I went to Sydney University to study arts, but ended up ditching my English Honours and switching to anthropology. It was the closest thing you could find to journalism in the academic world in those days. So the study of human society – social interaction, religion and politics – was pretty close to what I do now. The Study of Man. [laughs]
I went to an all-boys college: St Paul’s College, one of those fabulous sandstone 19th century fossils. One evening, a famous journalist – whose name was Francis James – came to address the college. He would’ve been in his 60s, and gave a very entertaining, funny, clever and provocative speech about his time as a foreign correspondent, the Vietnam War and other things. He’d met most of the leaders in the region at the time, including Ho Chi Minh and the great Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap, who defeated the French.
Afterwards, he was mingling and chatting to people in the common room. We got into a bit of an argument – a lighthearted one. That was my modus operandi even then, to argue with people. At some point he said, “Look sonny, you really don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about. But I value the fact that you’re trying. If you really want to know, come visit me some time.” I said, “Well how about this Sunday?” He said sure. “I’ll see you at 10 o’clock in the morning.”
I borrowed my friend’s car and drove it out to Wahroonga, a long way out from where I was, a beautiful leafy suburb. Francis James lived in a wonderful massive old house, and when I banged on the door, he appeared wearing a pair of silk pyjamas and a gown with the cord dangling. He was obviously bleary-eyed and had just gotten up. He couldn’t recall who I was. When I reminded him, he finally said, “Oh right, of course! Come on in!”
We sat there for the next six or seven hours. We had copious pots of tea and toast with vegemite and he just talked for the whole time: the incredible relationships he had made, the stories he’d done, what it meant covering the Vietnam War. Some time in the late 1960s, he was captured by the Chinese Communist government, because he’d photographed nuclear installations and printed them in Britain’s Daily Telegraph. They arrested him as a spy, and kept him in solitary confinement for three or four years before Gough Whitlam established diplomatic relations between Australia and Communist China for the first time.
It was late afternoon when I left, and the experience convinced me that I wanted to be journalist. I finished my university course and started looking around for a job. Initially, I applied to become a cadet at the big newspapers: the Sydney Morning Herald; the Australian. It didn’t prove very easy, because they wanted people who’d already worked as journalists.
I found a job advertisement for a journalist in Campbelltown in Sydney’s south-west. D-grade journalists, I think they called them. “D-Grade journalist wanted in Campbelltown.” Campbelltown was the place where the state government had decided to dump all its problems. All the housing commissions were relocated to one huge area, so you had a massive number of disadvantaged people essentially dumped outside of the city proper, a long way away from jobs.
On my way to the job interview, I’d dropped in on one of these nascent housing commission estates still being built. On the front deck on one of these half-built houses, there was a group of young kids, completely stoned with a bong. You could smell the marijuana from miles away. They had a little tape recorder playing a song, singing it all together: “Mo-neeeeee, that’s what I want!” When I went over to talk to them, they started throwing rocks at the car. I hightailed it out of there, went straight to the job interview and said, “What you need here is an anthropologist.”
Early on, I learned how much impact you can actually have on people’s lives, and how powerful journalism can be. At the time same, it can screw up other people’s lives if you’re not careful. It’s not just a game; it’s not just an academic exercise. It’s the power of what you do, and also the danger. But there are stories everywhere. People’s lives are being screwed up or being affected by public policy decisions. Your neighbours will have stories, your friends will have stories. Everyone has stories about what’s going on and what affects their lives. Journalism, in particular, is about people, and that’s why being an anthropologist wasn’t bad training. If you can engage with people and find out what their stories are, you’re bound to find out what’s happening in the world.