Marty McCarthy and Bridget Brennan

Olle Scholars

“OMG, I was in a meeting the other week, and I realised I was one of the ‘older people’ in the room”, I told a colleague earlier tonight. “I was no longer ‘the bright young thing’. I was now the ‘older senior advisor'”, I added. “The same thing is happening in my family”, I told him. One day you’re “on your way up” and wondering where you’re next career move will be; the next day you’re thinking “retirement and superannuation”. One day you’re looking to older family members for advice, the next day younger family members are looking to you for advice. How did this happen?

I went to the Andrew Olle Media Lecture tonight, and was, once again (to my privilege) seated with the recipient(s) of the Andrew Olle Scolarship. It’s an internal ABC thing, where journalists “on the way up” are granted a one year scholarship to pursue their career dreams which may include periods working on programs like Four Corners, or even in a foreign bureau. Previous recipients have included people like Nick McKenzie, Brigid Glanville, Conor Duffy, James Glenday, and many people other you now hear on the radio, see on your television, or read in your newspaper. I feel privileged to have been on a number of panels who have chosen the recipients.

Tonight, this year’s co-recipients, Marty McCarthy and Bridget Brennan (pictured), along with last year’s recipient Elise Worthington, sat on our table. They’re all seriously impressive young people who will, undoubtedly, go on to fame and success either on your radio/tv/online, or behind the scenes. They’re all super-intelligent, and they’re on the way up, so keep your ears/eyes out for them.

On the eve of my fif… fiff….fiftieth birthday, and almost twenty years since Andrew Olle died (weeks away), it’s great to know there are lots of journalists coming up through the ranks who are passionate and engaged, and for whom journalism is not simply a case of “filling the whiteboard” (as we often say in media circles) with “somebody else’s PR fluff”.

Tonight’s Andrew Olle Media Lecture was given by Helen McCabe, current editor of “The Australian Women’s Weekly”. In her speech, she took aim at the NSW legislation which prevents media reports which identify children who have been abused or even killed. She said in her speech…

As Caroline Overington said in a 2009 speech: “When a child dies in NSW, you can’t name the parents. You can’t name the siblings. You can’t use any photographs. You can’t give away the address. You can’t say anything that would identify the child, even if the child is dead.” So if Luke Batty had died in NSW, we could not publish his name or photograph. We could not name Rosie Batty. All the important work she has done over the past 12 months would have been done anonymously or, as is more likely, wouldn’t have been done at all. Look, I don’t have the answers. And I am all for protecting children who are already victims, but the NSW laws, in particular, are crazy. Pixelated faces and redacted names are significant barriers to storytelling.

I wonder what the young journalists of today will be grappling with in twenty years time?

“When we’re demented and in nursing homes, these will be the young people running the place”, I whispered in the ear of my similarly-aged colleague tonight :)

And best of all is I’ll get to hang out with these young, inspiring people a little more in the next few months because… because… drum roll… our table won the lucky door prize: dinner for us all at Aria.

Double happiness.

Andrew Olle Media Lecture

“Because I haven’t lived in Sydney before, I didn’t quite understand some of the references”, my friend Sue told a couple sitting at our table at last night’s Andrew Olle Media Lecture. Last night’s lecture was given by Kate McClymont, the Sydney Morning Herald investigative journalist who famously writes about crime and corruption in New South Wales. The woman in the couple then related a story about how she had purchased a house from one of the crime world figures mentioned in Kate’s speech. Between purchase and settlement, hers and a bunch of other houses were burned down in suspicious circumstances, I recall her saying. “These are very Sydney stories”, I told Sue.

“I remember Abe Saffron”, is a phrase I’ve commonly heard in social occasions with older journalists. “I reported on the disappearance of Juanita Neilson”, someone once told me. “She’s in a ditch somewhere in the Blue Mountains”, is a phrase you’ll also commonly hear. Everyone in Sydney seems to have a dodgy crime story. Indeed, I know quite well one of the “flamboyant figures” Kate often writes about.

