Remembering Soweto 39 years on

UPDATE: This is a post I wrote a few years ago. I am reposting it, with a few changes, to remember the Soweto Uprising today.
This is a day that will never be forgotten in South Africa: the police shooting of student protesters in the black townships 39 years ago that eventually brought down the apartheid government.
“Soweto” is a term the South African government gave to the 26 “Southwestern townships” of Johannesburg in 1963 — 26 square miles of squalor which erupted into violence on June 16, 1976 – thirty-nine years ago today. It started that morning with 20 thousand Soweto students marching in peaceful protests against the government’s order that Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor, had to be used in secondary schools. But the police reacted as only South African security forces could, ripping up placards and trying to stop the march. The students threw stones, the police used teargas, then opened fire with guns. One of the first to die from a police bullet was a 13-year-old schoolboy, Hector Pieterson.
It was a shot that was heard around the world. I was the foreign editor of The Australian that day, and helped prepare the front page with Mike Jenkinson, a former Wallaby, who played for Australia in South Africa in 1963 and saw apartheid first-hand. Mike was no fan of the South African government or its racist policies.
I still have a mat mold of the front page of The Australian from June 16, 1976 with the headline: Rioting spreads in South Africa. It was before Twitter and Facebook and satellite television, and we got the story via telex and phone calls to contacts in South Africa, including one of Mike’s rugby mates on The Star in Johannesburg. From that day forward, the apartheid government never stood a chance of survival, though it wasn’t until April 27, 1994, that black South Africans celebrated their freedom by voting in the first all-race elections in the country’s history. The headline in The Star that Wednesday was: Vote, the Beloved Country – a paraphrase of the famous novel by Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country. The queues of voters snaked around the nation, and such was the turnout, the polling booths had to be opened the next day.
I was lucky enough to be in South Africa that week, helping to produce the Channel Nine Sunday program. But I’ll never forget the role those brave students played that day in Soweto, with unrest continuing on and off for years. The photograph of Hector Pieterson being carried by a fellow student through the dusty streets of Soweto, with his anguished sister beside them, became the symbol of the resistance movement, much like another innocent 13-year-old boy, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, who’s sparked national protests in Syria after images of his badly beaten body were widely circulated. His crime was to have attended a pro-democracy demonstration in his small home town. The picture that accompanies this blog captures a dying Hector Pieterson and the brutality of apartheid, taken by the South African photographer, Sam Nzima. Nzima received national honours for his image on April 27, 2011, Freedom Day, the anniversary of the elections that brought black and white together – at the polls at least.
A year after the Soweto uprising, I travelled around South Africa on a Pretoria-sponsored trip and wrote a series of articles for The Australian. The highlights of the visit included an interview with Alan Paton in his beautiful home in the hills outside Durban, and being smuggled into a migrant workers’ dormitory, a dark and dingy slab of concrete in the black township of Guguletu outside Cape Town, where one of the workers told me he was forced to live in these horrible conditions as a single man, even though he was married. The evils of apartheid were hammered home to me on that trip. As you can imagine, the South African embassy was not happy with my reports.
Seventeen years later, I produced a cover story on South Africa two months before the elections, with author Bryce Courtenay as our reporter, and we wound up in Morris Isaacson High, one of the schools involved in the Soweto protests. He was addressing a class of bright, optimistic teenagers when a disturbance erupted outside. A group of students had discovered a suspected rapist on the school grounds and were chasing him. Suddenly, the police arrived and as I came from behind a school building, a policeman pointed his AK-47 directly at my testicles. Fortunately, my cameraman, Les Seymour, and his long lens that resembled a rifle was not at my side, and I said: “I am a journalist.” I felt more like a student about to get his testicles shot off.
We also talked to a leader of one of the Cape Coloured gangs in Cape Town, where young men made a slitting gesture to their throats as we passed by in our van. The townships still had a long way to go in 1994 … and still have a way to go in 2015.
Police are still not trusted in South Africa, with the rich resorting to private security companies, and the poor turning to vigilante violence. The chief executive of the respected South African Institute of Race Relations, John Kane-Berman, told the Associated Press a few years ago: “I think people have come to be very cynical about police. Because they’ve seen corruption. Because they’ve seen
incompetence. There are repeated reports of police violence, brutality.”
Kane-Berman has some advice for the citizens of South Africa, rich and poor, about how to make the police more accountable, and townships more liveable: “The accountability comes from the politicians, who must hold the police accountable. And the citizens must hold the politicians accountable. If the citizens want to take active steps, they have to use their votes.” Kane-Berman’s book on the Soweto uprising, South Africa: The Method in the Madness, was one of the best accounts of the student protests written in the late seventies. It’s still worth reading 39 years later if you can get a copy. Mine is well-thumbed.

