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Once I was a Girl Reporter, working in newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and the UK. Now I’m an interested observer, back in my native Australia reflecting on the past, present and future of journalism ... and anything else that takes my fancy.


Times change, but the song remains the same…

Last time I walked into the Transcontinental Hotel in Brisbane I was thrown out for being a Sheila. This time, on the eve of the 100th commemoration of the Gallipoli landings, my dollar was welcomed. I spent it – and a few more – on a glassful of memories. To the Fallen.

It was 1979 and I was heading from Brisbane to Toowoomba on a McCafferty’s coach to visit my Nana. With a little time to kill I headed across the road from Roma Street station – that glorious transport hub which tells new arrivals instantly that they are in a world class city – to the pub.

I was in the company of a young man of my acquaintance who had kindly given me a lift into the city and together we fronted the bar, only for the barman to genially say, “Sorry mate. We don’t allow Sheilas in here. You’ll have to take her into the lounge.”

Knowing me well, my companion grabbed my elbow and steered me firmly out of the place without giving me a moment’s opportunity to express my outrage. He was right of course. It’s hard to clamber up the slippery slope and plant your flag on the moral high ground when you’re not actually old enough to be there in the first place.

My dollar is welcome at the bar of that pub these days and I was happy to spend it and a few more on raising a glass to old memories the other night. Given the time of year, it’s not surprising that my thoughts turned to that most solemn date in our calendar – Anzac Day, which will be commemorated for the 100th time on Monday, 25 April 2016.

Turns out 1979 was a defining one for Your Girl Reporter. That refusal of service in a public bar shaped my attitude to discrimination in all its forms (I’m against it) and my feelings about Anzac Day were also given shape that year when I saw a television report on the commemorations which featured Eric Bogle singing ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.’

It was the first time I had heard it and I have sung it every year since – usually just quietly to myself – in whichever corner of the world I have found myself, to pay my personal respects on this most important of days.

Last year I sang it on a Brisbane veranda to a bunch of young Aussies who had not heard it before. And for the first time I felt uncomfortable – that it might draw criticism from some of the neighbours who may regard its anti-war sentiment as out of keeping with the current national mood.

Later that same day SBS sports journalist Scott McIntyre expressed views which were deemed offensive to the national mood and hounded out of his job as a result. A confidential settlement between McIntyre and his employer was reached just a few weeks before this year’s commemorations.

In the ensuing furore over the McIntyre Tweets – for this was a thoroughly modern controversy – there was much discussion about what the Anzacs had been fighting ‘for’ with many suggesting ‘Freedom’ including the ‘Freedom’ to be offensive, as long as it wasn’t about the Anzacs, apparently.

What I always liked about the Bogle song was that it captured the futility of the question. If the protagonist in the song, sitting on his porch minus a good pair of legs, doesn’t have an answer then it seems to me that none of us can claim to.

Some would fight for King and Country, some for glory, some for gold, some for a regular feed. And none, not one, would be all hero or all villain. That’s as true of today’s servicemen and women as yesterday’s and true also of tomorrow’s for, alas, it seems war will always be with us, no matter how futile it may seem.

The song’s prediction that Anzac commemorations would fall away with the passing of those old men has not been borne out by time, as attested by the swelling crowds at each successive dawn service.

This year marks the centenary of the first Anzac commemoration and what is remarkable is how unchanged our modern service is from that first ceremony held in Brisbane’s pre-dawn light on 25 April, 1916 just a year after the horror of the Gallipoli landings.

It was a humble Brisbane churchman named Canon David Garland who devised the simple order of the Ode, the minute’s silence and the playing of the Last Post. His historian, Peter Collins, said Garland was determined to create an inclusive ceremony.

“To bring people together of all faiths, or no faith at all, to find a space to express what they felt about sacrifices made,” Collins told the ABC.

Just 12 months on from our greatest national trauma Garland’s simple idea must have seemed such a small, fragile candle of hope. It’s a testament to its power that it burns today brighter than ever.

But the young people, when they ask what their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were fighting for, deserve more than the simplistic answers that politicians give when they send the next generation off to war.

On this centenary of our Anzac ceremony let us remember them, not as cartoon heroes but as they were, in Bogle’s words, “just ordinary Aussies doing a shitty job.”

I will see you in the morning, in the pre-dawn light. And then I’ll see you in the pub, at the public bar, and raise a glass to their memory.

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda – Eric Bogle

Further Reading:

Memorial unveiled for Brisbane’s ‘architect of Anzac Day’ Canon David Garland Lexy Hamilton-Smith, ABC

Eric Bogle: Australia’s anti-war balladeer reflects on his Anzac anthem – Daniel Keane, ABC

Regatta pub protest: Merle Thornton, who chained herself to Brisbane bar, returns 50 years on – Isabella Higgins, ABC

SBS deletes media statement after settling with Scott McIntyre over Anzac Day tweets – Max Chalmers, New Matilda

Once I was a Girl Reporter, working in newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and the UK. Now I’m an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and anything else that takes my fancy. Read more Baxter here. 

Confessions of an international book thief

It will shock you, I know, to learn that Your Girl Reporter is not averse to the occasional act of thievery. Every so often I am reminded of past misdeeds which trouble my conscience to greater and lesser degree. The recent publication of a new book by journalist, author and artist Derek Maitland was one such reminder.

The Fatal Line documents the biggest public enquiry ever held into Australia’s commercial broadcasting industry from the ringside perspective of Maitland and his fellow whistleblower at Sydney’s TCN Channel Nine.

I knew Maitland as one of the noisy, amorphous group of Hong Kong journalists on whose fringe I dwelt in those years of childhood when you don’t care what people do for a living.

So it was a surprise years later to see his name on a bookshelf in England. And it gives me enormous joy that accuracy enables me to begin my tale of crime and misdeed with the following observation:

It was a dark and stormy night.

The Evidence - worse for wear but still gracing my Australian bookshelf.

The Evidence – worse for wear but still gracing my Australian bookshelf.

I forget the precise nature of the function which had drawn me out in the middle of a bitter English winter but the location was a hotel on the seafront at Eastbourne on the mild south coast.

Not particularly mild in December with a gale blowing and bits of ice in the choppy rain slicing into your cheeks as you struggle out of a cab and across the slippery pavement as fast as your poor frozen toes can carry you, but mild compared to the rest of the country.

I can’t tell you now which hotel it was – the seafront was pretty much all hotels, built in the Edwardian heyday of railways and leisure time. Eastbourne had always pitched its charms to the cream of society and was proud in the 1990s, well past that heyday, that its genteel old hotels had been retained.

Some were in better shape than others and this hotel was a little shabby, a fine lady not yet fallen on hard times but scrimping her pennies and making do on last year’s petticoats.

