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A Bonza Margo Kingston
22 / 08 / 2013
In this ‘election special’ edition of Sheilas, Editor Sarah Capper speaks with journalist and author Margo Kingston about why after a seven year hiatus, she returned to online journalism during this election year. She’s our ‘August Bonza Sheila’ – thanks Margo!
SC: I wanted to ask you about studying and working as a lawyer and then becoming a journalist. And what led you between the two?
MK: Well I had a nervous breakdown.
SC: Can I publish that?
MK: Sure! I had a nervous breakdown at age 26, which in retrospect, was because I was in denial about my sexuality. And my sister Gay [Alcorn], who was already a journalist at the Courier-Mail, suggested I write a couple of travel articles. So I did – a couple of articles about India.
And then I wrote a letter to the Courier-Mail asking for a cadetship, and I was very lucky they were moving away from taking school leavers to taking graduates.
SC: You were in the Canberra Press Gallery from the late 80s until 2001 – for fifteen years – was it with the Age, the Canberra Times and the Sydney Morning Herald?
MK: In the Gallery I came down for the Sydney Morning Herald, then I went back to Sydney to work for Jana Wendt at A Current Affair, then I came back [to Canberra] to the Age, and then went to the Canberra Times when Michelle Grattan became Editor, and then back to the Sydney Morning Herald.
SC: I should ask what it was like working for Grattan as Editor, the first female editor of any major metropolitan daily newspaper (in 1993).
MK: Best editor I’ve ever worked with, by miles. She was very difficult to work for when she was Bureau Chief, but as Editor she had a point to prove, she was trying to make a mark, and she gave me enormous freedom and great backing in tight spots, particularly when i was pursuing [Former Keating Government Minister] Ros Kelly over sports rorts, which i did on my own really, for several months.
SC: It’s one of the big stories you broke –
MK: I’ll never forget it. Jim Middleton, when he was chief political correspondent for the ABC, came over to me and said, ‘Why pursue the story, Ros is a mate of Keating’s, so nothing will happen’.
And I was just completely outraged, because to me it was very clear. It was about giving sports grants on merit, and she gave all the grants to marginal seats, thereby denying it to people who really needed it, including people in safe seats who voted Labor.
I thought she should be accountable for it, and to me it didn’t matter whether she was mates with Keating or not – our job was about trying to get accountability for injustice, for bad government. Very few people in the Gallery agreed with me. They see it as a game in which they are privileged players.
SC: And increasingly so.
SC: About your time in Canberra. Fifteen years is a long time. I imagine it was a pretty adrenalin-fuelled environment. What sustained you – what kept you going?
MK: Well I was never into the political ins and outs, and the power struggles, or anything like that. I was into policy, and into accountability. I suppose the most fulfilling stories that I covered were Mabo, and Wik. And particularly in the Wik case, when the Howard Government was determined to trash Aboriginal land rights. I enjoyed just chasing down how they were doing it, why they were doing it – and it was very fulfilling, because not many people were doing that.
These were the glory days of Fairfax, particularly the Sydney Morning Herald, where we were a campaigning paper and we were prepared to give space to unpopular topics that we thought were worthy, and we followed them up. Even if there was a small story development, the paper would provide space for the story. Obviously times have changed.
Yes, I’ve had my fair share of scalps. Politicians did tend to say things to me that they shouldn’t really say. I think it was because I was so interested in policy.
SC: In 1998 you wrote ‘Off the Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip’ covering One Nation’s 1998 campaign, which won the Dobbie Award for best first book by a female author. There was a debate around the time about whether we should ignore Hanson and One Nation, or whether we needed to give it exposure. Why did you cover and focus a book on this story, why was it important to tell?
MK: It was important to me because my home town fell to One Nation in the 1998 Qld election, in the prelude to the 1998 Federal election.
It challenged all my beliefs and was very confronting, and it showed me that the Canberra bubble and really the elites in the inner cities acted on the basis of class, and I found that really awful. I found that half the problem with all the people saying she was racist, and then her people saying people like me were racist, was a miscommunication – there were two Australias happening in this instance and they weren’t communicating – the city-based commentary about her was misconceived.
So I found that incredibly confronting. But I wrote it to try and make sense of it, to put something out there that would be useful in understanding. It’s a first person documentary where I fully disclose all the various controversies in the campaign and try and put the reader on my shoulder as a left-leaning member of the cafe latte city set – take them on my journey to the freak-out revelations of the truth behind the mythology.