Diving Delly: A man of steel who plays his heart out

I grew up in West Philadelphia where if you didn’t play basketball, your mates thought there was something wrong with you. You shovelled snow off the concrete courts at the playground during the winter, and played 12 hours a day during the summer.
So I love basketball. But I fell out of love with the National Basketball Association (NBA) because the game became a big business, the stars got too big for their sneakers and slam dunking took over from three-point field goals (I played in the days when three-point field goals didn’t exist). Thank God for the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the NBA’s most valuable player, who still shoots from the outside and dribbles the ball like Bob Cousy, the legendary Boston Celtics guard.
But I always watch the NBA Finals, because like the Rugby League State of Origin, and NRL and AFL Grand Finals, the players give 100 per cent. This year, as you probably know by now if you are an Australian sports fan, there’s a bloke who’s giving 120 per cent. His name is Matthew Dellavedova, and he plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but there’s nothing cavalier in his attitude to the game. Like most basketballers in West Philly, he dives on the court for loose balls. His teammate, LeBron James, now acknowledged as the world’s best basketballer, claimed half in jest that Dellavedova set an NBA record for most dives in game three of the best of seven series. Yes, that was the same night Delly, as he’s known in Cleveland and his hometown of Maryborough in Victoria, had to be put on an IV drip after the game suffering from dehydration. He gave all he had, and then he gave some more. Game four showed he was not superhuman. He only scored 3 out of 14 field goals, and was described as “the so-called hero” of game three by one of the ESPN commentators. But the effort he expended in that match took a lot out of him. Cavaliers coach David Blatt acknowledged that after his side lost to the Golden State Warriors by 21 points in game four. Blatt said Dellavedova played his heart out, like he always does: “I don’t think he was 100 per cent, but he gave us 100 per cent of what he had.” Neither was LeBron James 100 per cent, after a hard foul by the Warriors’ Andrew Bogut, another Australian, sent him reeling into a courtside camera and cutting his head in several places.
Now, thanks to Bogut, Dellavedova and five other Australians in the NBA, the media here has rediscovered basketball. Back in the mid-1970s, I wrote articles for The Australian and the Sydney Daily Telegraph and was described as a “leading basketball writer.” That was only because I was one of the few journalists writing about basketball. Then Eddie Palubinskas became the top scorer in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the National Basketball League boomed (off and on) in Australia and players like Luc Longley and Andrew Gaze made it to the NBA (Gaze briefly; Longley longer as starting centre in three straight Chicago Bulls’ championship teams in the late 90s). Australian television started broadcasting basketball games and the Sydney Kings became NBL champions.
Another key to the growing interest in basketball was the broadcasting of US college games and NBA games on Foxtel and ESPN in Australia. There are more than 300 Australian males playing basketball in US colleges, where the NBA secures nearly all of their talent in the annual draft. Andrew Bogut graduated from the University of Utah and was the number one draft pick in 2005. Patty Mills, who helped the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA championship last year, and Matthew Dellavedova played for St Mary’s college in California, and their games were often broadcast on ESPN. It gave them a chance to display their wares to pro basketball teams, and prompted Australian high school players to apply for US college basketball scholarships. Both Dellavedova and Mills won scholarships to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), now called the Centre for Excellence, before heading off to the US. In an excellent piece last Saturday in the Weekend Australian on Australians becoming the toast of the basketball world, Simon McLoughlin points out that all seven Aussies now playing in the NBA attended the AIS. And basketball is still up there as a popular team sport. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, it ranks as the third most popular among boys behind soccer and Australian football. It ranks second among girls behind netball. http://bit.ly/1GCGos6 And don’t forget, there are eight women in US professional basketball (WNBA), including Lauren Jackson, recently named as an Officer in the Order of Australia.
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Dellavedova is an unlikely NBA star, an undrafted free agent from Maryborough, a country town now known as Dellyborough by the natives. He was considered not fast enough for the pros. In fact, he was almost dropped by the Cavaliers in January for subpar performances.
But he’s made of true grit, or steel, if you listen to LeBron James. In his college days, Delly was the go-to guy on St Mary’s often hitting the game-winning shot, so it wasn’t surprising to see him score 20 points and make key baskets in the dying minutes of game three. Coach Blatt explained why the fans like him: “Delly is the most Cleveland-like Australian I’ve ever met in my life and if you’re from Cleveland you know what I’m talking about.”
I’m not from Cleveland, but I know what he’s talking about. We had fans like that in Philadelphia where the only the Phillies baseball team won a couple of World Series recently, the basketball 76ers are at the bottom of the ladder, the football Eagles have never won the Super Bowl, and the hockey Flyers haven’t soared at all lately. Cleveland fans are hungry for a championship, and they love a fighter – a guy who will dive for a loose ball like there’s no tomorrow. Scott Raab, an ESPN contributor, author and resident, summed up the Cleveland supporters: “They may not be the greatest fans in the world, but they’re the craziest and the hungriest … this city has been the butt of jokes nationwide.” That’s something Philly fans have also had to put up with. Raab was asked by an ESPN commentator why the city has fallen so in love with Dellavedova: “I think it’s the fact that he’s one of those scrappy white guys that has something to do with it. Everyone can relate to Dellavedova. He doesn’t have the size, he doesn’t have the strength, he doesn’t have the strength, he doesn’t have the speed. He’s got heart, he’s got guts and he’s not afraid to dive on the floor.”
They love him in Maryborough, of course, where he played every day after school on a basketball court where he also made a thousand shots every day. Shades of the former New York Knicks star and US Senator Bill Bradley, who used to take hundreds of foul shots every day as a teenager in Crystal City, Missouri. Chip Le Grand explained in The Weekend Australian yesterday why they adore him in Dellyborough: “Dellavedova plays basketball like a red heeler. His uncompromising approach hasn’t endeared him to all basketball fans but, in Dellyborough, they’ll tell you it is the way he has played since he was a kid running around for the Maryborough Blazers Under 12s.” http://bit.ly/1SdNKWK (Photo above shows the students at Maryborough Education Centre, where Matthew’s Mum teachers, watching the NBA finals on a big screen in the school auditorium. Photo: Robert Leeson, News Corp)
And he now has another day to recuperate from the loss and his cramps as game five will be played in Oakland tomorrow (Monday) at 10am AEST (broadcast on ESPN). The Golden State Warriors haven’t won an NBA championship since 1975, and the Cavaliers have never won one, so both sides are desperate for victory and the next match will be crucial.
But for lovers of basketball and sport, it’s a return to the good old days when two evenly matched teams take to the court to play their hearts out, as Matthew Dellavedova and LeBron James and Stephen Curry do all the time.
And finally, more good news on the international sports front for Australia. The Cronulla Sharks are going to Major League Baseball’s Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in August after beating Swan Hill 7-3 last week in the Gold Medal Game in Lismore. The Little League games are broadcast live by ESPN so New South Wales baseball will again be on the world stage after the very successful Dodgers-Diamondbacks series at the SCG last year. Go Sharks!