I must have been early because I sought refuge from the storm in the lobby which, like so many of those old hotels, sought to recreate the charm of a Victorian drawing room.

There was a range of mismatched comfortable chairs around the warm and friendly fireplace, a table in the corner with a half-completed jigsaw puzzle depicting an improbably sunny scene of the South Downs and – just out of reach of my thawing fingers – a case of books.

It will surprise no one that it was the books which drew my glance but it surprised me that there on the shelf was a name I recognised. Could it be the same character from faraway Hong Kong? The same Derek Maitland?

Derek Maitland, from the dust cover of my (stolen) copy of The Only War We've Got

Derek Maitland, from the dust cover of my (stolen) copy of The Only War We’ve Got

If it was, then I must have it. I looked around and assessed my chances. At no point did it occur to me to seek out the manager and ask for it, in exchange for some token amount.

Instead, I rose casually and selected the Maitland book and a few others, paused at the table to slot a piece into the jigsaw puzzle and returned to my squashy chair to settle in for some fireside reading.

Or, at least, that’s how I hoped it would appear.

The book was titled The Only War We’ve Got and promised a black comedic romp through the Vietnam War. It was written, according to the dust jacket, to express the author’s fury over the conflict and his fear of the American military complex.

But was it the same Maitland? The boy in the combat helmet and fatigues with the camera didn’t look anything like the bloke I remembered – but age will do that, as I have since discovered for myself.

I shoved the book discreetly into my handbag, returned the decoys to their shelf and headed to the function. I spent the rest of the evening trying to picture Derek Maitland in various Hong Kong settings, to marry my dim recollection with the boy at the back of the book.

And then it all came back to me in a flooding rush the way the worst of repressed memories are wont to do. Maitland was the one with the boat. The infamous Mudskipper, a traditional Chinese junk named, unpromisingly, for an ugly fish which flops and wallows in the mudflats at low tide.

Hong Kong is not just the famed deep water harbour from which it takes its name, it’s a myriad of islands with sheltered bays and choppy channels between them and out on the water is a natural place to be.

There are families in Hong Kong who have lived their entire lives on the water, and not always in the spacious comfort of a 38ft junk – as a child I liked to imagine myself growing up in a tiny sampan, one of the toddlers roped to the crowded deck by an ankle until I learned my limits.

But I burn easily.

By the time I left Hong Kong the traditional three-masted sailing junk had mostly vanished from its waters but they were everywhere during my childhood, the great workhorses of the harbour.

They appeared so serene from the shore but up close you could hear the sails snapping and beating a heavy, hard wind-driven thrumming and the booming smack of the prow as it handled the swelling channels between the islands. Who wouldn’t want to spend a day aboard one?

But I burn easily.

There was nothing remarkable in Hong Kong about a day out on board a boat. The junk trip to a secluded beach was a favourite outing for most corporates and just about all my school years ended with one. But these were usually modern fibreglass affairs that bore little resemblance to the real thing.

Only Maitland actually owned a traditional junk. Inevitably, the Baxters were invited aboard and in spite of the stories of near-misses and other mishaps that were in wide circulation among the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press, there we were at the jetty for the appointed hour.

Picture courtesy of the Global Mariner Karsten Petersen. See more of his pictures of Chinese junks and other sailing craft at

A traditional junk under sail in Hong Kong harbour in the 1970s. Picture courtesy of the Global Mariner Karsten Petersen. See more of his pictures of Chinese junks and other sailing craft at

I was disappointed at the lack of sails, but not for long – they were rare by then in any case – but thrilled at the old fashioned steering system of ropes and pulleys which connected the long iron bar of the tiller to the rudder.

The Mudskipper was built in Canton (now Guangzhou) and in a previous life was a ‘snake boat’ – smuggling refugees and narcotics between the mainland and Hong Kong. And we were headed for Cheung Chau, once the home of notorious pirate Cheung Po Tsai, whose cave on the island you can visit to this day.

You can imagine the chug chug chugging joy of Your Girl Reporter, out on the water in a pirate ship, in my head outrunning the gunboats and racing for the safety of our pirate’s cave with our loot.

But I burn easily. By the time I boarded the Mudskipper I should have learned, from painful prior experience, boat trips were not for the likes of me.

And the Mudskipper wasn’t going to outrun anything. Instead, in keeping with her reputation, she broke down as we approached Cheung Chau. We floated, for what seemed an age but was probably only hours, while I cringed below deck under a white t-shirt which stuck to my lobster coloured flesh. I burn easily and had, once again, taken cover too late.

Finally help arrived in the shape of a police launch which towed us to the main Cheung Chau wharf to the cheers of thousands of fishermen and cargo junk crewmen, who clapped us ashore as we disembarked in the gathering dusk.

It was humiliating. And not just for me. Maitland’s romance with the sea did not survive much after that event and he later confessed that his subsequent maritime excursions were confined to the occasional voyage on the Star Ferry between Kowloon and Hong Kong island.

I have the book still, in spite of the dishonest nature of its acquisition. It is mine by theft, committed very much in the name of Maitland and his stinking boat. For such a man did I risk my good name.

Further reading:

The Fatal Line by Derek Maitland can be acquired honestly from Amazon.

The seaside in the Victorian literary imagination – Jacqueline Banerjee, The Victorian Web

Famous Pirate: Cheung Po Tsai – The Way of the Pirates

A history of the junk boat – Isobel Smith, Yachting and Boating World

Hong Kong: The life of a Tanka boy in 1980 – Michael Rogge

Once I was a Girl Reporter, working in newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and the UK. Now I’m an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and anything else that takes my fancy. Read more Baxter here. 


And the Baxter for Best Picture goes to…

One of the better habits I’ve taken up this year is that of trying to watch all the Oscar Noms for Best Picture in advance of the actual awards night. Yes, I’m unfashionably up to date when it comes to current movies. To appreciate just how unusual this is, consider that I have yet to see Thelma and Louise. For the view from Your Girl Reporter on the eight films up for the Big One, read on:

Spotlight – My favourite reporter movie since All the President’s Men. Loved the way it took the time to show the plod work of investigative journalism. Yes, you young ‘uns. Before listicles and clickbait there were newspapers with specialist investigative journalists who were given the resources and the freedom and time to pursue difficult and complex stories, often on obscure leads that showed very little early promise.

The Washington Post had Woodward and Bernstein uncovering Watergate, as portrayed in President’s Men. The UK’s Sunday Times had the Insight team which included Australia’s own Phillip Knightley and exposed the Thalidomide scandal.

And in Boston a team of investigative journalists started digging around after a priest was accused of molesting a child and uncovered rampant sexual abuse and its cover-up by the Catholic Church.

What started with the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team in 2002 reverberates today, as chillingly pointed out at the end of the film with its list of all the places on Earth in which similar abuses have since been identified.

