None of the News

14 07 2011

I was a ‘copykid’ at News Limited’s Holt Street, Surry Hills, headquarters in the early 1990s. I have written previously, & very briefly about my experience there, on a rare journalistic duty known as a ‘deathknock’. What I haven’t written – or ranted about – is the sum of that experience; how it opened my eyes to the guts of an industry from the way that I think has fallen by the wayside – interacting with everyone on staff, from the ‘Brothers’ in the printing room, to the drivers; the late night paper runs, where we swapped bundles of the Daily Telegraph-Mirror (as it was then) and The Australian in return for the Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review – a cute little deal that meant if one had a great splash, the other could write a few pars & get the Day Editor & Chief-of-Staff onto the yarn so they could report how it was progressing at the morning’s news conference. We rotated shifts: mid –dawns; 7am-3pm; 3pm-midnight, seven days a week; we rotated desks – from the radio room, an airless goldfish bowl where you listened to police scanners for breaking stories; to general news (generally shit, the editorial floor’s dogs body, with tasks ranging from getting then-DTM Editor, Col Allan’s cigarettes, to ploughing through the newspapers’ photo library and paper files for back stories and pix. Oh, and buying Ray Chesterton’s chips). I was lucky; my starting roster was on the Weekend Australian Magazine. They were a good crew, and the pace was, well, I started at nine and finished at five, bought coffees, did the file gathering and sometimes some proof-reading. It was great. It was also sheltered from the maelstrom of the editorial floors.

When you work shifts, your body and mind inevitably rebel. As soon as the rosters went up – unless we were on a regular assignment such as the magazine – 20 plus copykids, almost all with degrees and aching with ability – zoomed to the ‘head of the copykids’ office to check it out. Invariably, there would be a week of 7-3s followed by a mid-dawn week in the radio room, starting Sunday night. The worst weeks involved changing shifts daily. 7-3, 3-7, 9-5, 11-7 … a 40 hour week, without scheduled breaks, for $17,000 a year. Raised in a union household, I was shocked to learn that because we weren’t on a recognised award, the Australian Journalists’ Association (now the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance) would not accept us as members, or fight for even the most basic of rights. It turned me off unionism for life (despite working for Labor governments, I have never joined a union). Again, if you were working on a good desk, like the DTM features desk (my all-time favourite; bursting with talent and sound people to work alongside), it was a case of, ‘hey, do you need me for 15 minutes? I just want to go out and grab something to eat, I’ll be straight back’, and eating without interruption. If you were on a shithouse roster, like the newsdesk, there would be two copykids so you could at least take a piss, and cover for each other while you saw what delights the canteen held for you. Invariably, it was hot chips. Invariably, you inhaled them or ate them cold, with the shout, ‘COPY!’ snapping you to attention and ensuring you were beside the person who called before the shout came again.

After two cadet exams and two failures to escape the ‘copy’ grind for a prized cadetship, I bid Holt Street farewell. My desire to change the world with electronic typewriter (yes, I am that old) and SLR steadily eroded by seeing the way shit worked: the nepotism; the sensationalism; seeing good journos doing good things, knowing they were capable of much more (many of them have gone on to prove me right). It was also an exciting time – the merger of Sydney’s two tabloids into one; being part of the end of an era – the last of the copy runners, the last of the trucks leaving Holt Street as the presses moved to Chullora and the sub-editors got to grips with doing their normal jobs as fact checkers, word-slashers & general layout to becoming the new ‘band of brothers’.

OK, so this is a rambling way of getting to the biggest media story of the year: the implosion of News International. I’ve eaten this up, just because I left News Ltd almost 20 years ago doesn’t mean I don’t care about the company. Care is the wrong word. There were (and are) plenty of good people at News. I have never worked at Fairfax but I have had a decade’s worth of liaising with both Fairfax and News and they are both employers of writers capable of fine journalism and scum producing real bottom of the barrel tat and opinion dressed as news.