Remembering Steve McQueen, aka Slam

Film and television editors are a rare breed.
I got to know them well when I first went into television as the foreign editor of the Seven Network in Sydney in the early 1980s. I had been a journalist for The Australian newspaper for nearly ten years, and I didn’t know a grab from an outcue or a live voiceover from a news package.
I was thrown into the deep end in a little office in the Epping newsroom in northwest Sydney. How did I survive? The editors, of course. Every week I had a different editor, from Paul Steindl to Ken Moore to Richard Frecker to Ian Becker to Peta Dann to Merryn Cooper to Sonia Hillenberg to Sonia Lenarcic et al. They taught me everything I needed to know about what works on television, including natural sound and pieces to camera and how to cut a 2 minute story down to 49 seconds and still make sense out of it.
Thirty plus years later, I still love editors, including all those I worked with on Seven, the Nine Sunday Program, Sky News Australia, Ten’s Meet the Press, Shine Australia, and SBS’s The Observer Effect – too many to mention them all here. But they were the best, and without them, many television shows would have never made it to air.
Last weekend we farewelled one of the most colourful editors in the business: Stephen (Slam) McQueen, who died way too early at the age of 58. We had a memorial service in Hendo’s Lounge, that’s the room just next to the Bistro at Channel Nine in Sydney. And yes, the man whose name and photo adorn that lounge, Brian “Hendo” Henderson, was there to pay tribute to the bloke he worked with and who showed him the stories he was going to present on Nine News. He wasn’t the only one. There was Slam’s beloved Uncle Des McQueen, a former Victorian Policeman and head of the Vice Squad; Paul Fenn, former Nine News Director; Mike Fleming, former senior editor at Nine and Damian Ryan, veteran Nine News reporter. (The photo at the top shows l to r.: Jack Davidson, Geoff Maurice, Graham Thurston, Mary Davison O’Keefe, Damian Ryan, Paul Fenn, Brian Henderson, Ken Sutcliffe, Tony Ritchie at Hendo’s Lounge last week. The photo below shows l to r.: Slam with Brian Henderson, Ken Sutcliffe and Ray Martin.)
Packed into the smallish lounge and overflowing into the Bistro were about 100 people, family, friends and colleagues. As Damian Ryan put it, there were three families there: those family members who had come from Victoria, Queensland, Canberra and the Northern Territory, the Channel Nine contingent he worked with, and the Bridgeview mob who he drank with at the Nine pub a few blocks away. Hardly anybody from Nine drinks there now – there isn’t time, it seems. Looking around the room as I introduced each guest speaker and film clips cut by a great Nine editor, Paul Luxford, I could see Slam’s mates and colleagues: Hugh Riminton, now a Ten news presenter, Ken Sutcliffe, sports presenter; Simon Bouda, Nine News reporter; Megan Purcell, former Nine editor; Paul Steindl, former Executive Producer, Sunday Program and The Observer Effect; Mary Davison, Executive Producer, Nine News; and Sean Costello, Director, Big Day Media, to name just a few.
Sean used Slam as a freelance editor after he left Channel Nine in 2008. Slam was made redundant, which devastated him, but given a chance to come back by David Gyngell. Steve was too proud to accept, but he did get himself a good computer to edit on. Sean posted this on Facebook: “The planet lost another human yesterday. Australia lost a citizen. NSW lost a staunch Labor supporter. They don’t have many to lose. Willoughby lost a caring neighbor. A family lost a loving uncle, nephew, cousin and brother … People who knew him lost a complicated, loyal, gregarious friend. Me … I lost a great mate.”
Complicated, loyal, gregarious – Slam was all of that and he believed in friendship. All of the guest speakers mentioned this. In my introduction, I said this: “When my best mate, Cliff Neville, died three years ago, Slam sent me this message: ‘I do not understand what you are feeling at this time. To lose a mate that was so close to you. All I have is my love for the same man, the man that tested my beliefs, my attitude, my being. Someone that I could really talk with. He believed on some issues I did not. However, he understood. The well of honest writing is running dry. The well of truth is running dry. I think I know that at a time like this we sit back and reflect, but as long as we can, we must support and celebrate the life of our mate’.”
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There was much celebration last Saturday at Hendo’s Lounge. His uncle Des McQueen, a solid country bloke with 25 years in the Victoria Police, including a stint as head of the Vice Squad, talked about Slam growing up in Greensborough, playing football and soccer. Slam loved his uncle’s property in Victoria, and asked for some of his ashes to go into the dam there. He also mentioned Slam’s support for Essendon when most of his family barracked for Collingwood. And he summed up his nephew in these honest, compassionate words: “Steve was a gentle soul, passionate about what he believed in, loyal to his friends, but at times somewhat too stubborn for his own good … he was another Frank Sinatra – he did it his way. But he was a top person. If he could not do you a good turn, he did nothing. His memory will always be in our hearts.”
Brian Henderson remembered Slam in his edit suite in Eng Alley: “He showed me the stories I needed to rehearse in his Eng suite. The word ‘suite’ is misleading there.” That attracted laughs from the Nine people who knew the small, smelly suites were not sweet at all. He, too, was frank about Slam and his very strong opinions: “He was rough, he was blunt and he liked to sound off about injustice.” But Hendo’s verdict about Steve was similar to others: “He lived and breathed his work at Channel Nine and left an indelible impression on those who knew him, including me. I’ll never forget him.”
The next segment started with a clip of a practical joke Slam and former chief of staff, Dave Allender, played on news director Paul Fenn. They put a wheel lock on his car, and he had to call up to get Slam down to unlock it so he could drive home. Fenny was not happy, although he did laugh as he drove off. He started his tribute: “Steve’s career came to a grinding halt that day – early morning shifts, the mongrel.” A great speaker, Paul Fenn told some very funny stories about Slam. The best was how Slam mispronounced the word “Essendon” as “Essedon.” Paul said: “If you’re going to mention Essendon, get it right.” Slam said: “It is right.” Fenny finally called him into his office and got out a piece and paper and wrote it down, and said: “E, double s, en, Essendon.” And Slam said: “Yes, Essedon.’ Paul continued: “And with that he stormed out and about half an hour later he came back and said: ‘Look at this.’ He threw a piece of paper on the desk. I picked it up and read it, and it said: ‘Get fucked.’ I said: ‘What’s the point?’ And he said: ‘Have a good look at that, there are no ‘n’s’ in that.’ That story had the service in stitches. Fenny said Slam wasn’t the best editor, but “there was no more loyal editor than Steve McQueen.”
After a two-minute clip of the ABC Frontline series focusing on an editor named Hugh Tabbagh, who smoked a lot and coughed a lot and was king of the edit suite, allegedly based on Steve, former Nine senior editor Mike Fleming, who had come from Tasmania for the service, explained how he got the nickname “Slam.” Another Nine editor Owen Smith, who Flemo said, should have been a stand-up comedian (I agree), was trying to get a nickname for Steve, like Bullitt, Darwin Stubbie (he’d worked in Darwin for six years), Crocodile McQueen, but nothing worked. Until one night when Steve went with colleagues to a 21st birthday party, got stuck into it and ended up slam dancing. Flemo demonstrated with his arms flapping, describing it thus: “That’s this and if anyone doesn’t know, the whole object is to knock everyone over, which Slam didn’t have any trouble with. He dropped his guard, the planets aligned and legend was born. Steve McQueen left home that day, and under Owen’s gong, became Slam. His fate was ultimately sealed when two days later Brian Henderson walked down the hall, looking for the editor who had cut the Overseas wrap. ‘Slam,’ Brian said, ‘I need to look at this.’ Slam was locked in. The King of News had dubbed him Slam.”
Finally, the veteran reporter Damian Ryan talked about their days together in the London bureau, and how they got quite close. They would chew the fat, order a pizza and wait for the foreign editor, David McCombe, to call the story from Sydney. One of the biggest stories they worked on was the Interlaken canyoning disaster in Switzerland where 21 people, including 14 Australians, lost their lives. Damian was part of the team that won a Walkley award for their coverage, but he said: “Slam should have won an award for that. He was incredible.” Damo said things had changed in television now. It had become a sausage factory, but “Slam was old school, he was meticulous. He was packing his packages with all the best shots and natural sound to produce something the viewers would watch and leave them pondering long after the news.” He became a bit emotional talking about his former editor: “He could be gruff, he could be obnoxious, but he was a very soft, very sensitive guy. I have one major regret. I did lose touch. But I rejoice in the fact that I spent a lot of bloody good times with him.” It was a poignant moment when we all realised how much we missed Slam. We had all lost touch.
Here we were at Channel Nine, which he loved, and where he was much loved, and he wasn’t here to see it. But all three of his families were here, and we saluted him as he gave us the finger in the last shot in the closing montage, with music by Supertramp: Give a Little Bit. Yes, there were tears, too.
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We retired to the Bridgey where more war stories were told about the remarkable Slam McQueen.
Hugh Riminton summed it up on Facebook: Slam was a “gentle soul and for years the heart of the news editing department at Channel Nine in Sydney. Many memories of a loyal and passionate colleague and friend. RIP, big fella.”
Russell Bishop, who also worked with Slam, lives in Western Australia and couldn’t make the service. He asked me if I could find room for his tribute, so here it is: “For reasons I still don’t understand, Slam used to like cutting with me. But, when the pressure was on – ten to six and a first break story – we weren’t good for one another. He’d be streaming sweat and rubbing his face with his free hand while snuffling at the same time while I was nervously on the lookout for the Smiling Assassin (Ian Cook) coming to get us. But he always got it done and, afterwards, we always had a laugh. I hadn’t seen Slam since 1994 because I live interstate but we hooked up about a year ago on Facebook. It was only then that I discovered his gentle side … he was certainly interested in causes and felt very deeply about the awful things going on at home and abroad. In March just gone, Slam commented on a post I put up and – for the very first time – albeit couched with ‘I hate to say this’ — he said something very nice about me. It was wonderful then and it’s even more precious to me now. See you mate.”
Slam once inscribed a book on friendship for my birthday: “In a life full of uncertainty, there is one constant: Mates. Thanks for being one.”
I was proud to be one, Slam. Thanks for the memories.

