My Life as a Young Australian Novelist – Quadrant May 2006
This piece ran in the May issue of Quadrant and the Autumn issue of the Skeptic, and has attracted some attention around the blogosphere. There doesn’t seem to be an electronic version available anywhere, so I thought I’d put it up here.
1. It’s high summer; I’m 14, walking home from school. Sweat is pouring down my face and I almost miss it. There’s a furniture truck parked in the street outside my house. My first thought: oh shit, he’s done it again.
When the family lived up north, dad’s standard operating procedure was put the stuff on tic, then move before the debt collectors arrive. My siblings went to a jumble of schools as dad dodged the tallyman around Far North Queensland. One brother had eleven schools in two years.
This got harder once we shifted to Logan City, a sprawling outer-suburban development outside Brisbane. We’d see the furniture truck then – the collectors were starting to wise up, maybe by keeping better records. We’d be minus a telly, washing machine, stereo and bedroom furniture for a month or two; then dad would start the process over again. After one particularly keen lot turned up in a white pantech with the words COLLECTION AGENCY painted on the sides, kids at school started saying my old man was a ‘bum’ and a ‘gaolbird’.
2. It’s the end of year two, and I’ve failed to learn anything. Every time I write my name, it’s spelt differently. I spend my time at the back of the class manufacturing spitballs. I’m the archetypal holy terror, the kid who gives teachers blood pressure problems and makes them leave the profession. I’m an expert at both the funny (chewing gum on seats) and the macabre (massive stick insects hidden in the teacher’s desk drawers). On my report card, one young woman – first year out of teacher’s training college, equal parts terrified and fascinated by her proletarian charges – writes, ‘this child will never amount to anything’.
Some time later, I learn I’m dyslexic, and mum waits tables and cleans rich peoples’ houses to pay for one-on-one phonics tuition and occupational therapy. To this day, I’ve never really figured out how it worked, but it unlocked whatever was locked between my ears. I can still remember the eerie sensation of going from the bottom to the top of the class inside six months. Flowers for Algernon scared the bejesus out of me; I was worried the process might be reversible.
3. I’m in my second year of law school, and Suri Ratnapala, the eccentric genius who teaches us Constitutional Law A sets Polyukhovich v Commonwealth as our case study. Are you trying to set me up? I ask him after class. No, he says mildly. I’m trying to teach you that in this profession, thinking is actually a good thing.
I read the case, and find Brennan J saying things that get other people accused of anti-Semitism:
‘The Act select[s] a specific group of persons from a long time past out of all those who have committed, or are suspected of having committed, war crimes in other armed conflicts.’
If the rule of law is based on general laws, impartial in their use of coercive power and supreme over all, then the danger posed by legislation that targets an unpopular minority is readily apparent.
I pour years of careful thought into that essay: the rumination that comes at night after copping a daily critical barrage. What if I’m completely wrong? What if people are right to ring their media mates up and make sure I’m not published again? What if we should prosecute these sleazy fucks, who hopped out to Australia after the war and just starting working on the Snowy, because that was deemed a Good Thing?
Brennan J’s magisterial judgment knocks me sideways. I’ve read only history and literature on this issue, never the law. I see a High Court split 4-3, with the sort of judicial bloodletting reserved only for the most famously disagreeable cases. Think Wik. Think Bank Nationalisation. I humbly learn Professor Ratnapala’s lesson. Thinking in this profession is actually a good thing.
Law is much more fun than writing, but it took me six years to learn that.
I’ve included the three stories above to make a small but important point: I haven’t lost the knack. Writing remains as easy as it was when I was twenty and producing The Hand that Signed the Paper. These snippets, although ‘true’, also employ the inevitable compression and scene shifting that characterises fiction. The year two teacher made the ‘never amount’ comment to mum’s face, rather than on paper. Professor Ratnapala gave us a choice of cases – half a dozen or so. Polyukhovich was only one. Memo to my critics: moving the furniture is a consequence of crafting and making. Even non-fiction writers do it.