Of those places, 22 are in Australia – something to bear in mind perhaps amid the outrage over Tim Minchin’s song about Cardinal Pell, lest anyone thinks our top Catholic is the real victim here.

In Australia too it was the tireless work of journalists which brought this evil out into the light. Who will pay for the long hard investigative reporting that will uncover future abuses? We won’t know we’ve lost it until it’s gone… and this film is a great look at what ‘it’ is and the toll it takes on journalists.

Read the New York Times review of Spotlight

The Revenant – Boo. Why were these jerks eating raw dead things when they were surrounded by fire? Couldn’t they have taken a moment to shove that meat on a stick? Or would cooking be for sissies?

These and other questions were a welcome distraction for Your Girl Reporter who found The Revenant’s unrelenting tough guy survival jag boring as bat shit.

My father the Big Baxter used to say that nothing bored him more in movies than when plotlines were resolved by someone pulling out a gun. In this film the hero takes a whole movie to get to that dreary end point. In the meantime, I don’t care how close up the snow feels.

Best bit: DiCaprio getting mauled by a bear. Twice. And I don’t usually like that sort of thing, so The Revenant didn’t bring out the best in me.

Rolling Stone’s review of The Revenant

Bridge of Spies – I LOVED this film. Gunna get pretentious enough to talk about its ‘texture’ – it was an absolutely pitch perfect rendition of a Cold War spy thriller (see Baxters passim).

Before Bono and The Edge there was a US spy plane which gave its name to a bit of an incident when it was shot down in 1960 over the Soviet Union. The pilot of the U2, Gary Powers, survived and was captured. His release, in a prisoner exchange for a Soviet spy – played here by Mark Rylance – is the subject of this film.

Or it would be, in a much lesser movie. Instead, Powers and the other American prisoner in the exchange are bit players, whose stories form the weakest sections of the film. In fact, the sequence in which Powers is shot down is laughable. It’s also the only action scene, making it especially jarring.

It’s a measure of how good the rest of the film is that I’m prepared to overlook that and the long, drawn out Lord of the Rings style ending – should have finished on the painting, Steve – and call this one of my favourites of this year’s noms.

And Mark Rylance is just a stunner. Don’t know how he manages to do so much acting with those liquid eyes alone.

Variety’s review of Bridge of Spies

The Big Short – Another cracker. Always have a soft spot for a movie that breaks the ‘fourth wall’ and this one did it really nicely, using it as an effective way to deliver complex information without making the audience feel it was getting a lecture.

It’s not true that no-one saw the sub-prime collapse coming – I remember listening to radio reports of how all these mortgages in the United States were due to reset and that mass defaults were expected when they did, and I’m in bloody Australia. But it’s possible I’m weird and everyone else was tuned to Classic FM Hits, I don’t know.

The Big Short is a great explainer of how some of the people who saw it coming set out to make a lot of money and in the process shafted the rest of us. We haven’t finished paying for the crimes of these people and this movie is a really important one for that very reason.

It bridges the gap between the incomprehensible things they were doing and the real world impacts of people losing their homes and finding their lives in ruins. Won’t get fooled again? Watch the negative gearing debate here in Australia and remember The Big Short whenever it all gets a bit too hard to understand.

The Wall Street Journal’s review of The Big Short

Mad Max Fury RoadMad Max: Fury Road – Unfortunately Your Girl Reporter hits the snooze button at car chases, so this one was never going to win my heart but I do enjoy George Miller’s gorgeous dystopian vision and there were some great touches – the guitar shredding flame-throwing mascot as the most obvious. What about that shot on the race back of a couple of mutants in silhouette? To die for.

Was it a feminist film? I’m a bit old school which can get a bird into trouble these days but I didn’t think so. It certainly didn’t seem to be the movie I had read about. If it could be said to be ‘for’ a group, it was more of a great film for people with disabilities than for women.

In a world where so much disability and deformity was on display, the main women of the film still somehow managed to look prettier than the average woman on the street. If that’s any kind of test.

A strong female character doth not a feminist film make. We’ve been fed strong female leads before but for mine I’d have preferred to see a gang of women busting out of that hell hole in a war rig. Instead I got a bunch of women getting rescued. Again.

Empire’s review of Mad Max: Fury Road

Brooklyn – Well that was pretty. That’s the best thing I can say about this period piece which treads a well-worn path with considerably less of the drama that usually accompanies a journey to the new world.

In Brooklyn an innocent Irish girl seeks her fortune in 1950s New York and no-one exploits her, rips her off, robs her virtue or breaks her heart. Which makes for a nice change, I suppose.

The clothes are lovely and there’s plenty of dignified keening to please the diaspora. Best scene was the down-and-outs’ Christmas dinner – the only time that the hard life of the average Irish immigrant was even alluded to.

When it comes to acting-by-eyes I hope someone’s rushing to get Saoirse Ronan and Mark Rylance into the same movie.

The New Yorker’s review of Brooklyn

The Martian – Not my pick for Best Picture, but another good’un. Enjoyed it much more than I expected to. A peach of a performance from Matt Damon as the biologist using the magic of science to conjure up some life on Mars while bringing out the best of humanity to all work together to bring him home. And we’re feeling good.

This is not a great science fiction film but it is the latest in a crop of really fine movies which are taking a far more grown up approach to the genre, in response to an audience which is proving itself again and again to be perfectly comfortable with the S word.

Fave bit: Every time he gets admonished for swearing.

Variety’s review of The Martian

room_posterRoom – If it was up to me this one would win hands down, but it won’t. Instead Oscar will probably be going home with The Revenant, that more brutish, more predictable tale of survival.

Everything I hated about that film seems to be answered by this one. Instead of a hairy beast of a man grunting his way through Nature Huge and Implacable we have a young woman shielding her son from the horror of their existence through the creation of a ghastly domesticity.

Room couldn’t have a more difficult subject at its heart and the handling is extraordinary. It’s not based on a particular incident, although the book by Emma Donoghue was inspired by the Fritzl case.

We are all aware of the hideous real world examples of women being imprisoned in similar circumstances. Heck, we even had a post-Apocalyptic version of the phenomenon in Mad Max but this time there’s no Furiosa bearing down on the situation in a war rig.

There’s just Ma, who was kidnapped at 19 by a man known as Old Nick, and has been locked in his garden shed for seven years. She doesn’t even know her abuser’s name.

Room is told from the perspective of her five-year-old son Jack. He has been shielded from the reality of their situation by his mother who now shatters the safety and security of his tiny world as she prepares him for an escape.

If you’re looking for a tale of human resilience try Room – no bears in there but a beautifully drawn mother and child by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. While the story is extraordinary it’s also deeply ordinary, a coming of age tale anyone can relate to.

