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Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

JOURNALISM’S LOSS: VALE MICHAEL HASTINGS

In Journalism, United States of America on June 19, 2013 at 7:30 am

Speaking truth to power, never backing down, and hunting down a story until there is nothing more to tell are journalistic attributes in hasty decline in this era of citizen journalism, gossip tv and a demanding online news culture. Andy Warhol’s maxim that everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame sounds quaint today. The Internet has the ability to make superstars out of all of us, whether we are singers like Justin Bieber or someone with a smart phone and mid-level editing skills. Some people, like the late Michael Hastings, simply seek to tell stories that need to be told, caring little for the trappings of fame that might accompany the task.

hastings Michael Hastings became famous after his 2010 Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal, which ended with the general being recalled to Washington then given the boot by Obama. You can read it here. It is, without any doubt, a brilliant piece of immersion journalism and an extraordinary piece of writing. For obvious reasons, it was compulsory reading for my journalism students in 2011. But he was also a prolific wordsmith; from big stories to small, from wars to politicians. The topic was irrelevant. The search for truth was everything.

In February 2012 Hastings wrote an obituary, published in Rolling Stone of the New York Times journalist, Anthony Shadid, who was killed while covering the conflict in Syria. Now, in a cruel irony, journalists are writing Hastings’ obituary – a life senselessly ended at the painfully young age of 33. Life sometimes has a way of laughing right in your face.

There is little need – or desire – to labour over a lengthy obituary of Michael Hastings. I didn’t know him. It didn’t matter. I knew his work well. I’ve read his books. I read his journalism. I followed his career. He was the kind of journalist other journalist aspire to be, but never quite make it.

His editor at Buzzfeed best summed up the loss: “Michael was a great, fearless journalist with an incredible instinct for the story, and a gift for finding ways to make his readers care about anything he covered from wars to politicians. He wrote stories that would otherwise have gone unwritten, and without him there are great stories that will go untold.”

I hope somewhere out there a journalism student is sitting in class, learning and practicing their craft, aspiring to be like Michael Hastings. The world can only hope.

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Protected: MORE THAN JUST A WRITERS’ FESTIVAL

In Australian Culture and Society, Australian Politics, Journalism on May 25, 2012 at 1:18 am

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PRESSMAN ON THE TROT

In Book Review, Journalism on December 1, 2011 at 2:40 am

I recently reviewed Alex Mitchell’s memoir, Come the Revolution, for the Canberra Times. It is, without resorting to overstatement, a cracking good yarn. Alex is an old-school journalist. He learned by doing, as a cadet at the Townsville Bulletin. He smoked, drank (still does), swore (still does) and produced his copy by banging away at a typewriter. The young journalism students who come into my classes could learn a lot from Alex Mitchell.

On 21 November 2011 Alex gave a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra which left the audience in stitches of laughter. He’s a natural storyteller, and my god, he has many stories to tell. From Rupert Murdoch’s transition from old-style newspaper owner to meglamaniac to travels in Tibet with Mike Willissee. After the speech I joined Alex and other veterans of Australian journalism, include the amazing Eric Walsh (one time presser to Gough Whitlam and Parliament House Bureau Chief at the Daily Mirror), and I listened to tales of the good-old-days of Australian journalism. It was an amazing experience just to be in the presence of this old hacks. If their oral histories have not yet been recorded, it should be done soon, before their knowledge and experiences is gone forever.

It was an honour to be able to sit with Alex and talk journalism and politics and listen to tales of the past. Take the time to read his book. You won’t be disappointed and you just might learn a little about our nation’s past.

COME THE REVOLUTION. By Alex Mitchell. NewSouth Publishing. 536pp. $39.95

Imagine this is your life: You were born in Townsville in 1942. At 16 you are injured when your homemade bomb explodes. Your first job is as a cadet on the Townsville Bulletin. You join Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, the Daily Mirror, reporting out of Sydney and Canberra. You travel to London to work on Fleet Street’s Sunday Times where you investigate and publish big-ticket stories such as Soviet double agent Kim Philby and corrupt publisher Robert Maxwell. Any reasonable person could retire at this juncture, content with their achievements.

