We need to talk about Islam

Some pithy, entertaining reads in the papers at the moment about our first line of defence against terrorism (Bronwyn Bishop), and the horrors of under-age radicals. All standard stuff for the times, and all expressing the same outrage. And monumentally superficial.

The elephant in the room is the root causes of the threats we face. To simply suppress those threats or round up the usual suspects attacks merely symptoms and misses the point entirely. Yet we devote most of our airtime to this facile discussion.

We need substantive discussion of the causes of this ill-feeling between “Islam” and “The West”. If we “figure out what the hell is going on”, as Donald Trump evidently can’t, then we’re on the way to dealing with it. Boots on the ground, jets in the air, and suppression by force by outside powers doing what they’ve done for many years clearly doesn’t work.

Indeed, it’s made it worse. Resentment at western interference in Islamic/Third World states, for whatever reason, most probably is a large part of the cause going back to the original Crusades, perhaps beyond. Good one, George W, for reminding the Islamic world of that.

You can’t deal with this issue by throwing money and guns at it. It might win you the next election, but it won’t solve the problem.

The only thing that will deal with this is mutual respect, for cultures, for territorial and personal integrity, for faiths and non-faiths. It sounds facile in itself; glib, even. But it’s true. The one thing we aren’t discussing — not publicly, anyway — is why it is the West and “Islam” are constantly at each other’s throats. It’s not really “Islam”, of course, but it’s dressed up like that by dog-whistlers who can’t find anything meaningful to contribute.

We have to start by trying to see the situation from the viewpoint of the other side. Every negotiator worth their salt knows this. We have to respect the other side’s viewpoint as being held in good faith, even if it manifests in ways that are, to us, extreme. Even if we don’t understand each other, we can still respect and behave accordingly. The bovver boys of the West must accept that you can’t barge into a different culture, oiled pecs, biceps glistening, wallets bulging, fiddling and manipulating in pursuit of an agenda that bears little relevance to the locals, without provoking severe reaction.

This is part, but by no means all, of what we should be talking about.

Sure, we have to deal with immediate threats, but unless we act before that background, then it is all for nought and we are condemned to an eternity of terrorist threats, of ever-diminishing civil liberties, facile reactions by politicians with an eye on the next election and the emergence of nutters like “The Anti-Islam Freedom Party” (how does that work, by the way?).

And Bronwyn Bishop remains in Parliament.

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Norman, Bill… Was it just a dream?