Director Lenny Abrahamson takes us right down to ground level to see Room and the world outside from the eyes of a five-year-old. You won’t believe how strange the pavement feels when Jack puts his hesitant little foot on it for the first time.

The Atlantic’s review of Room

 Once I was a Girl Reporter, working in newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and the UK. Now I’m an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and anything else that takes my fancy. Read more Baxter here. 


Monkey business ahead for Malcolm, Bill and Tony

What does the Year of the Monkey have in store for 2016? Since it’s an election year I thought it would be fun to check out the Chinese horoscopes for our political leaders. Our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was born in the Year of the Horse; the leader of Her Majesty’s (for now) loyal Opposition Bill Shorten was born in the Year of the Goat; and the unofficial leader of the disloyal opposition Tony Abbott is a Rooster. Your Girl Reporter had little choice but to investigate.

The key to understanding Chinese astrology is to think a little about the characteristics of the animal in charge. In February 2016 we are leaving the sedate, sure-footed pace of the Goat and embarking on the wild ride of the Monkey. So in a Monkey year we should expect the unexpected.

Next, think about the animal of your birth year. How would those two animals interact? And from there it’s a simple matter – well, incredibly complex if you do it right actually but simple will be good enough for our purposes – of working out what characteristics of the year ahead will suit you, and what negative characteristics you need to be prepared for.

Of course the greatest monkey of them all is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, and the embodiment of all the characteristics of the year ahead. If you want an idea of how 2016 is likely to flow you could do worse than make the time to reacquaint yourself with some of his adventures.

It’s going to be a great year for the risk-takers and the rebellious, for wild schemes and bold new enterprises. Fortune favours the brave in the Year of the Monkey but take nothing for granted! In the spirit of irrepressible Monkey, let’s turn our piercing gaze to the year ahead.

TurnbullMalcolm Turnbull – Year of the Horse

John Howard famously said the times would suit him and current prime minister Malcolm Turnbull will no doubt be hoping for similar luck. He might just get it too.

A Monkey Year is one in which “agile, inventive minds, sheer guts and bravado will win out,” which came straight off the Astrology Club website but could easily have been written by our loquacious PM himself.

You could say there’s never been a more exciting time to be an Australian prime minister and thoroughbred Malcolm is certainly starting the race as firm favourite. But watch out! Fancy riding will take you only so far.

This is not a sprint and Malcolm is so heavily handicapped by party room division and the Abbott legacy that he can scarcely raise a trot. He’s going to have to do more to keep Monkey and the nation onside than toss his mane coquettishly.

There are hard yards ahead but prizes for the horse who can stay the course. Sorry, but I have to ask: Can Malcolm stop the Goat? Or is he just a show pony after all?

ShortenBill Shorten – Year of the Goat

The Goat, also referred to as the Sheep in Chinese astrology, is ruler of the year just ended. Incidentally in Chinese astrology your birth year is not likely to be a good one, so props to Bill for getting through it in one piece.

The Goat is patient and stoic through adversity and is also known for being incredibly sure-footed. Monkey is said to get on well with the Goat and can inspire our unassuming ungulate to leap for glory. According to Master Tsai at Chinese Fortune Calendar, when Sheep meets Monkey a shy sheep will prepare to get in the spotlight.

The coming year is not one for plodders – but if Shorten can keep calm and trust his instincts he may yet find that Monkey has led him, via a merry dance, to the higher ground he seeks.

AbbottTony Abbott – Year of the Rooster

Yesterday’s rooster is today’s feather duster but it’s clear that our former PM is not ready to be consigned to the broom cupboard just yet.

Those born in the Year of the Rooster are said to be sticklers for rules and regulations and it’s true that Abbott is at his best when he’s defending the status quo from what he regards as unnecessary change.

Rooster tends to dislike Monkey’s anarchic nature which means Abbott will probably find a Monkey year stressful with its chaotic twists and turns but if he can overcome his undoubtedly wounded pride and spend the year on some personal growth work he could yet become more of a leader than even he might expect.

A Rooster open to the lessons of the Monkey could brush up on the skills of teamwork, diplomacy and the art of compromise – all important attributes for success in the turbulent year ahead – and all famously lacking in the Abbott toolbox.

It’s never too late to learn and if we know one thing about a Monkey year it’s to expect the unexpected.

Australia – Year of the Rat

Yes, our great nation was born, on 1 January 1901, at the tail-end of a Rat year making us clever and affable, good natured and gullible but unlikely to make the same mistake twice (sorry, Tones, still not looking great for you).

Rats and Monkeys have a lot in common and we can expect more playfulness and fun in 2016. With our innate cunning we should do well in a Monkey year of agility and inventiveness, finding opportunity in challenge.

According to Master Tsai, when Rat meets Monkey that is a sign of the blessing of God and really who could argue with that? Over at the Astrology Club, Rats are advised this year to go with Goats and treat Horses and Tigers with caution. Which brings me neatly to…

Sally Baxter – Year of the Tiger

Most texts will simply tell you that monkeys and tigers don’t get on, but every so often you’ll see something startlingly contradictory – “the monkey is best friend to the tiger,” was a comment I heard once and have never forgotten.

As a Tiger it’s in my nature to enjoy complexities and the relationship between these two creatures in Chinese astrology is particularly complex, which may be why I look forward to a Monkey year.

The monkey and the tiger are diametrically opposed on the wheel of the zodiac and they do say opposites attract. There’s a legend that sums up the relationship as I see it: When they first met Monkey pulled Tiger’s tail and ran up a tree – not realising that Tiger could also climb trees.

As long as we approach each other with mutual respect, a great friendship can indeed be had between Monkey and Tiger. But this is Monkey. If there’s a tail to be pulled, it will be.

Kung hei fat choi, from my household to yours. Wishing you good health, happiness and prosperity in the Year of the Monkey. Here’s to a wild ride!

Further reading:

There are so many books and websites dedicated to the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac but I have quoted from just two, Astrology Club and Chinese Fortune Calendar

Once I was a Girl Reporter, working in newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and the UK. Now I’m an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and anything else that takes my fancy. Read more Baxter here. 

Should we see dead people?

The image of the body of a little boy washed up on a Turkish beach is widely credited for the change of heart which has swept even Australia into a more compassionate response to the wave of refugees fleeing the horror of the Middle East. But should it have been shown at all?

The power of the news photograph brings difficult judgments for all of us, even more so in the digital age when pictures which may have once never made it past a Picture Editor’s desk are streamed seemingly endlessly into our feeds and timelines.

The image of Aylan Kurdi’s body was compared by many commentators to Nick Ut’s Vietnam picture ‘Napalm Girl’ which generated similar controversy when it was published and was credited with a similar change of heart in the community.