The only thing I can add to the debate about whether the British disease may have spread to Australia (much of it quite spiteful, ill-founded and agenda-focused from a variety of players – not all of them News Ltd employees) is another of the tasks performed by the 3-11pm or 4pm to midnight copykids: faxing the first couple of pages to each of Mr Murdoch’s offices, so that wherever he was, he knew exactly what was in every one of his papers. In those days, there was only one Mr Murdoch. AsI fed the fax machine a page at a time to Mr Murdoch on a regular basis, I often wondered how he had the time and energy to read every title owned by News Corporation and its subsidiaries – I think there are about 170 (from the suburbs of Sydney to the Wall Street Journal; excluding minority shareholdings in Fijian, PNG, and Russian titles). I wondered, but always went back to the adage that Mr Murdoch had ink in his veins. He loved newspapers the same way Kerry Packer loved Channel 9. He famously parlayed the legacy of his father, Sir Keith, (main asset? The now-defunct Adelaide News) into the world’s second-largest media and entertainment conglomerate. It takes balls of steel. As we have seen in the case of News International, it means that the ink in his veins appears to have dried.

Yet, I have this gnawing suspicion that he still gets the first five pages of his titles sent to an iPad somewhere in the world; dictators may look upon their chosen successors benignly, but they remain dictators to the very end. The Mr Murdoch that I worked for, all those years ago, knew what was going on in Holt Street. Why would Fleet Street (or Wapping) be any different? I am not buying the Sergeant Schultz defence that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks are selling. I don’t care how much Mr Murdoch may care for Rebekah Brooks (some say she is viewed as another Murdoch child), the man we all knew as ruthless when it came to business (and he viewed editorial as business), would never have suffered an editor who said, ‘sorry about that guy busted for phone hacking, I didn’t know it was happening’. Their heels wouldn’t have touched the floor on the way out. James Murdoch’s tortuously crafted statements about standards don’t cut the ice with me, either; if he didn’t know what was happening on his watch, then he’s either incompetent, a fool or both. I don’t believe he is. His father’s refusal to address the issue publicly to any greater extent than a terse sentence (even on his own Fox News Network, with a business reporter who called him Mr Chairman, which made me snort water out of my nose as I imagined Mr Murdoch waving his mighty ‘red tops’, a version of Mao with Little Red Book in hand) is the ultimate con. He is a man with a compulsive desire to know things. He was bidding for the greatest prize, 100 per cent ownership of BSkyB, which would stamp his name in history as the greatest of the great media tycoons (they have always existed: people who believe The Australian is a poisonous vessel of the right under the Twitter #auspol hashtag probably don’t remember the UK Mirror Group pensions scandal under Robert Maxwell, poor Czech immigrant turned MP and media proprietor, let alone have any notion of the influence wielded by Max Aitken (the 1st Baron Beaverbrook – indeed, ‘the first Baron of Fleet Street’) who published every morsel of King Edward VIII’s affair with Mrs Wallis Simpson, while personally imploring him to give up her up. His friend, Churchill made him a Minister during World War II; he met with Roosevelt and Stalin; Evelyn Waugh thinly-disguised the media tycoon in his triumph, Scoop, Lord Cooper, on Beaverbrook. Murdoch is not the first, he won’t be the last. However, Mr Murdoch is looking a little fragile. As King of kings, more Ozymandias than Ramses the Great.

Why have I written this? For almost 20 years, I have felt very guilty about something I did to further my career at News Limited. While working on the DTM features desk on Good Friday (can you imagine, the slowest of slow news days), I went out to grab some coffees for the skeleton crew. I happened to spot the notoriously private film director, Jane Campion. Ms Campion was hot property, having just returned from Cannes, with the Palme d’Or for The Piano. I loved the film. I came back, and with a studied insouciance, dropped the tidbit as I put down the coffees. The CoS loved it, a photographer was dispatched and boy was I feeling good about providing a lead that would fill a story-sized hole in the paper. The snapper came back, unhappy. Ms Campion’s partner had lost his temper, their quiet party of four was ruined and the photos were awful. The reason? Jane Campion’s first baby, 12-days-old, had recently died. The story was published, and must have been incredibly hurtful to her & her partner, and it was my fault. There was no public interest in pursuing a woman who had not pursued personal fame; let alone snapping her having what may have appeared as a nice little chat about her French triumph, but was possibly a first outing with friends as they struggled with their grief. To my shame and regret (knowingly, or unknowingly, it doesn’t matter), I caused someone else pain to advance my stocks at News Limited because as a ‘celebrity’ she was fair game. I believe it was that single event which made me reassess what I wanted to do with my life. Telling tittle-tattle wasn’t it.

