• Archive for the ‘Observed’ Category

The dilemma of working at The Australian

November 30th, 2015 by admin

IN a piece published in The Australian today about the retiring editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, Errol Simper captures one side of the dilemma that is The Australian very well. (The Oz is paywalled but you can read the tribute by googling the headline: “Young Chris Mitchell, you were simply Devine”. In summary, Simper says what a fine editor Chris was).

During my 11 years in the Oz newsroom as a sub-editor, reporter and editor, I can say with all honesty that it was the best edited paper I’ve ever worked on, and probably harnessed the best stable of reporters I’d ever worked with too.

But this is just one side of the beast. The other is the unwavering, often knee-jerk conservative ideology that the Oz trumpets so readily. During my years there, roughly corresponding with the time that Paul Kelly was editor-in-chief, this extremism was usually kept in check by a broad pluralism that recognised its readers were best served by a range of views.

Sadly, this position gradually gave way to the one-sided extremism of the neo-conservatives. The paper began to act more like a propaganda sheet for the right wing of the Liberal Party than a broad-based sounding board for big ideas and public policy. This period roughly coincided with Mitchell’s ascendancy as editor-in-chief.

And therein lies the dilemma. No matter how well written, no matter how well edited, the paper’s right-wing bias is overwhelming. The tone is hectoring and unforgiving, making it frustrating to read and tricky to work around as a journalist.

As a reporter you learn how to navigate your way around masthead biases that don’t fit with your own values or approach to news gathering. It’s a survival technique you have to master to balance the demands of editors with the trust you build with your sources. You have little choice – your reputation is at stake. You learn that if you give a nod to your editor’s views and then proceed more or less as you had planned you can keep everyone happy. If you maintain a strong supply of copy it helps keep the editors off your back. On a good day, this means you can deliver a cracking story, with all the facts checked, with the sources verified that you have dug up on your own and that they can run with some prominence.

Trouble is, this becomes increasingly disheartening when your stories touch on or flesh out some unsatisfactory implications of policies or directions the editors support. Editors react by commissioning stories countering the thrust of your own and running them upfront under 60-point headlines. At some point you start to question whether you might be better off elsewhere.

That’s what I did. But I was big enough to acknowledge what a fine bunch of journalists they had gathered in the Oz newsroom and what a pleasure it had been learning from them and honing my craft. In the end though, they cramped my style too much and I left. No regrets.

Having said that I can’t read the paper anymore. It’s too distressing seeing ideology run rampant because it suits the bottom line of the proprietor and his allies.

The wrong day, the wrong flag

January 16th, 2013 by admin

An incident a few years ago caused me to reflect on our national day …


The local supermarket was busy with shoppers fetching last-minute items on one of those hot, lazy Australia Day afternoons. As I wheeled passed the checkouts on my way to locate toothpaste I overheard a bloke asking could he borrow 15c from someone in the queue. He had enough for his bread, meat and vegetables but was a bit short for his carton of milk.

Astonished I saw everyone either avoid his stare or mutter a grumpy “no”. I looked up and realised he was a Koorie. Quick check-in. He didn’t look drunk or drug-affected and showed no obvious signs of mental ill-health. He was just black.

“Are you right mate?” I sang out as I dug my hand into my pocket scrambling for change. But his face had contorted into a snarl. He was arguing with the checkout chick and grasping for his bag of meagre affordables. “Nah, it’s OK mate,” he glanced in my direction before marching off despondent and angry. His abandoned milk carton sweated on the counter. flag tattoo

So it had come to this. No one was prepared to hand an Aboriginal man a few cents towards some milk for his cuppa after dinner. On Australia Day. The irony was lost on the assortment of harried mums and single men waiting in the queue. “What a bunch of racists,” I growled under my breath at my housemate. “They wouldn’t have hesitated if he was a pensioner, a young fella or just about anyone else. Anyone who was white.” My voice rose.

My friend fell silent. Maybe I had over-reacted. Perhaps the unresponsive queuers felt awkward in the way that sometimes accompanies a request from a stranger. But the feeling persisted that these same folk would have reacted differently if that stranger hadn’t been black. We sighed and fetched the toothpaste.

Australia Day, Anzac Day, the Queen’s Birthday. I’ve often puzzled about the days we choose to celebrate and how we do it. Just the night before the guy serving at my local bottle shop offered me a flimsy plastic Australian flag. I declined, saying it would get crushed in my bag, which was true. But it was a polite excuse because I wouldn’t be seen waving a flag for Australia Day. I wouldn’t be able put out of my mind the images of drunken adolescents draped in Australian flags punching anyone with dark skin on Cronulla Beach a few summers earlier. The latest in a vast contact sheet of distasteful images of the flag being co-opted as an accessory of crude tribal jingoism.

And yet as I left the bottle shop I thanked the man for his gesture. For having the flag to hand out in the first place. And there it is. The dilemma. Yes, we live in a country blessed with opportunity; but we are not comfortable in our own skins, with our own black countrymen and women. We are compromised. I liked the gesture of the flag but I shunned its ugly connotations.

A few days later my friend Janet posted on Facebook recalling her days as a mayor in a multicultural inner-city municipality. “I am so ambivalent about Australia Day. I think it is worth having a national holiday to reflect upon the immense good fortune that most of us have in being Australian, and to reflect upon our substantial failings as well – but it’s the wrong day completely. When I was mayor in 2006 I used my Australia Day citizenship ceremony speech to say such things – and it really was seen as stirring the pot!”

I want to stir the pot too, to remind White Australia that its good fortune has been built in part at the expense of others. But I want to celebrate as well. I want to hurl balls down a weedy pitch with the cricket players in the parks, to smile at the teenagers snogging on the beach, to sit with the mums and dads holding their toddlers in their arms as they listen to the entertainment at the council-sponsored events across the country.

But it’s the wrong day. I don’t want to mix up feelings of loss and resentment and anger with those of pride and joy and thanks. Not anymore. I want to be part of an Australia Day that starts off on the right foot. Perhaps it’s the anniversary of the High Court’s Mabo ruling, or maybe a new day entirely. With a new flag.

A version of this article first appeared in 2011 in Platform, a writing journal published at Victoria University.