Because of that sense of familiarity, her speech last night got a lot of laughs. I loved this anecdote in particular…

Not that I am saying journalists are infallible. We are human. We make mistakes. Look at me, I identified the wrong person in He Who Must Be Obeid, the book I co-wrote earlier this year with Linton Besser. When I was told that the book would have to be recalled, it was one of the worst days in my entire life. But a setback for one person is an opportunity for someone else. In the middle of my misery I received the following text message.
Thursday 21 Aug 2014 10.36am
Hi Kate, It’s John Ibrahim her (sic) could u pls send me a copy of ur book that be nice…thank u.
Me: Very funny! Who is this really? Kate
“It really is John,” he replied. I had last spoken to the nightclub boss several years earlier when we had run into each other outside Goulburn jail. “I don’t like what you write,” he said. “That’s funny, because I don’t like what you do,” I shot back, mentioning his penchant for threatening witnesses. He pointed out that the charges against him had been dropped.
We ended up talking about our mutual love of the TV series The Sopranos.

As much of her speech dealt with the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Sue and I both loved the fact the couple sitting next to us at dinner included Nick Greiner, the former NSW Premier who set up ICAC, and in fact became the first “victim” of investigation. Really interesting guy to chat to by the way, as was his partner.

The thrust of her speech was that, in many ways, investigative journalism, and investigative journalists are under threat. As well as for economic reasons, there’s the the issue of free speech and she mentioned the case of the Australian journalist, Peter Greste, currently in prison in Egypt.

But she also made the point that all journalism, to an extent, should be investigative.

People often ask me about the secret of investigative journalism. There is no secret. All journalism should use the same tools – curiosity, scepticism and the willingness to take the road less travelled.

The speech will be on ABC TV tomorrow night, and is well worth watching. You might even see me, as they often cross to images of the audience during the televised speech. “The one thing you need to remember is don’t drink during the speech as they’re bound to cross to you just as you’re having a glass”, I told Sue. I knew this from experience. There was one year when they crossed to an image of me twice during the speech: on both occasions I was sipping on a glass of wine. But there again, that’s “Very Sydney”, isn’t it?

Read the speech in full

Or listen here

Andrew Olle Media Lecture

Andrew Olle Media Lecture

“Andrew was 47 when he died” noted Mark Colvin at this year’s Andrew Olle Media Lecture. At that point I turned to my friend Sue and whispered in her ear, “I turn 47 next Friday”.

A bit like the moon landing, the death of John Lennon and Princess Diana, I remember vividly where I was when Andrew Olle died. I was home in Lismore visiting family. “Did you know him”, my brother-in-law, Jack asked. “Yes, I did”, I told him, though not as closely as many of my colleagues who worked closely and directly with him. Around the time of his death, I was still very much on the fringe, having recently moved to Sydney from Wagga Wagga.

Of course I knew his work as exemplary for anyone working in either radio or television. One of my proudest moments was around the time when Andrew, working on what was then 2BL, “crossed live” to the morning show I was hosting on ABC Radio in Wagga Wagga. It was around the time when our local member, Joe Schipp (also the NSW Housing Minister) was in trouble with his own party for speaking out publicly, critical of then NSW Premier, John Fahey. It was comments Joe Schipp made on my program that led to the front page headline, “Shut Up Joe”. Anyway, Andrew crossed live to my program to gain a sense of the pulse of Wagga Wagga, and it made me immensely proud.

For many years I was involved in the organisation of the Andrew Olle Media Lecture, though now it’s just a pleasant night for me to get dressed, go out, enjoy a night out with colleagues, and listen to an interesting speech. And this year my friend Sue came along as well.

“Do you think any of the young ones know who Andrew Olle was”, she asked me on the weekend. “Probably not” was my reply, though noting you don’t need to have been around and working as a journalist in Andrew’s time to appreciate the ideas and principles behind the lecture.

This year’s lecture was delivered by Mark Colvin who was around when Andrew was broadcasting. In fact, he was a friend of Andrew Olle, and it was lovely to hear him describe their working relationship in these terms…

We were friends from that time on, and we worked together again on Four Corners in the late eighties and early nineties. Andrew was a perfectionist and a stickler for facts. He also had a remarkable journalistic eye. Like every other reporter on the program, I used to write links for him to read before and after the story I’d put together. Andrew would retire to his office and shut his door, and after awhile, like every other reporter on the program, I’d find that he had torn my links apart and come up with something completely different. It would have been annoying, but in almost every case you had to admit that he’d improved on your work. He had a particular talent for finding the one key aspect of the story you hadn’t emphasised enough, and bringing it to light. Andrew was also at the time Australia’s best interviewer.