I grew up with Napalm Girl, the execution of a Viet Cong operative by the Saigon police chief  and countless other violent and disturbing images of the Vietnam war.

They were the first things I saw just about every Sunday throughout my childhood, on the long wall of the lift lobby at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong where many of the photographers who took those pictures gathered.

I knew the pictures. I didn’t know there was any controversy about what they showed until I started work on a newspaper and became involved in the daily discussion about whether a picture would offend the sensibilities of readers or the dignity of the dead.

While court reporting is governed by a myriad of rules and restrictions, the coverage of death is determined by morals and ethics, with a strong influence of commercial consideration on the side. A gruesome picture can lose readers as easily as win them and an Editor prepared to break convention needs to be able to argue a compelling public interest.

The case for publishing was powerfully expressed by the Editor of Bild Julian Reichelt, who took the extraordinary step of running no pictures at all in the edition of 9 September 2015. He said the decision was a bow to the power of the visual and called photographs “the screams of the world.” He wrote:

“Time and again, indeed currently we are hearing demands not to show images at all. We are asked to pixel them since human suffering is documented in too drastic a manner and people’s dignity is taken away.

“This argument ignores the most important part. It is not the photo depicting the undignified situation. It is the war! The ignorance of politics, our cowardice to step in. The photo documents the world and this world is not hidden behind pixels! We have no right to take the easy route, to look away when injustice happens. We must force ourselves to look. The pain we feel when viewing the pictures is nothing compared to the pain of the depicted. We have no right to say: I choose to look away because my pain is the same as theirs. It is not!”

The argument against publishing the picture was also made. Here in Australia, News Corp’s  David Penberthy praised the decision by some newspapers either to pixellate the three-year-old’s body, or not run the picture at all:

“It is such a confronting image and with newspapers left lying around in people’s homes, and being sold in their thousands to schools each day for classwork, the idea of one of my kids (or anyone else’s) being presented with such a picture is less than ideal. It should be a parent’s decision as to whether they child can see such a photo, not a newspaper editor’s.”

But we are all publishers now, with the power in our pinkies to share instantly and equally the gruesome and the banal with no responsibility beyond our own momentary feeling of outrage or mirth. I put them together because that’s how they can appear in a timeline – a dead baby nestled between a cute cat and a Tony Abbott meme.

It’s been a distressing week for everyone – on every side of the debate – but there’s no doubt that, not for the first time, a disturbing image of death has had the power to change people’s hearts.

In the introduction to his book Pictures on a Page former Times Editor Harold Evans observed: “It is more than a coincidence that the Vietnam war was at once the most unpopular in American history and the most photographed.”

It’s more than a coincidence too that in more recent times cameras are kept well away from our concentration camps on Manus Island and Nauru.

The argument about whether confronting images should be shown will go on as long as confronting things continue to happen in the world. There can be no definitive answer but it’s a very good argument to have and one which each of us has a responsibility to consider.

My own view falls somewhere between Reichelt and Penberthy. Yes, of course it was right to publish the picture and yet I personally didn’t share it more than once because I felt the image was already ubiquitous.

It’s a shame that it takes an image of a dead toddler on a beach to finally galvanise public opinion in a compassionate direction. And it’s a shame that the family of Aylan Kurdi must surrender their memory of an ordinary little boy to the image of his final moment on a strange shore.

But that’s the power of a picture. And that’s why there’s a moral and ethical convention to not show the dead unless there is a compelling public interest. At least think about it before you publish.

Further reading:

The following list includes discussions on the ethics of publishing the image of Aylan Kurdi and in some cases will include the picture. But the first link is to a Calvin and Hobbes inspired cartoon by Chris Downes for the Hobart Mercury who imagined the little boy on a gentler shore with a lovely companion and a timely message:

Cecil and Aylan – Christopher Downes

The girl in the picture: Kim Phuc’s journey from war to forgiveness – Paula Newton and Thom Patterson, CNN

No photos in Bild today after Syrian toddler picture – Sydney Smith, iMediaEthics

On Aylan and the ethics of circulating images of the unconsenting dead – Tara Moss

What the image of Aylan Kurdi says about the power of photography – Olivier Laurent, Time

Documenting tragedy: The ethics of photojournalism – Talk of the Nation, NPR

Your Girl Reporter blogs fortnightly on the past, present and future of journalism – from growing up in Hong Kong, to working in the UK and now observing the state of the world from my native Australia. Read more Baxter here.

Words matter – but don’t shoot the press officer

The path from shrinking newsrooms to the bulging corridors of corporate communications and government media units is a well-trodden one. Many journalists, your own Girl Reporter included, have sought a crust by writing press releases. Some of them may even have been poorly worded.

The process of preparing a press release is time-consuming and thankless but it is never careless. Long before it sees the light of day a press release is pored over by increasingly senior levels of management. Their concern is understandable – a poorly worded press release can commit a government to policy outcomes far beyond what was ever intended.

This week in Australia we saw that a poorly worded press release can put protesters on the streets of Melbourne within an hour and disrupt an operational matter which would have put jackboots on the ground with the intention of “speaking with any individual we cross paths with.”

Victoria Police was forced to cancel its planned Operation Fortitude thanks to those poorly chosen words in a press release from its partner in crime fighting, the Australian Border Force.

ABF Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg denied there had been any intention to stop people on the street and check that their papers were in order. He did concede that the unfortunate press release sounded ‘menacing’ but that too was unintentional, he said.

It’s ironic that the approvals process should be so slipshod within the government department which, more than any other in the Abbott Government, has sought to control public discourse through language.

For example, it was only a month after the nation bestowed its electoral blessing upon Tony Abbott that his immigration minister Scott Morrison decreed people seeking refuge in Australia should henceforth be referred to as ‘illegal’.

There’s a man who understands the importance of words. Under his leadership the department of passport checkers and contraband fruit seizers became best known for the ones it would not utter – anything, basically, which came under the heading of ‘operational matters.’

That approach was underlined again at the launch of the paramilitary Australian Border Force, complete with shiny buttons and badges unbecoming for a civilian agency. Our prime minister Tony Abbott called upon God to bless their work while a bemedalled Quaedvlieg affirmed that the secrecy around ‘operational matters’ would continue.

It wasn’t true, of course. The prime minister and his immigration bovver boys, first Morrison and now Peter Dutton, have regularly commented on ‘operational matters’ when they’ve perceived a political advantage to be grasped. And more often than not they’ve been standing next to a dashing military man or two while they’ve done it.

This is a government that, like your Girl Reporter, appreciates a well cut jacket with a froth of gilt on the collar and cuffs.

It also understands, again like your Girl Reporter, that words matter, both spoken and unspoken. Any journalist worth their salt reads official statements for what is missing as much as for what is there.

