I can’t recall exactly when journalism betrayed me, but I’ll never forget how it seduced me.
I was 17 years old—wearing my dad’s sports jacket, school shoes, a red paisley tie and a blue striped shirt that still have creases from the box—and standing in the Flinders Street foyer of the Herald & Weekly Times building.
I wasn’t alone.
I was one of 18 fresh-faced recruits to the Herald and Sun News-Pictorial; six copy kids and six first-year cadets fresh out of high school and six third-year cadets with university degrees. We stood about the checkerboard floor like mismatched chess pieces, waiting to be ushered upstairs to the newsroom. Waiting to become journalists.
Looking back, the morning replays in my mind’s eye like a grainy, washed out scene on a VHS tape—a Merchant Ivory film with padded shoulders and mullets. Some of us had excited conversations. Some exchanged names and HSC marks.
I did neither.
I stood apart, hands in pockets, with the red-light of my memory flickering on record.
Back then, people thought I was shy. I wasn’t shy; I was watching.
Watching the teenager with a bow missing from one of her shoes. Watching the young journo catch the lift down to the foyer to big-note himself while we waited. Watching how one recruit was attempting to chat up another—and how she smiled defensively. Watching the cool reserve of the third-year recruits, how much older and assured they seemed in their early twenties. Watching everything.
I saw it all. At least that’s what I told myself. The next five years would show me how little I saw, let alone understood.
After what seemed like an eternity, we caught the lifts up to the third floor—editorial—and we trooped through the hubbub of the newsroom, then out to the arse-end of the building. We ended up sitting around a large table in a windowless room in our itchy new clothes as two ancient journalists (not much older than I am now) began our induction into the fourth estate.
It was January 29, 1987 and it felt like my life had finally begun.
In reality, though, my arrival came just before the pirate days of Australian media came to an end. Because, eight days after my induction, on February 6, 1987, Rupert Murdoch bought the H&WT—gifting News Corporation the vast majority of newspaper mastheads and readers in the country.
After that, everything started to slide.
It’s easy to forget how different journalism, like Australia, was back then.
After all, 1987 was the year of two massacres in Melbourne. The year of the stock market crash. The year of the first Fiji coup. The year former Liberal Party leader Sir Billy Sneddon was found wearing a ‘loaded’ condom after he had a heart attack and died on the job with a mystery lover. The year Queensland’s notorious Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen made his last attempt to be prime minister – and sank John Howard’s first attempt. The year Charlene from Neighbours became songbird Kylie Minogue. And the year a young Warwick Fairfax launched a hostile takeover of Fairfax – the publisher of The Age, Australian Financial Review and The Sydney Morning Herald, fatally weakening Murdoch’s opposition.
It was part of a decade that was artificially inflated and accelerated, much like the steroid-fueled footballers in the then-VFL, and the party animals snorting in the bathroom at the Underground on King Street, and the debt-rich likes of Alan Bond and former Sun journo Christopher Skase.
And all that inflation, acceleration and excess bled into the Sun newsroom.
Although overwhelmingly Anglo, the reporters and subeditors were an eclectic mix of broken toys—alcoholics and dreamers, rebels and soldiers of fortune, cranks and bleeding hearts, ex-cons and drug addicts, evangelists and thieves. As a copyboy, I weaved around them, answering their phones, running their errands, fetching their coffees and dinners and dry cleaning and paychecks, and, when deadlines were tight, copping their abuse.
Still, the Sun—at a time when the Melbourne was becoming a multicultural mecca—was about as diverse as Don Bradman’s Invincibles from the 1948 Ashes tour. There were exceptions, of course. People like Niki Savva in Canberra, a young George Megalogenis in general news, sports editor Chris de Kretser and our enigmatic deputy chief of staff Chris Santos, who fled East Timor after the 1975 invasion and became Fretilin’s Australian representative.
But, the Sun was primarily the happy hunting ground of white blokes. And the holy trinity of news for those beetroot-faced blokes was yarns, pics and booze; you had to get the story first, you had to get the best photo, and you had to hold your beer.
Alcohol was everywhere. It was the stimulant, the salute, the salve, the release.
Every night, the subs’ table relocated, en masse, to the Phoenix Hotel as soon as the Flinders Street building began to vibrate—the signal that the immense presses in the belly of the building had begun to print the first edition. Some of the photographers, when on a country job, seemed to stop at every second pub. Then there was the after-hours subs’ club, where journos and subeditors sat around the open-plan, fluoro-lit wasteland of the editorial floor, drinking, talking shop.
Not to mention the time when, as a newly minted cadet journo, I was told I needed to go to the pub and act like one of the more boorish drunken reporters if I wanted to make it. Or the time I let a drunk journo drive me to Geelong and back in the middle of the night because I was desperate to land the yarn. Or the time when the frail, elderly reporter who befriended me died and I learned—upon reading his obit—that the poor bastard was only in his late 30s when he drank himself to death. At times, it seemed like the printers ran more on booze than print.
In this sozzled underworld, women were second-class citizens. Young male cadets were sent to hard-news beats like police rounds; young female cadets to the Melbourne Show to write colour stories. Once a year, the newsroom blokes ranked the newsroom women according to sexual attraction, then posted the results on the bulletin board. That ranking—the so-called ‘bonklows’—turned young female journos, especially the cadets, into targets for sleaze inside the newsroom.