I became one of those strange law students who took great pleasure in Property, Equity and Trusts, the Law of Companies and of Copyright. I’m heading towards a career in Commercial law, to debt and equity markets, capital raising and tax minimisation. It fascinates me and I’m good at it. I’m annoyed I spent all those years trying to join in literary Australia’s closed conversational circle when I could have played the stock market or developed a property portfolio.
In 1995, I won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for my first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. I was 23. I wrote the book when I was twenty and 21, winning The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for it at 22. This prize, for unknowns under the age of 35, carried with it a substantial lick of prize money and guaranteed publication. I couldn’t believe my luck. It also went on to win the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal.
Despite having a good English degree, my speciality was languages and grammar, not the sort of stuff destined to make me savvy about publishing and marketing. I knew nothing about how Australian literature worked. Marcus Westbury, an unusually perceptive critic, commented that I came from so far outside the establishment I didn’t know we had one.
I’d already decided I was going to write under a pseudonym. This had been formalised with the university, which issued my degree parchments and university medal in both names. It’s always a source of amusement to me that the Courier-Mail had received a press release from the university listing all the university medallists for 1994 early in 1995. My award was under both names, and a brief profile included my Australian/Vogel win. Come August 1995, the Courier-Mail made much of the ‘investigative journalism’ involved in blowing my cover.
I hadn’t intended the pseudonym to hold for very long. It was designed to last until my main source for the novel died. At the time, he had terminal bone marrow cancer and six months to live. I promised him that he wouldn’t be prosecuted under the War Crimes Act on my account. Shortly after I won the Australian/Vogel Award, his cancer went into remission and faced me with a real quandary. I decided to keep the pseudonym, although came perilously close to letting my publisher in on the secret. I only stopped from doing so after receiving an absolute stinker of an editorial report. It accused me of racism and called my novel propaganda and a pornography of violence. They would not divulge the editor’s name to me, only sending a photocopy of her report and refusing to answer questions when I rang. In a fit of immaturity, I figured that two could play that game. I tore up my half written letter and binned it. If a custard pie hits me in the face, I figured, it’ll get you lot as well.
Even so, I couldn’t work out how a book that had unanimously won a major literary award was suddenly a piece of junk. Sure, there were prize-winning books around that weren’t my cup of tea, but that didn’t make me hate them (or their authors). I’d simply put that book aside and read another. This principle held true for computer games, RPGs and various sports. An editorial report riddled with invective was my first inkling of the ridiculous pretension and self-importance with which many of Australia’s intellectuals view their role.
Australian literature is burdened with a level of ideological conformity that would do East Germany proud. I started out in life as a leftie, albeit an idiosyncratic one – Trotsky to their Stalin, for want of a better analogy. I found myself appalled – and still am – at the anti-Americanism, the pro-Jews as victims but anti-Jews as victors, the belief that only someone from a given gender or ethnic group can write about that gender or ethnic group, and much other ideological piffle. I remember being told with great solemnity at a writers’ festival that white people who wanted to write about Aborigines needed to ask Aboriginal permission in order to do so. I nearly had chronic conniptions trying to stifle my guffaws. Watching kindly and well-meaning people attempt to apply affirmative action to literature frightened me, especially when they were dishing out Australia Council grants. It struck me as inconceivable that critics and academics were trying to control authors’ output. It was an insidious form of censorship and needed to go for six at the MCG.
So I threw myself into ‘Helen Demidenko’ with gusto. I’d grown up with plenty of people from that sort of background and had a knack for languages, which made me a natural mimic. Unfortunately, the nasty editorial report – coming as it did so early in the publication process – had a knock-on effect in other respects. When my old high school attempted to take some credit for my achievements, I rebuffed them with rudeness and contempt. This was despite the fact that I’d had some good teachers there, including one who strongly encouraged me to attend university, something I may not have done otherwise. I viewed the school through the jaundiced prism provided by some of its students. My response was very unfair to the teaching staff, something I only realised later.