And any politician, most particularly those under the tutelage of Tony Abbott, knows that the right words, repeated often enough, hold enormous power. They can even come within a whisker of bringing down a government.

As anyone familiar with the tortuous approvals process of the government press release will tell you, the road does indeed end in the office of the Minister which, for obvious reasons, has the final, hopefully carefully chosen, word on the public statements of the department.

To say, as Peter Dutton has said, that it arrived in his office but no-one read it does not successfully lay the blame with the humble press officer, nor with the hapless regional commander for Not Checking Papers on the Streets, nor even with Commissioner Quaedvlieg.

This was an operational matter. Are we seriously to believe that an agency, famous for not commenting on those things, puts out a low level press release without getting the explicit okay of the man in charge of the government policy of not commenting on operational matters?

And this one was distinguished from all previous operational matters by its visibility, thanks to those nice new $6 million uniforms and the very public location of the hastily abandoned press conference.

The chiefs of the paramilitary wing of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and their political masters have a case to answer but it isn’t over the unfortunate wording of a press release.

It’s about the use of a paramilitary force to achieve a political objective in a civil democracy. Don’t blame the propaganda wing for getting the tone right for once.

Once I was a Girl Reporter, working in newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and the UK. Now I’m an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and anything else that takes my fancy. Read more Baxter here. 


Doing the rounds in ever decreasing circles

A reporter’s rounds are as much about people as they are about the overnight crime stats and the latest council decisions. If you want to know what’s going on you have to be there. You have to be familiar with the mundane before you can recognise the extraordinary. And sometimes it’s only by knowing the people who are providing the information that you can get behind the dry report to what’s really going on. They’re called contacts for a reason. And staying in contact is probably the hardest part of the ‘local’ reporter’s lot, even with the glories of mobile technology.

One of my favourite stories about the late, great Richie Benaud related not to his legendary role as the Voice of Summer but to his days as a newspaperman back in 1959.

When he wasn’t captaining the Australian cricket team he was a police roundsman for The Sun in Sydney. His ‘other’ job had its advantages when it came to getting quotes out of usually taciturn police officers and a few memorialists mentioned his generosity to his fellow reporters.

One of them was Max Presnell, racing writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, who gave this example in his obituary for Benaud:

In October 1959, the big story was the recapture of Leslie Allan Newcombe, who had been on the run from Long Bay for 13 days with galloping mate Kevin Simmons. The search was described as “Australia’s biggest manhunt”, a title possibly given enhancement by a hack. However, Newcombe was to be put on display at the Criminal Investigation Branch headquarters, accompanied by Ray Kelly – Sydney’s precursor to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry – to make sure further flight was impossible.

Every copper at the CIB gravitated to The Sun’s Richie Benaud – unsurprisingly, because he was Australia’s cricket captain and they were enthusiastic to give him any special insight or colour he required.

Meanwhile Frank Crook, then a first-year cadet with the Daily Mirror and on his first major assignment, was left in the dust of the stampede. When the pictures were taken and the police figured Richie had had his fill, Newcombe and the law departed just as quickly.

Benaud walked over to the young reporter and said: “Get your notebook out”. Crook was given every quote and angle Richie had secured exclusively.

The rounds are the bread and butter of a newsroom. They include police, fire, ambulance, the courts, the hospitals, the council chambers, the shopkeepers, the racetracks – the list can include anywhere things happen.

Back in Benaud’s day they included shipping. My mother was working the shipping round in Sydney in 1965, going on board the cruise liners at the customs point at Circular Quay to interview any visiting celebrities or quirky personalities arriving on our shores.

The shipping rounds ended as jet travel superseded the ocean liners and many other reporting rounds have also withered as times have inevitably changed.

Philip Knightley in his book A Hack’s Progress recalled his time on the lottery round, a fierce Saturday battleground between his newspaper The Mirror and The Sun in Sydney.

The rival reporters, each in their radio cars, would race from the lottery headquarters as soon as the result was announced to be the first to break the good tidings and grab a picture of the lucky winner.

Ten years and a distinguished career in London later, Knightley said he returned to Sydney and was urged by his mother to buy a lottery ticket: “I read my stars in last night’s paper. It says I’ve got to buy a lottery ticket with an Aquarian. You’re the only Aquarian I know, son, so buy a ticket between us on your way to work, will you?”

Knightley protested. “Mum, I used to write those star columns on the paper up at Lismore. It’s all bullshit. Let’s not waste our money.”

Mrs Knightley would not be deterred and, you guessed it, they won first prize. The news was broken with a phone call from a reporter on the Daily Mirror. By that stage, the car race through Sydney’s sprawling suburbs was no more.

By their nature the rounds can be mundane, yielding most days a string of one-par ‘news in briefs’ – or nibs, as they are affectionately known. They can be tedious and a sore test for the shy. Boy Reporter Tim Burrowes, looking back on his 25 years and counting, used to make his calls in the cuttings library, where no one else could hear.

Your own Girl Reporter got through the ordeal by a bit of role playing, working my way up to a morning on the phones by imagining how the fictional Sally Baxter would do it.

But a well-trodden beat could just as easily land a hungry young reporter a page one lead. And woe betide you if your nib turned up on the rival’s front page because you didn’t spot the story’s potential.

It was as much about getting to know people as getting the news. Burrowes:

We’d bring free copies of the paper out to the fire station, the local nick and the ambos. We knew them all. As a result, the station officer would have one of his men call me at home if there was an interesting fire. They’d even let me come out on calls with them.

The ambulancemen would look out of the window if we wanted to take a peek at the accident report. The cops would tell us what had really happened.

You’d go to local councillors’ homes and drink tea with them. Indeed, there would be a journalist in every council meeting and covering every court case.

The rounds were where the best shone and the rest fell. Sometimes they were brutal. When I was considering my future career choices and named journalism among them, a number of my parents’ friends – all male – took me aside and warned me what to expect.

One after another they told me their horror stories and said that as a Girl Reporter I could expect to be sent to every car crash, every fire, any opportunity to turn my stomach and drive me out of the game.

It’s hard to remember now whether they meant that Girl Reporters were singled out for special treatment or that as a Girl I might not be up to the rigours of the rounds. In my own experience there was no difference between the assignments handed out to the Girls and the Boys of the newsroom but I’d welcome some other views on that in the comments.

My mother told me one of her first assignments for the Daily Mirror in Sydney was to doorknock a woman whose child had died after being (unintentionally) strangled by the cot bumper she had so carefully made during her pregnancy.

Mum said her knees were knocking harder than the feeble rap she managed on the door, which was quickly slammed in her face as soon as she said she was from The Mirror.

“Don’t worry, love,” said the photographer. “I’ll tell them you went through with it.” In addition to their camera duties, some snappers also reported on the reporters.