The Anzacs: We are finally remembering them

Three years ago I attended my first Anzac dawn service, just outside the Roseville Memorial Club in Sydney’s leafy North Shore. The service commemorated the Diggers who were killed in Gallipoli in 1915 – a World War I disaster that was called a “magnificent defeat” because of the bravery displayed by Australian and New Zealand soldiers (the Anzacs).
This is part of what I wrote then (you can read the original here: http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-4l)
“And that’s why we gather in thousands around war memorials around the country for dawn services and marches to remember our fallen heroes. In Sydney, they cheered as the Old Diggers, decreasing in number, marched, or were carried down George Street during the parade.
“Forty years ago, when I experienced my first Anzac Day, I thought it was all about two-up and drinking beer and having a day off, remembering a tragic loss in Gallipoli. Now I know it’s like Armistice Day, but even better. We celebrate the bravery of the Diggers who climbed out of their trenches to face almost certain death against equally gallant Turkish forces.
“Gallipoli has become a pilgrimage for Australians of all ages, and even Prime Minister Gillard, embroiled in political troubles back home, had no hesitation in making her first trip to the site, joining thousands of her fellow countrymen and women in paying homage to the Diggers. Gallipoli was ‘a place hallowed by sacrifice and loss,’ she said, but also ‘a place shining with honour, and honour of the most vivid kind,’ and ‘a place where foes met in equality and respect and attained a certain nobility through their character and conduct.’
“When I first heard the Ode of Remembrance in an RSL club in Sydney 4 decades ago, and the lights were dimmed and all eyes turned toward the Illuminated Cross (it could have been a Memorial Flame), I wondered what was going on. The Ode was impressive, even then:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

“And when everybody around me repeated: ‘We will remember them,’ and then ‘Lest we forget,’ I knew it was a solemn ritual I’d hear again and again. I did, and it never fails to move me or others who repeat those words. I heard them this morning outside the Roseville Memorial Club on Sydney’s North Shore, surrounded by around 350 people, again of all ages, paying tribute to veterans who fought and died for Australia in all our wars. Near the end of the service, the club president recited lines from the poem, For the Fallen, from which The Ode is taken, before the sounding of the Last Post:
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

“It was a dawn service in the dark, but the light of our brave Diggers shone in the darkness. Lest we forget.”
Well, that was three years ago, and on this morning, the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli, outside the club there were at least 2000 people, or nearly six times as many as 2012. At the War Memorial in Canberra, 120,000 turned out for the dawn service, three times as many as the 37,000 who showed up last year (photo at the top of this post). http://bit.ly/1Omj0EH It’s taken 100 years but we are remembering them — in record numbers.
For the quiet suburb of Roseville, it was a huge crowd, spilling onto the footpaths, and all I could see were the backs of people’s heads (poor quality photo below, my only excuse is that it was dark), but it was still a moving tribute.
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I knew there would be a big rollup as there was a lot of traffic at 4.30am as I walked the kilometre or so to the club in the dark. Then as I reached the Pacific Highway and the Roseville train station at 5am, there were scores of people crossing the road. The closest I could get to the speakers and singers was the front door of the club, and I stood on a little wall surrounding the garden.
There were the usual speeches, Bible readings, hymns like Abide with Me, Amazing Grace and Advance Australia Fair, sung by the Gordon group from the Sing Australia choir, the laying of wreaths by club directors, local politicians, school principals and community groups. But when the club secretary Chris Walsh read the Ode, and had us repeat the words — “We will remember them. Lest we forget” — I could feel the shivers down my spine. The crowd, like the one three years ago, was composed of all ages, with lots of toddlers on fathers shoulders or strollers, all happy – not a cry was to be heard (I guess because some of them were asleep). The Last Post was sounded, with a soldier saluting the flag in front of him, and it was one of those moments I’ll never forget.
Earlier on my walk to the service, I was listening to the ABC on my trusty old Walkman, and it was déjà vu all over again. At the Sydney dawn service, attended by a record 30,000 people, the Governor of NSW, David Hurley, was giving an Anzac address and quoting a 6th grade pupil from a Port Kembla school who ended his poem: “I am that white dove” – a symbol of peace. Amazingly enough, the Royal Hymn of Australia, God Save the Queen, was sung as it’s required as part of the Cenotaph service in Martin Place. There was also some unscheduled music – the Ivy nightclub 400 metres away from Martin Place blasted dance arrangements during the one minute silence. The contractor was sacked immediately. http://bit.ly/1Ghj5Qb
And the Canberra service was special as well, with that massive crowd, and a wonderful speech by the outgoing chief of army, General David Morrison. He delivered the quote of the day: “If war is a sin against humanity, as some would hold, then war itself is punishment for that sin, compounded by its endless repetitions and its hold on those who have experienced its terrors.” In other words, you might survive the battles, but Post Traumatic Stress Disorder might get you in the end. A young Legacy representative, Kate McGuinness, recited a much favoured Anzac poem, In Flanders Field, as if she wrote it.
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Not to be forgotten this Anzac Day are the contributions on Facebook: photos of great grandfathers and grandfathers and fathers and uncles in black and white and sepia and letters from the army informing their loved ones were dead. I’d like to end this piece with a Facebook post from a friend and former Sky News colleague, who now lives in California. Rachel Owen (https://instagram.com/iamrachelowen) posted a photo of her grandfather, Oswald Owen (above), and wrote this lovely tribute — Lest We Forget:
“Today we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. I, like many others I am sure, have said ‘Lest We Forget’ every year without truly understanding the meaning behind the words. But when I look at this handsome devil, I realise that words can’t adequately express the feelings that his memorable smile evokes. This man was one of the best to walk the Earth and I am incredibly proud to be his Granddaughter. I can honestly say that I will never forget you Pa or how lucky I was to have known such a man; humorous, witty, charming and beyond generous. So yet again, I will say Lest We Forget, but this time with a little more understanding. I love you with all my heart and we all miss you every single day.”