Not Alex Mitchell. In his memoir, Come the Revolution, he writes with immense passion and great humour about his childhood in far north Queensland and his long, eventful life as a journalist – and Trotskyist – in Australia and the UK.

Come the Revolution is dripping in nostalgia for the good old days of journalism; a time when newsrooms across Australia were the exclusive domain of men and cigarette smoke, and long lunches were boozy, daily occurrences.

Sydney Daily Telegraph

There are few occasions when one might wish to be older, but I sometimes lament not being old enough to have experienced the old Canberra Times offices in Mort Street, Civic. Some public servants who now inhabit the building told me the ghosts of journalists past can still be heard banging away at their typewriters.

Recalling the good-old-days of noisy printing presses, Mitchell writes, “I miss the clattering sound of rows of linotype machines setting type on metal lines to fill the columns of the paper; the smell of the stone room where the comps worked; the foundry and the pressroom and the tremendous roar of the presses in full production.”

There could never be enough column inches available to do justice to Come the Revolution in this review, but two periods in Mitchell’s life stand out as life-defining, if not life-changing, and are worth highlighting.

The first involves Mitchell’s extraordinary 1971 interview with Uganda’s new president, Ida Amin, for Granada Television’s flagship current affairs program, World in Action. Mitchell was the first western journalist to interview Amin, only three weeks after the bloody military coup that overthrew President Milton Obote. Getting Amin to agree to the interview was the easy part. Mitchell let him win in a swimming race. But he needed every last ounce of journalistic training and instinct in order to compile the research needed to grill Amin. The film, The Man Who Stole Uganda, went to air on 5 April 1971 and, as Mitchell puts it, “[exploded] the conventional wisdom of the Foreign Office and Fleet Street that Amin, the genial giant, had restored order and economic prosperity to Uganda.”

The second involves Mitchell’s extraordinary withdrawal from mainstream – capitalist, he calls it – media to edit Britain’s first Trotskyist daily newspaper, Workers Press, later renamed, The News Line. Immersing himself entirely into the Workers Revolutionary Party, which coincided firstly with the heady era of Edward Heath’s prime ministership in which the role of the courts, the police, the army and prisons were significant, followed by Thatcherism and the miners’ strike.

Mitchell and his fellow Workers Revolutionary Party leader, the actress Vanessa Redgrave, travelled the Middle East to show the Party’s film, The Palestinian. They met leaders such as Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, now all dead.

Although I’ve never felt the lure of Trotskyism myself, Mitchell’s near breathless recounting of those fifteen years inside the Workers Revolutionary Party left me at times infuriated at his naïveté and blind faith he placed in people, and at other times in awe of his tenacity and focus in the face of numerous obstacles.

Alex today

When it all finally, and somehow inevitably, came to and end in 1986 and Mitchell returned to Australia with barely a penny to his name, an overwhelming sense of relief greets the reader. Mitchell’s final chapter, On Reflection, is a stirring defence of the struggles of workers – particularly prescient given the current industrial unrest in Australia – one suspects the Trotskyist in Mitchell will remain until his final breath.

Come the Revolution offers a damning indictment of the current state of anti-intellectualist, divisive, celebrity-driven, trivia-laden journalism and the eroding of the ‘free press’ in the face of corporate interest. Mitchell pulls no punches when describing his old boss, Rupert Murdoch. “As a student at Oxford, ‘Red’ Rupert kept a bust of Lenin in his room; today it’s a cut-out of the animated cartoon character Homer Simpson, inventor of the word ‘d’oh’, whose ratings are gold-plated. The man is an utter disgrace – Rupert, that is, not Homer.”

