Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 15, 2018

Skin in the Game, by Sonya Voumard #BookReview

I really admired Sonya Voumard’s previous book The Media and the Massacre (longlisted for the Stella Prize, see my review) but I was a bit disappointed by Skin in the Game.  It’s more of a memoir of her life as a journalist than an exploration of the ethics of journalism, which is what I was hoping it would be.

However, Part II – The Interview was just what I wanted.  She writes about her own experience of being interviewed by Jennifer Byrne as a teenager, for an article called ‘What it means to be 13’ in 1975 – and about the brief flurry of fame afterwards and the responses which ranged from supportive to abusive.  (No social media in those days, the phone apparently rang all day because young Sonya had expressed her opinions forthrightly on a range of issues).  I’m not sure if it’s that article that I remember or if it’s others of its type since then, but I’ve wondered sometimes about the kids who get featured, as Sonya was, in a cameo role in shocking Melbourne readers.  Voumard says she survived pretty much unscathed but I wonder if other kids do when they are unscrupulously manipulated into saying things that cause a ruckus afterwards.

Voumard then explores in some detail, an interview with Helen Garner that she did for a student assignment on condition that it was not for publication and it was not to be tape-recorded.  Confident that she’d done a good job, she sent a copy to Garner and submitted the assignment – but came down to earth when she received Garner’s critical response.  There were inaccuracies and distortions of tone, and in an exchange of letters which Voumard thought then were patronising and humiliating Garner admitted that she had talked about things that should have been kept private, and she also realised, when she saw how she had been perceived, that the age gap between them had led to assumptions on her part that Voumard knew certain things that she actually did not.   Voumard, reflecting on this now, can see where she went wrong but at the time she was offended.

Well, you can see and hear this same phenomenon happening any day of the week on the ABC.  Time and again The Spouse and I shake our heads in dismay when young journalists (young compared to us, that is!) skate over issues they know nothing about because they haven’t researched to know what we know, from having lived through it.  These journos, like the young Sonya, don’t know that they don’t know. (And presumably there are no experienced editors guiding them to do any better.)

Older and wiser now, Voumard describes what Garner was feeling as ‘interviewee’s remorse’…

The disparity between the way Garner and I had each seen the interview shocked me.  It formed the seed of what was to become my lifelong fascination with the psychological dynamics between writers and their subjects.  (p.64)

Citing Janet Malcolm‘s The Journalist and the Murderer as the first work to articulate a long-felt dynamic, Voumard explains the concept of a writer’s treachery… it has to do with the inherent imbalance of power between journalist and subject.  One knows the rules of the game, and the other one doesn’t.  Voumard thinks that Malcolm is the perfect muse when deconstructing true storytelling and writers’ ethical responsibilities to their interview subjects.  Here’s how Malcolm describes an interview subject who knew how to conduct herself with a journalist:

She understood the nature of the transaction – that it was a transaction – and had carefully worked out for herself exactly how she had to give in order to receive the benefit of the interview.  In most interviews, both subject and interviewer give more than is necessary.  They are always being seduced and distracted by the encounter’s outward resemblance to an ordinary friendly meeting. The meal that is often thrown around it like a cloth, to soften the edges; the habits of chat and banter; the conversational reflexes, whereby questions are obediently answered and silences too quickly filled – all these inexorably pull the interlocutors away from their respective desires and goals. (citing Janet Malcolm, from The Silent Woman, p.66)

I was very interested in this part of the book where Voumard explores the idea of the collaborative interview as one way of mitigating the power imbalance between writer and subject, and recommends the Paris Review as a publication which uses the practice.  It’s not common in Australia, but there are examples of writers consciously operating to what may be regarded as a stricter ethical standard than that seemingly required by the journalists’ code of ethics. Reflecting on her own shortcomings, Voumard admits to an interview with Dawn Fraser when she was a NSW MP that she thinks was accurate and balanced.  But aspects of it may still have been personally hurtful to Fraser.

This kind of honesty is refreshing and it’s quite interesting to read the background to some of the more memorable interviews we’ve seen in the Australian press.  Gideon Haigh is quoted in response to his experience of interviewee remorse, and there’s an account of an interview with Helen Garner many years after the original encounter as well.

I wasn’t very interested in much of the rest of it, which consisted of vignettes from her childhood and her career.  That honesty means that some of it isn’t very edifying, (especially the six pages about smoking).  But the book was definitely worth reading for the way that Part II adds to her exploration of journalistic integrity in The Media and the Massacre. 

The book has been widely reviewed, but of those that are not paywalled, the best of them are at The Book Muse and BookLoverBookReviews.

