First published by Arena Magazine, December 1999
One of the most memorable features of the 1998 Federal election campaign was the appearance on nightly news bulletins of Margo Kingston, Sydney Morning Herald political reporter – her face exploding in anger, one finger pointing while the other hand thumped the closest table – at yet another One Nation press conference that had dissolved into confrontation and acrimony. Kingston, it seemed, had `lost it’ again.
The hostility between One Nation and the media reached its climax just a few days before polling, when detailed costings of One Nation policies failed to materialise despite the fledgling party’s long-standing promises. The angry media pack held a spontaneous sit-in and the usual friendly flesh-pressing of election campaigns became a more serious game of pushing, shoving and shouting.
Off the Rails, the Pauline Hanson Trip is Kingston’s attempt to explain how relationships deteriorated so badly that they ended in this stand-off. She writes of a campaign where all the established rules and roles were utterly ignored or completely confused – a campaign with none of the usual understandings between politicians and journalists that each has a job to do, and that their respective professional fates are, therefore, inextricably entwined.
It comes as a surprise, then, to read that the personal relationship between Kingston and Hanson was generally quite convivial, especially in the campaign’s early days. They have almost girly coffee chats; Hanson offers to teach Kingston the secrets of buying fish; and Kingston plays Hanson’s media liaison officer when newer journos arrive on the scene and Hanson is once again alone and unadvised. Hanson even asks Kingston to dinner at her house, sending her off the next morning dressed in a T-shirt from the Hanson wardrobe.
At first, Kingston despairs of this campaign-like-no-other-campaign with cancelled set-pieces, country town car chases, and an array of ‘crazy’, ‘loopy’ and `mad’ One Nation policies, such as the two per cent Easytax. She describes the press pack as variously ‘gobsmacked’, ‘stunned’ and ‘flabbergasted’, when not busy swapping witticisms about what they dubbed the ‘Please Explain Tour’.
There’s nothing much that’s new in all of this – One Nation’s disorganisation and poverty of ideas have been well and truly worked over by many a media hack. What is new about this book is the (mostly unintentional) insight it gives into the poverty and slipperiness of the media’s own ethics, and the self-serving justifications of journalists when they use every trick in their travel pack to `get the story’.
Kingston kicks off her book by portraying herself as the faithful reporter, just doing her duty to her readers (not to mention the greater social good): ‘Our readers needed the facts – her political style on the road, her rhetoric, and voter reaction’. Ironically, Hanson is the first person in Kingston’s book to point out that the media don’t just sit back and passively report what’s happening – they influence events and even make them happen. And often they get the story wrong.
Early on in the campaign Hanson gives ‘her journalists’ (as Kingston calls them) a tongue-lashing over the way their stories had portrayed voters as reluctant to talk to her during a day of door-knocking. Hanson tells the media that voters’ reluctance to talk had more to do with their suspicion of the media pack which had temporarily and intimidatingly camped on their front lawns. Kingston’s readers are left wondering whether such stories had more to do with wish-fulfillment on the part of journalists, than media reps gathering the facts which the readers so urgently needed.
In Off the Rails you have Hanson’s airplane circling so that the media can land first and get ‘the picture’, TV crews playing campaign directors with lighting and staging advice, and pollies and the media constantly lending each other their mobile phones. One moment photographers are setting up Princess Di-style pictures of Hanson, mini-skirt blowing in the wind, the next Hanson is stopping her car and helping Kingston to use a public phone so she can do a critical radio interview about the campaign.
In light of these hopelessly entwined relationships, Kingston’s faith in an ideal of objectivity in her stories and relationships – and her constant agonising over drawing clear-cut professional boundaries – seems hollow and simplistic. Well into the campaign she is almost in paroxysms of ethical knots over whether to give Hanson a newspaper article in which a One Nation candidate made outlandish statements about Aborigines. Her colleague, the Daily Telegraph’s Helen McCabe, tells her `If what you do means she makes another statement or changes her mind, that’s an intervention in the story’.
It’s said in a deadly serious tone that’s in no danger of having even a passing familiarity with the concept of irony – as if by this point the implosion of media, politics and entertainment hadn’t already taken off into another surreal stratosphere altogether.
What makes these moments even more bizarre is that between these bouts of ethical dilemmas, Kingston is almost boastful about how, say, she and her sister (Age reporter Gay Alcorn) set up a meeting between Jeff Kennett and Hanson. Kingston even sells the confrontation to Hanson, telling her that it’s in her interests to play on the `big bad Southerner thing’.