Come the Revolution will be required reading for my first year journalism students next year.

CAN WIKILEAKS SAVE JOURNALISM AND DEMOCRACY?

In Australian Culture and Society, Journalism on October 7, 2011 at 8:19 am

In December 2010 I gave an academic paper to the Journalism Education Association of Australia (JEAA) Conference at UTS, Sydney. Although it has taken almost a year (with some drama that resulted in me withdrawing it during the peer-review process from a different journal before offering it to the one that published it) I’m pleased to see it finally published. Particularly given some of the issues I tackle are starting to get ‘old news’. Any feedback or commentary is most welcome.

The link my article in Global Media Journal is here.

QUALITY JOURNALISM MISSING DURING FLOOD COVERAGE

In Journalism on January 14, 2011 at 4:26 am

With the Christmas and New Year break still in full swing, and the first semester of 2011 not commencing until 7 February, I find myself increasingly working from home rather than making the drive into campus, where distractions abound. At home, I can work for a few hours and then take a break, make a sandwich and a cup of tea, and sit and watch daytime TV. Could there be anything more genial?

The problem I have faced since this new year announced its arrival is that every time I take a break from my work and turn on the box, I encounter footage of the devastation that has befallen our northern brothers and sisters.

Before I am shouted down and accused of lacking tact (a valid accusation), political correctness (God forbid) and a heart of stone (all the better to deflect the slings and arrows…..), let me preface the comments to follow by saying this: I am not immune to the emotional consequences of the floods. I am not so callous as to not give a damn about the tragic and senseless loss of life that has ensued. Were I am man of faith, I’d pray – for those still living through this nightmare and for the souls of those now departed – but if I did, it would be hypocritical and hollow. I live a 1,200km drive or a 100 minute flight from Brisbane. Travel up to help is not a feasible option. In any case, what Queensland needs are people with expertise in engineering, health, medicine, water, food, etc. They don’t need another journalist voyeuristically taking notes and imagery on an i-Phone before he files a story from the safety and comfort of a hotel room. Instead, I made two donations. $50 to the Red Cross (you can make a donation here) and the same amount to the Queensland Premier’s Flood Relief Appeal (you can make a donation here -$54,733,396 raised as of 14 January).

Which is a neat segue into my real argument. Every time I turn on the box I am bombarded with images of the devastation and destruction wrought by the flood waters. The images I can handle. The accompanying banal commentary in the guise of serious journalism is a different matter.

It’s long been a problem of the 24-hour news cycle that every moment of airtime must be devoted to news – regardless of its significance or ‘newsworthiness’. And yet, even with a story like flooding which is constantly evolving – and therefore, one might think constantly newsworthy – journalists have managed to take the art of the succinct, insightful interview to a new low. The same interviews are shown over and over. There’s air-time to fill. The same footage of flood waters is aired over and over. When a fresh, new interview subject is found, the same redundant, banal, boring questions are asked. Then, that interview is aired over and over.

Last Monday while watching a morning news program I will refrain from naming and shaming, I saw an interview with a young girl who intelligently and emotionally described her family’s evacuation from their home. Three days later, watching the same morning news program, the same interview was aired again – no consumer advice that it was three days old and the network was trying desperately to find ways to fill the airways.

In the evenings, as I sat to watch some of my favourite shows – and here, alas, our national broadcaster was the greatest instigator – I found instead the stations had canceled regular programming in favour of continuous coverage of the floods. More repetitive footage. More devastatingly amateurish interviews. More insignificant opinion.

It got me thinking. Were I amidst a disaster or tragedy, during which my very comprehension of the world around me was shattered and my raw, very personal emotional response could not be contained, would I really want a television crew filming my every move; my every tear, as my heart was ripped from my chest by forces beyond my control; beyond my comprehension?

I seriously doubt it.

In the future, journalism educators at universities across Australia will use the coverage of the floods as a case study in how to take a respectable career and make a mockery of it.