not just about gender equity, but also about diversity within that. I’m an English-born filmmaker telling a story of Papua New Guinean women. I was very conscious that the story would always be told in their voices from their perspective. We were never going to have a narrator, but it was me as the driving force behind this documentary that was now allowing them to tell their story.

I’d like to see more outreach at the educational, university level to encourage a more diverse range of people to go into journalism. We all know that has to start somewhere. It starts with who you see on screen telling those stories and whose voices you hear in those stories. This is something that a lot of countries are grappling with, but I think we often say in sport, you can’t be what you can’t see, and that goes for journalism as well.

What got you started in journalism as a field early on? Was it an attraction to sport or journalism or a combination of both? Or was it another thing that drew you in?

I can’t remember exactly when I started wanting to be a journalist. It was quite young. When I was still at school, I would do little local media projects. Sport was my way into journalism. I didn’t actually go into journalism because I wanted to be a sports journalist. For a long time I worked in news as well, but sport was actually the easiest way to get into journalism, ironically. As a woman covering a male dominated sport, like rugby league, that was a bit of a novelty.

“[“Power Meri”] is a great example of how sport can have a greater impact than other types of stories. Also, it’s an uplifting subject matter that people can really relate to”

Do you find that sport can perhaps act as an allegory for greater social questions, or for looking at society as a whole through that lens?
Definitely. “Power Meri” is a particularly strong example of that, in that we’re seeing the community attitudes about women — in a country where women face a lot of challenges — playing out through the lens of sport. The social media commentary about the team reflects a much broader challenge in PNG for women to be respected, to be seen as leaders.

Even from Australia, actually, we had a viewer contact us after “Power Meri” played on TV saying her younger brother, who I guess is a young teenager, didn’t agree with girls playing rugby league before, he wouldn’t watch it at all. But after watching “Power Meri”, he now watches women’s rugby league when it’s on TV all the time. She’d obviously been having this argument with him for years. It was so lovely to receive that feedback.

Power Meri

Image via “Power Meri”

What’s your personal message to the Australian public about why public interest journalism and these diverse stories, representing views not often seen in mainstream media, are important to Australian society and to our functioning as a democracy in society?
I think we all know that the information that we access naturally is becoming more and more of an echo chamber. Our own views are being reinforced via our social media feeds. So many people only really consume media that way. Journalism and commission work beyond that is really some of the only ways to reach people with those broader perspectives.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?


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Madeleine Hetherton (Producer)

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Rebecca Barry (Producer)

Watch interviews with the winners of the 2020 Mid-Year Celebration of Journalism


The June Andrews Award for Women’s Leadership in Media is supported by PwC