Learning to fly

ABC presenter Lisa Millar. 270012_01


Overcoming her greatest fear has taken ABC-TV’s Lisa Millar around the world. And she owes so much to her country upbringing, as ERLE LEVEY discovers.


“Country Australia is so important to me, I would hate to lose the grounding it gave me. I’m so privileged. It’s a matter of wanting to give back to the kinds of people who nurtured me.”

We’ve all got them. Some of them are shared. Fears.

ABC News Breakfast co-host Lisa Millar’s was a fear of flying.

It goes to show you never know what life will deliver.

Lisa grew up in Kilkivan and while she hoped for a career in journalism, she never imagined her dream job would come true – let alone that she’d soar to such heights.

Travelling the world for Foreign Correspondent, Lisa became the ABC’s bureau chief in London and Washington DC, as well as working in New York.

Starting her career at The Gympie Times in 1988, she has worked in print, TV and radio, winning a Walkley Award for investigative reporting in 2005.

Yet it was a fear of flying that threatened to hold her back.

Having grown up with aeroplanes as the way to get around, it was a nerve-wracking flight in North Queensland that shattered her confidence.

That flight, and the way in which she has overcome that fear, is the basis of her first book, the acclaimed Daring to Fly.

It also brings to light the enjoyment of her career and the thankfulness of a country upbringing.

Lisa is among the strong line-up of speakers at Words Out West, the Western Downs readers’ and writers’ festival in Dalby on 4-5 March.

In her book she outlines her fears, and her journey towards overcoming them.

It was in 1993 while working as the ABC’s North Queensland reporter, and the six-seater chartered plane was caught in a heavy storm.

“While rain was lashing my window, there was a sudden loss of power and the motor on the left spluttered and died. The drop in altitude hit my gut so fast my brain couldn’t understand what was happening.

“The engine on the right revved like mad trying to keep us airborne. 

“We made it safely to the ground but I was shaken by the experience.

“After that, fear began stalking me. It was in the shadows initially, but it slowly became a constant, aggressive presence.”

The turning point in Lisa’s career was doing a fear of flying course.

“That’s the moment when my world opened up.

“If I had not had that level of fear – it just stops you from doing anything. I thought my world would shut down.

“However, this cannot control our lives.

“Instead, it was the start of a whole new chapter.

“Once you recover from a fear you are so empowered, it feels like you can do anything.

“I’ve gone on to complete an Olympic distance triathlon,” she laughs.

Fear of anything can bring people down. It is capable of bringing us to our knees or, in the very least, preventing us from moving forward.

Lisa’s sense of fear was bringing her undone… taking away her opportunity to embark on the career that would set her life on track. She overcame it – which changed her path through life.

In moments of defying her greatest fear and embarking on something as giving as writing a book, it has helped Lisa to concentrate on the benefit for others.

“It has led to a life far beyond what I could have imagined.

“I remember when Jason Donovan sat on the couch in the News Breakfast studio for an interview, I caught my 16-year-old self wondering if this would happen to me.

“I have found myself standing outside Windsor Castle when Harry and Meghan got married – I was inside the walls but outside the castle.

“I have been fortunate to see some of the most incredible moments in history.”

The role as co-host with Michael Rowland on News Breakfast was not one she applied for.

“It sought me out, and I’m working with people I have the highest regard for.

“There are moments I allow myself to have a giggle on the inside. It’s illegal, the amount of enjoyment it can bring.”

Now based in Melbourne for her work, Lisa tells me the book came about because of being in a new city, and it being in complete Covid lockdown.

“The publishers had requested previously that I write a book.

“This time round I thought I would give it a try.

“I’m so glad I did. It filled in so much background on the ABC, what goes on behind the scenes.

“I just had to get over this fear of flying. That was an incredible experience in itself.

“It shows just how powerful the mind is. It gave me a greater understanding of the job.

“I talk about the possible trauma one can face, yet I have had a life full of joy.”

Having worked in the Federal Press Gallery in Canberra for the ABC, including during the 1996 Federal Election campaign, Lisa moved back to Queensland where she became ABC’s state political reporter.

She was part of the team that won the 2005 Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism for the story that discovered Vivian Solon in the Philippines.

Solon was an Australian who had been unlawfully removed to the Philippines by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs in July 2001.

Particularly poignant was when she was sent, in 2005, to cover the execution of Australian drug trafficker Van Nguyen in Singapore.

The despair at witnessing such events saw Lisa become involved with the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, which works to promote discussion, develop training, and exchange specialist knowledge on the most challenging of media issues.

In 2007, she was awarded an Ochberg Fellowship for assisting journalists who experience grief or trauma.

“You need to be really careful on how it impacts each of us, it keeps chipping away.

“Suddenly it can knock you flat. I’ve been very passionate about being aware of that.”

Starting out at a regional newspaper means you have to be a jack of all trades, Lisa reflects – write the words and take the photos, cover court proceedings and the police rounds.

“You develop a closeness to the audience.

“People would hand-deliver news items for the paper.

“I can still remember the sound of their footsteps as they walked up the stairs.”

The response to Lisa’s book, Daring To Fly, has been brilliant.