Not that reporters didn’t need a bit of stick now and again. Covering your patch could just as easily provide cover for an afternoon at the cinema or the pub and on occasion did.

Newsroom efficiencies have cut down on that sort of waste thank goodness and today’s Boy and Girl Reporters can manage their daily rounds without leaving the office.

Nowhere have these efficiencies been felt more keenly than in the realm of the local reporter. It’s a fight for survival but the slashing of editorial jobs in community newspapers and the restructuring of distinguished rural titles has an air about it of ‘destroying the village to save the village’.

A reporter’s rounds are as much about people as they are about the overnight crime stats and the latest council decisions. If you want to know what’s going on you have to be there. You have to be familiar with the mundane before you can recognise the extraordinary.

Sometimes it’s only by knowing the people who are providing the information that you can get behind the dry report to what’s really going on. They’re called contacts for a reason. And staying in contact is probably the hardest part of the ‘local’ reporter’s lot, even with the glories of mobile technology.

So if you should stumble across a shy Boy or Girl Reporter actually out and about in the community they serve, spare a thought and perhaps a cuppa. They don’t get out as much as they used to.

Further reading:

Richie Benaud dead: In the newsroom and on the field he was a gentleman – Max Presnell, Sydney Morning Herald

25 things that have changed about journalism during my quarter century as a hack – Tim Burrowes, Mumbrella

The news we lose when we cut local newspapers – Shawn Burns, The Conversation

Layoffs/buyouts/staff cuts – the view from America, from Poynter

Fairfax cuts jobs in regional South Australia – Just one recent Australian tale of woe, from the ABC


Once I was a Girl Reporter, working in newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and the UK. Now I’m an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and anything else that takes my fancy. Read more Baxter here. 

Greste, Page, Ware and Wockner – a century of journalism on the frontline

It was an ambitious undertaking to cram more than 100 years of experience of war correspondence into the ceremonial Banco Court at Brisbane’s Supreme Court building on Tuesday 28 July for an hour-long discussion of armed conflict and the media.

Peter Greste, Tim Page, Michael Ware and Cindy Wockner rose to the occasion, running only half an hour over time to include some questions from the floor, in a discussion moderated by Tara Gutman from the Australian Red Cross.

The focus was International Humanitarian Law, which provides protection to journalists, recognising them as civilians in conflict situations. It’s a concept that is increasingly under threat.

The evidence was before the court – Greste was still waiting for the outcome of his Egyptian trial in absentia on terrorism charges. Ware is the only foreign correspondent to survive being kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in Iraq and has recently documented the toll of his experiences in the film Only the Dead.

Page, who still carries the physical consequences of his time covering the Vietnam War, agreed that rules of war were fantastic on paper. “But when you come to a bunch of goons at a roadblock, holding up the Geneva Convention is not going to do a lot for your personal safety,” he said.

“Wars are feral and groups like IS have no respect for rules, no respect for the media, because they don’t believe the media would respect their point of view. In Vietnam the role of foreign correspondents was respected because we were largely seen to be impartial.”

Ware agreed: “In most recent conflicts there has been a shift in the tectonic plates. More so than ever before journalists are being perceived by the different players as legitimate military targets.”

Greste said the serious erosion of respect for journalists was not limited to IS.

“In a lot of respects what happened to us in Egypt is an example,” he said. We were regarded and treated as propagandists for a terrorist organisation and this is new. I think it is connected to the abstract nature of the War on Terror. Governments are targeting journalists in ways they haven’t in the past.”

Would a badge help? Gutman said there was currently discussion among human rights lawyers about a possible emblem for foreign correspondents, similar to the Red Cross and Crescent.

“If there was an emblem I wouldn’t wear it,” Ware said. “It would increase the likelihood of targeting. Also, if I’m a civilian in a war zone why should I have a symbol that distances me from other civilians?”

“As a photographer I already looked like a walking Christmas tree so I don’t think it would have made a difference to wear a badge. But I was never targeted. If anything wearing a camera guaranteed my safety,” Page said.

Page was wounded four times, once by ‘friendly fire’ in Vietnam. His war ended when he jumped out of a helicopter to help load the wounded and the person in front of him stepped on a landmine.  He was pronounced dead at the hospital and required extensive neurosurgery, spending most of the 1970s in recovery.

News Corp’s Wockner has covered major stories, many in Indonesia including the Bali bombings, the devastation of Aceh in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and the executions of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

She pointed out the problem wasn’t the rules. “If we are talking about a way to protect journalists the rules are there they just need to be enforced. The question is what shape does that take?”

It’s a question asked as the shape of journalism and the way it’s consumed is itself undergoing a seismic shift.

“These days social media has changed the way we see and visualise conflicts,” Wockner said. “What we are talking about now is not the traditional newspaper. That’s not where most people are getting their news from, particularly in the current Isis conflict where everything is being uploaded constantly.”

At what point does a journalist step out from behind the mantle of civilian observer and declare a war crime?

“I would feel very uncomfortable describing something as a war crime,” Wockner said. “It is our role to bear witness but as a journalist should you be saying there are people who should be indicted? A court of law is the only place qualified to determine that.”

Greste agreed. “At what point does something become a violation? We are not lawyers we are journalists.

“In Afghanistan we came upon a massacre and it was quite clear from the location who was responsible and we called it out as a war crime. We got death threats because of that.

“The people involved could live with the massacre but accusing them of a war crime changed the dynamic and we had to work alongside these groups so it wasn’t helpful.”

Selfie time for Peter Greste and Tim Page. Picture by Marianne Harris

Selfie time for Peter Greste and Tim Page. Picture by Marianne Harris

Ware, who described himself as “the worst kind of war correspondent – a failed lawyer,” also questioned whether it was incumbent on journalists to call out war crimes. “We all struggle in the field with what we have witnessed and the moral conundrum to continue recording or to intervene. That is something I continue to struggle with,” he said.

“But the use of ‘war crime’ – that’s a very potent form of words and should always be used very, very carefully.”

“Most crimes of war make great photographs,” Page said.

“They show an absence of humanity and all the things we respect. As a photographer it’s your duty to be there. Much violence happens in a war and we only manage to get a few shots of it.”

What shots are acceptable and how do journalists decide in a world where their role as a filter of the worst atrocities is over?

“There is a limit,” Page said. “There is a way of making a hardcore picture into something more meaningful but I don’t think it does any good to publish images that are just disgusting.”

“It’s desensitising,” Greste said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be showing war in all its gruesomeness but we must be aware that it does have an impact on society and every journalist, every editor has struggled with it.”

“We are seeing really ghastly images – the most recent example was the little boy with the severed head,” Wockner said. “But it raises the question of what is palatable and how much do we hide what’s going on?”