It seems like yesterday. The day Kerr sacked Whitlam passed as surreally as a wedding day: it was a blur, with bizarre details etching into the memory.
The day jerked around: relief in the morning (when EGW announced he would advise Kerr to call a half Senate election and, knowing best, we thought the crisis was resolved); disbelieving bewilderment at 2pm when the sacking was announced; exuberance (the anticipation of the campaign); the adrenalin rush of filing a dozen stories each before deadline; the wake at Charlies where almost the entire press gallery, and most of the “government”, went to eat, drink and boast themselves into oblivion; and finally to exhaustion when, in the early hours of November 12, we crashed.
We all know the image of Gough on the steps of Parliament House, breathing down the neck of David Smith, the Governor-General’s Official Secretary, then taking over the microphone to pronounce Fraser as “Kerr’s cur”. What you couldn’t see was what went on behind him.
After the initial flurry when the news broke and we planned the subsequent coverage, we made our way downstairs and out through the heavy, wooden doors, because we’d heard that’s where it was all happening. The doorman was a gruff, rotund character named Jerry, who’d once, under the previous PM, confided to us “Sonia’s up the duff”.
But through the doors, the first person we saw was… Norman Gunston.
This was an hour after the dismissal became known, but here was Norman, due on air that night with his weekly “chat show”, already in situ, in costume, made up, tissues on the face, with camera crew. But it was Gary McDonald dressed up. It became Norman when he spotted someone useful coming through the door.
He spotted Bill Hayden and Tom Uren approaching. Gary snapped his fingers at the camera crew: instant, simpering Norman.
As Bill and Tim emerged, Norman buttonholed them, but Bill took over.
“I know you,” gushed Bill. “You’re Norman Gunston… You’re famous!”
(If you knew Bill Hayden, you’d understand.)
Norman’s grin stretched beyond his ears, and he looked back and forth between Bill and the camera in his own disbelief, tipsy from Bill’s validation.
But serious Tom came back, grabbed Bill by the arm and dragged him off to into the crowd at the top of the Parliament House steps. This was not a day for horseplay.
As they disappeared into the crowd, Norman moved into shot and told us: “Dr Hayden…” and he held up his crossed fingers as if to say, “We’re like this!” Bill only recently had replaced Jim Cairns as Treasurer.
The first public indication of the dismissal was broadcast to the nation even before the announcement from Kerr landed in the Press Gallery boxes.
When parliament resumed after lunch, Speaker Scholes called the speaker who’d been on his feet when the House rose for lunch. But rather than calling “The Honourable Minister for Overseas Trade”, Scholes called “The Honourable Member for Melbourne Ports”.
Listening over the radio in the Herald office on the Senate roof, I thought, “That’s strange… Why would he call him like that?”
This remains the unrecognised public announcement of what had happened over lunch, but whilst we picked up on it, we didn’t appreciate it until later. When the Kennedy-Miller people some years later produced their miniseries, The Dismissal, they missed it, too, because all the big names they’d hired to brief their crew had missed it, as well.
The bells rang. There was something in the Press Gallery boxes, where announcements are made. We left it till later. A few radio hacks ambled over. It was a languid afternoon; there was no hurry; we knew what was going on.
Then the clatter, as hysterical feet hightailed it across the rooftop gangway that connected the Reps side of the building with the Senate, deafening as the returning radio hacks neared the Senate gallery.
One of them, the fellow from 2GB, stuck his head in as he hurtled past: “KERR’S SACKED GOUGH!”
The blur.
The strange thing was, with some elements etched indelibly into the memory, other items have long since melded into the mind’s recesses. Apart from what is recounted here, most of the other events of November 11 are gone.
There was the hurried office news conference, when bureau deputy chief Ian Frykberg distributed story assignments, and we got stuck into them, Frykberg initiating the work phase with his customary, “Any beer in the fridge”? That indicated that the story he was onto was major. It was the office juniors’ role to keep our bar fridge stocked. They were good days.
There was ABC gallery correspondent, Les Love, who knew more about the place than most big name reporters, shuffling from the Senate gallery to the ABC office on the Reps side, pausing as we passed in the corridor. “This is truuuly Remembrance Day,” Les said richly.
There was the interruption of our visit to the front steps.
At the end of it all, late that night, stories filed, we went to Charlies, the gallery’s favourite eatery, where they’d laid butcher’s paper on tables outside to accommodate the crowd. The entire press gallery was there, it seemed, and most of the “government”.
The first person we saw as we walked in was someone on his way out: Bill Snedden, vanquished as Liberals’ leader by Fraser earlier that year.
Bill had been amongst the first to arrive at Charlies, when the joint was quiet. He’d finished his dinner when the place began to fill, but he was in no hurry, having the time of his life, it seemed, moving towards the door, table to table, smiling, chatting amiably here and there, then disappearing quietly into the night.
It was surreal.

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Do jocks really shock?

I’m always more bemused than amused that the pollies worship so at the altar of the Church of Shockjockery. It’s their ratings, of course, and their bluster, and the pollies think they wield influence in the national debate. They may wield influence, but it is only because the pollies and the rest of the mainstream media allow it. Why does the media report their antics and their more extreme positions? And why do the pollies continual,y subject themselves to this torture? They strap themselves onto Jonesey’s rack and into Ray’s dunking basket. That’s what gives them influence.

I wonder whether those who measure the ratings and the public opinion polls have ever looked at the question of shock jock’ influence. My guess is that the vast bulk of listeners to their wireless station — notably, it’s just one station, in Sydney, anyway — are rusted on one way or the other, and nothing is going to change their vote. Many of their listeners are diehard Liberal supporters, mixed with a section of diehard Labor supporters, bizarrely. Nothing is going to change their votes whatever anyone says.

So, if you ignored these characters, and the media restrained itself (how often do they report the rhetoric of other media anyway?), then how many votes would they move with their deliberately extreme and blustering stances? I would guess, none.

Pollies should just ignore the “shock jocks”. At the very least, someone should commission professional research into how many votes they really influence. Certainly not those of genuinely thinking, swing voters, and certainly not those of their regular audiences, rusted on diehards whose votes are predetermined, often by birth.

Any politician who then suffers the cuts of Jonesey’s tongue, or the stinging barbs of Ray’s offense, simply gets what they deserve.

Ignore them. They count for nothing in the overall scheme of things. Just like newspaper editorials.

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Malcolm and his Lancia


So sudden, the announcement of Malcolm Fraser’s death. And so surprising, the wave of sadness that swept through me. More so than when Gough Whitlam died; more than when Tom Uren died shortly after. Why?

We all expected Gough and Tom to go at any time, so their deaths were not surprising. But Malcolm still was very active in public life, particularly the public debate. As we write, we hear Peter Costello on the telly saying that “Malcolm remained active in his mind right up to the very end”. Op-ed pieces, tv grabs, etc. As many have noted during this morning’s eulogies, we all thought he was doing ok. Until recently, it seems, he was.

