Dear Diary: Why hast thou forsaken me?

Sorry about the headline, but I wanted to get your attention. It comes from Psalm 22.1: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The psalm Christ recited on the cross.
My cross is much less of a burden. It’s just trying to decide if it’s worth going through more than 30 years of diaries to write a memoir on my career in television. Every time I turn to the literary pages of The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Los Angeles Times, another memoir pops up. Among the most recent contributors are journalists or politicians: Mike Willesee, Peter Greste, Hugh Riminton, Mark Colvin, John Simpson, James Jeffrey, Janelle Wells, Sarah Ferguson, Chris Patten, Joe Biden to name a few.
Would my meagre memoir attract the attention of publishers who have already rejected my novel about television? My wife has always said my factual journalism is better than my fiction. Last year I wrote a post about a diary on the death of Princess Diana and posed a question to readers of this blog: “Would you prefer a novel or a memoir?” The majority said memoir (my wife is always right), but do I make it an autobiography or a diary a la David Sedaris, whose latest bestseller is Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002? It’s only Volume One so there’s a lot more to come. Sedaris, who was in Australia recently, writes in his author’s note: “If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you’re interested in … you keep the diary you feel you should be keeping … the point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person.”
“To thine own self be true,” as Shakespeare put it. Well, I’m making my final pitch to readers. When I moved from newspapers to television in 1983, urged on by a friend and journalistic colleague, Matt White, to keep writing, I chose a diary as my guardian wordsmith. Here’s an excerpt of the diary (photo above) which began nearly 35 years ago, when I became the foreign editor of the Seven Network in Sydney:
September 12, 1983
“Nervous to begin with, but the welcome by Cliff Neville (deputy news director) and Vincent Smith (news director) combined with the quiet professionalism of Paul Dougherty (producer) quickly got me over any nerves (all three are deceased). Learned about all the feeds and usual problems associated with Monday mornings. Paul makes the point: “Ninety-nine per cent of the time the words take care of the story.” It’s nice to know in an industry focusing on pictures, words still count. Friendly atmosphere at the news conference: I’m the “new boy.” The worst mistake you can make in an intro is to repeat what is said on tape: it makes the newsreader looks stupid. Ten to 20 seconds is best length for a normal intro. Most important news of the day appears to be NBC at 8.30am, when the LA bureau sends the feed. A quiet day and I’m home early (6.20pm).”
September 13, 1983
“Today is the day of Andrew Fowler’s (see photo below) interview with David Hackworth. (Andrew is a mate of mine from my days on The Australian, and the author of a new book on surveillance: Shooting the Messenger: Criminalising Journalism, and the late Colonel David Hackworth was the most decorated American soldier in the Vietnam War.) It runs 21 minutes and Andrew has put a lot of time and effort into it. Although he continues to battle for what he believes in, Andrew seems a lot happier and more fulfilled than at News Ltd. It’s a disease which I hope is catching. It’s a superb interview and there is instant reaction on the phones near the 11AM desk, including a call from a wife whose husband is a “war-mongering colonel in the Australian army.” I call Hackworth and he tells me he knows my friend Bill Dolon, a Villanova graduate and a paratrooper in the 101st US Army during the Vietnam war, and adds “the difference between a fairy tale and a war story. A fairy tale begins: ‘once upon a time,’ and a war story begins:’No shit, man. This really happened’.” I watch Paul Dougherty cut a grass car story — a funny from NBC — and learn what a jump cut is, a jump in the footage that’s noticeable: “Use cutaways to avoid jump cuts.” Other advice: write down the beginning of the news script and the end words, aka the outcue. I learned a great deal from Paul. Vincent Smith grabbed me before the news and gave me this brief: “A foreign budget for each one of the programs and I want new ideas and plenty of them.” Gordon Westcott, producer of 11AM, said the same thing, asking for up and coming authors for interviews. That night I attended the Australian/Vogel Award at Len Evans restaurant in the city and told the literati and the editor of The Australian, Les Hollings, and managing editor, Arnold Earnshaw, how happy I was.”

September 14, 1983
“Wednesday began with a hangover and Andrew and Paul filling me in on Vincent’s unhappiness with G. Westcott. It seems everybody but Vincent likes Gordy’s work, so it must be a personality problem (Gordon is alive and well and one of the best producers I worked with. The last time I saw him was at SBS in 2013 when he was the Weekend Chief of Staff. He’s still very helpful). Andrew shows me Vincent’s memo, saying the Viet execution scene was gratuitous and ruined an otherwise excellent report. Paul Lyneham rang from London to say congrats and fill me in on what was happening. It’s imperative to keep him happy. He wants Beirut to be his bailiwick, and I agree. He mentions memos going astray and I must keep an eye on that.”
September 15, 1983
“Today was the day I gave up my newspaper notebook for a legal pad and cut my first story. It was Lyneham’s story on Vice-Admiral David Leach shopping for carriers in Liverpool. Despite all warnings, the intro didn’t reach me until I had already written one for 11AM. There were no problems cutting it for 11AM, it was much harder for 6.30, a tighter program. I gave my first suggestions at conference today and people actually listened and followed up. Andrew Fowler, who has been agonising over whether to reply to Vincent’s memo, finally did so. He said memos go on your record — I must remember that — and he was very helpful. I call CNN and learn what a rundown is all about. It’s a good guide when a big story is running or an advisory on an exceptional press conference is coming. Late in the day and out of the blue, Reporter Laurie Brennan asks me over a can of Carlton Light: ‘Why does everybody like you so much? Is it because you’re likeable or because you’re such a good writer?’ A good question.” PS Thirty-five years later, I still can’t answer it.
Well, that’s a sample. Only about 10,000 more entries to look at and edit. What say you? As I mentioned in my post on Princess Diana last year, the late journalist and author and mate, Ian Moffit, used to say: “We are all living on borrowed time.”

9 thoughts on “Dear Diary: Why hast thou forsaken me?

  1. Keep it coming Tommy. It’s stuff the younger journo’s need to read as all your knowledge is invaluable. Perhaps a little of your talent will rub off on them for their future in the game.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Moshe. The younger journos have plenty of talent and technology. I’m not sure they need any of my dwindling talent to rub off on them, but I would hope a bit of enthusiasm might help. Cheers, Tom

  2. Keep it coming Tommy. It’s stuff the younger journo’s need to read as all your knowledge is invaluable. Perhaps a little of your talent will rub off on them for their future in the game.

  3. What? You want a gee-up? You didn’t need elephant juice thirty years ago. Settle for geritol and pick up your bloody pen.

  4. the excerpt gave me the feeling that you were suffering something at the time which if so you might want to flesh out

    • Thanks, Tony. Great to hear from you. I think I was nervous, coming to television after nearly ten years in newspapers. But I had terrific mentors in journos like Cliff and Vincent, who had also come from newspapers. You may have something there. I will see what I had to say in upcoming entries (I haven’t looked at them for a while!). Cheers, Tom

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