journalism

9am: Arrive at the newspaper. Disturbed that someone has parked their horse in my space.
9.30am: The accounting department queries the number of horse-drawn Cobb & Co carriage vouchers I’ve used. Apparently carriage voucher fraud is rife in journalism.
9.45am: Would I like to do a first-person story about a “nude bicycle ride on George Street in protest against the Iraq War”? No.
10am: Sub-editor asks if I’ve ever thought about changing my name to Patterson. “You know, to spare future generations from spelling it wrong.” I take my horsewhip to him.
10.30am: Feel scandalised by the number of bare female ankles on display. I do my best to avert my eyes.
11am: Another editor wants me to rewrite The Man From Snowy River to The Man From Potts Point to help with real-estate advertising. Again, I employ my horsewhip for the second time that morning.
11.15am: Head of the website wants to change my copy to “there was movement at the station, for the word had passed around, that the colt from old Regret had got away … and you won’t BELIEVE what happened next”.
More “hits” and “clicks” that way, apparently.
Once again the horsewhip comes out.
11.30am: Am enraged to see my story about a rough diamond drover living in the bush has been changed to “a banker from Kirribilli looking for an investment property in the city”.
I point out that, in fact, wealthy landowners are the villains of my poems, but the editor scoffs.
“Not in this red-hot real estate market they aren’t, mate. We need all the AB readers we can get.”
Apparently shearers and drovers can’t afford properties in the city and don’t read the paper anyway.
In fact, I am told, these rough diamonds no longer represent the quintessential heart of Australia. I am asked to picture the “quintessential Australian” as an aspirational tradesman who votes conservative and has at least one investment property.
I suspect it will be difficult to write quality poetry about such a person.
11.45am: Readjust my hat. Am alarmed that so many of my male colleagues are hatless. Surely a sign of moral degeneracy?
Noon: Am I interested in writing a yarn entitled “Whatever happened to the Hare Krishnas?”
The answer is most emphatically no.
12.15pm: Editorial meeting. What, am I asked, are my recommendations for the new transport plan for Parramatta Road? More horse lanes, I respond, to unexpected laughter.
12.30pm: Lunch is served. My sandwich is served on what appears to be a roof tile. Am reliably informed that this is acceptable – nay, even encouraged – down Sydney way.
City folk.
12.45pm: HR phones to say that “horsewhipping is forbidden in the office”. Truly, we live in an officious, rule-heavy, interfering state governed by overzealous, matronly-like figures. (I wonder if there is some shorter, catchier way of saying that?)
1pm: Editor wants me to broadcast my latest story over “social media”. I tell him I have no idea what social media is. I fail to understand his subsequent explanation.
1.15pm-2pm: Have a crack at this social media palaver. Stand on a hilltop painstakingly transmitting my harrowing accounts of the Boer War using semaphore flags. My arms are exhausted after trying to transmit thousands of words via this flag-based method.
3.15pm: Secretary tells me the switchboards are lighting up. “At least one person saw your semaphore,” she says.
3.20pm: Enjoy a refreshing pinch of snuff.
3.30pm: No, I am not interesting in reviewing a band called “The Coldplay” or whatever barber-shop quartet is currently in vogue on the gramophone charts.
3.45pm: Case study message received on the electronic mail system: “Ever been held for ransom by Filipino insurgents? Eaten a guinea pig in South America? Paid $20 for an ice-cream in Rome? The travel editor is on the hunt for disaster stories that aren’t too grotesque to print for Saturday’s cover story, entitled ‘Terror Australis’. Anonymity guaranteed.”
4pm: Sub-editor asks if he can change the words of Waltzing Matilda to “once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong … and you wouldn’t BELIEVE what happened next”.
I deliver the sort of right cross worthy of an outback bare-knuckle boxer.
4.30pm: Reach for my pipe, only for a boon companion to point to the “no smoking” sign. Next I will be forbidden to drink gin at work. Once again I am reminded that we truly live in an officious, interfering state governed by overzealous female domestics (note to self: find shorter way of saying that).
4.45pm: As an expert on the bush, would I be interested in contributing to a weekend supplement entitled “regional Australia real estate liftout: why it’s never been a better time to buy”?
I shake my head so much my hat is in danger of being dislodged.
4.50pm: Down a schooner of brown ale in one go to the cheers of the newsdesk.
5pm: Someone tells me that vaudeville is dead. Dead! I have endured too many outrages this day. I retire to the local pub to play two-up and share stories of the bush until the publican throws me out.

My ebook military thriller The Spartan is out now on Amazon.