But Malcolm? Many who were there in 1975 have long made their peace with him. If it was good enough for Gough to open his heart, then many of us followed suit. (See our earlier blob of November 4, 2012, for an account of our own – link upper right: A blemish, indeed, and an error uncorrected.) But it wasn’t hard, either, given Malcolm’s record on “the issues” in recent years. And it made us, for one, realise that he never was the evil Tory as we’d all regarded him in the days of the dismissal.

They were heady days; surreal days. Things happened so quickly, very few could see what was happening amid all that was going on. In 1975-76, and onwards, most of us in Canberra were grieving.


Reflecting, the signs of his humanity were there: he welcomed Indochinese boat people (boat people, not just refugees); he set up SBS; he embraced multi-culturalism; he was in the vanguard of the international campaigns over Southern Africa; he protected Fraser Island; he protected whales; he fiddled with Medibank, turned it into Medicare, but kept it; and on it went. When Bob Hawke was prime minister, he appointed Malcolm as a member of the Eminent Persons Group on Southern Africa. We worked for Hawke at the time, and we remember Hawke, talking to us over his shoulder as we drove through Melbourne one Sunday: “Malcolm’s dinkum on Southern Africa”, he said. The respect was beginning to emerge, 10 years after 1975.

Malcolm never changed, it seemed. The issues changed, and the policies changed, and the changes drew Malcolm out, so that his long-held positions emerged in stark contrast with those of the government of the day. He never was a Tory; he always was a Whig. Just like Menzies? Certainly not like Howard. Or Abbott.

His differences particularly were with governments and politicians on his own side. Much has been noted today about his differences of opinion with John Howard, and certainly with Abbott. In Howard’s press conference just a moment ago, did we hear Howard refer to Malcolm as “Fraser”? That’s not how you refer to someone of his standing who has just died, not if there’s respect.

Much is being said, and much more will be said about Malcolm Fraser’s contribution, by observers far more eloquent and knowledgeable than us. We referred above to our earlier blob of 4/11/12 (link upper right: A blemish, indeed, and an error uncorrected). Here’s another story, a personal experience, showing another side of Malcolm, whom we’d all regarded, too, as aloof; arrogant. In fact, he was shy, even anxious. We know professionals in the area who tell us Malcolm suffered enormously from anxiety, to the point that, waiting once to make an important speech in parliament, one professional told us, he wet his pants.

Friday Observance Day

One quiet Friday in 1976, we were headed to lunch. It was the end of a sitting week; everyone was tired (in those days, Parliament sat late, and the non-Members Bar stayed open until 40 minutes after the last house rose. This meant a typical working day starting around 9am and finished often around 2am). Friday was known as Friday Observance Day, on which “no work was to be done”, if we could avoid it.

At the press gallery boxes, we ran into Malcolm’s No 2 Press Secretary, Alistair Drysdale, a cultured fellow from Melbourne, in stark relief from his No 1 Press Secretary, David Barnett. Barnett was cultured, too, but he was gruffer. Alistair commented, too, on how quiet it was. “Many people around?” he asked. Not many. Indeed, at that point, most were at lunch already at the Press Club. It was so quiet, Alistair said, that he thought it might be an opportunity to get the PM to mix socially with a few senior members of the gallery. Just an informal thing. Bureau chiefs only. That kind of thing.

Yers, we said. Good idea. And we thought little more of it.

About 20 minutes later, the Press Gallery bells went, indicating an announcement of some sort. So we trundled across the roof of the old Parliament House to the boxes, and on the notice board was an invitation to drinks to all members of the Press Gallery in Malcolm’s office, straight away. Evidently, they’d figured there were so few people around, it was safe to invite all because few could come.

We headed immediately downstairs to the PM’s office, to be ushered in to a room already chock full of hacks. Someone must have rung the Press Club, and they were all back there, into the free booze, even before we could get there. There was a buzz about the room, but few of the hacks were talking with Malcolm.

Small talk

It was true that Malcolm was not an easy bloke to talk to, especially for us, who’s always had difficulty making small talk at social gatherings. It’s just not in us. But we actually felt sorry for Malcolm, who was standing there, in a room full of gregarious hacks, with no-one to talk to. Very quickly, we found ourselves in a small group of mainly senior hacks, and us, all of whom were struggling. Bear in mind, it’s easy to make “small talk” about political issues of the day, but we felt, perhaps wrongly, that the last thing Malcolm would want to talk about was current politics. It was Friday Observance Day, and even the PM deserved a break.

The small group was awkward. Several made comments, led with questions. Shortly before, we’d seen pics of the visit of the Foreign Minister of Canada who, during his visit to Australia, had met with Malcolm at Nareen, the PM’s sheep property in Victoria’s Western Districts. One pic showed Malcolm showing the Canadian Foreign Minister his pet project at Nareen: in a garage, Malcolm was renovating a Lancia (a natty Italian sports car).