The shopping mall meeting was another memorable campaign moment, yet few news stories mentioned that it was a media-generated event. And Kingston blithely brushes off any introspective doubts by explaining that Alcorn – a rookie on the Hanson trail – felt she was at an unfair advantage compared to her competitors.
While Kingston agonises over whether she `is getting too close to Pauline’, she is happy to play all the usual games journalists play to get their story. `I couldn’t believe our luck,’ she says when Hanson – in what appears to be an off-guard moment – looks like she wants to have a heart-to-heart over a coffee. Then – all of a sudden – Kingston pops on her Ms Morals hat when a TV crew thrusts a mike in her face during another tete-a-tete. She sends the reporter packing and, in a `can you believe those immoral reporters?’ aside to readers, says, ‘I thought we were having a private conversation’.
Perhaps most telling of all is Kingston’s admission that she vetoed her sister’s natural journalistic urge to write a juicy story about her Hanson sleep-over. Kingston’s Lois Lane persona, as the protector of truth and the public’s right to know, completely disappears at this point, and her excuse for such sibling censorship sounds not a little immature – she did Alcorn a favour by giving her a lift in the Fairfax car, so Kingston gets to play censor. Kingston admits her up-close-and-personal behaviour might be `beyond the pale’, but she did it because, well, everyone else would: `I’d dare any journalist to turn down such an invitation from a mainstream leader’ (that competition thing again).
Kingston wants to have it all – the right to demand answers and put Hanson under scrutiny, and the right to deflect any scrutiny of the media’s (and her own) `institutional role’. She never ponders basic questions such as who gives the self-appointed media its power, and what are its limits.
Off the Rails is premised on Kingston’s notion that she is – or should be – an autonomous actor making a series of ethical decisions. But it’s a naive and egotistical notion. She gives scant thought to the institutional demands and limitations on journalists’ behaviours – which is all the more surprising given her readiness to pass the blame whenever she has to carry out some dodgy task for the story. Of course she and other journos have to run red lights and go on dangerous car chases – Hanson makes them do it. She is determined not to ask about Oldfield’s personal life, but when McCabe gets a scoop about his relationship with Hanson, it’s the sub-editors’ fault when the story gets the full front-page tabloid treatment. It’s the public’s need to know, the demanding editor, the crazy One Nation or those competitive colleagues who are to blame — anyone’s but Kingston’s fault when she is forced to behave against her better ethical judgement.
To be fair, Kingston does try to understand the complexities of her profession, and she’s aware of the gulf between the press pack and the average Australian. She realises that the slick set-piece campaigns of the ‘majors’ have reduced journalists to ‘theatre reviewers’ for a disinterested and disillusioned public, and she recognises journalists need to dispense with the press kit and get out and talk to the community. But it’s difficult to imagine this happening. For all their noisy breast-beating, Kingston and her mates just have too much fun exchanging arch remarks, being oh-so-clever and throwing Dorothy Dixers to the satirist Pauline Pantsdown (`Do you find Mr Oldfield sexy?’).
Everyone, it seems, agrees that there is plenty of confusion over the media’s role – as entertainer, satirist, reporter or even moraliser. But there are too few answers and all too much goobledeegook spouted on the subject, as the recent Australian Broadcasting Authority cash-for-comment inquiry amply proves. Only recently the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance – the journalists’ union and professional association -mailed members a glossy colour poster of the new journalists’ Code of Ethics, revised in February 1999. While the code is full of praiseworthy and excellent ideals you could hardly take issue with, it is completely out of kilter with workaday demands to fill a newspaper space or a TV spot – not to mention the competitive context (among both journalists and media outlets) that really is the ultimate behaviour-shaper. Most journalists would have to break one of the code’s rules – or its spirit – every day just to get through it. If they didn’t, they’d probably be out on their broken news-hound noses – they certainly wouldn’t be the first in line for promotion.
Returning to the problem of Kingston’s book, readers could do worse than seek out the author and journalist Janet Malcolm. Her book The Journalist and the Murderer begins with the sentence: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible.”
Yet Malcolm continues to practice this impossible profession. While she doesn’t really have any more answers than Kingston about the ‘proper’ way to get to the facts, she takes us on a fascinating and more self-aware journey on her way to them.