Hillary’s on the road again; Watch out for the mud

Get ready for the dirtiest US presidential campaign in history.*
That’s the first thing that occurred to me when Hillary Clinton finally announced she would run for the presidency in 2016: “I’m running for president … Everyday Americans need a champion. And I want to be that champion … So I’m hitting the road to earn your vote — because it’s your time. And I hope you’ll join me on this journey.”
On day two of her journey, Mrs Clinton left her New York home in a mini-van for Iowa and, a few hours into the 1600km trip, the 67-year-old Democrat tweeted a picture of a friendly family at a Pennsylvania petrol station (photo above). On day three, she arrived in the important primary state of Iowa where she was greeted by some fellow travellers, if you’ll excuse the pun (photo tweeted below).
Mrs Clinton chose to launch her campaign on YouTube, using social media to appeal to “everyday” Americans and sounding like a first-time candidate and not one of the most famous women in the world. http://bit.ly/1IEUpXV
She doesn’t appear in the 2-minute video until 1.33, letting those ordinary and real Americans, not actors, talk about their aspirations for the future. And there is no Bill Clinton in sight.
Her husband and former president said he would take a backstage advisory role – a very good idea. Bill Clinton is popular, but like Hillary, brings a lot of baggage to her campaign. Some say he hindered, rather than helped, Hillary when she took on Barack Obama in 2008. He criticised Obama for claiming better judgment than Hillary on the Iraq War, which was later used by Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign. http://huff.to/1DagloV
Then there’s Monica Lewinsky. David Taylor of the London Times reports on a new book that focuses on the White House staff – the butlers, the cleaners et al – who reveal all about life behind the scenes, for the presidents, first ladies and families and, in particular, the relationship between Bill and Hillary Clinton. According to The Residence, by Kate Andersen Brower, a member of the White House staff said Hillary literally threw the book at him. Cleaning staff discovered blood on the bed and the president claimed he had hurt himself running into the bathroom door. But the staff member said: “We’re pretty sure (Mrs Clinton) clocked with a book. Brower writes: “There were at least 20 books on the bedside table for his betrayed wife to choose from, including the Bible.” http://bit.ly/1FHjfA8
It gets juicier: Staffers had been watching the affair between the president and the intern well before the public found out in January 1998. Brower reports: “The butlers saw the president and Lewinsky in the family movie theatre, and the two of them were seen together so frequently that the workers started letting one another know when they’d had a Lewinsky sighting.” Brower goes on: “For three or four months in 1998, the president slept on a sofa in a private study attached to their bedroom on the second floor. Most of the women on the residence staff thought he got what he deserved.”
Tell me that the Republicans won’t use that against Hillary in the campaign if she wins the Democratic nomination, and I will have to beg to differ with you. They will use that as well as Mrs Clinton’s denial of the allegations of her husband’s affair with Lewinsky the day after he publicly denied it. It’s all there in the report by the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, which led to the President’s impeachment by the House of Representatives on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. He was acquitted on both charges by the Senate in 1999.
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The Republicans are already bagging Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal rather than a government email account while she was Secretary of State, donations from foreign governments, including Australia, to the Clinton Foundation from which she resigned yesterday, links to the recent Iran nuclear agreement, and the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya that led to the death of ambassador Chris Steven and three other Americans when she was secretary. I’m sure there will be more in the months to come.
Just a couple of examples: Libertarian Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist with his eyes on the presidency, had this to say on his Facebook page moments after her announcement: “if the liberal media has their way, her “campaign” will be nothing more than a coronation. But I’ll tell the truth about why Hillary’s disastrous record disqualifies her from the Presidency. My campaign team has produced a brand new ad showing why recent polling proves I’m the best Republican candidate to take on Hillary in 2016.” An excerpt from the slick, one-minute ad: “Hillary Clinton represents the worst of the Washington machine: arrogance of power, corruption and cover-ups, conflict of interest and failed leadership with tragic consequences.” http://on.fb.me/1JEE0QW
No one could ever accuse the New York Post of being part of the liberal media and predictably they ran stories about how New York Democrats were unmoved by the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, even the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio. He was Mrs Clinton’s campaign manager when she won the Senate race in New York, and she campaigned for him in his successful bid to become mayor. Mr de Blasio said he wouldn’t endorse her yet: “Not until I see — and, again, I would say this about any candidate — until I see an actual vision of where they want to go.” http://bit.ly/1FOBCWh
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, has joined Rand Paul and Texas Senator Ted Cruz as major candidates announcing their bid for the Republican presidential nomination. In a speech in Miami launching his campaign, he criticised Hillary Clinton as a leader from yesterday: “Yesterday is over. And we are never going back. Before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America. We can’t do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past.” http://wapo.st/1CIpBgn
A great newspaper which has written many chapters in the amazing story of America, but which could not now be considered part of the liberal media, The Wall Street Journal, came out with a story by its national political editor, Peter Nicholas (with help from Rebecca Ballhaus), in which he reports the Clinton campaign has set a goal for itself: “Showing that she’s likeable. Period.” http://on.wsj.com/1aY8HF8
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That’s why Hillary Clinton will seek more intimate settings like an Iowa cafe (photo above) where she can charm a smaller group of people, rather than large campaign rallies, as she did in 2008. According to Nicholas, Team Clinton says: “At large rallies, Clinton has trouble charming the audience. She can seem distant and unapproachable. Put her in a room with a small number of people and it is a different story.”
This reminded me of the criticism often aimed at Julia Gillard, who seemed to be a bit distant when being interviewed on television or addressing large crowds – except when she was angry (“I will not be lectured on misogyny by this man.”) – but in small gatherings, she exuded warmth and charm. I wrote about this in a blog post, “Let Julia be Julia,” after watching the then Prime Minister work her magic on the staff and crew of Channel Ten when she came in for an interview in June 2011 on Meet the Press (a show unfortunately axed by the Ten Network. It’s still in “hiatus,” as far as I know!). http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-F
I wrote at the time: “Julia Gillard is warm, charismatic, funny and engaging, and that doesn’t come across on television very often, but when you see her working a room as she did with our studio crew and observers last Sunday morning, you’d think she was a female Bob Hawke – and he is the best I’ve ever seen. Let Julia Gillard be Julia Gillard and the Labor Party and the country will be a better place as a result.” I haven’t been up close and personal with Hillary Clinton, but I’m betting she would be “warm, charismatic, funny and engaging,” if Team Clinton allows her to be so.
UPDATE: A friend of mine, Ron Javers, a former executive editor of Newsweek, recalls a lunch with editors (including then editor-in-chief of Esquire, Terry McDonell) and publishers convened by Ellen Levine, then editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping Magazine and a rising star at Hearst, who’s now editorial director of Hearst Magazines. Ron writes: “After being introduced by Ellen, Hillary rose from her chair and, as she spoke, began moving around the room, speaking without notes, on a wide variety of political and national issues. She was quite knowledgeable and compelling, yet informal, witty and warm. She was not terribly well known in those early days of Bill’s candidacy for President, but it is safe to say she charmed that room of hard-boiled, high-powered New York publishing executives and editors. Some of them would be surprised that a few terms later, they would be voting for her as Senator Clinton of New York.” This augurs well for the Team Clinton’s Likeable Campaign.
The Clinton campaign comprises a formidable array of veterans from the family dynasty and newbies from the Obama team who helped defeat Hillary in 2008. Politico has prepared a guide to the most influential players, and there is a wealth of experience here: http://politi.co/1yjo3OJ
But the Republicans will do everything they can to portray Hillary Clinton as tough, mean-spirited, arrogant and a key member of an administration that has failed middle-class Americans. Barack Obama has said she will make an excellent president, but it’s unlikely she will be doing much campaigning with him, except in African-American constituencies.
And if former Florida governor Jeb Bush manages to overcome his baggage as a member of a controversial family including two former presidents, then it’s possible a Bush and a Clinton will be the main combatants in the 2016 presidential election campaign — déjà vu all over again.
It will be a long and winding road to the White House, with much mud thrown along the way.
*Footnote: According to Janice Turner of the London Times, it has already begun. She writes in a piece published in The Australian today: “Within 24 hours of Hillary declaring her run for president, I’ve seen her called a bitch. I’ve read that, at 67 — the same age as Ronald Reagan and younger than John McCain — Hillary is too old and that Bill O’Reilly on Fox News believes ‘there’s got to be a downside to a woman president’.” http://bit.ly/1H59mjH

Suddenly Last Summer: Tennessee Williams at his shocking best at the Sydney Opera House