For the record, I despise what News International has done. I also loathe that while it was ‘just’ affecting celebrities and politicians, the status quo prevailed; there was no groundswell of anger when the News of the World was literally, The News of the Screws – only when it became about real people. My experience with Jane Campion made me relate to the pain inflicted on former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and his wife, Sarah, by Rebekah Brooks, who personally saw that News International’s Sun newspaper broke the news that their baby son had cystic fibrosis. I cried when I read it in The Guardian. I’ve worked for some monumentally self-serving people in politics and in business. I’ve seen first-hand some who I consider to be morally bankrupt; people who bully others in a manner bordering on sociopathic. I’ve known people who have been dragged before, or deserved to front, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. I’ve also had stand-up brawls with journalists who will stoop to innuendo and float base lies to fool people. I have seen people hurt, careers ended, by stories that served no public interest. I have had lazy hacks call for stories they can present at news conference, written a press release ‘exclusively’ for them and seen my words printed verbatim, with their name attached to it. In the same edition of the paper, they will roll out a bullshit yarn about the millions of dollars spent by governments on ‘spin’, which always included the salaries of secretaries, receptionists and policy advisers. I have personally had the staff of ‘shock jocks’ call me – a Ministerial press secretary – to resolve the problems of their callers – basically ‘queue jumpers’ – and then take the credit for it on air. The lives of ‘spin doctors’ and journalists are symbiotic; we, accused of being all-powerful, deceitful obfuscants of the truth; they, facile hacks who struggle to write a decent lead and selectively use one quote or statistic to suit their agenda, even when third parties object in Letters to the Editor. I have heard off-the-record phone calls between a Minister and an Editor which haven’t even finished before their press gallery reporter is on the phone, demanding a statement from me about what my boss genuinely believed was a personal conversation. I have had the threat, ‘we’re running this anyway’. I’ve also developed relationships with journalists to the point that they will tell me what pages their stories are running on, so a Minister can piggy-back off tomorrow’s unpublished headline, pre-record radio news grabs and know that TV crews will turn up for the vision we lovingly put together for them to fill their bulletins; or alternately, craft an ‘appropriate’ response to a shit sandwich. Anyone who thinks for one moment that one or the other has the complete upper hand on a positive or negative story is deluding themselves. Their news, your news … a lot of it is not news.

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7 responses

28 07 2011
I Sent a Message to Mia – Part Deux « The Referral

[…] thought I could do better things by becoming a journalist and reporting ‘the news’. If you read this you’ll know how easily I let that choice go. I am not the most admirable person on the planet, […]

20 07 2011
thomas king

Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Regards
Thomas

20 07 2011
paul walter

Looks your postponed journalism career had at least one more story to play out, this one, the fine one you’ve just shared with us.

19 07 2011
fionajr

Thank you, I wept as I read.

17 07 2011
malbrown2

I have no idea of how “the press” works but that was a great read.

14 07 2011
Denis Wright

This is an extraordinarily fascinating revelation about a media world that has evolved to its present sad state (sad in some quarters, at least – but there’s hope there!). I always objected to the term ‘ivory tower’ applied to those of us who are/were academics but who went out and did stuff in the field that journos do. But compared with the world of the journo I can only feel we lived in mental luxury, for reasons I won’t go into here but you will appreciate (elastic deadlines for one!)

I think we all have to do the sort of things you did to Jane Campion to make us better for it, though it’s the last thing I (and you, clearly) would have wished on someone like her as a consequence of action taken. We have all done things like that, out of ignorance or thoughtlessness about consequences. You have to accept them as learning experiences because if you don’t, then all they do is eat away at you.

On everything else you wrote here, I hope that this is read by everyone. You are a wonderful writer.

14 07 2011
Therbs

Interesting background to working as a ‘copykid’. Occasionally drank in the Aurora and other Surry Hills pubs where I’d see the News staff contributing generously to pub profits. I don’t buy News brands these days as its just opinion with an agenda and little genuine news.

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