Chariots of ire

 First published by The Australian, 1 January 2000

Music to Move the Stars

By Jane Hawking

Macmillan, 610pp, $45

STEPHEN Hawking – “the black hole man”, as Queen Elizabeth is said to have described him – has fascinated us for some years now. It’s not a little to do with the paradox of his paralysis-ravaged, wheelchair-bound body that nevertheless harbours a mind that can roam the universe and produce intellectual leaps that have taken him to audiences around the world. But few would have given much thought to the woman in his life who, in many ways, suffered a much greater psychical and mental imprisonment because of his condition.

His first wife, Jane Wilde, was just 21 when she married the 23-year-old Hawking as the first signs of his degenerating motor skills were showing in his drunken gait and his prognosis for longevity was pessimistic. It’s not hard – although perhaps a little unkind – to think that it was the image of a somewhat tragic, but eccentric and older Oxford student with the skewed bow-tie, skewed manners and foppish hair that captured the imagination of a romantic young girl. The young Jane is in awe of the young Hawking’s intellect, even as she’s taken aback by his combativeness. He reassures her that intellectual differences need not be taken personally. So it’s all the more striking when the irreconcilable differences between the rational scientist and the more spiritually bent Jane eventually play a key role in the breakdown of their marriage.

His family is an intellectually competitive and superior lot, according to her telling. It certainly does not welcome her into its collective bosom. “We never really liked you,” his mother even tells her at one point. You feel their coldness and rejection: “in their eyes I was just a drudge, the vehicle for producing their three grandchildren”. Affairs don’t really improve when the young couple moves to Cambridge, where wives (but not mistresses) are banished from college high tables and where condescension and academic pettiness abound. By Jane’s account, she is often treated with as much interest and sensitivity as an inanimate life support machine for her husband (which is what she often was).

But a number of kindly souls also come in and out of their increasingly internationally mobile lives. Curiously, Australian friends and colleagues pop up with the frequency of our soap stars in London’s West End. At times, the book reads like a catalogue of slights and favours.

While she glosses over the actual mechanics, the Hawkings produce three children (two boys and a girl). But the growing physical distance between them parallels their increasing emotional and mental distance. “It was becoming very difficult – unnatural, even – to feel desire for someone with the body of a Holocaust victim and the undeniable needs of an infant,” she so candidly writes. Her pleasure is eventually destroyed by the knowledge that in the act that creates life she could end his.

Somewhere along the way – in between cooking Hawking’s gluten-free diet, baking children’s birthday cakes and serving cucumber sandwiches to post-seminar soirees – she also manages to produce a PhD thesis. Her textual detours into her topic of love poetry in medieval Spain are engaging and stimulating, and you amaze at her ability to shift gears in between the sheer grunt and grind. But it’s probably also what kept her sane. Hanging on to her own academic life was certainly a necessary salve to her feelings of inferiority among the academic set, and probably crucial to sustaining some sort of equilibrium in her marriage.

Reflecting the chaos of her life, her book reads as part memoir, part political tract for the rights of the disabled, part travel literature, part PhD thesis. In a lesser writer, these sharp stylistic shifts would have been disorientating, if not pretentious, but mostly you are happy to go along on the ride. Some scenes, such as a private drawing room meeting with the Queen where Hawking plays carpet removalist with his wheelchair, are hilariously described.

The real hero of her book, however, is the gentle musician Jonathon Hellyer Jones, a local Cambridge man who comes into her family’s life just before the birth of her third child, and just after his wife died of leukemia. He’s the man she eventually marries.

When he enters the book, so does the flowery language: “We tentatively allowed the poor, sickly plant of our relationship to come out into the opening for an airing and to bloom.” In contrast to the increasingly selfish Hawking, Jones is constantly described as selfless and supportive in Jane’s struggle to keep her fractured family together. Their relationship (which her husband apparently tacitly approved of) is also the catalyst for her re-entry into the church – yet another barrier in the marital relationship. Hawking had no time and no mind for such pursuits.

While her love for Jones grew, so did her disillusionment with Hawking and the round of nurses she eventually persuades him to accept. After steadfastly refusing daily professional help for years, Hawking – who resents her fear of flying and reluctance to leave their children – taunts her with his nurses’ willingness to accompany him on yet another overseas tour. For her part, she endlessly disparages “malicious”, “manipulative”, “wayward” nurses, and her treatment of them sits uncomfortably with her constant desire for help in the hundreds of pages prior. No doubt there were mischief-making personalities among them – perhaps not least of which was the nurse who eventually married Hawking, if you accept this version of the story – but her “I-gave-my-all-and-they-did-me-wrong” tone is eventually tiresome and off-putting.