My journey through the upper reaches of the chattering classes as ‘Helen Demidenko’ was surreal. I’ll never forget being propositioned by both halves of an ‘open marriage’ at one function, or being invited to join the ‘Anti-Football League’ at another. Instead of being honest and pointing out that no, I actually like sport, I made a lame duck excuse about having insufficient money on me to join. The conversation forgotten, I fronted up to a panel next morning wearing a 1991 Wallabies jersey. The two sport haters were sitting in the front row and I copped an A-grade glare.
Members of the chattering classes took potshots for the moral ambiguity of my writing. Part of me wanted to shout at the top of my lungs if they’d ever read Céline. I watched stunned as Peter Craven wrote a positive review of my novel in The Age and short-listed it for one of the Victorian Premier’s Awards, only to dump on it when the Melbourne literary establishment decided I was persona non grata. People who were supposed to know about literature went all out to conflate my views with those of my characters (does that make Bret Easton Ellis a serial killer in his spare time?) and prove that I must have had some sort of sneaking association with the League of Rights (who are they?). This made me determined to humiliate a group I considered spineless, and my invented persona became ever more over the top. It was only a matter of time before my cover – such as it was – was blown.
Let me begin with a girl, an ordinary Australian girl.
Fiona Kovalenko has an enfeebled, elderly uncle. She also has a less enfeebled (but still elderly) father. This besides the usual number of siblings, aunts and cousins. Fiona Kovelenko is at university, but unlike many of her peers is not particularly articulate. She is clever, but her cleverness does not extend into the realm of wisdom or reason. This is not because she is intrinsically incapable of these things but because she is only nineteen years old. Within her, this ordinary Australian girl carries a story incomprehensibly horrible yet eminently describable.
Fiona has known since childhood that three members of her family, a loving, close-knit immigrant Ukrainian family, were to greater or lesser degrees Nazi collaborators. She is unaware of the full import of the phrase ‘Nazi collaborator,’ is versed in neither the specific history of this collaboration nor in the history of collaboration per se. Instead, Fiona chooses to get by, largely unknowing. Missing the odd lecture. Not studying too hard. Living in one of Brisbane’s riotously tropical suburbs near the university. She smokes rollies and drinks hot chocolate. She listens to nightly current affairs bulletins and tut-tuts over the state of federal politics with her flatmate. It is only when one of her family members becomes a feature on those current affairs bulletins that she faces – is forced to face – the narrative of collaboration within her family. Her uncle is charged with war crimes, and that is news.
Australia – like many other western countries during the mid-eighties to early nineties – introduced legislation designed to allow the trial of postwar immigrants who were accused of collaboration with Nazi occupiers in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The debate that attended the legislation’s passage through federal parliament was one of the most acrimonious in recent Australian political history. Significantly, the intended targets were seldom German. Those who fell within the ambit of this legislation were immigrants from Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, for example), nations and peoples with grievous histories of oppression and genocide of their own. It is within the framework of this legislation that the fictional narrative of The Hand that Signed the Paper unfolds.
Fiona Kovalenko strives to own what she sees as her past, terrible as it is. Her older sister, organized and pragmatic, engages a lawyer and plans familial court appearances. For Fiona’s sister, Natalya, there is no doubt that loyalty resides with her family, protecting it from those who seek to do it harm. The past, for big sister, has no business haunting the present.
Fiona is neither as pragmatic as her sister nor as sure that her uncle should be protected. She has no idea how to begin the process of historical ownership so she simply asks questions. In their turn, father, uncle and aunt are badgered for narratives in a large yet intimate exercise in oral history. Sometimes Fiona interrogates the terms of these familial narratives, inserting her limited, young, late twentieth century ways of seeing. Sometimes she simply transcribes their narratives word for word into one of her big spiral notebooks. She neither judges her family nor sees her uncle as inherently evil. Implicated by her bloodtie to the accused, she simply sets the story down as it comes to her. In fragments. Compassion cheek by jowl with murderous indifference. Hope commingled with despair.