Mark Colvin
Mark Colvin

The speech with littered with references I could strongly relate to, such as Mark’s experience working as a journalist in regional NSW, and reporting on fires around Cobar.

That fire around Cobar burnt out one and a half million hectares. One and a half million.
I remember interviewing people who’d seen rabbits and kangaroos with their fur burning running, panicked, across firebreaks and spreading the blaze to new areas.
I remember seeing the air over and around a stand of trees – not the trees themselves – explode into flame as a spark hit the halo of evaporated eucalyptus oil they were giving off in the heat. I think I was in Cobar for a few days, sleeping on floors and filing around the clock, before the fire was sufficiently under control for Sydney to pull me out.

He also spoke about the legendary “Nagra” tape recorder.

A word about technology: I was carrying a Nagra, a superb Swiss tape recorder we used in those days. Nagras were highly engineered, almost unbreakable – years later I saw one that was still working after being run over outside the Soviet Embassy in Paris by Mikhail Gorbachev’s limousine – but they weighed several kilos and they had to be regularly refilled with a dozen D- Cell batteries at a time. Of course, you also had to remember to take plenty of tapes, usually recycled ones because they were expensive.

“There was a time when it was said women couldn’t be reporters because the Nagra was (apparently) too heavy for them to carry”, I told Sue.

In stark contrast to the days of the Nagra, the tools of the trade these days are more portable and instantaneous. A journalist or reporter should be able to spend less time, these days, dealing with the “difficulties” of field reporting than in the past. There SHOULD be more time for journalism.

Unlike many older journalists who’ve failed to keep up with technology, Mark is a great example of someone who has understood and adapted to the new era of journalism, most notably on Twitter. Like the Nagra of old, Twitter (and other modern technologies) have become the tools of the trade of the modern journalist. And like all tools, they’re only as good as the person using them. The right tools in the right or wrong hands can result in good, bad, or indifferent journalism.

“A bad tradesman always blames his tools”, my brother-in-law Jack (who was a mechanic) told me many years ago. And that’s the thought which came into my head as I listened to Mark speak. Both Mark and Jack are right, you know.

You can read the full speech here.

Male Stripper

“Oh my goodness”, I thought to myself. “I look like a male stripper…” I’d removed my shoes, my socks, my pants, my jacket and my shirt, but I was stuck on the bow-tie. Oh my goodness, who invented the bow-tie? I’d spent close to five minutes trying to get it right at the beginning of the night – and it’s a faux-tie, not a bow-tie by the way – and at the end of the night, close to midnight, I found myself struggling to get the bloody thing undone.

There’s usually only a couple of times each year when I get dressed up like this, and the Andrew Olle Media Lecture is one such night. I’ve been to all but a few of them over the last ten or fifteen years, and they’re always interesting, always fun, and a wonderful opportunity to catch up with colleagues. “Unlike an awards night or something like that, they always have some substance because of the lecture itself”, I told a colleague who was attending for the first time. In addition, you have the fund raising element in support of brain cancer researcher.

This year’s speaker, Laurie Oakes spoke about the industrialisation of journalism…

The trend overseas is towards more predictable news presented in more uniform formats because this is more efficient. It’s sometimes described as McJournalism or–in the words of the BBC’s respected political correspondent Andrew Marr-“bite-sized McNugget journalism.”

He spoke about the issue of declining public trust in journalism. He also argued politicians were, themselves, to blame for the so-called “dumbing down” of political reporting.

If you want to see a real dumbing down of politics, treat yourself to another look at recent election campaign commercials from both sides.

He went on to say…

Politicians make policy decisions on the basis of what will get the most favourable media coverage rather than what’s best for the nation–and somehow that’s the media’s fault. It’s tosh. The problem Tanner and Rosen describe is down to weak politicians, not the media. Can you imagine Paul Keating being so timid? The solution doesn’t lie with the media. Politicians need to grow a backbone.