The warring camps eventually dig into their opposing positions. Jane believes his family and helpers have poisoned his mind against her. The end comes when he calls her back from her French country retreat for a reconciliation, only to find he intends no reconciliation at all. The “limpid grey eyes” that once warmed her heart have turned to permafrost. At this point, the engaging detail of earlier chapters becomes claustrophobically overwhelming, putting the reader uncomfortably in the midst of a bitter separation. You are almost thankful when she concludes that Hawking’s genius and sickness could justify so much of his behaviour and her sacrifices. It’s a victory for science, if not for feminism. But don’t for a minute imagine she’s an insignificant woman.

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Off the Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip

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.

 

We’re all bit players in a television drama

First published by The Australian, 25 September 1997

In “The era of living vicariously” (Opinion, September 17), Valerie Parv writes that in the wake of Thredbo, Port Arthur and Diana’s funeral, we are in danger of becoming a nation addicted to virtual experiences, hooked on virtual emotions, virtual romance and the virtual hobbies and crafts demonstrated on infotainment television.

The problem with Parv’s idea that we are retreating into a world of safe, risk-free virtual experiences is that it sees TV in black and white rather than in all its colour. It assumes that there is real life on the one hand, the world of TV on the other and that their orbits will never collide.

While footage of the Vietnam War may have made cynical and desensitised audiences of many viewers, it is now understood to have added impetus to a mass movement of anti-war protests across the world. Similarly, the first images of the Earth from the moon landings were seen by many as giving an emotional focus and public relations boost to a growing environment movement.

In recent years, media studies academics have been less interested in what TV does to you than what you do with TV. Friends getting together to laugh at and send up favourite soaps and dramas can be seen as affirming their sense of community and shared values rather than a group of individuals retreating into isolation.

When Parv says that “we increasingly crave the virtual experience and savour it in place of the real thing”, I would suggest that she is really expressing an anxiety that we can’t easily tell the difference between what is “real” or “authentic” experience and what is “fake” or “virtual” experience.

Reality and TV are interacting in ever more complex ways. When a piece of amateur video footage capturing the bashing of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers was repeatedly broadcast by US TV networks, it sparked an unforeseen series of events, climaxing in the Los Angeles riots.

In this context, deciding on where the media world ends and where real life begins is becoming increasingly difficult. The ABC’s Frontline – the often hilarious and sometimes chilling spoof of the TV current affairs show – owes its success to a playful bending of real and fictional characters and events.

Perhaps more confusing is the almost cartoon-like mixture of real events and media hype found in a new generation of “real life” TV programming. These shows are strange hybrid forms of entertainment, information and pure voyeurism.

The Jennifer Keyte-hosted Moment of Truth is just the latest in this genre to arrive on our screens. As with the series Weddings, the minutiae of everyday lives of everyday people are recorded, or they are given cameras to record their lives themselves. It is the very banality of our lives that seems to be the selling point of these programs. That we can watch them knowing that we are in the company of a million other casual voyeurs is part of what makes us turn on.

RATHER than indicating that we are all turning into passive watchers rather than doers, these shows can help explain the feeling that our every action is potential TV feed.

On a much grander scale, Australian communications theorist McKenzie Wark writes about the Gulf War as a series of feedback loops and “vectors” between audiences, the military and TV images. Opinion polls and military manoeuvres responded to TV images of Saddam Hussein stroking the hair of an English child held hostage. Images of George Bush walking through the desert and past rows of F-15 and F-16s in stage-managed sets constructed by a former Las Vegas advertising man, Sig Rogich, were part of a political strategy. With the unprecedented use of “missile cams” in the war, Wark argues that the “suturing” together of TV and viewer is almost complete. “This one missile becomes a million viewers,” he says, “stitched eyeball to eyeball with its line of flight into enemy territory.”

In a world of confusing boundaries, it’s hard to know the difference between the real us and the televised us. Were the masses who watched Diana’s funeral (whether at home or on the giant TV screens set up for the mourners outside of the service) manipulated to experience false emotions by the mass media? Or were they spontaneously expressing a sense of community and collective grief over the demise of someone who represented real values in their lives?

In the end, there is no simple real world versus the TV world. We could call this the Emma Dilemma, after the no-win situation that confronted Frontline’s researcher with a conscience. Caught between ratings, advertisers, overpaid egos and predatory executive producers, Emma was always powerless to change the established script of the show within the show. But what was so interesting about Emma was that, as the series progressed, she slowly began to transform into the people and environment that surrounded her.She was the literal embodiment of the idea that there was no inside or outside in the media. She, and we, are TV.

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