For Fiona, the received narrative of Nazism – as distinct from familial narratives of Nazi collaboration – is constructed wholly by the media of television and cinema. Apart from her family’s collection of fading black and white photographs, Nazism and its cruelties could just as easily be an episode of Australia’s Most Wanted: history based entirely on televisual re-enactment. She writes. She struggles to comprehend, but the only illumination available for her to cast on her narratives is television’s ‘cold, cathode light’. Her understanding of clarity is simply to make her narrative as cinematic as possible. If she is influenced at all beyond televisual reconstruction and appropriation, it is by trial reports that show how such-and-such a serial killer seemed the embodiment of normality to his neighbours.
The brutal, unseeing antisemitism that drove her uncle Vitaly to collaborate is scored across the narrative Fiona transcribes and inscribes. This narrative blames Jews within the Communist Party (and Jews per se) for the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-34. Vitaly describes an existence shattered by Communist and Nazi barbarities into the bleakest of Hobbesian fragments: truly ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. Fiona’s aunt Kateryna, as bigoted in her own way as Vitaly, remembers Babi-Yar because she slept with handsome Hauptsturmführer Hasse, a man behind the butchery, in a nearby hotel. Vitaly liked Treblinka. During his time as a guard there he was warm and well fed. He ‘never falls psychologically outside the atmosphere of his age’. Fiona’s retelling means that she revisits – vicariously – a world where people are hermetically sealed inside the cruellest of closed systems. Since I’m uninterested in turning people into bug-eyed monsters, I took great care to make my one-time concentration camp guards recognisably human, even sympathetic. Their anti-Semitic motivations and values had substance. That said, I didn’t shy away from what they did. It’s just that to me, Osama is much more interesting if we know what makes him tick.
The language of Fiona’s familial storytellers is hateful and vicious. Fiona is an ordinary Australian girl, and for many years the language of her Australia has been neither hateful nor vicious. Fiona believes people can become Australian. If they ‘do the right thing’ (a slogan prominently displayed on municipal rubbish bins) in the new land, they will be rewarded with Australianness and all it entails. Fiona believes that becoming Australian means entry to an ordered polity, the rule of law and a public discourse set free from modalities that reify viciousness and hate. She can respond to the brutalities of history only in terms of lawyers, parliamentary debates and letters to the editor. This is her Australian world. Fiona comes to accept the ideal of a migratory rite of passage that reifies history but in so doing detaches it from its terrible consequences. For Fiona, immigrants shed the evils of the old country like a snake sloughing off dead skin, remaking themselves in the new country. They cross an invisible line drawn at an arbitrary point somewhere in the Indian Ocean, ceasing to be emigrants, becoming immigrants instead. ‘I’ve worked so hard to be Australian,’ Vitaly tells her. ‘I’m all Australian now’.
Journalists have a remarkable talent for behaving like kiddy-fiddlers. At least, that was the view I formed after they repeatedly staked out my parents’ house and followed my primary school aged niece and nephew to school. There were so many of them – outside broadcasting vans, TV cameras and sound booms in tow – I had to sneak into mum and dad’s backyard via several neighbours’ fences, wearing dog bite and bee stings in the process. Mum was petrified – they’d been prowling up and down the verandah trying to photograph her through her bedroom window – and dad wanted to get his gun. Dad’s habit of getting involved in petty crime was another source of worry. On one occasion a Channel 7 reporter doing the rounds realized who dad was and tried to assemble a TV crew outside the Magistrates’ Court after he was convicted. Quick thinking on the part of the duty solicitor stopped an already nasty story becoming much worse.