As always, it was an interesting and fun night. And now, aged in my mid-40s, I no longer felt the need to go out socialising afterwards. No, I caught the bus home, and was back in my abode by about 11.30. It was some time, however, before I got to bed, thanks to that stupid bow-tie :)

The speaker in full flight

Big Night Out

A mate who was sitting one seat away from me – who spends his working life as a food critic – noted there was something special on the menu for me, The entree at this year’s “Andrew Olle Media Lecture” was gravad lax, a typically Swedish meal, though the descriptor in the menu had this particular version as “Norwegian style”. Accompanied by herring in a teppan’yaki style batter, it was a very lovely entree. The main was good too – I had the chicken – and so was the desert and other parts of the night. Given the scale of it all, I’m constantly amazed at how they can dish up 300+ meals simultaneously without any obvious stuff-ups.

The venue was the Shangri La, by the way, or the old ANA, as many older people still refer to it. On my annual calendar, this is my annual “big night out”. Most of the time for the last five or six years, though, I’ve been working, as I’ve always had some involvement in the planning and implementation of the night. But this year I’ve had no involvement, and for me it was just a night to relax, have a great meal, chat, and generally enjoy life and just to experience the event as a “punter”.

I wasn’t around for the first one, but I’ve been going regularly to the “Olle Lecture” since the second was delivered in 1997 by Jana Wendt. As I recall, she and Channel 9 had just parted ways, and there was a “story to tell”. Along the way, there have been various journalists, media owners, and media players most of whom were on “their way up”, though some have some “made their way down” again.

2009 Andrew Olle Media Lecture – Julian Morrow
2008 Andrew Olle Media Lecture – Ray Martin
2007 Andrew Olle Lecture – John Hartigan
2006 Andrew Olle Lecture – Helen Coonan
2005 Andrew Olle Media Lecture – John Doyle
2004 Andrew Olle Media Lecture – Chris Anderson
2003 Andrew Olle Media Lecture – Harold Mitchell
2002 Andrew Olle Media Lecture – Lachlan Murdoch
2001 Andrew Olle Lecture – Kerry Stokes
2000 Andrew Olle Lecture – Eric Beecher
1999 Andrew Olle Lecture – Steve Vizard
1998 Andrew Olle Lecture – John Alexander

And this year it was the Editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger who

has overseen the newspaper’s website being voted best newspaper website in the world, while he has been named Editor of the Year three times and he is also noted for fighting, and winning, a number of high-profile legal cases involving free speech issues and corruption in government.

His central thesis concerned the The Splintering of the Fourth Estate, which he observed in these terms

Digital is biting most fiercely on the press, if only because we have somehow to earn our own living (I will qualify that in a moment) and don’t enjoy the sheltered protection of licence fees or government funding. As digital eats into the press, so the press has turned its fire on public broadcasters, imagining that if only they went away everything in the garden would once more come out in bloom. And so the balance between these three separate ideas of journalism begins to teeter.

A highlight of the speech was his 15-point – very good summary – of how important Twitter is, and how it’s often under-estimated by many working in traditional media.

I’ve lost count of the times people – including a surprising number of colleagues in media companies – roll their eyes at the mention of Twitter. “No time for it,” they say, “Inane stuff about what twits are having for breakfast. Nothing to do with the news business.” Well, yes and no. Inanity – yes, sure, plenty of it. But saying that Twitter has got nothing to do with the news business is about as misguided as you could be.

“I’ve never heard Twitter intellectualized in such a manner before”, a colleague said to me as we chatted after the speech.

As the official part of the evening came to an end, a few of us made our way to the Horizon Bar on the 36-th floor, I think. I’d only ever been there once before, but remembered the view in particular. With cocktails starting at $20 each, it’s not the kind of place you chuck em down with gay abandon. But with such a great view, you’re hardly inclined to.

Very memorable night. The only downside was arriving home at about 2.00am, and discovering it was more difficult to take off my bow-tie than it was to put it on. Nothing to do with the cocktails of course :)

Andrew Olle Media Lecture - Cassie, James, Cath, Wendy

Andrew Olle Media Lecture

The “Andrew Olle Media Lecture” is one of my favourite nights of the year, professionally-speaking. I get to dress up (in the same tux I’ve been wearing for several years), I get to do a bit of schmoozing, and I get to hear someone interesting talk about the state of the Australian media.