Malcolm was a knowledgeable enthusiast, it seems. Just doing some research, it emerges that, in 1979, he won the W H Lowe Trophy at the Castlemaine Lancia show, for his renovation of the Flaminia Zagato Supersport. That’s his Lancia, at the top of this blob.

We know little about cars; we knew even less then. But, struggling for conversation, and thinking that this was something Malcolm might enjoy talking about, we said to him, “I believe you’re doing up an Anglia”.

Cat got your tongue?

Malcolm shuffled, and mumbled, and we moved on. We were surprised at the time that he wasn’t keen to talk more.

And we knew nothing of the gravity of what we’d said until almost a year later, when we had had a drink in London with other hacks, one of whom had not been there at the time but still knew the story.

We had no idea of the difference between a Lancia and an Anglia. They both ended in “ia”. And we knew someone else who’d done up an Anglia, so it made perfect sense to us that Malcolm should be doing the same. Our former workmate, Bill Norman, had done up an Anglia, we remembered, and had put an engine so big in it that he’d had to put a bag of cement in the boot to keep it even. Or so the story went. Anyway, the difference between a natty Italian sports car and an everyman’s trundler around England weren’t important to us.

Apparently, they told us over drinks in London, an audible silence had rumbled around the circle at our question, but we’d remained deaf to it until that moment, almost a year later on the other side of the world. The people who told us, they laughed knowingly at a joke that had done the rounds a few times over the interim.


We made our peace with Malcolm in his later years, as it were. Perhaps the key for us was the sight of Malcolm and Gough holding each other’s hands high, triumphantly, on the stage of the Sydney Town Hall in a Save Fairfax Rally some years before. Gough led the way. At the very least, it encouraged us to open our hearts and to listen and watch Malcolm with a more open mind.

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Our unelected spokesperson

Bruce Springsteen is about to arrive in Stra’a and the meeja is growing excited. But many of the previews miss the point about Springsteen. He is not just another rocker, not to a particular generation. One previewer, in The Sydney Morning Herald, picks often trivial details as representing a body of work which has been producing for more than 40 years, if you include the years before Springsteen began issuing albums, the teenage years down at Asbury Park and up in Joicy. The point of Springsteen is not that he mentions a girl called Mary in many of his songs, or that he likes to play long shows, or anything else the previewer mentioned. Springsteen may have known a girl named Mary, but in his music, Mary is generic, the kind of girl we (blokes) all knew in our youth: a love object, a confessor, the girl next door, the girl about town. To use the fact that he often mentions someone called Mary is trite, irrelevant and facile without thinking a bit more deeply about what Mary is.

Springsteen deserves a more insightful appreciation.

Not that this is it, but it is a contribution…

What is the place of Bruce Springsteen in our lives? Why should we pay $200 to go see him?

Springsteen’s power always has been that he articulates the agenda of his generation: their worries, their concerns, their fears, their hopes. One of the Herald previewer’s points is what he regards as Springsteen’s preoccupation with “Mary”, as a crucial theme through Springsteen’s music. (Curiously, while this was a major point in the iPad version of the preview, it doesn’t appear in the online version.) The preview quotes Springsteen’s plea to “Mary” in  4th of July, Asbury Park — in my mind, his greatest work, and on only his second album, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (September 1973) — to “love me tonight and I’ll promise I’ll love you forever”, which he (the reporter) describes as “prematurely nostalgic”. It was a throwaway line that trivialises the meaning of “Mary”, whatever the reporter means.

When The Wild, the Innocent, etc… was released in September, 1973, Springsteen was 23 and writing about adolescence, a time of confused emotions and concerns that were, as we all look back on our youth, so transient that you had to question their validity. Remember, in the next breath, he poured his heart out to Mary about another love object — “that waitress I was seeing lost her desire for me…” — then he was straight on to, “Did you hear? The cops finally busted Madame Marie for telling fortunes better than they do…” He raced though his changing prime concerns, from Mary, from whom he was seeking acute relief in a booty call, as we’d see it now, as quickly and as fickly as the hormones ebbed and flowed. In modern parlance, we’d see it as a series of dot-pointed “OMGs…”

But in the end, in Asbury Park, Springsteen accepted “for me, this boardwalk life’s through, babe. You oughta quit this scene, too”. It was time to grow up. That’s how we all felt at that time of our lives, and Springsteen articulated it for us so we could see sense through the cloud.