Kudos to Sydney Morning Herald investigative journalist Kate McClymont for her decades-long reporting on Eddie Obeid.
Her pioneering work played no small part in the unveiling of one of the biggest sagas in NSW political history.
I’m not going to repeat her words. But I do urge you to go to the smh.com.au website and read her amazing work for yourself.
McClymont is among the very best of our profession … and proof of the power of journalism to change the course of history.
I put her in the “they’re so valuable and irreplaceable we need to clone them” category along with David Attenborough.
We don’t need just one Kate: we need a dozen all across Australia.
And we need to properly reward and recognise the work of McClymont and her tireless colleagues.
That is why I propose a new category in The Walkleys: The McClymonts.
Investigative journalism is long and arduous and brutal and expensive.
It is a heavy cross to bear for the practitioner and not a role for the faint-hearted, which is why so many of us admire Kate.
Sadly, in a world of reduced media profits and budgets, investigative journalism is among the most threatened fields of journalism.
And yet, from Woodward and Bernstein and beyond, investigative journalism can rattle the cages and shake the foundations of power … and even change the world.
Indeed, what would the world look like without investigative journalism?
With no one to tell us any different we might believe that we had somehow entered a magical, more moral era.
That perhaps what governments told us was unquestionable and true, that we had never had it so good, and that our business and political leaders were figures of nobility beyond temptation. That our air, food and water was untainted, that graft and corruption were on the decline, that life was becoming better for the average citizen despite evidence otherwise, that councils behaved themselves, and that a million other calumnies both big and small were no longer practised.
The work of Kate and her colleagues is a vital tonic for the health of our society.
So yes … let’s have the inaugural McClymont Award For Investigative Journalism in next year’s Walkleys.

My ebook military thriller The Spartan is out now on Amazon.

It’s tough out there for journalists. We try to shine the light of truth on the world and give the powerless a voice – and yet, in poll after poll, journos rate little higher in the trustworthiness stakes than politicians and used-car salesmen.
So anyone entering the profession had better get used to incoming four-letter fire.
As a public service announcement, I have compiled the Top 10 most interesting and prevalent insults hurled at members of the Fourth Estate.

Hack Typically used by the unenlightened as a form of abuse, this is a word journos use among ourselves to describe one another. It is a term of respect and affection – not unlike the soldier’s use of the word “grunt” – and is thus water off of a mallard’s back to us.
MSM liberal elitist We’re the people who didn’t see Trump becoming president. D’oh!
Chardonnay-sipping socialists Winners of the Best Headline of the Week at the Sydney Morning Herald during my time were given the choice of two wines as a prize: one white and one red.
Red was almost always chosen, thus rendering the jibe “chardonnay-sipping socialist” obsolete.
“Cabernet-sipping socialists” would be much more accurate.
Volvo Socialist A canard sadly showing its age, seeing how car trends have evolved. I would suggest “solar-panel socialist” in its stead.
Latte-sipping leftie Clearly the public thinks we spend all our time imbibing wine and drinking coffee rather than attending to daily rolling deadlines. This insult is as effective as calling the average journo a member of the “chatterati”.
Balmain basket weaver A phrase coined by Paul Keating to describe lefty, bleeding heart, out-of-touch types. Sadly Balmain is no long the hub of basket weaving – arts and crafts having both spiritually and geographically moved on since then.
And, of course, any true inner-city journalist knows that Balmain is not among the five postcodes that most hacks come from.
Inner-city cabalist There remains a stubborn belief that many of our left-leaning institutions such as the ABC and SBS are run by hooded groups of inner-city cabalists who meet once a month in secret to decide the editorial stance of their institutions.
They are of course incorrect.
I gather they meet once a week.
Paid shill Think climate change is real? Write a bad review of a social media star’s new album? Take a position for or against the government? Have any sort of opinion, really?
You will be seeing this in an email in your inbox some time soon.
In the popular imagination, the “paid shill” can often be seen sipping chardonnay with the dreaded “press release recycler” in some Balmain winery, laughing at the bogan public’s gullibility.
See also: “churnalist”.
Reptile The late Denis Thatcher is believed to be among the first to refer to the champions of the Fourth Estate as reptiles.
It holds pride of place among other zoological descriptions such as “parasite” or “vulture”.
Although personally I would prefer to be referred to as a “Powerful Owl”.
Goat’s cheese curtainer Aka, the curtain of expensive, gourmet and elite cheese that journos – particularly those from the ABC and SBS – live inside.
“Goat’s cheese curtain” was a phrase coined by demographer Bernard Salt, who recently outraged Gen Y by suggested that they could afford to buy houses if perhaps they stopped buying “smashed avocado with crumbled feta on five-grain toasted bread at $22 a pop”.
I await to see how “smashed avocado” will be one day reworked to be used against hacks.
Until then I remain amused rather than offended by the idea of the “goat’s cheese curtain”.
And wonder if I can get some for lunch at my upmarket Balmain cheese shop.

