Saturday, May 30, 2009

Combat vests and macho men (and women)

Writing about foreign correspondents has got me into a fair bit of trouble at times. A couple of years ago, I was foolish enough to suggest that in the age of the internet, many of them were just blow ins, decked out in safari suits, delivering rehashed locals' stories, as they were videoed in front of exotic locations.
Obviously, I was wrong.
Safari suits are rarely worn these days.
In fact the favoured attire more recently, was the combat photographer's vest, which had lots of little pockets where one could stash passports, hangover cures, condoms and other paraphernalia required to explore the Orient.
I saw a lot of such gear when Hong Kong went back to China in 1997. I was there to write a book, Reporting Hong Kong, which considered how the foreign press covered the handover. I spent a fair amount of time, as you would, in the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), where combat jacket attired visitors could be seen recording breathless voice to camera pieces in the main bar.

One bleary Sunday morning, I went in to the club for breakfast to find it filled with correspondents who were younger, better dressed and a good deal better looking than the regulars. A film crew was working under lights in a corner. Things seemed normal but somewhere, some how reality had slipped a cog. I felt I had entered a slightly altered but recognisable universe. In fact, the people at my table were actors, playing correspondents, making a movie about correspondents reporting on correspondents. It was called the Chinese Box; a reference to realities hidden within realities.

Chinese Box

I had done field work myself at the club some years before, recording interviews with resident correspondents and writing much of my PhD thesis in the downstairs bar. I learned that hardly any of the regulars wore combat vests.
Except Hugh van Es.
He was entitled to.
You could impress your friends from Australia by bringing them into the Club. "Do you remember the photo of people being evacuated from a roof at the fall of Saigon in 1975?" If they were old or historically literate enough, they would remember this, one of the iconic images of the Vietnam war.
Then with a flourish, I could say," See that bloke in the vest at the bar? That's Hugh van Es. He took the photograph!"
I heard that Hugh van Es died this year at the age of 67. His wake was held at the FCC last week.
In a media world of made up macho men, van Es was the real thing.
Wherever he may be now, I hope he gets to share a beer with departed friends and colleagues whose photos and portraits grace the walls of the FCC.
Good bye Hugh.
Keep your camera with you.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

State of Play

State of Play, the movie, depicts journalism as journalists might like to see it. A fearless press (and here we mean a newspaper) exposed corporate corruption, defied the police and conducted investigations which resulted in a politician being charged with murder.

What's there not to like about that?

I saw State of Play at a preview staged by the Journalists' union, the Media Alliance. The theatre was stacked with journos who groaned and laughed knowingly as an initially vacuous gossip blogger was confronted with the inconvenient need to find the "facts" required by "real" journalism. They were delighted when a Corporate PR type was exposed as a cowardly, Cadillac loving shill, obsessed with money and concerned only with self preservation.
They could identifty with a suitably unkempt Russell Crowe, the street wise reporter, Cal McCaffrey, who a cultivated a world of low life sources, slugged "Irish wine" (whiskey) and kept an old photo of Woodward and Bernstein pinned to his wall. I think I might have seen him myself at the end of a bar somewhere, some time ago.

Appealing it was.
But original it wasn't.

The movie was based on a six part BBC series where McCaffery was played by John Simm whose Life on Mars was similarly homogenised for the American market. In the movie, the series' elegant and cynical editor, Bill Nighy was replaced by the blunt and bluff Helen Mirren who, as editors do, swore appropriately and with great dexterity. The distinctly wobbly and compromising British newspaper management became an off screen corporation with its eye on the bottom line. The new corporate villain, Pointcom, was naturally intent on destroying democracy as we know it while taking over the bits of the world that mattered (Washington). No understatement here.

The American version was quicker, tighter, shed more blood, had more guns and was a good deal more obvious than the original. I guess you had to expect that, British and American cultural sensitivities being what they are.

However, State of Play explored the moral dilemmas faced by reporters investigating complex stories. McCaffery relentlessly unravelled the stories' threads, invading privacy, bribing police, bullying witnesses and withholding evidence. He did so while confronted by the larger evils of corporate fraud, political corruption, betrayal and murder.
All in a day's work.
"This is not a story! It's a case!", said one of the befuddled and frustrated Washington coppers.
It was neither really.
It's a movie.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Two QUT undergrads win Bloomberg postings

Two of QUT's best and brightest, Phoebe Sedgman and Joanna Cooney have won ten week, paid postings at Bloomberg's Sydney office.
They are both completing Bachelor of Journalism/Bachelor of Business degrees, which Bloombergs reckon suit them for their international business news.
They flew to Sydney to complete the test at the office overlooking Circular Quay in Sydney. The newsroom which is stacked with computers, audio gear and which features a small TV studio, has panoramic views of the harbour. The last time I was there, there was also a huge fish tank with small marine animals that eerily resembled some leading Australian CEOs.
"We were in the newsroom," Phoebe aid later,"So we got the vibe of excitement. They were ringing people up in London and swearing at them for not giving them the right information."
"I'm very excited and nervous about it," she said.