Of course that led to lots of downsides. For me I was accused of being in love with her, she accused me of destroying her campaign, the first publisher that agreed to do the book pulled out because they said I was unethical, feedback from booksellers said I had to change the title to make it clear that the book was anti-Hanson. It went on and on.
It’s hard to really comprehend the intensity of the politics around Pauline Hanson at that time, but I think the way I wrote the book was useful. It’s an enduring book, a lot of people still use it for research and I still get royalties from it.
SC: In 2000 you created Webdiary for the Sydney Morning Herald, which was Australia’s first mainstream political blog. Journalist Margaret Simons told me that if a history of online journalism in this country were written, you deserved a chapter in the book –
MK: Well I’ve got it! Yeah I’m Chapter One of Tim Dunlop’s book being launched on 26 August, called ‘The New Front Page’. I’m very grateful for that. As Tim said, in a way, I was almost a bit too far ahead of my time. Greg Jericho’s book didn’t mention me, for example.
Coming back seven years after retiring in 2005, I was shocked that what I was doing with Webdiary is still not being done in the mainstream media. There’s no doubt that it was the way forward, an approach that could have integrated online and the hardcopy paper.
Tim Dunlop interviewed the then-editor of smh.com who said that if they had realised that I was so far ahead of my time, they would have backed me – and Webdiary could have become our Huffington Post. It’s tragic that they didn’t have that foresight.
SC: Well you’re still going. But I just wanted to ask about the transition you had from being a very independent Canberra Press Gallery solo-writer journo, to moving into a space you then shared with readers – what it was like, opening up that space, communicating with readers on an online platform?
MK: Well I think what helped was that when I started it, I was chief of staff at the Sydney Morning Herald in Canberra. And so I just did it when I had time. I incorporated the online work into our pursuit of stories. So at the time we were pursuing [Howard Minister] Peter Reith’s Telecard affair, when he wrongfully gave his son his telecard and then refused to pay back $50,000. We were running hard on that, so I started to publish online our letters to the DPP, our questions to Peter Reith – when we did get answers, when we didn’t get answers, and I would write a running commentary as it unfolded. It was incredibly powerful.
Coming back after all this time away it is beyond me that the mainstream media is not using their online space to let readers into the process. I proved that if they do, readers will help. Readers will get involved, they will make their own inquiries, they’ll make calls, they’ll write letters, and you can actually have collaboration between reader and journalist to get the truth. And all that was laid out in Webdiary, and in Not Happy, John, all those years ago.
We’re at the stage now where politicians know they can get away with saying nothing. There’s fewer journalists, and because of this 24 hour news cycle, what I’ve noticed is that the media swarms in on only one political story of the day, and everything else that happens doesn’t get a run. And the next day they swarm on the next story, and the story the day before is forgotten and not pursued, and that is just completely outrageous. What it means is if a politician can say nothing for a day, they’re off the hook.
SC: As you’ve mentioned, another project you collaborated with readers on was with your book Not Happy John! in 2004. When I googled ‘Not Happy John!’ there’s the book reference, but there’s also ‘Not Happy John!’ the campaign. It did turn into a movement – there were bumper stickers, there were sky-writers, there were events. Was this your intention with writing the book or were you surprised by the movement that Not Happy John became?
MK: [Laughs] I forgot about that – the sky-writer. It was nuts. Penguin suggested the car stickers as a way of promoting the book – but I had to go to work all day and come home at night and send people stickers! I suggested the website for readers to interact. It was meant to be a vehicle for selling more books, but that transformed when John Valder, (former President of the Liberal Party), fell out with John Howard over Guantanamo Bay and David Hicks, and the Iraq War. And he then funded a Not Happy John campaign in Howard’s seat of Bennelong which then got kicked along with the Greens endorsing Andrew Wilkie, the Iraq War whistle blower (and now Tasmanian Independent). And then I got drawn into various Not Happy John concerts and launches and sky-writers [laughs].
I was convinced that John Howard was systematically destroying our democratic freedoms and I remain convinced of that. I documented it over several years in Webdiary. As you can imagine, the prospect of the political ‘son’ of John Howard (Tony Abbott) resuming John Howard’s vision for Australia in the near future is pretty devastating.
SC: You went into retirement and then you’ve come back with the website No Fibs. What was the catalyst?