While sadly lacking journo-related insults, my ebook military thriller The Spartan is out now on Amazon.

In my 20-plus years as a journalist, I have collected a selection of questions and techniques that more often than not deliver gold for the interviewer.
Here I share them with you.

“If you weren’t a director/actor/iconic children’s mime, what would you be?”
This hypothetical always brings a smile to an interviewee’s face (unless it’s a phoner, in which case you’ll have to imagine the smile).
Even the famous dream of the path not taken. I made Woody Allen laugh – a career highlight – with this question. FYI: he thought he’d make a good messenger.

“Why are you a director/actor/iconic children’s mime?”
A good journalist friend gave me this one. It’s amazing how many interviewers fail to ask this basic and obvious question.
Most of the greats are driven by a singular obsession: painters who have to paint, dancers who have to dance, singers who have to sing, children’s mimes who have to make balloon animals for ungrateful brats for $20 a hour.

“What are you up to right now? Where are you?”
Some stars will state the obvious: “I’m sitting in my lounge, talking to you, a journalist from Owl Fancier’s Monthly.”
Or they might, in the case of when I interviewed David Duchovny, tell you that they’re on the phone at the intersection of Montana and 11th Street at Santa Monica in Los Angeles: “I’ve just given you these co-ordinates in case you want to send a missile.”

“Why are you lying to me?”
Got the balls of a brass monkey and the hide of a rhino? Maybe you should go to the doctor and get that checked out.
But if you do have the balls of a brass monkey and the hide of a rhino, this approach could work for you.

”I reject your hypothesis.”
One of the 10 interview subjects you will meet in Heaven (or maybe Hell, considering that you are a hack) is the word miser. The word miser never uses 100 words when five will do.
They’re not necessarily rude – just economical with their language.
You can loosen them up by suddenly pronouncing “I reject your hypothesis”. Keep repeating it like John Malkovich saying “it’s beyond my control” in Dangerous Liaisons and soon you won’t be able to shut them up, desperate as they will be to discover which hypotheses you are rejecting.

“I read that it was a gruelling shoot.”
It is a badge of honour for actors to describe their shoots as gruelling. Most weren’t exactly gruelling as they are long, the stars spending 12-hour days on set before shuffling back to their luxury caravans. They aren’t squatting in the jungle waiting for the Vietcong to take a pot shot at them or having heart attacks on set like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.
Still, this approach occasionally delivers a good anecdote.

Prop comedy
Wearing a pirate’s eye patch to an interview lends an unmistakable air of mystery and is bound to be a conversation starter.
If it’s a phoner, simply tell them to imagine you’re wearing a pirate’s eye patch

“What makes you happy?”
Simple, yes. Obvious, yes. But it occasionally delivers gold – and can lead to deeper discussions about life, the universe and everything.
Here’s Woody Allen again when I spoke to him, discussing the role of “distractions” to ward off thinking about death.
“It’s like what Auden said about death being the distant sound of thunder at a picnic: that’s what [life] is, you’re at a picnic but there’s a distant sound of thunder. You know some day you’re going to die. Your loved ones will die. It’s not a nice thought. If you can get lost in the distractions, it’s great, but if you’re one of the people who can’t . . . you’ve got to find some way of coping with reality without denial.”
Platinum-level copy.

The gold-delivering segue: i.e. “You said you spent the last 20 years sitting in a room, taking crack and watching the Alien films: which was your favourite film?”
Former ’80s star Marilyn admitted as much in a fantastic recent interview.
There is always an opportunity in any interview to steer its course towards a great line of questioning. The trick is to recognise it when it comes.
In this case, the interviewer failed the ask the obvious question: what was Marilyn’s favourite Alien film?
Because anything other than the first and second one would be sheer madness.

The “tortoise” hypothetical from Blade Runner
Basically, this is used to discover whether the person sitting opposite is a real person or a replicant incapable of empathy.
It’s amazing how many Hollywood types fail this question.

My ebook military thriller The Spartan is out now on Amazon.