As his albums emerged, so his preoccupations evolved. In The River, it was all about his generation’s fears for the future as the US reeled from the crisis in the rusty old industries of the US East Coast, the subtext being the security of family threatened “on account of the economy”, that mystifying monster that was as confusing and threatening to them then as the waitress’s rejection of him “at that place under the boardwalk” during his adolescence in Asbury Park. Just as oppressive as the rash decisions in youth coming home to roost — “then I got Mary pregnant (and) for my 19th birthday, I got a union card and a wedding coat…”

As Springsteen’s generation made their Thoreauanly way through life, so his albums reflected their contemporaneous agenda: the generation laid waste by the Viet Nam war (Born in the USA), through the current Wrecking Ball, as they are rent asunder again by globalisation, Wall Street’s indulgent excesses and the GFC, all beyond the control of the rank and file, just grass in the wind.

Last year, when Springsteen did his unplugged rendition of We Gotta Get Out of this Place at the South by SouthWest music conference in Texas, to which Zuel refers, he described the Burdon/Animals song as “that’s every song I’ve ever written”, all bundled into one, an enormous tribute to the Novacastellian Burdon. Was Burdon the 60s Springsteen, or Springsteen the heir to Burdon? We’re appreciating Burdon more now because of Springsteen’s gesture, as we often recognise significant figures in history only in retrospect. We Gotta Get Out of this Place is an earlier 4th of July, Asbury Park, not as graphic, perhaps, but similarly powerful in its articulation of the confusion and anger of adolescence. It was as if he’d rediscovered the Burdon song in an epiphany.

Recently, Springsteen told Elvis Costello, hosting a tv show, of how a man approached him at a petrol station shortly after 9/11. The stranger said to him: “We really need you now”. Which resonated with Springsteen, as if he himself needed validation or explanation of his role. At times, we all need reorientation. As the US people wondered how anyone could do such a thing (the Twin Towers attack) to them, so far away from the world of Islamic terrorists and to a people so righteous in their sense of what is best for the world, they turned to a reliable, familiar sage to explain it to them, to articulate their anger and their fear.

The Wrecking Ball album and tour continues that role: Springsteen articulating the concerns of his generation, although in Australia we have felt the effects of the GFC in a vastly different way to those in rust-bucket, high-mortgage USA.

That is the power and the relevance of Bruce Springsteen: he is the voice of his generation, perhaps the most articulate voice since FDR sold his New Deal.

I’m talking Baby Boomers. It’s terrific that Springsteen and his music is popular with younger people, Gen X, Y and now Z. They all can get into the vibe. But Springsteen’s meaning is different for those of us who’ve grown up with him.

We can ponder the role of “Mary” throughout Springsteen’s lyrics as long as we like, and we can making trite throwaway remarks about individual lines being “prematurely nostalgic”, whatever that means, but it’s really quite simple: he is the voice of our generation, our unelected spokesperson.

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A blemish, indeed, and an error uncorrected

We post this with great trepidation: it may be interpreted as an attack on someone who’s become a bit of an icon. It’s not intended as such. It’s intended as a criticism of the culture of the media. That it involves an “icon” is incidental.

We watched Malcolm Brown on Australian Story. They’re right: Malcolm is a remarkable, memorable individual and an excellent reporter. And as media organisations shed their older hands at a rate of knots, their corporate knowledge with them, he’s well employed as the emblem of this exodus, as an augur of its consequences. Malcolm is not one of your old time reporters. For goodness sake, he’s been with Fairfax only since 1972. Still a kid in our minds. And Fairfax, like News Ltd, like the ABC, like ConPress in the old days, has had many outstanding reporters who have made enormous and worthy contributions over the years. Old time Herald reporters were people such as Keith Martin, Fred Wells, Shaun McIlraith, John O’Hara, Tom Fitzgerald, Lenore Nicklin, Margaret Jones, Guy Morrison, Ian Fitchett… all well ahead of Malcolm Brown. Malcolm was latter day. Even 1972 wasn’t like “the old days”. When I started at the Herald in 1972, old time reporters got their stories through shoe leather and bars, not telephones and inquests.

Indeed, Malcolm Brown has been an icon. But he was one amongst a few. I rank others up there, particularly Richard “Gonzo” Macey, the best reporter I have ever seen, including Malcolm Brown. Unlike Brown, Macey was a quiet, diminutive character, passing under the radar usually. Malcolm’s personality was such that, whilst he never intended it, he occupied a large space in the newsroom and was, in effect, in the newsroom’s face. Macey was there, but no-one noticed. That can be a good thing for a reporter. While Malcolm sometimes interjected into stories, Macey was always in the background.