I was watching ABC News 24 on the last day of parliamentary sitting last year, and it was the end of a long week in which the Coalition had basically asked every single question to Julia Gillard about the AWU Affair. And at the end of that week she asked Abbott to detail his evidence, and he came up with an alleged letter she wrote to the Western Australia Corporate Affairs Commission, which he said was misleading. But he didn’t have the letter, and at the end he said it was a “question of character”.
I actually felt a buzz in my brain as if all my journalistic impulses were reconnecting. I went to my dormant Twitter account and did a tweet saying ‘Unlike Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott is a proven bad character of slush funds’ – which was related to all that work I had done on Abbott’s ‘Honest Politics Trust’ (a slush fund Abbott had set up while a Minister in the Howard Government, against Pauline Hanson).
All of a sudden I got all these followers even though I didn’t know what followers were and then I thought I wanted to restore the story of Abbott’s slush fund to the public record, since no one in the Gallery was doing it. Still, after all these years, he won’t disclose who donated to his slush fund.
So I wrote a piece about it and became completely and utterly enthralled by Twitter and this mechanism to communicate with people interested in politics. I guess I got seduced by Twitter. Then the relevant extracts [about Abbott’s slush fund] were published on New Matilda and I thought that would be it.
And then the [James] Ashby judgement [against Peter Slipper] was handed down weeks later and I was just blown away by the lack of follow up in the media. So that kept me going for another month.
And when I accepted that the journalist within would not let me walk away I got funding from Macquarie University for a citizen journalism research project and deferred my nursing studies for a year.
SC: Is social media the main thing that’s changed – since your retirement seven years ago?
MK: Well Twitter didn’t exist when I retired. But what I’ve found with Twitter, is that you don’t really need the mainstream media anymore, in a sense. If you’re collaborative and networked in your approach, you can get well read without having that mainstream back-up. Twitter is my new Webdiary.
I see my website (No Fibs) and my Twitter account as integrated, as grounded in each other. But I have to say, at this stage of the election campaign, Twitter has failed.
SC: That’s what I was about to ask you. There’s been discussion about big media outlets, most notably the Murdoch Press, firmly backing Team Abbott. Do you think social media and online journalism will ever be able to counter such blanket media bias?
MK: Well, we are in flux, there’s no doubt that Murdoch has become a propaganda outlet for the Coalition. I’ve never seen anything like it. I imagine it was probably like what he did in 1975 with Gough Whitlam, but the standards have dropped so much, union membership has dropped so much, and the industry has declined so much – there’s no question that Murdoch journalists would now go on strike, they just go along with it. It’s completely frightening and it has been extremely influential in my opinion of the rapid decline of Rudd’s popularity. It’s just a daily barrage of negativity against Labor and unbelievably positive for Tony Abbott – so the Opposition has escaped any scrutiny. Being the dominant print media group, Murdoch papers set the agenda for radio and tv and they have been an enormous influence.
Which is not to take away from the fact that Labor’s internal behaviour this term has been despicable and Kevin Rudd and his followers have come to power by blowing up the party itself. It’s been terrible, but to have this Murdoch agenda on top of it, I think makes it impossible.
SC: To take to a different level. And not necessarily politics. Nominate a woman who inspires you and why.
MK: Anne Sherry – because she’s found a way to blend her ideals with practical success.
Quentin Bryce – because she wraps a radical feminist heart in so much charm that everyone loves her anyway.
SC: If you had a dinner party and could invite any women from history who would they be?
Vita Sackville West
Violet Trufusis (I would have to ask both Vita and Violet)
And I have to say, I would like to have dinner with Julia Gillard. I had a little bit to do with her during my time in the Gallery. I’d just want to say sorry for what we did to her. To me she achieved a great deal under intolerable circumstances. She had three obstacles – Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and Rupert Murdoch – and against those three angry powerful men she had to negotiate policy across the spectrum – from conservative to radical left. To be able to keep that together under those circumstances and stresses and produce policies that I dearly hope will be lasting legacies – like Gonski and NDIS. I think she will shine in terms of history, but it’s a real shame that we didn’t deserve her, in my opinion.
SC: And look, if I had to answer the dinner party question, I’m sure you would be on my list.
MK: Aren’t you lovely.
SC: Well, yes. Margo Kingston, thank you, for coming back to us and writing in this election year – we are all the better for having voices like yours in the public realm.
Check out Margo’s website No Fibs here – and follow her on Twitter here.
– is an Australian author, journalist and commentator
– has authored two books, ‘Off the Rails, the Pauline Hanson Trip’ and Not Happy John!
– runs the new website, No Fibs
Photo credit Sarah Gross Fife