Moral compass No one uses compasses any more. Replace with “moral GPS”.
Highway robbery When was the last time some Dick Turpin-type stuck a blunderbuss through the open window of your horse-drawn carriage and demanded “all your jewellery and gold doubloons, sir, if you value your life”? I thought so. We’re in the 21st century now, people. Replace with “internet highway robbery”.
Drop of a hat Is there a direct correlation between the decline of Western civilisation and the decline in hat wearing? I like to think so. Still, no one wears hats any more. Best avoid.
Legend As one wise scribess once commented, “King Arthur was a legend … not some meathead who kicked a field goal in the last five minutes of a game.” Remove “legend” and replace with “top bloke” or female equivalent.
Hero Once upon a time you had to defeat the French at the Battle Of Trafalgar to earn the title “hero”. Now it seems anyone can be a hero (why, maybe even you, dear reader!). Still, I can’t help think that Lord Nelson would be rolling in his grave to be described in the same company as the maker of Sydney’s best cappuccino, for example.
Litmus test As a child I thought the greatest thing in the world was watching magnesium burn in chemistry class … closely matched by the magic of testing for acidity with litmus paper. But we’re not children any more, candy doesn’t taste as good, life has crushed our spirits and the wizardry of chemistry has long been replaced by more adult endeavours.
Enfant terrible A favourite expression employed by arts writers to describe “dramaturges” who “modernise” Shakespeare by casting cross-dressing dwarves who hurl sex toys at audiences. Replace with “DOCS child”.
Dramaturge I’ve never meet anyone in the theatre who has given me a convincing explanation of what a dramaturge is. Maybe Cate Blanchett is one – she virtually IS Sydney’s theatre industry – but who knows? For that reason, I will never call anyone a dramaturge, in print or otherwise, even as a form of insult. Or an “auteur” for that matter (although I have used “auteur” as an insult).
Bellwether Apparently bellwether “refers to the practice of placing a bell around the neck of a castrated ram (a wether) leading his flock of sheep”. References to castrated rams have no place in respected periodicals. Avoid.
Bun fight I’ve never seen anyone fight with buns. Have you? I’ve seen people fight with live crabs, but that’s another story. (Note to self: NEVER tell that story in public.)

My ebook military thriller The Spartan is out now on Amazon.