The phrase ‘chequebook journalism’ hadn’t held any real meaning until one media outlet offered me $160,000 for an interview – after a rival offered $100,000. At the time I knocked it back, a decision I now regret. My head was full of high ideals, including ‘maintaining my integrity as a writer’. In reality, there’s not a great deal of difference between accepting a wad of cash from a media outlet in return for telling them what they want to hear and hanging off the taxpayers’ teat in return for telling the government what it wants to hear. I still maintain the press hammered me as hard as they would have done had I taken the money.
I learnt that nearly every journalist fancies himself as a writer, complete with novel stashed away in the attic/garage/trunk. Similarly, their collective certainty that Australia is populated by a mob of racist dills knows no bounds. Every time some media commentator tees off at ‘regional Australia’ or ‘the outer suburbs’, carrying on about ignorance, racism and lack of sophistication, I take it pretty personally. Not so long ago that was me. It’s still my siblings, all of whom are trades people. Many journalists also believe they can influence the outcome of everything from literary awards to elections, hence the concerted campaign to have me stripped of the Miles Franklin Award. This culminated in accusations of plagiarism, another thing that wasn’t worked out of my system until law school – when I earned a high distinction in Copyright law. Fortunately, Dame Leonie Kramer – one of the judges – was made of sterner stuff, and told them to piss off (in the nicest possible way, of course).
Only the sports journalists were appropriately humble, acknowledging the gap between their efforts and those of Australia’s sportsmen and women. I think Gideon Haigh is the best writer in Australia: a fine craftsman, aware of his limitations, devoted to his sport. One of the few highlights of my literary sojourn was meeting him and receiving a signed copy of Mystery Spinner as a gift.
A sure sign that many of Australia’s critics and journalists don’t have a life was the appearance – in rapid succession – of four books about the cause célèbre. All were longer than my novel. Robert Manne’s The Culture of Forgetting came in at nearly twice the length, riddled with errors and laced with bile. He sent a letter begging an interview shortly before publication. My solicitor read it and shook his head sagely. ‘Don’t touch this one, Helen. He’s already made up his mind’.
Reluctantly, I cooperated with Andrew Reimer in his effort, The Demidenko Debate. My publisher was behind the book and Professor Reimer had consistently argued that my novel was good, despite the controversy. We met in my solicitor’s office in the city and I tried to answer his questions. At this point, I really noticed that I just didn’t fit into ‘literary culture’. He was passionate about literature in a way I just couldn’t fathom, speaking about it as though it had the capacity to change the world. It’s a novel, I kept thinking: what people read on the train. We were talking at cross-purposes. Whatever I said obviously wasn’t too inspiring – he didn’t use a single quote in his book. Although he was kindly and well meaning, I spent most of the interview trying to ignore his constant fiddling with a cigarette packet in his pocket. As soon as we stepped outside, he lit up.
Mark Davis’ study Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism told me – in very precise terms – why I wasn’t able to work as a writer in Australia. Before Davis’ book came out, I already had a fair idea of what was going on. Davis’ research simply confirmed what I suspected. The ‘wall out’ ranged from attacks in the press that a wealthy person would be able to fight off with a defamation suit (one commentator compared me with Martin Bryant) to senior media and critical figures ringing their mates and encouraging them not to publish anything I wrote. I couldn’t afford litigation, and came into the system bereft of contacts, so had no means of fighting back. Writers – especially new ones – are very poorly paid. I made the princely sum of $1.39 a copy out of book sales, so even the tag ‘bestseller’ didn’t mean a great deal.
As a stopgap, I went teaching and threw myself into sport – martial arts, running and cricket. Sport kept me sane in my first year out, especially when my father managed to kill himself off in embarrassing circumstances. True to form, he’d been dabbling in the criminal underworld, and managed to die on the job in a local brothel whilst redeeming a favour. According to the copper who delivered the news, the prostitute in question swore off the ‘game’ for all time. I suppose you would.