Update 16/5/18 See Kim’s review of The Journalist and the Murderer at Reading Matters.

Author: Sonya Voumard
Title: Skin in the Game, The Pleasure and Pain of Telling True Stories
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2018
ISBN: 9780995409842
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond: Skin in the Game: The pleasure and pain of telling true stories


Responses

  1. Thanks for linking my review in! Much appreciated!

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  2. Have you ever read The Journalist and The Murderer, Lisa? In my review of that book I talk about “interviewers remorse” (an excellent term, by the way). It was something I experienced a lot. As an editor I used to deal with complaints by readers and interviewees. The one that sticks in my mind was a woman complaining that my news editor had misquoted her. The news editor had recorded the interview so we went back through the tapes and discovered he hadn’t misquoted her at all. When I put this to her, she said surely we could have tidied up what she said to make her sound better!!!??

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, I haven’t read the Malcolm book, and (strangely) I hadn’t read your review either because I haven’t commented on it, which I surely would have.
      It’s a good point you make, about how people should clam up but often don’t. I have seen this happen in real life… a lawyer – who knew more about the rules of sub judice than I ever will – just about told the entire life story of a presumed arson culprit to a delighted journalist, and nothing I could say to either of them i.e. that she would never be allowed to use any of it till proceedings in the family court were over, made the slightest scrap of difference!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Well, it’s a really old review… but one of my all time favourite books.
        Re: the lawyer running off at the mouth, presumably the journalist’s editor knew media law so this one didn’t go to press and no contempt of court proceedings were issued!

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        • Yes, I knew that and I was surprised that a crime circuit reporter didn’t, (because you’d think that’d be the first thing they learn), but whatever, no harm was done, thanks to the editor as you say!

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  3. I mean “interviewee’s remorse” of course 🙄

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  4. I think the greatest power imbalance is when reporters “chat” to people in distress and then report the conversation as an interview. Lots of people don’t know when to stop talking and reporters take advantage of them.Of course the opposite case is reporters rolling over for the powerful and reporting their press releases word for word.

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  5. I hadn’t seen this book before but I thought Media and the Massacre was good. Interesting that this one was not quite what you expected because I had the same experience with Media and the Massacre – I was expecting something focused on Port Arthur but from memory it was mostly about a court battle over elements of a story??

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    • It had to do with the way journalists reported the massacre, and also issues to do with a book deal with the gunman’s mother …

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      • That’s right. I liked the first half more than the stuff about the book deal.

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  6. The whole fascinating discussion puts me in mind of the TV show Vox Pop on SBS – street interviews that left me aghast at the things people were prepared to say to a reporter with a mic in hand. Or rather, ill-prepared. There would have been some interviewee remorse after some of those.

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    • Ah, yes, I never thought of that. People jump at the chance of a moment of fame, don’t they?

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  7. Such a complex business – and there’s been some interesting discussion recently here, hasn’t there, about journalists’ interviews with that grieving father in Western Australia. There’s no easy answer to this is there, but I love seeing journalists discuss these issues.

    My sense is that journalists (like most young professionals these days) are not getting the training, guidance and/or mentoring that they did once – nor are most journalists being given the time to do the necessary research. Sad for them and sad for us.

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    • Oh, yes, I have avoided those interviews with the father… I’m not surprised by the tabloids, but it did surprise me that the ABC ran it.

      Though really, I don’t know why I should be surprised. #SoundingLikeAStuckRecord: the ABC is not what it was…

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      • No, but The Drum did do a good discussion of this particular issue, and then today discussed the focus on the perpetrator as a “good bloke” in reporting with very little about the female victims.

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        • Oh dear. Why don’t they let the dust settle and give themselves time to think about what they’re doing…

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          • Do you mean the journalists or The Drum? The latter used the reporting on this to discuss the wider issue of the language of reporting. As for letting the dust settle, I guess because it’s news and news by definition is now? The question is how they report the news I think?

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            • Well, I mean The Drum, which is generally a good program. It’s not knee-jerk reporting and pseudo-analysis which is what we get now on 7.30, it’s usually thoughtful analysis by intelligent people, often with alternative but complementary PoVs.
              I think, since the massacre had been done to death in news programs, that they could have waited a week or so and then looked at the overall coverage of it and other murder-suicides from a wider perspective. I’ll have to try and remember to have a look at Media Watch to see what he says about it.

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              • I think they did it OK – I think you are going to get more engagement with the wider issue while it’s fresh in people’s minds. But it would be good to see them do more on it later I agree.

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