Journalism Ruehls for a day

Gonzo Meets the Press #29 October 20, 2011

An eloquent Malcolm Turnbull launched a book of wonderful columns by the late Peter
Ruehl at the American Club in Sydney this week. But on the way back home, Tom
Krause discovered that all was not well in the media landscape.

It was a strange Wednesday in the world of Australian journalism.
On the same day that Channel Ten announced 6.30 with George Negus only had
seven days to live, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull launched a
compile of the late Peter Ruehl’s funny columns, and journalist Mike Carlton
complained about the sparse number of fellow MEAA members showing up to hear the
announcement of Walkley finalists around the country, particularly in Sydney.
“What is wrong with bloody journalists,” asked Carlton in Crikey.
Well, Mike, many don’t go to pubs anymore, and instead go to gyms, and making a
trip into the city on a Monday night is out of the question. Journalism ain’t
what it used to be, in terms of a night on the turps, and while I lament it as
well, a cry in the wilderness by Old Farts like us isn’t going to change things
– especially when journos’ jobs are disappearing.
There were, however, quite a few journalists at the launch at the prestigious American Club in Macquarie
Street to hear Malcolm Turnbull, a former journo, praise the work of Peter
Ruehl, in a book of columns selected by his widow, The
Australian’s national affairs correspondent, Jennifer Hewett, with some
help from fellow journalists, Pam Williams, Marian Wilkinson, Colleen Ryan and
Judith Hoare.

