A Bonza KA

23 / 12 / 2013

Kerry-Anne Walsh is our lucky last Bonza Sheila for 2013! She is a renowned journalist and has been on the Canberra media scene for many years. KA has worked for newspapers, radio and television, and was part of the Canberra Press Gallery for 25 years. In recent years, she has appeared as a commentator on discussion shows on ABC Insiders, plus Channel Ten and Sky News. In August this year, KA published her first book, The Stalking of Julia Gillard, available from Allen and Unwin publishers and major bookstores.

Sarah Capper (SC): You’re a revered journalist, having held senior positions across all traditional mediums (writing for newspapers and magazines, producing and appearing on radio and television) throughout your career. What inspired you to be a journalist?

Kerry-Anne Walsh (KA): I always loved writing, and had an avid curiosity about politics and current events. It was a natural fit.

SC: Nominate major events (one each) you covered in your time beside the following examples –
(1) a career highlight:

KA: I’ve been privileged to have a long career in journalism, so picking out one is tough. But being appointed the National Affairs correspondent of The Bulletin magazine in 1993 stands out. It was such a respected and influential magazine, and as a weekly it allowed the writer to stand back and spend more time analysing small slices of history. My appointment also had a melancholic link to my by then long-deceased father who, as a young dad to an expanding family of five children in the 1950s, entered and won a Bulletin short story competition. The prize money helped mum and dad move out of a small Sydney flat and into a house. Dad never fulfilled his dream of being a journalist or writing full-time, so I carried his torch.

(2) an event that got the journalistic heart racing:

KA: The event that got the human heart racing, and thus my journalistic pulse, was the Stuart Diver rescue after the Thredbo landslide in 1997. I was covering it for the Bulletin, and was there as they brought Diver to the surface. The excitement that rippled around the village from the time they heard signs of life to his rescue was electric. 

(3) an event that challenged you:

KA: Any story I did that queried an accepted wisdom or version of events was challenging; trying to push worthwhile stories not considered ‘sexy’ was also testing. For sheer impact (and terror), stories that sent politicians into apoplectic meltdown – a Bulletin cover story on Paul Keating, another for the Sun-Herald challenging Rudd’s version of his childhood spring to mind – are bracing experiences you carry with you!

SC: You were in the Canberra Press Gallery for 25 years, including being a columnist for Fairfax’s Sun-Herald. After leaving the Sun Herald in 2009, veteran gallery editor Rob Chalmers told Crikey, “Working on a Sunday newspaper in Canberra is never easy. Stories that you might pick up on Tuesday or Wednesday can be knocked off by the daily papers on Thursday or Friday. You are always fighting for exclusives which will hold until Sunday. Kerry-Anne is a topline political reporter and a reliable producer of good stories who has a great network of contacts.”  Any tips on how you maintained a regular Sunday political column – breaking stories, warding off other journos from the ‘scent’, ensuring a story remained relevant?

KA:  Looking behind the stories, or at angles the dailies didn’t have the time or the inclination to pursue, was a key. And having good politically-connected contacts outside Parliament House and the political classes is important, and under-rated – there’s a lot of inside knowledge and information swirling around outside the Canberra bubble.

SC: In your book, The Stalking of Julia Gillard,  you look at the media’s obsession with reporting poll results and quotes from anonymous sources – which seemed completely out of control when Gillard was Prime Minister, often overshadowing actual policy announcements. In a Drum column by Barrie Cassidy he called the media’s reliance on opinion polls (and particularly in relation to Julia Gillard) a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Do you think it’s possible to break this style of reporting and if so, how?

KA: I can’t see it happening any time soon. Newspapers use them as a marketing tool and to wield influence, they are easy story fodder, and politicians use them against each other (both within parties, and against their political opponents). It’s depressing.
SC: On gaining office, it was said that new PM Tony Abbott wanted to try and ‘slow’ the 24 hour news media – or at least differentiating himself from former PM Kevin Rudd who relentlessly fed the 24hr news cycle. Am curious with all your expertise in covering federal politics – can the cycle be slowed? (ie beyond problematic strategies like limiting asylum seeker boat arrivals to one weekly announcement?)

KA: It can be slowed, but it might come at considerable risk to Abbott.

SC: Your book The Stalking of Julia Gillard was into its third print run after just two weeks on the shelves. Apart from delighting Allen and Unwin, did the sales of the book surprise you?

KA: Yes, it did. But what surprised me more was the extraordinary public response. Apart from the strong sales, the huge number of emails, letters, and phone calls of support astounded me. There are many, many people who felt let down by the ALP and the political press, and who were outraged at the way Gillard was being treated.

SC: And I have to ask – Rachel Griffiths as Julia Gillard seems a terrific choice. Who should play Rudd? Or any of the other major players? Any thoughts?! (I personally nominate Richard Keddie’s niece Asher to play Tanya Plibersek 🙂 )

KA: The choice of Julia Gillard is inspired – beyond that, Richard Keddie and his team know what they’re doing. But I do like your idea of his niece Asher for Tanya Plibersek. Asher Keddie appearing anywhere, anytime in any movie would be fine by me!

SC: There’s been a bit of speculation as to how history will remember Julia Gillard. I think her ‘misogyny’ speech will go down as one of the great political speeches in our nation’s history, or certainly one of the most memorable. How do you think history will remember Julia Gillard?

KA: I know how history should remember her: as a courageous and classy woman who skilfully led a successful minority parliament, but whose triumphs and achievements were belittled and downplayed. Australian politics can be a very tough business, but in the thirty years I was immersed in it I didn’t see anything like the vicious treatment she received from within her own party and powerful sections of the media. It became a feeding frenzy.

SC: Writing can be an isolating experience. What keeps Kerry-Anne Walsh grounded?

KA: Definitely my son Kieran, my faithful hounds Les and Darcy, my belief that good should, even though it often doesn’t, triumph, and that we all have a duty to help make that good happen. 

SC: If you could have a dinner party with any women from history, who would they be?

KA: Definitely the current Queen. I’d like her honest thoughts about the expensive, anachronistic life she and her dozens of family members live on the taxpayers’ coin. The Irish nun Mary Ward, a great female educator, would give her a helpful hint or two about how she could help the masses if she sold a few castles or handful of Old Masters.  My great-aunt Kathleen O’Keefe would be a great dinner companion. A professional woman, a union activist and feminist, in the 1920s she made a nuisance of herself championing pay equality for women, and their rights in the public service (women at that time were forced to resign if they married a male public servant).To add a bit more feistiness, the Kelly gang’s mother Ellen would be fascinating, and Marilyn Monroe, who I suspect laughed at the way the world viewed her, could reveal her true self. I think she’d be a lot tougher, classier and knowing than her image.

SC: What next for KA?

KA: Wouldn’t we all love to know that – then we could try and avoid making mistakes! Maybe a book or two, and a move out of Canberra could be in the wind. I’m not sure. I’ll see where life takes me.

SC: Thank you, you are terrific Kerry-Anne, love your work.

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