My wife, not usually given to superlatives, said after watching the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Suddenly Last Summer, it was the best play she had ever seen.
I thought back to my theatre-going days in New York City in the late sixties, when I saw Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy; Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming with Vivien Merchant as Ruth; Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come, a Tony Award nominee in 1966, and Man of La Mancha with Richard Kiley as Don Quixote.
Great plays all, but as always, my wife was right. Tennessee William’s self-styled allegory about the rich New Orleans matron, Violet Venable, trying to silence her niece, Catharine Holly, with a lobotomy to prevent her from telling how her son died in Spain, is probably the best drama I have experienced as well.
It is quite an experience, with video shot by three cameras on a giant, sometimes revolving screen, tracking and zooming, providing details and closeups of the main characters, and at one point making the audience gasp with a bird’s-eye view of a truth-serum needle puncturing Catharine’s skin. (Photo above by Brett Boardman: Susan Prior as Mrs Holly, Paula Arundell as the nun, Eryn Jean Norvill as Catharine Holly, Robyn Nevin as Mrs Venable and Mark Leonard Winter as Dr Sugar in background) While it enhances the narrative, it doesn’t detract from the cast’s performances. Robyn Nevin is superb as Mrs Venable, deluding herself about her “perfect” son, Sebastian, with a nearly perfect southern accent. Sebastian was a poet who wrote one poem a year.
Stealing the show is Eryn Jean Norvill as Catharine, who arrives at the Venable mansion’s lush garden – dark with secrets — accompanied by a nun from the Catholic convalescent home where she’s recovering from the trauma of witnessing Sebastian’s grotesque death. Neurosurgeon Dr Cukrowicz, nicknamed Dr Sugar (after Williams’ psychiatrist), is well played by Mark Leonard Winter, as he questions Catharine to see if she’s a suitable candidate for a lobotomy. It’s autobiographical: Tennessee Williams’ sister, Rose, had a lobotomy; his mother, Edwina, was as domineering as Violet Venable; and the playwright’s sex life resembled Sebastian’s.
Mrs Venable wants the details of Sebastian’s adventures with young male lovers deleted from Catharine’s mind. She says to Dr Sugar: “Cut this hideous story out of her brain.” In John Lahr’s mammoth and magnificent biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Bloomsbury, 2014), he writes: “Suddenly Last Summer was a sort of autobiographical exorcism that worked through Williams’ grief and guilt over his sister, Rose, as well as his anger at Edwina for deciding to allow a bilateral prefrontal lobotomy to be performed on her without informing him in advance … an omission for which Williams never forgave his mother.”
The director, Kip Williams, together with designer Alice Badbidge, chief camera operator Phillip Charles, Lighting Designer Damien Cooper, and Composer Stefan Gregory, have brought a Tennessee Williams play, first performed in 1958 and set in New Orleans, to life in 2015 in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House. They do it with video technology and scenery and imagination, but they and the actors pay homage to Tennessee Williams, whose words make the play sing.
In his Memoirs, published in 1975 by Doubleday, Williams wrote: “There are passages in Suddenly Last Summer which are perhaps as well written as anything I’ve done.” I agree, and I also think that if Tennessee Williams were still alive, he would have loved the STC production of his play, for both his words and the pictures.
He tells the story in the book, of how he made the deal for the movie version of Suddenly Last Summer, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, with Sam Spiegel, the famous producer. Spiegel asked how much Williams wanted for the film rights. The playwright said: “How about fifty grand plus 20 per cent of the profits? Sam said: ‘It’s a deal,’ and it was, and the profits were as good as the film was bad – that figures.”
But he added, and I think this is why he would have loved seeing the STC production: “How films have changed! – for the better. They have outstripped the theatre in honesty, adventure, and technique, despite the fall of Big studios with their star system. Or possibly because of it?”
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(Photo above by Brett Boardman)
Despite its horrific themes, Suddenly Last Summer has attracted myriad raves ever since its opening night Off-Broadway in 1958. The New Yorker critic, Wolcott Gibbs, called it “an impressive and genuinely shocking play,” while the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson said it was “an exercise in the necromancy of writing … a superb achievement.”
After its opening in Sydney last month, the praise was almost unanimous on Twitter published on the STC website. Author Benjamin Law tweeted: “Saw this last night. Glorious stuff.” And Law retweeted a link to the Sydney Morning Herald critic Jason Blake’s review of the play in which Blake said: “If Suddenly Last Summer were any more like a movie, the Sydney Theatre Company would have to sell popcorn.” http://bit.ly/1DQGK8R
The actress Jacqueline McKenzie tweeted: “THRILLING! T.Williams would’ve been enthralled. Audacious without ego. Sublime acting. Bravo Kip!” The editor of The Drum, the ABC’s opinion and news analysis website, Chip Rolley, chimed in: “Don’t know what it is about @SydneyTheatreCo, but they do Tennessee Williams extraordinarily well. Go see Suddenly Last Summer” And Channel Ten’s long-time entertainment reporter, Angela Bishop, tweeted: “Extraordinary STC prod of Suddenly Last Summer last night. In crowd @Billy_Connolly @KathyLette & a sea of Bishops: Julie, Bronwyn & me.”
On a personal note, I only discovered on reading John Lahr’s biography of Tennessee Williams that he lived across the street from me in the late sixties in New York. He and his secretary and companion at the time had a thirty-third floor penthouse on 15 West 72nd Street next to the famous Dakota building where John Lennon was shot. I lived on the top floor of a fourth-floor walkup, teaching in Harlem and earning a lot less than Mr Williams. Still, it would have been nice to meet him.
His lifestyle was a bit different than mine. John Lahr described a typical day in the life of Tennessee in the late sixties when his secretary Bill Glavin ushered him through his Stoned Age: “Glavin accompanied Williams on his daily Manhattan walkabout – to his analyst’s office, to see Dr Feelgood, to swim at the Y, to lunch at L’Escargot, to the previews of Gnadiges Fraulein [a Williams play] at the Longacre, where they sat in a box and laughed uproariously, and where the producer, Charles Bowden, caught them in the men’s room ‘shooting up with Dr Feelgood’s amphetamines’.” Dr Feelgood was the nickname of a New York GP, Dr Max Jacobson, well known for providing speed to the rich and famous, including President John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley.
With the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade in Sydney tonight, I thought I should end this post with a quote from Williams in Lahr’s biography about his Memoirs, the book which brought him out of the closet and answered his critics in the gay community: “The book can only be successful if it is a work of total and personally unsparing honesty about myself and by myself … The book when finished will not be ‘sensational’ in a bad way but in a good one.” But Lahr mentions one “droll critic” who describes Williams’ Memoirs like this: “If he hasn’t exactly opened his heart, he has opened his fly.”
FOOTNOTE: If you want to see Suddenly Last Summer at the Opera House, there is limited seat availability with the season ending on March 21. For last minute ticket releases on the day, call the Sydney Opera House Box Office on (02) 9250 7777. There are also standing room tickets for $35 each – only available at the Box Office on that same number. The play lasts 90 minutes and there is no interval, but it moves along quickly if you don’t mind standing!