Mum had always known that he was pretty much a bum, but that didn’t make dealing with the police and the possibility of media exposure any easier. We made sure there was no media presence, which meant no funeral notice in the paper. Sympathetic doctors and coppers ensured the exact location didn’t turn up on dad’s death certificate. The Courier-Mail somehow heard about the death, publishing a brief – and false – obituary. For the first time ever, we gave thanks. Mum also insisted on the cheapest possible funeral, which meant no service and a chipboard box. She was furious, bitter and humiliated, although people not in the know mistook it for grief. My enduring memory of the whole fiasco is sitting at Logan Funerals staring at dad’s coffin while an extremely uncomfortable funeral director fiddled with his shirt collar and tried to avoid eye contact with everyone in the room. He didn’t know the story – only the police, doctor, mum and the sibs did – although I suspect he guessed.
Unfortunately, I found some people in the teaching profession had also ‘formed a view’. One woman festooned the walls of her office with anti-me cartoons; she would make a point of ostentatiously reading Robert Manne’s book whenever I walked past. Soon enough, I realised that English staffrooms were the problem, as was staying too long in one place. From then on, I did nothing but month-long supply jobs and made a point of asking for a majority physical education timetable wherever I could. This ensured I wound up in HPE or Science staffrooms, where no-one gave a stuff. Literature was in its proper place – what people read on the train.
When someone formed a view to the extent of spitting on me in a school car park, I prepared to emigrate. I’m a dual national (dad was born in London), which meant a British passport and the right to permanent residency.
Living in the UK for just over two years was immensely liberating. I earned my Shodan (black belt) in Shotokan Karate with Sensei Enoeda, proved an effective teacher in some of London’s toughest schools and made some life-long friends. Added to the mix were an outrageously alcoholic landlady, a truly barmy Scientologist flat-mate, a funky Nigerian boyfriend and the opportunity to cover the David Irving libel trial. Life was good, and I had no desire to come home until I learnt mum’s health was failing.
Mum had developed a heart condition and was taking all sorts of medication, sometimes at the wrong times. I took slightly longer supply jobs – three months each, for stability – and did my best to look after her. Much to my later regret, I again started writing for the Courier-Mail, and found the peace and quiet I’d managed to achieve in the UK incompatible with writing.
The one positive thing to occur during the brouhaha was meeting Andrew Greenwood, then a partner at Minter Ellison Lawyers. During 2005, he was elevated to the judiciary, and is now Justice Greenwood of the Federal Court. His new position did not surprise me in the slightest – he’s an adornment to the profession.
Andrew advised me with great acumen and care, and was the first outsider wholly on my side. Previously, I’d assumed my publisher or ‘friends’ I made through literature would fill this role, only to be disappointed (one wrote a ‘tell all’ book that would make Who Weekly proud). Andrew became my model, and if my decision to return to university aged 30 to study law is attributable to anything, it’s his example.
In August 2001, I wrote my last copy for the Courier-Mail. On October 1, 2001, I wrote my final piece for the Sydney Morning Herald. This latter was in response to 9/11 and the anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism of many Australian intellectuals. I took time to put a few of the more outrageous lies told about me out to pasture, and signed off on literature. I sold my Australian Literary Society Gold Medal (another of the prizes I’d won) to pay for law textbooks and worked at supply teaching two days a week to pay my way through law school.
Needless to say, the Courier-Mail wasn’t best pleased, and spent a good whack of my first year making life difficult. This involved using Queensland’s Freedom of Information legislation in a desperate bid to obtain any and every document the University of Queensland held that happened to mention me by name. The main instigator was a single journalist, Deborah Cassrels. At that time married to Chris Mitchell, the editor (they have since split), she had a series of odd vendettas against people; I was only one. Interestingly enough, Robert Manne was another. Once Mitchell left Queensland to edit The Australian and took up with Christine Jackman (another journalist), the frivolous FOI applications stopped.