Among the scribes and editors attending
were a contingent from Fairfax and the Australian Financial Review, the
paper Ruehl wrote for most of the time in Australia, Greg Hywood, Michael
Stutchbury, Paul Bailey and Pam Williams; and from News Limited, the other group
he worked for, Nick Cater, Geoff Elliott, Paul Kelly and Piers Akerman. Others
included Janine Perrett from Sky News Business, Jim Middleton from the
ABC and a host of others, like Liberal luminaries, Julie Bishop and Andrew Robb,
and the legendary TV guru, Sam Chisholm, and his wife, Sue.
Louise Adler, chief executive of Melbourne University Publishing, kicked off proceedings for
the MUP book, Men Are Stupid, Women Are Crazy, by quoting from the
foreword by Jennifer Hewett: “Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood said that Pete had worked
for two great media groups in Australia but had developed into his own national
institution.”
The publisher introduced Malcolm Turnbull, saying he should
pursue “a life of letters instead of a political life,” and then he proved it.
The Shadow Minister used a Shakespearean analogy, saying Ruehl “was like a
modern equivalent to Shakespeare’s fool. The fool in Lear is able to
tell the king truths that would get anyone else their head cut off if they
weren’t so funny.” For example, Ruehl described the Royal Easter Show as “an
institution that was invented as an alternative to prison for parents who don’t
bond with their children enough. In 12 years of living in Australia, I’ve been
able to avoid these because they sound like an opportunity to spend money, turn
your family’s stomachs into hazardous waste dumps and make you come home with 14
bags of stuff made by Chinese peasants, who would, under no circumstances, go to
a Royal Easter Show.” I have to make another disclosure here. I whinged so much
about the show being crowded and expensive and a waste of time after attending
the first with my wife and our young daughters, I was never allowed to go to
another one. Ah, bliss.
Back to Malcolm: both he and Adler cited Pete Ruehl’s obvious love for his family and quoted the first sentence in the book:
“As you’re probably aware, I’m a family kind of guy, meaning of course that like
many of you other family guys out there, I’m basically a single guy who woke up
one day with a wife and the cast of Oliver in my bedroom.”
The book is divided into three parts: family, life and politics, which kind of summed up
Pete’s life, except for gin and tonics, sailing and baseball, to name a few. As
Malcolm Turnbull pointed out, there was “absolutely nothing sacred” for Ruehl,
the writer. He even penned a column about buying a bra for his wife. He mentions
his drinking buddy Otis from Annapolis – Turnbull quotes the line: “the friend
every man needs and every wife doesn’t” – who has this advice for men with two
girlfriends (already a mistake), if one is a size 34C and the other a 36D, never
mix them up, otherwise: “It’s a mistake you only make once.”
As a native-born American, Pete Ruehl was able to sit back and observe the eccentricities of
Australian life, for example, the beach culture, like that at Bronte, within
walking distance of the Ruehl home: “Bronte on Sunday is kind of like what you’d
get if you brought the ocean to the annual Our Lady of Lourdes parish picnic.”
I’ve been to a parish picnic in the States, and Pete Ruehl is spot on!
The politics section of the book is full of Pete’s prescience, and Turnbull turns
his eye to Ruehl’s “trophy PM.” The columnist compares John Howard to the first
wife, and Kevin Rudd as the trophy wife, or in this case, trophy PM. Rudd is new
and exciting, but there is one problem, as Ruehl puts it: “… a lot of trophy
wives have best friends, and Rudd’s new best friend is Julia Gillard.” And, as
Malcolm Turnbull points out, it shows how prescient Pete Ruehl was about
politics, since this column was written in May 2007, a little over three years
before the Gillard coup.
Turnbull, a romantic soul, also talked about Ruehl’s love for his wife, Jenni, and got a bit emotional. It says a lot about this
intelligent, articulate, witty man of letters that he can hold a journalistic
audience spell-bound on a Wednesday morning, but is seemingly unable to get into
a position to become prime minister. I think Pete would say (he’s emailed me
from celestial cyberspace) Malcolm Turnbull not only doesn’t want to become PM,
but is too smart to take such a thankless job!
Finally, Sky News versus the ABC over the Australia Network as revealed by Mark Day in the Media Section of
The Australian on Monday (disclosure: Mark is a good mate and a former
boss on The Australian in the mid-70s and I worked for Sky News
Australia for three years). I’m sure Sky News had the better tender process as
their CEO Angelos Frangopoulos worked long and hard on it, and for the second
tender hired former Rudd media adviser Annie O’Rourke. According to Day, the
decision was 4-0 (voted by representatives of Treasury, Finance, Foreign Affairs
and Communications Departments) for Sky in the second tender. Apparently, the
Sky win was not welcomed by some in the Gillard government, who want the ABC to
continue running the network and have some concerns about News Limited
involvement in Sky News. News Corp owns 39 per cent of BSkyB in Britain, which
owns a third of Sky News, and the other two thirds are owned equally by the
Seven and Nine Networks. The deal was clinched, again according to Day, based on
Sky’s plans to establish a specific news service for China – which would have
seen Beijing’s CCTV carried in Australia by Foxtel and Austar.
I am not going to get involved in the politics, just television. If the ABC misses out, it will
lose $22.3 million a year of taxpayer funds to run the network, meaning the
closure of overseas bureaus and the sacking of around 30 staff. And I have no
idea how Sky News will run the network. Sky News Australia has access to CBS,
ABC America, Nine and Seven reporters but mainly uses BSky correspondents for
their reports from overseas – some of the best in the world, including Alex
Crawford, Emma Hurd, Holly Williams, Alex Rossi, Dominic Waghorn, Amanda Walker,
Ian Woods (who was their first Australian correspondent and is now a special
roving news reporter, and he is special), Greg Milam and Robert Nisbet, to name
just a handful of the many journalists who cover the globe from Asia to America
to Australia and do some of the best reports and live crosses I have ever seen.
But they are busy reporting their region for BSky and while happy helping Sky
News in Australia, their priority is their audience in Europe. If Sky does get
the service, I suggest they establish their own overseas bureaus, hire some of
the staff from the ABC who are sacked, and spend money to make quality
television – it doesn’t always happen in Australia.  On the other hand, they can
just run BSky, CBS and ABC packages and send Celina Edmonds overseas on big
stories, as they’ve done in the past. And their Canberra and Melbourne bureaus
are excellent.
But the 15-year-old subscription channel should not be afraid
of spending money, especially for its news service for China – and if necessary,
help CCTV make better television for their audiences in Australia on Foxtel and
Austar. And if the ABC does lose the Australia Network, I would hope their
managing director Mark Scott would find a way to keep their bureaus and staff.
The last thing Australian television needs is any reduction in foreign news
coverage. But I fear that on this issue, I am again a voice crying in the
wilderness.
Tom Krause is the supervising producer of Ten’s Meet the Press; his views are his own, always have been.

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