“I’m so thrilled. I wondered who would care about my life.

“I wanted to share that joy of my childhood in a country town in Australia.

“Even when I had finished the manuscript, I was not convinced we should go ahead.

“That’s when the publishers told me: ‘Leave that with us’.

“It’s been a great response, especially in this environment.

“What struck me was the wide range of people who have read the book and connected in some way – some with country, some with the fear of flying, others with the trauma of covering some of the worst stories in the world.

“Then there are others who love the behind-the-scenes look at jetting around the world.

“I held three passports at one stage.

“I will never watch Foreign Correspondent again without remembering the grounding it gave me, it was 12 years overseas but they were like dog years. You did everything, anywhere, any time.”

Encouragement for her book came from 7.30 host Leigh Sales, who often remarked that Lisa’s childhood growing up in country Queensland would make for good material.

It also came from a podcast that Mia Freedman did with author Sally Hepworth.

“Sally said she would get out of bed and write a few hundred words before she even had a cup of coffee or tea.

“Then, if you wrote nothing more for the rest of the day, you’d at least have those few hundred.”

That brings us to Muster Dogs, the beautiful four-part ABC-TV series that follows five kelpie puppies, from the same litter, on their journey to become muster dogs.

Lisa narrates the series in which the pups are sent to five graziers around Australia who each try to get them up to speed in just 12 months.  

“What an amazing show, but I can claim no credit for that,” she confides.

“It was such a labour of love by a small team. I came in at the end and did the narration.

“I’m so glad they gave me that privilege… the joy it has brought people.

“Every morning people send in pictures of their dogs watching Muster Dogs on their screens.

“That is the warm hug we all need right now.

“It’s been such a tough couple of years.

“This allows people to breathe, to relax into something – something not difficult to absorb.

“It just gave comfort.”

As well as Muster Dogs, Lisa has been a guest presenter on five or six editions of Back Roads, which explores outback communities around Australia.

Two episodes that stand out are the Flinders Ranges, in South Australia and the central highlands in Tasmania.

Said to be perhaps the oldest mountain range in the world, the Flinders Ranges episode held so many surprises – from the earliest of fossils to the amazing native wildlife and views of the stars.

“We covered 1500km while filming, it was so amazing.

“Then the central highlands in Tasmania… I loved being involved, to get out and talk to people away from the studio.

“What is interesting is that recently I got to MC a conference on regional journalism and where it was heading.

“It was to be held at Tamworth, to coincide with the Walkley Awards which were being taken to regional centres.

“Covid derailed that – but it was held on Zoom.

“I was dreading it, but it uplifted and inspired me.

“I am really excited about what is achievable in country news gathering.”

Lisa went to school in Kilkivan, then moved to the “big smoke” of Gympie to finish her primary years.

“I was terrified,” she recalls.

“The funny thing is Gympie keeps popping up in so many stories.

“Even here on News Breakfast. The team think I plant the stories in the news list.”

That brings us to the big question. Who will be the replacement for Leigh Sales on 7.30?

“You are not the first to ask that.

“The short answer is… it’s not the job for me. I was going to say – at this time – but no.

“Leigh is such a close friend, and I know the pressure that comes with the role.

“Saying that, Leigh has done a masterful job.

“The decision on Leigh’s replacement won’t be made until after the next news director is appointed,

“It’s a massively open field, a fantastic field to choose from, but I’ve had a taste and it doesn’t suit right now.”

Despite more and more women taking major roles in the media, there are still issues with the amount of focus being placed on how they dress, rather than their ability.

That comes through in social media, and Lisa deactivated her Twitter account in 2021 due to the amount of bullying and trolling.

“Social media is so much more intense,” she warns. “It can be a really interesting place to dive into, but it’s also toxic and you need to be conscious of the impact, the exposure.

“People speak on-line not as they would in person, and that can be brutal.

“You need to know when to step back, remind yourself it is not a majority view.

“Being in the public eye, I take an optimistic view of how good people are. It’s a positive experience.

“You can be sitting outside the studio and people will walk by saying: ‘I love your work Lisa.’

“I love the ABC and want people to love it. I think we are doing something right.

“The News Breakfast audience has grown.

“The feedback we get in a topsy-turvy world is that viewers see us sitting there… so comfortable.

“I see it about hitting the right note with the program.

“It’s a very happy home for me.”

Speaking of home, Lisa loves getting back to the Gympie region and remembers family holidays of her childhood in Noosa with $1 hamburgers.

Although rising at 3am each weekday morning to host the News Breakfast show can be demanding – and Lisa only gets a glimpse of the sun out of the window each day – it highlights the opportunities that come her way.

She welcomed the chance to get back to Queensland for the Writers Out West festival.

It meant a long but exciting trek, to fly from Melbourne to Brisbane and then out to Dalby.

Her older sister Wendy is came along as well for the road trip.

“Country Australia is so important to me, I would hate to lose the grounding it gave me.

“I’m so privileged. It’s a matter of wanting to give back to the kinds of people who nurtured me.”

Lisa Millar’s story demonstrates that we are all stronger and more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. It’s just a matter of allowing ourselves the opportunity to fly.

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