Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 23, 2009

Melbourne Writers’ Festival #2

The Content MakersMy MWF sessions today all focussed on non-fiction.  I started off with Finding Meaning in the Media featuring Margaret Simons and Jeff Sparrow interviewing, and this time Simons seemed a good deal more optimistic than when I heard her talk last year about the future of journalism and the new media.  Her book, The Content Makers , explores the implications of the new media in the Australian context, especially the way in which the social purpose and place of newspapers in our society is diminishing.  She predicts that these forms of media will disappear in the next decade, and The Australian will probably be first to go.  (And no loss IMO if they’re going to alert terrorists about forthcoming police raids before they take place).   The commodification of news will continue online – so the question is what form of media will provide us with the information that democratic societies need to function?  When classified ads no longer subsidise newspapers, who is going to pay professional journalists for investigative journalism and reportage?

The Murdoch and Fairfax presses are about to ‘monetise’ some aspects of their online news.  What has been free online will soon only be available to subscribers, though the more popular stuff (I think she meant tabloid though she didn’t say so) will continue to be free because advertising will pay for it. In Australia, it’s the ABC which will continue to be a free online news provider; in the US and UK there’s no comparable independent broadcaster – a serious concern which needs to be resolved in a democratic society if there is to be any accountability for parliament, public services and policy. 

Simons seems to think that the public appetite for news has not diminished, but didn’t address the increasing dominance of tabloid news.  Even Radio National begins its weekend broadcasts with car accidents and a crime roundup, presumably when the second shift is let loose without adequate editorial control.  Simons says that Australia is under-reported because there are too few journalists.  I would agree, for most of the time we know very little about what our governments are up to, the classic example being the absence of any coverage of state budgets on TV or radio.  However, I think part of the problem is that the journalists we have aren’t doing serious work for our serious newspapers.  They are devoting more and more of their pages to dross, a problem most succinctly depicted by Ian McEwan:

The following day the editor presided over a subdued meeting with his senior staff. …

‘It’s time we ran more regular columns.  They’re cheap, and everyone else is doing them.  You know, we hire someone of low to medium intelligence, possibly female, to write about, well, nothing much.  You’ve seen the sort of thing.  Goes to a party and can’t remember someone’s name. Twelve hundred words.’

‘Sort of navel gazing,’ Jeremy Ball suggested.

‘Not quite.  Gazing is too intellectual.  More like navel chat.’

‘Can’t work her video recorder.  Is my bum too big?’ Lettice supplied helpfully.

‘That’s good. Keep ‘em coming.’ The editor wiggled and paddled his fingers in the air to draw out their ideas.

‘Er, buying a guinea pig.’

‘His hangover.’

‘Her first grey public hair.’

‘Always gets the supermarket trolley with the wobbly wheel.’

‘Excellent.  I like it.  Harvey? Grant?’

‘Um, always losing biros.  Wherever do they go?’

‘’Ehm, canna keep his tongue out of the wee hole in his tooth.’

‘Brilliant’, Frank said.  ‘Thank you everyone.  We’ll continue this tomorrow.’

 Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan, pp 129-130.

I just hope that monetisation turns out to be practical.  I’ll miss reading the paper in bed at the weekends, but just as we currently subscribe to magazines such as The Monthly etc, I’m willing to pay an annual subscription for quality online journalism about matters of importance.  But I still want to be able to access the occasional article at The Guardian online (especially book reviews!) so there needs to be an inexpensive and easy option to buy on an ad hoc basis.  A dollar per article on PayPal would be fine.  I wouldn’t be willing to mess around with credit cards or pay anything more than a small fee.   After all, at the moment we can buy a whole newspaper for $2.50, not just a single article.

The Foundation for Public Interest Journalism is an experimental model for funding and supporting journalism.  It’s due for launch in 2010, and as I understand it the foundation will provide an online meeting place for investigative journalists and the public.  Individuals will be able to suggest issues for investigation, and then there will be fund-raising to cover the journalist’s costs to do it.  It sounds as if it has good potential, but doesn’t solve the problem of funding covert investigations.  (They also need to put an RSS feed on their existing site, if we are not to forget all about it!)

My next session was Les Carlyon and Antony Beevor in conversation.  The MWF promo suggested that this would be a combative session, but it was very gentlemanly.  Unlike the Beevor session I attended last night, this session was more about the craft of writing, and it was clear that Beevor and Carlyon share a common view of history as narrative.  Beevor says it’s part of the British tradition since Gibbon whereas European historians are more likely to write a treatise with a ‘leading thought’ – which means, he says, that material gets selected to fit the argument.  He would rather write about the story and the people, and ‘let readers make up their own minds’.  Not having read any European histories I’m not in a position to argue, but my inclination is to be suspicious of any remark like this that damns the intellectual integrity of an entire continent’s historians. 

Beevor was also a bit dismissive of oral history, which, he said, was very popular in the 70s and 80s (so last century perhaps?) but is not enough on its own.  He wrote his history of D-Day using primary sources and contemporary accounts, because he thinks that interviews conducted with veterans now would necessarily be influenced by what those veterans have seen and read about D-Day.   I’d agree that using those contemporary accounts is what gives his work a freshness and authenticity, but I also think there’s a place for the voice of veterans looking back on the past and making sense of it in their maturity.  And I think most veterans would be quite capable of separating their own memories from what they’ve seen in the media since then…

I was very interested to hear Beevor use the term ‘kill fee’ when he was asked about a review he had done of the film Saving Private Ryan. He was predictably scornful about the film, and the publisher didn’t use what he wrote, commissioning someone else to write something more palatable.  But Beevor said he was paid a ‘kill fee’ – presumably a payment for the work he had done – was this also a payment to keep his opinion to himself?  Is this how publishers and film makers sanitise opinions they don’t like?  I’m a bit uneasy about it if that is what it means…

I had to beat the footy crowd home on the train, so my last session was Biography and Autobiography in the Festival Club.  Perhaps it was the spectacle of five male professors that raised the ire of some in the audience, for it wasn’t long before the conversation was hijacked into a discussion about women authors who hadn’t been dignified with a biography, followed by a lament about parallel importing and the dearth of AustLit in Australian universities.  It was time to go.

On the train home, I read more of Document Z by Andrew Croome.  This won the Vogel in 2008, it’s a fictionalisation of the Petrov Affair, and it’s very good.


  1. Interesting… I would argue that there are plenty of journalists in Australia, but not enough jobs for them. They’re pumping out graduates all the time, but god knows where they end up working.

    I left Oz in 1998 because I knew I wouldn’t be able to break out of rural newspapers into the city press unless I had some connections or some broader experience. I came to the UK, got a job in the business-to-business media and before I knew it I was climbing the career ladder and didn’t want to return to an uncertain job market in Oz. I’ve been here 11 years now — and don’t plan to go back.

    I laughed at the ‘kill fee’ — I had to pay my first one a few weeks back, but not because I didn’t agree with what had been written, but because it had been commissioned by a previous editor and when I looked at it, it no longer fitted in with my editorial policy and simply couldn’t be used. I thought it was a good term!


  2. That’s sad, kimbofo, that you felt you had to leave, Sounds like Jill Ker Conway going to the USA (not to mention all those intellectuals of ours who went to England), except that was a few decades ago, not one. I’m glad though that you’ve found a career. I have to say though that I just couldn’t live permanently in that climate (I think Lisa could though??) so I’m glad my career wasn’t so hard here!


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