Like living in the UK, studying at the University of Queensland’s T.C. Beirne School of Law was immensely liberating. Apart from the fact that I was good at it, law suited the combative side of my personality. I liked the idea of taking sides in a case, which led to me representing the law school in mooting competitions (mock trials). That said, while I was busily collecting scholarships and prizes, enjoying having my mind stretched in all sorts of interesting ways, I’d not noticed that mum was gradually getting frailer. I simply took on a greater care burden and assumed she’d ‘turn the corner’. For that reason, her death at the end of my second year caught me completely unawares.
My mother was an outstandingly good person. She’d done her level best to provide for the four of us kids while dad dragged the family from pillar to post, got sacked from various jobs and landed in front of the beak. Mum left school at thirteen and had no education to speak of, but she made sure we respected hard work and valued education. A tireless community worker, Logan’s Chinese community in particular felt they’d lost a special friend. We resolved that – regardless of the consequences – mum would get a public notice and a good send-off. The local Buddhist Temple organised her funeral, which was almost festive. People spilled out of the chapel onto the street outside, while my sister delivered the eulogy.
The Courier-Mail’s Tess Livingstone was considerably less vindictive in her harassment than Deborah Cassrels, and although irritating, her attempts (last year) to dredge up dirt were amusing rather than destructive. She learnt through an ‘anonymous tip-off’ (someone else with no life?) that I was lecturing at the University of Queensland, and was to start in the profession as a Judge’s Associate at the Supreme Court. She at least had the courtesy to email me, and although the two articles she wrote were full of the usual faux-controversial beat-up, by comparison with what had gone before, they were anodyne.
What really irritated me was the paper’s attempt to obtain an up-to-date photograph (all it had was my by-line pic, now several years old). Chris Griffith and a photographer bailed me up outside my class, after finding the location by pretending to be UQ students who’d lost their timetables. A naïve young scholar using the university’s wireless network was their target. Fortunately, I’d gotten pretty good at ‘lawyer’s bull’ and talked them out of trying to take pictures outside a lecture theatre where students were now congregating (luckily, my students saw the funny side).
The two of them sat outside for the rest of the class (memo to Chris Griffith: you should now know the principal exceptions to indefeasibility in the Torrens system) and afterwards I took great pleasure in losing them in the mass of complexity that is the UQ campus. I can still see Chris Griffith’s shiny, bald head reflecting light as he ran after me along the corridor in front of the Prentice building.
Why Skeptics, and why this tell-all piece in a magazine better known for debunking pseudoscience, puncturing religious pomposity and investigating paranormal claims?
There are two principal reasons.
First, I believe the media is characterised by sensationalism and falsehood, sometimes on a level that parallels Answers in Genesis or the folks who believe in crystals’ healing power. It prattles much about ‘accountability’, but when Queensland Premier Peter Beattie makes mild suggestions that mechanisms for administrative review – the Ombudsman and FOI, for example – be extended to the press, he is castigated.
Using the prestigious A N Smith Memorial Lecture in Journalism at Melbourne University to articulate his proposals, Premier Beattie outlined what most thinking people already know – journalists are held in singularly low regard among the wider community. In a market defined by lack of competition, he argued that it was ‘time for the media to embrace an accountability regime similar to that imposed on government, on parliament, and on other public institutions’. He stated that
‘[M]embers of the public should be able to ask of newspapers and electronic media the same questions they can demand of their representatives: Why was this decision taken? Who was involved? What did it cost? What alternatives were considered?’
Few trouble to enquire whether freedom of speech and freedom of the press are cognate (they aren’t – imagine a Venn diagram with only a small overlap), or whether it is reasonable to demand a free press also be an accountable press. Media calumnies deny some people a fair trial and saddle others with false accusations. Juries are contaminated, businesses destroyed, lives ruined. There is a grim toll of those who have suicided after press exposés. Who remembers the Filipino TV repairman, or God forbid, the Paxtons? Persons who mislead and deceive in trade or commerce are caught by section 52 of the Trade Practices Act. Why is the media immune from the section’s operation? Are they some form of protected species? Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Sure, it’s easy to argue that Beattie – a celebrated ‘media tart’ – is engaging in special pleading. It’s remarkably difficult to get information out of Government owned Corporations in Queensland, partly because they have been sheltered from some of the review mechanisms available under administrative law. That said, his central point remains valid. It is true that ‘some journalists are public figures’ while ‘all journalists enjoy extraordinary access to information’. Other public figures carry the risk of exposure. Why not the ladies and gentlemen of the press?