According to this year’s lecturer, Julian Morrow from “The Chaser”, this was memorable as a year of comedy gaffes. He cited not only the “Make A Realistic Wish” sketch, but also the controversy around Kyle Sandilands, “Hey Hey, It’s Saturday” and a few others.

In tonight’s lecture, Julian apologised unreservedly to those people who had been hurt by the sketch, in particular those who had lived through childhood cancer, or have lost a child in such circumstances.

They are the people that I’m sorry about. I know that they have, arbitrarily, been afflicted with grief caused by one of life’s cruellest realities. You’ve got tears enough in your life if that happens. A comedy show shouldn’t add to those pools of grief. Lest there is any misunderstanding, if you are one of those people, I want to reiterate my sincerest apology to you for the unwarranted pain that sketch caused when you have already have too much suffering in your life.

He added he also understood why many people were offended by the sketch, defining these people as a second group who were usually motivated by compassionate, well-intentioned feelings.

But there’s a third group, he argued, that weren’t hurt by it, didn’t see it when it was first broadcast, and to an extent were expressing feelings of mock outrage. This was the group, he argued, who heard about the sketch through re-broadcast, re-transmission and so on.

The essence of his argument was the overall audience mostly likes and enjoys challenging material. There’s a danger, he argued however, that thanks to replay, discussion elsewhere, mock indignation and so on, that media companies will begin to under-estimate the audience and not be willing to take risks for their primary audiences.

It’s a nuanced argument, and I probably haven’t done it justice here, so I’d suggest you read the speech yourself.

As always it was a very entertaining evening, and it was great, once again, to get dressed up, to be wined and dined, and to discuss some interesting parts of my work.

As someone wrote to me in an email, ” the lecture caused a great deal of subsequent talk – for all the right reasons”. Couldn’t agree more.

Photograph with Ray Martin.

And Then There’s Ray…

Photograph with Ray Martin.

It was the end of a memorable night at The Andrew Olle Media Lecture, the annual cross-media shindig in Sydney.

The lecture was delivered by Ray Martin whose central thesis was that good commercial television journalism is often supported by passionate media individuals, the likes of Murdoch and Packer. When media companies are run by banks and other financial institutions only looking at the bottom line, he argued demonstrably that journalism isn’t well supported in the commercial television sector. As I walked around the room at the end of the night chatting to people, the general vibe was that it was an interesting, well-timed, and well-delivered speech.

One of the funniest lines, though of the night, was delivered by the ABC’s Managing Director Mark Scott, who spoke about last year’s controversial decision to pull the feed from Channel 9 because of their use of the “debate worm”. Steadfastly denying it was his decision (as briefly reported), he said it just wouldn’t happen at the ABC. “I’d dare say any decision to pull the plug would have been mitigated by several committee meetings, until eventually a few weeks down the track the plug would have been pulled”. I’m reasonably sure the loudest amount of laughter in response came from our table, as we all knew exactly what he meant.

After the event was well and truly wrapped a few of us ended up at Ivy, arguably’s Sydney’s grooviest place at the moment, via the Marble Bar.

“Hey James, this guy’s an ABBA fan”, my colleague said to me last night on the fringe of the dance floor at Ivy. She’d met him moments earlier and they were getting along famously, it seems.

It was then she told him I’d been learning Swedish and had recently been to Sweden. “Let me tell you mate”, he said. “If you’re gay and that’s true, that’s really cool, and good on ya, that’s great stuff. But if you’re straight and that’s true, that’s kinda weird”. With apologies to straight male ABBA fans, we both laughed in agreement. “I’m guessing it’s more likely the former than the latter”, he said, and we laughed again.

A few minutes later some cool music came on the sound system and so I thought I’d leave them alone for a moment and go have a dance. “Tell me honestly”, I said to my colleague. “Do you think I can hop on the dance floor for a bit of a groove or am I just gonna look like a tragic 43 year old man in a dinner suit trying to look young?”, I asked.

Generally it’s a bad look, though, isn’t it? A group of well-dressed adult to middle-aged men and women who’ve just been to some sort of corporate function and then find themselves at some groovy bar surrounded by young folk. I kinda think we carried it off okay, though, and had a great time.