I recall well Macey’s relentless pursuit of the Skylab story: the descent of the original US space station back to earth in 1979. It was a saga over weeks or months, with speculation daily, for example, about where it would fall to earth. The Herald’s coverage daily was fed by Macey from Canberra, and pulled together by Ben Sandilands in Sydney. Sandilands, always an intense individual and reporter, got the kudos, but there was no doubt in the Canberra bureau where the engine room of the story was. Macey was so on top of the Skylab story that he ran a sweep, pinned on the Press Gallery noticeboard, in which passing reporters could pick their location for where they reckoned Skylab would crash to earth (the nor’-west of Western Australia, as it turned out). Each evening, he had the Press Gallery out on the front steps of Parliament House – the old Parliament House – to watch Skylab fly over, if indeed its flightpath took it over us. Canberra was a good place from where to watch that. Macey knew exactly when it would pass and where it would be.

Macey was a left sympathiser from Sydney’s North Shore who, when he returned to Sydney from Canberra later in ‘79, lobbied to open the Herald’s first bureau in western Sydney. He lived there, too. Still does, 30 years later. He wanted “to live where the real people live”, which wasn’t Sydney’s North Shore, where he came from, Macey figured.

Macey retired a couple of years back, after repeatedly but unsuccessfully petitioning Fairfax for redundancy at the Herald, and despairing of ever getting it. So many times did he ask, and was refused, that he referred to himself as “Fairfax prisoner 172865”, or some such number. Perhaps he’d been there so long, he would be too expensive a redundancy.

In his later years, the Herald had Macey as their Night assistant chief of staff, a dogsbody’s role and a vast waste, an under-appreciation of his talent and his skills.

There are others like Macey and Brown, too. Hamish McDonald, a senior reporter when we joined the Herald as cadets and who was a bit of a mentor to us when we went to Canberra for the Herald in 1974, who rose to become one of the foremost journalistic authorities on Asia and international issues generally, a wonderfully understated and articulate writer and dry wit, also passed largely without notice when he left the Herald amongst the recent wave of redundancies. Watching Australian Story, we caught a glimpse of the mug shots on the poster that the Herald did marking the last day of many of these reporters, including Malcolm. I caught a glimpse on the poster of Janet Hawley, one of the most outstanding feature writers of Australian journalism of the last 50 years. I’ve seen no other mention of Hawley in this context, unfortunately. Hadn’t seen her stuff for a while, until this weekend’s Good Weekend. She truly is a loss, too, and, like Brown, Macey and McDonald, it’s hard to under-estimate her loss to journalism.

Malcolm Brown never passed under the radar. I remember the day in 1972 when Malcolm started at the Herald. He was 25, or thereabouts, so he wasn’t taken on in the same way as us cadets, as my generation was at the time. On his first day, Malcolm was given a story to do which involved consulting an ordnance map. He spent his first day with his head buried in that map. For hours, it seemed, all we saw was the back of his head. I never did find out what that story was, or whether Malcolm got it in on time, or whether it ran. Certainly, the experience set the tone for the next 40 years.

There are plenty of stories that could be told about Malcolm Brown and his persistence and eccentricity, evidenced by his pursuit of the Azaria Chamberlain story. Such as his reporting on illegal casinos in Sydney. You’d have seen Malcolm on Australian Story, his coat pocket crammed with pens. What you didn’t see was his back pocket stuffed with a notebook. To research Sydney’s illegal casinos in the ‘70s, Malcolm took a young female reporter from the Herald with him to the casinos, where they posed as husband and wife, his jacket crammed with pens and his back pocket with his notebook sticking out from under his jacket. Undercover, indeed. Mind you, we did not actually witness this. It was the talk of the Herald office, of course, so it must have been true.

So here’s where the trepidation comes in… To tell another story involving Malcolm which happened, perhaps appropriately, with what would have been one of his last, if not the last story Malcolm Brown wrote. We say at the start that this story is not told in criticism of Malcolm. It’s not an attempt to undermine his credibility, his stature. At the time this incident happened, Malcolm was about out the door. We had a couple of contacts with him over it, and it seemed that he’d had enough. He was worn out. It all finally had got to him. I don’t think Brown’s hunger for the story was diminished; perhaps he was tired of dealing with an editorial bureaucracy that may have been chip, chip, chipping away at his enthusiasm. We don’t know. We’re not there any more. It’s just a hunch. This story is more a criticism of an attitude in journalism, an attitude that isn’t new but has been and remains a factor in the way journalists go about their work that demands awareness and discussion.

As a hack, we all know the golden rule of journalism. Most think it’s: “If in doubt, leave it out”. More often, really, it’s: “If in doubt, be vague”. We were told that by Chris Snow, our Canberra chief of staff in 1974-5. Otherwise, Snow was a stickler for thoroughness.

On August 22, 2012, the Herald published an obituary, written by Malcolm Brown, of Peter Nolan, who had been secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) when Bob Hawke was its president. Malcolm led the obituary:

Peter Nolan, the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in 1979, was in the running to succeed Bob Hawke as president. But he received an acutely embarrassing and unnerving accolade. After he skilfully negotiated a resolution that pulled the country back from serious industrial disruption, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, said it was a delight to work with him after the abrasiveness of Hawke. Fraser said Nolan would be his choice for the next ACTU president.