The catalogue of errors produced by media and critics alike in my case almost beggars belief. Despite the public availability of such things as a registry of births, deaths and marriages, the press could not get my date or country of birth correct or the location of my parents’ marriage (Mossman, Far North Queensland if you must know). For some reason they seemed to like Scunthorpe, Yorkshire; I have no relatives anywhere in Yorkshire. To these were added falsehoods about my family’s financial position and professional status. Many media outlets awarded my father an engineering degree. He actually left school at 15. Andrew Greenwood once suggested that for many among the chattering classes, the idea that ‘white trash’ could do what I had done was inconceivable. It therefore became imperative that my parents be awarded degrees they did not hold and riches they did not own. Worst of all were lies about my family’s political orientation. It seemed that because I had written about fascists and racists with some degree of humanity, I must therefore be their political kin. The fact that there were public records of my involvement in student politics as a Democrat – not to mention the distinguished participation by other family members in the union movement and Labor Party – did not seem to matter.
Of course, there is defamation. As I discovered, it is a rich man’s tort. The inexpensive processes of administrative law are denied to ordinary citizens traduced by our moral guardians. Only the very rich can defend themselves, and journalists like easy targets. This means the wealthy get off scot-free, while the press inflicts its silly moral vanities on the rest of us.
Then there is the refusal to be precise in written expression, sadly sometimes ideologically motivated. A personal bête noir is the media’s failure to use the word ‘terrorist’ to describe suicide bombers in Iraq and Israel. The lawyer in me contends it is better to describe the substantive content of all such actions as terrorism. This means that the people who blew up trainloads of German soldiers, raped many French women as collaborateurs post 1945 and had a happy knack of planting bombs in cinemas were also terrorists. This linguistic clarity would then force us to confront a painful question: can terrorism ever be justified?
The media needs Skeptics. It needs people to seek the evidence, challenge the claims and oppose uncritical sensationalism. I accept the questions I ask may have answers that ultimately favour the Fourth Estate. That said, we are entitled to reasoned responses and enlightened debate.
Second, I wrote this piece as a form of thanks to the people on the QSkeptics email group who formed their impression of me based on who I am, rather than what other people – media and critics – say I am. In my experience, this is extraordinarily difficult. Most people – even the very fair-minded – allow perceptions generated by the press to feed and inform their view of a public figure. The QSkeptics discussion group is the first large body I have encountered that to a man and woman did not do this. When Barry Williams first invited me to contribute to the Skeptic, I was unsure what I could write, especially as a lawyer among so many distinguished scientists and researchers. In the end, I opted to tell the story I refused to tell when offered all that cash some years ago.
Prime Minister John Howard has made much in recent times of our collective failure to respect others – in debate and elsewhere. My experience before my encounter with QSkeptics taught me that true respect is very difficult to achieve. Despite my personal views on the matter, I’ve caught myself failing to respect others, including a local Rockhampton journalist who took the time to investigate a story about me properly for the local paper. I assumed – automatically, because of my experience with and views of journalists – he would balls it up. He didn’t, and I had a humbling reminder of the importance of that cricketing principle regarding the ‘benefit of the doubt’. QSkeptics has taught me that respect must be worked at, but is nonetheless a goal both useful and worthy. It is much nicer to live in a country where people don’t get written off as ‘mad’ for their views and values – or what are reported to be their views and values.
I have learnt equal amounts from both observing and participating in QSkeptics discussions, which are always conducted with the utmost respect. They have allowed me to rediscover something of the sense of wonder and adventure that once made both writing and learning so enjoyable. Truly, they have set me free.
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