Chen loved his country. He loved China’s glittering past, its refusal to bend down to the great powers, its promise of a better future.
But if there was one thing Chen didn’t love, it was his job.
That’s because he was a wumao.
And he was one of the best.
Chen had been compelled to become one of China’s wumao – one of its anonymous, government-sponsored army of internet commentators and trolls – when his father in China had been found guilty of a minor indiscretion. The indiscretion itself, which Chen didn’t like to think about, was minor enough that it didn’t land his father in jail … but significant enough that it required some act of contrition on the part of his family.
It had been suggested that Chen, educated at Harvard and earning a six-figure salary on Wall Street, may be able to pay off his debt. There was desperate need for a wumao who could successfully promote China’s interests on the internet in the West. The domestic wumao market in China was already covered – what was needed was someone who was savvy enough about the West to successfully comment on Western websites without automatically being accused of being a wumao.
Because to be caught acting as a wumao was the worst thing that could befall one.
Thus Chen had been called back to one of China’s more distant provinces to work in a dank computer room with the other pro-government commentators. His skill as a wumao meant that he was acting No.2 of his department. He was currently writing a style guide for his fellow wumao on how to work in the West.
It wasn’t his colleagues’ fault that they weren’t educated in the West like him and didn’t fully understand how “freedom of the press” worked there. They didn’t understand the syntax, the grammar, the cultural references, the idioms of the West. That was why many were caught out when commenting on newspaper or magazine websites, sometimes by Chinese students overseas themselves. Their clumsy approach – for instance, getting a Simpsons reference or a sports observation wrong – often led for them to be outed as wumao. Under Chen’s guidance, they were doing better … but there was still much work to be done.
One of the problems Chen had with his job was the pay. Indeed, the saying about wumao being the 50 Cent Army – that they were paid 50 Chinese cents a post – wasn’t exactly far from the mark. It was certainly a lot less than what he earned on Wall Street. Plus where he was sent had no decent nightclubs, cafes or restaurants … another hardship he had to silently endure.
Then there was the work, which he felt was slightly beneath him. He wasn’t matching wits with the great minds of the West on the internet sites. Their great minds were busy occupied elsewhere, perhaps writing the article themselves above the comment section boxes. Or they had better things to do than comment on internet sites. His adversaries were overwhelmingly men of middling education with too much time on their hands and too much fondness for their own opinions. “Keyboard warriors”.
That wasn’t to say that the work itself didn’t have its rewards. Chen liked to pride himself in the skill he brought to the task. Educated in the West, he understood the nuances of the culture. He understood that, although the West often complained about Communist Party propaganda, Westerners existed in a world of propaganda of their own. Only the West’s propaganda was more invisible, more subtle … and more professional. It had entire multi-billion-dollar industries devoted to selling messages without the targets knowing they were being targeted. What was called wumao in the East could just have easily have been called “PR” in the West.
Indeed, two of the books he encouraged his staff to read were Confessions Of An Advertising Man and How To Win Friends And Influence People, both fine guides on how to win over the Western mind.
(Chen sometimes wondered if it might not be more effective to outsource the entire wumao department to the West. The cost could be greater, but the results more convincing. And there would be many, many companies in the West that would accept such work.)
Working as a wumao in the West required a different mindset than, say, working in China. One had to seem more “friendly” … more flexible. More ready to abandon an argument than risk being seen as “uncool”.
In Chen’s mind, comments were to be kept short and to the point. Upper case was never to be used, upper case being the province of the unbalanced. One should never be the first to post on any given subject – being overkeen was suspicious.
Comments should never be too rigid or dogmatic … or too numerous. Sometimes he had to tap a colleague on the shoulder to step away from a computer and a conversation when they became too angry and risked being identified.
In short, their comments were supposed to seem like they came from Westerners themselves.
Chen often used a Western-sounding handle – he had several, in fact. He knew when to back off, when to respond to an argument with a jokey image or meme. Humour was very effective in winning an internet argument. And it was something Westerners didn’t expect from the “humourless” Chinese.
They all had certain key points they were supposed to push. Fortunately, China had a great story to sell. What other country had lifted so many millions out of poverty in so short a time? What other country had given the world gunpowder, porcelain and printing? What country came to the world’s rescue during the 2008 global economic meltdown? China had many, many positive aspects one could casually drop into a net conversion.
Certainly his department had an easier job of it than their Russian counterparts.
But Chen’s true enemy wasn’t the West: he had liked living there and thought China could forge a working relationship with it. And China and America were so interlinked they were calling the combined being “Chimerica”.
No, his true enemy was his boss.
Because he wanted to return to his former life as a banker. And he had no idea how long his penance was supposed to be.
Thus he had begun his own campaign. He would submit small errors in his entries. Perhaps a comment might not be fervent or patriotic enough. Or a joke might seem too Western. Perhaps he would go soft when he should go hard, go slow when he needed to address a trending topic immediately. Perhaps he would even allow himself to be unmasked online as a wumao. As they would say in the West … “whoops”.
He would be moved on.
And finally he would be free.

My ebook military thriller, The Spartan, is out now on Amazon.

Whether you’re chasing the head of BHP or the drummer for AC/DC, hacks can expect to spend a lot of time waiting for the phone to ring or the email to ping.
Ultimately, your interview subject has the power to decide when, where and if they speak to you. You can handle this in a few ways. Harass their publicists (who may very well be already on the case, trying to find out which New York hotel the star has passed out in). Phone them directly anyway. Use email. Quickly make a coffee in the kitchen and rush back to your desk.
Bounce your leg up and down in frustration under your desk, leading your colleagues to ask if you have restless leg syndrome. Swear. Do complex algebraic equations. Contemplate your mortality. Stare at the posters and art stuck to the walls of your pod, particularly that amusing graphic depicting the life cycle of a writer, which swings from joy (“Hoorah, I have a story”) to depression (“None of my friends and colleagues read my story – what am I doing with my life?”).
You may want to have some tactile object on your desk with which to take out your frustration. A stress ball is recommended – particularly when you hear that your subject is locked in a hotel room with a mound of cocaine which he is fashioning into the shape of the mountain from Close Encounters of the Third Kind,  leaving you to explain to your editor why you don’t have that page one for tomorrow’s paper. Suck a lolly if you’re feeling nervous (it works, apparently – don’t ask me how). Or use a pen to doodle and spiral as you hang on the phone with Telstra, who are attempting to connect your conference call.
Waiting to be connected is a good time to underline important quotes in press notes, key points in business press releases and anecdotes from the turgid biographies of sports stars. You never know what titbit might be useful when you finally speak to them (“Why, yes, my childhood ambition was to be a children’s clown/sumo wrestler/euthanasia advocate”).
Just remember not to lose your cool. Even if an interview slot is cancelled, they might get back to you with a new one. And don’t abuse the publicist, because you’re probably going to have to deal with them again some day … and they have long memories.

PS Re Godot. Why hasn’t someone made a Godot Action Figure by now?

My ebook military thriller, The Spartan, is out now on Amazon.