Read the full obituary… click here

We never knew Peter Nolan well, although, covering the labour movement for The Australian a bit later, we’d had some contact. We certainly knew plenty of other industrial figures reasonably well, and we knew the difference between Peter Nolan and Cliff Dolan, the ACTU’s senior vice-president under Bob Hawke. Dolan actually was the pea to replace Hawke when Hawke made his switch to Federal Parliament. Outsiders often were confused between Cliff Dolan and Peter Nolan given the similarity of their surnames. But it was our recollection that, when Fraser issued the embarrassing praise to which Brown referred in the lead to Nolan’s obit, he actually was referring to Cliff Dolan, not Peter Nolan. His point was that Dolan, still serving as senior vice-president, much more had the interests of his members at heart than did Hawke, who was at the time setting himself up for preselection for a safe Labor seat. Fraser was being mischievous. He already was treating Hawke as his political adversary. This was a recollection steeled by the fact that we’d covered for the Herald the press conference, in Parliament House in Canberra, at which Fraser made his remarks.

Cliff Dolan did replace Hawke and provided a very different leadership to the union movement to that of his predecessor, who replaced Fraser as Prime Minister in 1983.
When you see an error in a story about which you know something, you should extend that understanding across all stories, and assume that all are as inaccurate in their own way, because generally they are. Few authorities on issues anywhere wouldn’t appreciate this. Another axiom of journalism – this one indisputable – is that if an error is allowed to go unchallenged, then it becomes fact.

We like to challenge such inaccuracies for this very reason. So we emailed Malcolm Brown to query this story. We also wrote a letter to the Herald challenging it. Our letter read:

A well-written obituary is a piece of contemporary history, which is why, when it contains errors, it’s wise to correct them. Malcolm Brown wrote today of the late former ACTU Secretary, Peter Nolan, that Malcolm Fraser had lauded Nolan’s negotiating skills and nominated him as his preferred candidate to replace Bob Hawke as President of the ACTU. Fraser’s endorsement was presented as the death knell for Nolan’s prospects.
But is the Herald certain that it was Nolan to whom Fraser was referring? My recollection — and I was present when Fraser said it — was that he was referring to Cliff Dolan, then Senior Vice-President of the ACTU and regarded widely as the pea to take over when Hawke stepped down, not long after. Fraser was being mischievous, attempting to run interference in Hawke’s rails run through into Parliament.
People outside the union movement often confused Nolan and Dolan. They were two very different characters.

The Herald didn’t run our letter. We received a reply, instead, from Judy Prisk, who was at the time the Herald’s “Readers editor”. Mrs Prisk said:

I agree completely with your assessments of obituaries, which is why we correct them whenever errors are pointed out. But Malcolm Brown assures me he is very sure his source said ”Nolan”. He said it was quite specific.

We also called Malcolm Brown, who told us that it was Peter Nolan’s family who had given him this information. We could understand him, then, accepting it at face value.

But Malcolm’s response niggled at us. We thought, he hadn’t checked this 3rd party information – Nolan’s family were 3rd parties to this, not direct witnesses – and he hasn’t checked it with the cuts. When you have at your disposal the resources of one of the largest media clippings libraries in Australia, the Fairfax library, then you’d be well advised also to check with the cutting of the original story, for it will be there, and it won’t be hard to find.

It’s Malcolm’s failure to do this, we reckon, that gives rise to our belief that we was, by that time, rather worn out; fed up. Brown’s defence that he got the stuff from Nolan’s family was a cop out. And we felt Prisk, the Herald’s “Readers Editor”, was just giving the standard, knee jerk response of someone whose job wasn’t so much representing readers, but defending her employer from readers (we understand Prisk herself also now has gone from the Herald under a retrenchment arrangement. We also remember her, when we first went to Canberra for the Herald, as a junior reporter on The Canberra Times. She drove an old Peugeot, as we recall.)

Dissatisfied with the Herald’s responses, we decided to check with the source. Nolan was gone; we haven’t heard from Cliff for a long time and, in any case, Cliff, if he is still around, also was 3rd party. But Malcolm Fraser is becoming more and more active in public discourse. We looked up his office in the white pages and online. But we could find nothing. So we contacted a Victorian Liberal friend, and we also found an email contact for an academic who looks after Fraser’s collection of papers at Melbourne University. After a day or two, both came good, and we obtained from the separate sources a contact for Malcolm Fraser’s office. So we wrote to Malcolm.

Some days later, we received this reply from Mr Fraser:

… I was indeed referring to Cliff Nolan…. I would have no problem with your recollection in that paragraph. I have no doubt about its accuracy.