Sarah Ferguson’s interview with Joe Hockey: Bias is in the eye of the beholder

“One of the chief Functions of a television critic is to stay at home and watch the programmes on an ordinary domestic receiver, just as his readers do. If he goes to official previews, he will meet producers and directors, start understanding their problems, and find himself paying the inevitable price for free sandwiches. A critic who does not keep well clear of the World of the Media will soon lose his sting. He might also begin harbouring delusions about his capacity to modify official policy.”
Sorry for the long intro, but that was Clive James in the preface to his book, Visions Before Midnight: Television criticism from The Observer 1972-76 – his advice guiding my time as a TV critic for The Australian newspaper in the early 1980s.
Born in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah, Clive James was, and still is, one of the best critics in the history of television. His weekly columns for The Observer from 1972-1982 were must reading, and he started writing tv critiques for the London Daily Telegraph in 2011 until last year. Despite his bout with leukemia, he still writes the occasional feature for the Telegraph: http://www.clivejames.com/essays/cjtv He is, of course, a renowned literary critic, a brilliant poet, a noted novelist and memoirist, former television presenter, and an Australian icon.
Clive James came to mind when I read about the kerfuffle over former Australian Financial Review (AFR) editor Colleen Ryan’s review of the ABC’s coverage of the Federal Budget last year. The ABC asked Ms Ryan, a highly respected journalist, to look at the coverage as part of their quarterly review of a small cross-selection of content and “give us a warts and all view of it,” according to Alan Sunderland, Acting Head of People at the ABC. Mr Sunderland said: “Colleen produced an excellent and comprehensive report. Her overall judgement was that our coverage complied with all of our policies and guidelines and the overall quality was ‘excellent.’ At significant length [45 pages], the report discusses all aspects of the coverage and provides a series of observations on ways it might have been improved, expanded or extended.” http://ab.co/1AmPLYl
Okay, so why all the fuss? Well, Ms Ryan made the egregious mistake of suggesting the tone of questioning in Sarah Ferguson’s 7.30 interview with Treasurer Joe Hockey “could have been interpreted by some viewers to be a potential breach of the ABC’s impartiality guidelines.” http://ab.co/1JsDmcJ Ms Ryan focused on the first question of the interview: “Now, you’ve just delivered that Budget. It’s a Budget with a new tax, with levies, with co-payments. Is it liberating for a politician to decide election promises don’t matter?” Here’s a link to the interview if you haven’t seen it: http://ab.co/1CQck6a The former AFR editor said “that first question set the tone for the entire interview. The Treasurer appeared surprised and in my view was from that point on quite ‘rattled’ during the interview … the language in Ferguson’s first question was emotive. I also believe that the average viewer would consider that the Treasurer was not treated with sufficient respect by the interviewer.”
Whew! Let’s go back to Clive James. He didn’t say you had to pretend you were an average viewer. He clearly wasn’t, and the wit and wisdom in his columns proved that. He watched television like the average viewer in his own home, without the glitz and glamour of publicity previews. But he took notes and knew his subject. As long-time ABC interviewer Kerry O’Brien put it: “Ryan tries to put herself in the mind of an average viewer. Who on earth is an average viewer when you’re talking about politics?” http://bit.ly/1zPwCL8
I agree with Kerry that the ABC gave Colleen Ryan an impossible task: a “warts and all” review of the coverage under the corporation’s editorial commitments to accuracy, impartiality and fairness. Colleen had to consider whether the language was “emotive, hyperbolic, inflammatory or derogatory. And was the interviewee treated with civility and respect.” Joe Hockey’s a big boy. He can handle it, and like many politicians, he said so at the end of the interview to Sarah: “Thank you very much. Great to be here.” Former Liberal Foreign Minister Andrew Downer used to say to many journalists who had just wiped him out in an interview — “Pleasure” — when you knew it was far from it for him. When I was producing the Channel Nine Sunday program, Laurie Oakes nearly made Labor MP Daryl Melham fall off his chair at the end of a particularly hard interview, watch then Opposition Leader John Howard fall silent during a 3-minute commercial break after a disastrous part one of the conversation, and have then Liberal Health Minister Michael Wooldridge “for breakfast” on Sunday – a political cartoonist portraying Oakes coming out of a CT scanner with Wooldridge inside of him, with the doctor saying: “You really did have him for breakfast, didn’t you Laurie?” Respect was shown to each of the interviewees, and the language was not emotive or inflammatory. Just tough interviews exhibiting good journalism.
Ryan said in her evaluation: “This interview provided gripping television. But was it fair and impartial? Did it grant due respect to the interviewee? Would the average viewer consider its tone (on the part of Ferguson) as so aggressive that it exhibited bias?” She then had to consider those questions within the context of the ABC’s Impartiality Guidance Notes (issued 22 July 2013, revised 21 May 2014). Sorry, Colleen, at this point, I would have discarded the notes and just watched the interview.
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It was gripping television, fair and impartial, granted due respect to the interviewee and was not so aggressive that it exhibited bias. Sarah Ferguson had 11 minutes and 58 seconds to get the most out of the interview, and Joe Hockey had the same amount of time to avoid answering the questions. Colleen Ryan pointed out two other exchanges where Ferguson might have been a bit cheeky. In the first Sarah asked: “… are you saying that individual promises made by an Opposition Leader no longer matter?” Hockey replied: “Well, we can spend the whole conversation talking about the process of promises …” She quickly added: “That’s a yes or no question.”
In the second exchange, the Treasurer talked about tax adjustments and Ferguson asked: “Adjustments? Is that what we’re going to call them now?” Hockey replied: “Well, of any substance, so any tax changes if you like or whatever you’d like to call it. Ferguson: “New taxes?” Hockey: “But whatever you’d like to call it, there’s two. You know, there’s actually fewer than any of the previous Budgets from the previous government. So that’s a good sign.” Ferguson: “They’re still taxes. I don’t need to teach you, Treasurer, what a tax is. You know that a co-payment, a levy and a tax are all taxes by any other name. Am I correct?” Hockey: “Of course they are. Yes.”
There was mixed reaction to the review especially when The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) came up with this headline: “Sarah Ferguson interview with Joe Hockey ‘breached ABC bias guidelines': review” http://bit.ly/1BWxu7t ABC’s Media Watch had a comprehensive wrap of the pros and cons of the coverage. I thought Kerry O’Brien (photo above) and Alan Sunderland’s articles were two of the best on the positive side, and one of the shortest and sweetest was Laurie Oakes’ tweet: “Bottom line in my view — criticism of Ferguson interview in review just silly.”
On the negative side, it was hard to go past Herald Sun columnist and Network Ten presenter Andrew Bolt’s criticism. In his Herald Sun column he cited four examples out of 76 from Ryan’s review: the opening question of the Hockey interview; Lateline host Emma Alberici, asking a Coalition MP: “Do you think voters are really stupid and can’t recognise a lie when they see one?”; Tasmania’s 7.30 edition for giving the microphone to “a parade of Leftist critics;” and ABC’s The Drum for “stacking its panel with two pro-Labor panellists against one lone conservative.” http://bit.ly/1vtXnJE And he continued the attack on The Bolt Report on Ten in which he described Ferguson’s interview as “contemptuous,” and said there were “only four examples of ABC bias in a week.” He then asked Sydney Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine: “Ryan wasn’t really looking very hard, was she?” Devine replied: “No, and look, so what if she did because all these so-called inquiries and bias audits and so on are just laughable from the ABC. They are a fig leaf to appease conservatives or rural viewers who are incensed by the continual dripping Green Left, inner-city bias that comes out of every pore of the ABC, with a few honourable exceptions.” http://bit.ly/1A1MJoM
In my experience, getting an Australian politician to answer questions without resorting to cliches and “staying on message” and actually making news in a 12-minute interview is extremely difficult. It takes a lot of research and the ability to follow up answers. Sarah Ferguson did that in her interview, and all the good reporters and political editors I’ve worked with, like Laurie Oakes, Kerry O’Brien, Jana Wendt, Ellen Fanning, Paul Lyneham, Graham Davis, David Speers, Janine Perrett, Helen Dalley, Hugh Riminton and Paul Bongiorno, to name a few, have also done their homework.
Quentin Dempster, the former ABC presenter and interviewer, ended his column in the SMH: “While debate rages, please have some sympathy for the interviewer. How would you go if you had just eight to 10 minutes with a politician as slippery as we breed them in Australia? With very great respect.” http://bit.ly/1Eqijkr
But the last word should go to Clive James, who reviewed the resignation speech of Richard Nixon, in his Observer column on August 11, 1974: “Nixon has come a long way as a talking head, and never did a smoother gig than his last as President. ‘I have always preferred to carry through to the finish, whatever the personal agony involved.’ He meant that he had always preferred to cling on to power, whatever the agony involved for other people – but at least the lie was told in ringing tones . . . Semantically, the whole speech was rubbish. As a performance though, it merited what respect the viewer could summon.”