Female reporters were targeted outside the newsroom, too. As a 17 year old, I remember being sent in a taxi on an errand. When I climbed into the cab the driver was peeved. He wanted to land the next job because it was booked in the name of a young female. He knew all of the female journos by name and tried to shark their rides. He was sure he could ‘get lucky’ in the backseat.
In other words, Australian journalism in the 1980s was far from perfect. It misbehaved. Its newsrooms ran campaigns and beat ups. Its journos traded favours and were thin skinned. It was a scruffy, sexist, self-serving semi-profession.
But I loved it.
I loved it because I met my wife at the Sun—she was one of the other new recruits I watched in the foyer on that first morning. I loved it because I learned to listen at the Sun—all I had to do was mention the Sun and people would tell me their stories and, if I was lucky, their secrets. I loved it because I started to climb the mountain of words I had to write to become a half-decent writer at the Sun. And I loved it because I saw how good journalism could—like nothing else—hold power to account and write the first draft of a country’s story and make a difference to people without power. People like my parents.
All of which was why I had no plans to leave the Sun. Until the Sun left me.
It started in 1990 when the Sun’s editor, Colin Duck, offered me a job in the Canberra bureau. I accepted. But then Murdoch flew into town, sacked Colin and merged the Sun and the Herald. The Canberra job was gone. All bets were off.
You could say that the betrayal started then, with the creation of the Herald Sun. Or with the sale of the Herald & Weekly Times to Murdoch. Or just about any other date around then. The precise date or event doesn’t really matter because change is never that neat—is more like a chainsaw than a surgical blade.
All that mattered was that things changed—and not for the better.
Before 1987, the misdeeds of the media were seldom coordinated. Now that the Herald & Weekly Times was swallowed by News Corporation, giving Murdoch the lion’s share of print media across Australia, journalism began to campaign—usually for a conservative or neoliberal causes—on an industrial level. For example, the newly-minted Herald Sun—which as the Sun had behaved more like the largest suburban newspaper in the world than a tabloid—went feral, running front page editorials against then-Labor Premier Joan Kirner and preparing the ground for Jeff Kennett’s landslide win in 1992.
For me, the breaking point came when the paper’s new masters announced a round of redundancies and gave reporters the option to line up and ask whether or not they were tagged for removal. To, in effect, beg for their jobs. I saw that as intimidation.
Then there were the strikes, which were short and sharp and violent, with the company using police to break the strike line and more than a few reporters breaking union ranks to work as scabs for the Murdoch men.
I hated it.
By 1992, I was out of newspapers. I was 22 years old.
After quitting, I spent a few years working as public servant, then a spin doctor work for the Labor Party. Then I left the country.
I followed my wife to California and spent the next six years on startups, working as a multimedia producer for MSNBC, a founding producer for ZDTV, the first tech-news cable-TV channel in the United States, and running special reports for a TV-Web newsroom.
Like my early years in newspapers, it was seductive work. But this time I wasn’t seduced.
I saw how news coverage could become driven more by click-rate than newsworthiness. And the more I heard that we were changing the world for the better—opening the door to a more democratic world where the currency would be information and ideas—the more suspicious I became. By the time I arrived back in Australia in 2001, I was worried the Web would—by taking away print advertising—destroy the business model of print media.
I was wrong, though.
The Web didn’t just destroy print journalism, it destroyed broadcast journalism, too. Over the past 20 years, the likes of Google and Facebook have taken the advertising revenue that used to pay for quality journalism—and the people running the journalism business (including Murdoch) haven’t come up with a viable answer.
Instead, the media has become less focused and more desperate. More reactionary. More inclined to chase every click-bait story that will drive views. And journalists, seduced by the cardboard glamour of social media stardom and desperate to survive the hunger games of ever-shrinking newsrooms, have acted more and more like wannabe celebrities. And, in the maelstrom of the fourth estate’s existential crisis, the primacy of the yarn—the one thing the beetroot-faced journo pirates of the 1980s never lost sight of—has been lost.
A decade ago—just before developers pulled down the Phoenix Hotel to build another erection of apartments—I went to a reunion of the old Sun journos. The shindig was to mark the 20th anniversary of the ‘going down’ of the Sun. I hadn’t seen most of the people crowded into the upstairs bar for decades. I hadn’t stood on the sticky carpet of that bar for decades, either.
It was an enjoyable night. There was laughter. And bullshit. And, as always, beer.
Some of the old journos were still in the game. Many weren’t. I remembered seeing one working as a security guard at the County Court. But, once I dug past the niceties with a few working reporters, the overwhelming sense I came away with was fear.
The women and men of the media—or The Media as the public likes thinks of the piratical rabble I’d grown up among and loved and loathed—knew their way of life was endangered. Yet, like polar bears on the last iceberg, they kept going. Kept writing yarns and snapping pics and concocting snappy headlines. Kept doing whatever they needed to do to survive.
More than a few asked me about speechwriting. What was that like? Could you make a living? Did they like ex-journos? And, just before I left, one of my former colleagues pulled me aside. He was a senior reporter—a pro who excelled at straight news and colour pieces—and he told me he was envious because I’d managed to escape.
He said he felt trapped: it sounded like another word for betrayed.