Eagle-eyed readers will note the error, which helps to prove our point about confusion between the two: Fraser refers to “Cliff Nolan”.

We felt we knew what Mr Fraser meant, but we also knew that, if we were to make an issue of this, we had to be absolutely rock solid. So we wrote back to Malcolm:

…In your letter… you say “I was indeed referring to Cliff Nolan…” I take it, from the rest of your letter, that you mean “Cliff Dolan”?

The next day, Mr Fraser wrote back:

Yes, sorry I did mean Dolan. Yes I am happy for you to say you have confirmed with me.

So, we were right. There’s a certain pleasure in knowing you were right. It’s not just a matter of personal vindication; it’s also a question of confirming that you’re not yet senile. We used to write lots of letters to the Herald, and we had a reasonable strike rate. (You know you’re past it when you start writing letters to the newspaper. And when they start publishing them, everyone else knows you’re past it.)

After Malcolm Fraser clarified that he was, indeed, talking of Cliff Dolan, not Peter Nolan, we wrote back, in triumph, to Mrs Prisk. She never replied. Had she already departed from the Herald at that point, one would expect to have received some automated response, as indeed we received when we emailed Malcolm Brown with the same good news. We found another email address for Malcolm, however. At least Malcolm (Brown) responded, but the tone of his reply confirmed our earlier view that he was indeed over everything and was no longer interested in anything much at all. Certainly not in continuing a dialogue with an old hack. He told us, basically, what he told us before, that he had received the information from Peter Nolan’s family.

Which is a pity, for Malcolm Brown’s original error remains uncorrected. And the next time a reporter, perhaps an eager, young, bushy-tailed reporter, goes searching the Herald cuts for information on this matter, s/he will find the Malcolm Brown obituary, uncorrected, and will have every expectation that they can repeat it as fact, for it remains uncorrected. It didn’t go unchallenged, but it remains wrong.

The tragedy is twofold: an error remains uncorrected; and the realisation that the attitude of journalists, even experienced journalists, is that near enough is good enough, and if they make an error, let’s just shut up about it and maybe no-one else will notice. If in doubt, be vague.

This is an irony, given that Malcolm Brown made his reputation, justifiably, on a relentless pursuit of fact and accuracy.

But as we said at the outset, this is not a criticism of Malcolm Brown. It’s a criticism of the culture of journalism that pushes the players to hide their defects, their errors in a backroom cupboard rather than ‘fessing up to them, in fear that the slightest error corrected will undermine their reputation, or their employer’s reputation. Tweeting just after the Australian Story piece aired, Malcolm Brown himself wrote:

“… there have been some blemishes on my output and career. It is a matter of balance”.

This error may not affect the course of history, but it is an error all the same, and it’s treatment by the Herald reflects a wider malaise afflicting journalism. Just a this story was wrong, so there is plenty published in the media that is wrong.

There’s a symmetry in Malcolm Brown’s departure. The closing credits of the Australian Story piece said that Malcolm plans in retirement to walk the 500km from Sydney to Dubbo, his home town, writing stories about people and experiences along the way. This sounds suspiciously like a column that ran in the Herald at the time Malcolm was hired by the Herald in 1972. The column, On the beaten track, was a series of stories about people and life in country NSW, written initially by a wonderful reporter and colour writer, Col Allison, who was known for, amongst other things, having one blue eye and one brown eye, and also for poaching deer in the Royal National Park, with a gun. Allison told me a couple of years back that he had talent spotted Malcolm Brown at The Dubbo Daily Liberal, whilst touring for On the beaten track. Col said he had been responsible for “discovering” Malcolm Brown and recommending him to the Herald’s News Editor at the time, David Bowman. Malcolm himself has a slightly different story. Whatever, the rest is history.

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Onanist rising

As a “bouncer” at a series of ZZ Top gigs at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in 1987, I was in a unique position to gain insight into the political thought of the lead singer of the support act, Rose Tattoo. “Angry” Anderson’s warm-up routine to the crowd was to stir them up.

“I think it’s terrible, what’s goin’ down at the moment,” “Angry” urged the crowd, which reacted with a wave of approving murmuring which, apparently, was not loud enough for the protagonist.

“Yeah, I reckon it’s terrible, what’s goin’ down…” More forcefully this time.

And this time, the response was louder. “Angry”, more gratified now, launched into the next number, but he forgot to tell us what actually was “goin’ down” that was so “terrible”. Just a series of dots, perhaps, where we fill in the gaps as we each will.

I’ve followed “Angry’s” career, in a desultory sort of way, since then. He’s done nothing since to change my view of him as a poser and an onanist.

The Nationals are welcome to him, but I’ve always thought of them as too substantial a group for someone like that.

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