Colleen McCullough: Thanks for the Memories

Colleen McCullough was a great storyteller and a great lady. I discovered that when I first met her on Norfolk Island in 1993, producing a story for the Nine Network’s Sunday Program, with reporter Max Cullen.
I was looking forward to the trip after getting a call from a Random House publicist, Alan Davidson, asking if we wanted to do a profile of the famous author to help promote the third book of her seven-part Masters of Rome series, Fortune’s Favourites. Her Roman novels had Julius Caesar at their heart, and the history of the Roman Republic as their backbone.
McCullough built up a virtual library on the Republic, hiring researchers to help her gather the massive volumes of historical material used in the novels.
She loved research from her days as a neurophysiologist at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children in London, and as a neurophysiological research assistant at the Yale School of Medicine in the US so it was important for me to reciprocate before flying into Norfolk Island with the crew.
I talked to Warren McStoker, a legendary producer at Nine’s Sixty Minutes, who had done a story on Colleen and became a friend. He advised me to do as much reconnaissance as possible: Colleen does not suffer fools gladly. Another friend of the author, Bernie Leo, then the chief sub-editor of the Australian Financial Review, gave me two valuable bits of information: she and her husband Ric Robinson loved to play scrabble (Bernie used to join in the game on visits); and she liked Madura Tea, cultivated in the Tweed Valley in northern New South Wales and virtually impossible to get on Norfolk Island.
After picking up a large package of Madura, I got the folder from the ACP Library (the internet was still in its infancy), photocopied all the relevant articles about her, and read as many of her books as I could in the days before the shoot – Tim, The Thorn Birds, An Indecent Obsession, The Ladies of Missalonghi, and a bit of the 945-page The Grass Crown, the second of the Roman novels, with a 92-page glossary. Max read a few as well, and we perused as much of the 804-page Fortune’s Favourites as we could. (I can’t remember how much!)
Despite that, we were well prepared, I thought. As my usual Sunday reporter that year, the late Paul Lockyer, often said: “Time spent on recce (reconnaissance) is time well spent.” Alas, don’t miss the obvious. For television stories, you try to shoot a lot of vision of the main talent to give the editor overlay for the interviews, narrative and thought track (that’s when the person being profiled looks out over the sea, or garden, or the landscape and his or her voice runs underneath).
I sat down with Colleen and Max and the cameraman, Jim Chrystal, and the sound recordist, Nick Nezval, to talk about the shoot, and she had a lot of questions. After all, she had been a successful and world famous author since the US paperback rights for The Thorn Birds went for $1.9 million in 1977. She knew a lot about television interviews. I did my best to answer them all, but I felt I wasn’t exactly scoring goals. Where was Warren McStoker when you needed him?
I pressed on and said: “Could we get started with a walk through your wonderful garden?” It was beautiful, with a rolling hill, and quite expansive. And that was my first mistake. As Max and Colleen wandered lonely as a cloud (with apologies to Wordsworth) before coming to a host of Norfolk pines and palm trees, I could tell she was getting a bit tired, but we needed that vision. What I didn’t consider was that Colleen had recently been diagnosed with diabetes and her feet were hurting. I didn’t learn this until her personal assistant mentioned it the next morning. No more walkies for Colleen McCullough!
But I apologised, and she took it well. The Madura Tea and the mention of Warren McStoker and Bernie Leo helped our cause. And she and Ric played Scrabble for our camera on their magnificent marble table. It is a game they took seriously, and she claimed on Seven’s Sunday Night program a few years ago he always beat her. Here’s the exchange, beginning with reporter Rahni Sadler’s voiceover: “They’re deeply in love and the best of friends except when they play Scrabble. To love, honour, obey and let him win at Scrabble.” Colleen McCullough: “I don’t let him win.” Rahni Sadler: “He beats you fair and square.” Colleen McCullough: “He just wallops me.”
As you’ll be able to see in the edited video accompanying this post, Colleen had a large and lovely library with a lot of reference books and novels. She told Max: “I’m not a great reader of novels, but I like to have them.” She shared her love of libraries, talking about the stacks of books at Yale University, while I waxed lyrical about the libraries at Villanova and New York Universities, and, of course, Sydney University.
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Looking back at the Sunday story broadcast in October 1993, I had a poignant moment, when arts journalist Andrea Stretton (That’s a picture of her on the first frame of the video below. She appears later), who presented a book show for SBS at the time, gave her assessment of Colleen McCullough’s literary talent. Andrea died aged 55 in 2007, and I had forgotten she had appeared in the story. She was a friend, a terrific journalist and a lovely lady. She said Colleen “will be remembered as someone who did an enormous amount for Australian popular fiction and I mean in the sense in really contributing something to the genre, and definitely for The Thorn Birds … I think The Thorn Birds is a bit of an icon in Australian writing.”
While some critics criticised the book, which won her many readers and a lot of money, for using too many exclamation points!, Colleen was never bothered by negative reviews. The Philadelphia Inquirer described her as “a woman supremely unafflicted by self-doubt,” in a 1996 profile, mentioned in The New York Times obituary. That Times article quoted her response to the critics from a 2007 Australian television interview: “I think in their heart of hearts all these people know that I’m more secure than they are, more confident than they are and smarter than they are.” http://nyti.ms/16ivsAk The Times obituary writer goes on to say: “In her nearly four decades in the limelight, it was one of her few printable replies on the subject.”
When Max Cullen asked Colleen how she replied to her critics, she said: “I don’t. Like Liberace I cry all the way to the bank.” And she broke out in that glorious laugh of hers.
She liked the Thorn Birds book, of course, but not the mini-series, one of the most watched television shows of all time. She told People magazine in 2000: “I hated it. It was instant vomit.” At one point in the interview, she told Max that Tim (her first novel) was made into “a very nice film,” but as for The Thorn Birds series: “I don’t want to talk about it. I want to heave.” It usually prompted those stomach-churning synonyms.
But Colleen McCullough had only kind words about fellow novelist, the Nobel Prize-winning Patrick White: “I love Patrick White. And I tell you, the death in the garden in The Tree of Man. If I could write a page or two like that, I’d be happy. I never will.” So there is a humble Colleen McCullough.
By the second day, Colleen McCullough was friendly and accommodating, and she gave a great sit-down interview to Max, explaining, among other things, why she loved touring and “flogging the book.” She added: “I like to talk and you’re my victim. You have to sit there and listen.”
She wrote the Roman novels because “it was a fascinating era. The thing I love about that era is how juicy it was. It was great stuff. All the marvellous little details that people think I made up probably are historic.” At which point Max added a spontaneous line: “Rome wasn’t written in a day.” Colleen laughed heartily and replied: “Rome can never be written in a day. Even Cicero would have trouble.”
Just before we left, Colleen signed some of her books for my mother, who lived in Philadelphia and was a big fan of her work. My mother passed away a few years later, but she was so excited when I gave her the signed copies after the shoot. And despite my getting Colleen to work like a Roman pleb, a forgiving author could not have been more hospitable. She then signed a copy of Fortune’s Favourites for my wife and me, “with many thanks.” No, Colleen, you deserve all the thanks … and kudos.
I’ll leave the last words to her former publicist, Alan Davidson, and Carolyn Reidy, the President & CEO of Simon & Schuster, Colleen’s long-time US publisher. Alan, who arranged the profile for Sunday, posted this on his Facebook page: “Vale Colleen McCullough. We toured together and I’ve heard your fabulous jokes followed by that raucous laugh and seen you bring the passengers in an aeroplane to life. You will be missed. Love Davo.”
And Carolyn Reidy posted this on the author’s Facebook page: “Colleen McCullough was a born storyteller of limitless versatility. Since bursting on the scene with her unforgettable novel “The Thorn Birds,” Colleen has captivated millions with stories that can take us anywhere from Ancient Rome to Australia of bygone years to mysteries from America’s recent past, all told with her characteristic historical accuracy and attention to detail, and more importantly, her wisdom and perception about the ways of the human heart and mind. It has been a privilege to publish her, and a joy to know her these many years.”
And for the shortened 12-minute video version of the Colleen McCullough story, please click below. My thanks to Channel Nine for allowing me to post this on my blog, to Richard at TCN Archives for all his help, to Mike Connerty, who edited the original Sunday story with his usual creative genius and to Steve McQueen, who cut down the story with his usual professional expertise. Photo at the top by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images; Photo of Colleen with Thorn Birds book News Corp Australia.