Ware agreed, pointing to the challenge of reporting on the infamous beheading videos. “How do you represent that beheading without crossing the line? Every broadcaster has struggled with that and most have dealt with it by showing a few seconds and then cutting away. The challenge is to represent the horror of it but still have regard to human decency.”

The challenges are compounded by the constrained economic circumstances of traditional publishers and broadcasters but while editors may struggle with how certain images may impact the bottom line, it’s not a question which has a place in the field.

“We are not thinking about how the company pays the bills, we are just getting on with the job,” Ware said. “When you are out there it is your humanity that is driving you, not business.”

“As reporters we are here because we believe in the principles of openness,” Greste said. Of course there is always room for debate but we need to be able to do our jobs for a free and accountable society. Whether it helps or hinders is up to the academics to decide.”

Peter Greste is an Australian journalist and Peabody award winner. He was released in February 2015 after being held in an Egyptian prison for 400 days for crimes he did not commit. As your Girl Reporter was going to press he was still waiting, in absentia, for a verdict in his trial.

Peter Greste – the man behind the headlines – The Walkley Foundation, 12 April 2015

Tim Page was recently named one of the 100 most influential photographers of all time, having covered Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan, East Timor and other arenas of conflict in a long and distinguished career. In April this year he gave an interview to the ABC:

Photographer remembers Vietnam War 50 years after Australian troops arrive – ABC News, 29 April 2015

Michael Ware is a former war correspondent for CNN and TIME, now writer and producer of film and television, including war documentary Only the Dead.

Michael Ware opens up about his experiences in Only the Dead –, 4 June 2015

Cindy Wockner is national investigations editor at News Corporation Newspapers Australia and has been its boots on the ground in both Indonesia and Nigeria. She was among the first foreign journalists to arrive in Aceh and her reflection 10 years on of covering that disaster is well worth a read:

Journalism matters: Reporting from the ruins – Courier-Mail, 12 November 2014

The Brisbane event Pen and Sword: Media and Armed Conflict was one of two panel discussions organised by Red Cross Australia to coincide with the publication of its Red Cross IHL magazine Pen and Sword: Journalism and IHL

Your Girl Reporter blogs fortnightly on the past, present and future of journalism – from growing up in Hong Kong, to working in the UK and now observing the state of the world from my native Australia. Read more Baxter here.

Go set a cat amongst the pigeons

Dads, eh? You think you know ‘em and then one day you grow up and measure them against the complex realities of the world and find them wanting. Before Atticus Finch became everyone’s ideal dad his daughter seems to have written a novel about that painful realisation which comes to each of us the day we realise our dad is not a hero, just a man like other men.

I have yet to read Go Set a Watchman beyond its early release first chapter but it seems to have upset some reviewers. They have complained about the lumpy narrative, the meandering pace and the rusty-from-disuse language of a different age.

And, each in their own way, has mourned the chipping at the monument to Ideal Dadhood that was Atticus Finch.

Daniel d’Addario in his review for Time is explicit:

“Atticus, more than any other character, has stood for justice and righteousness in the American imagination. And now he’s revealed as a bigot? Perhaps especially as anxieties rise over the apparent absence of justice in racially charged cases, it seems somehow too much. We need heroes in our fiction, at least.”

Perhaps. But I’m a reader who has always found more interest in the clay feet on which they stand. If our heroes can be human, it follows that we too can be heroes.

The thing I’m looking forward to most of all about Go Set a Watchman is sharing Lee’s voyage of discovery around her father. She couldn’t have known when she rewrote parts of it to create To Kill a Mockingbird that her little first novel would have the impact that it did.

If we can stop projecting ourselves into our own imaginary Maycomb childhoods for a moment it may help to understand why she set Watchman aside for so long. The Atticus Finch we will meet in this book will be the same man we, and she, loved so well.

It would be a brave person to go lightly shattering a childish illusion that’s so universally shared. And for what? Unresolved daddy issues?

We all have them but what will make Harper Lee’s account so interesting is the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. Thanks to the simplicity of Mockingbird, Harper Lee is in a perfect spot to discuss the complexities of racism. I suspect discovering the troubling out of date views of an older relative is just the start.

Lee was writing at a violent time in America’s troubled race relations. Her book arrives at another violent time in that country, which may account for some of the unease around Watchman.

But it’s not just in the United States that Mockingbird made its mark. The sordid experience of racism is universal and entrenched in ways that are sometimes hard to see when you’re perched on one of the privileged branches of the human family tree, wherever you hail from.

The power of Mockingbird was to show us through a child’s eyes the glaring injustice of racism that’s hiding in plain sight. The power of Watchman may turn out to be an adult realisation that there’s more to ending racism than saying “I’m not a racist.”

Taking the good from your childhood heroes and learning to leave the rest, that’s what growing up’s about. We all want to be like Atticus Finch and have the courage to stand up against injustice. Failing that, we want him to turn up and face off the haters for us. Instead we find him standing with them on those clay feet, planted firmly in the traditions and beliefs he himself was raised in.

It’s a mark of progress that we can find his views outdated.

But after a look at his clay feet let’s take a look at our own – the institutions and lazy habits that perpetuate racism in our society on a long and ugly continuum from casual bigotry to violence and death.

If Scout Finch can grow up and deal with the devastating realisation that racism exists in the very fabric of her upbringing then so can we. Are we grown up enough to take that journey?

Can we be heroes?

Further reading:

Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ gives Atticus Finch a dark side – Michiko Kakutani, New York Times review 10 July 2015

Atticus Finch’s racism makes Scout, and us, grow up – Daniel D’Addario, Time review 11 July 2015

Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ reveals a darker side of Maycomb – David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times review 11 July 2015

The ‘rise’ of the Aboriginal woman: From domesticated cow to cash cow – Chelsea Bond, New Matilda

White people may deny it but racism is back in Britain – Yasmin Alibhai Brown, The Independent

Want more Baxter? You can read more Books I Haven’t Read here 

Once I was a Girl Reporter, working in newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and the UK. Now I’m an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and anything else that takes my fancy. Read more Baxter here. 

The highs and lows of living with an immune disorder

It was inevitable that a big life change like buying a house would spark a flare-up of an immune disorder which reacts to stress. Anything which deviates from the flat line of normality is a risk. My particular flavour is called Ankylosing Spondylitis but I’m writing this post for anyone who ever feels the effects of stress.

My reaction to stress might be extreme but it is something which affects all of us in its own unique way and yet it is widely misunderstood. I am less surprised these days by the things I find ‘stressful’ but it has taken a long time and many visits to the emergency clinic to appreciate the way little things can build upon each other to ratchet up the pressure.

The role of stress in my condition wasn’t made clear to me until I was more than 20 years in to living with it when I saw a specialist in Brisbane shortly before he retired.

He had treated my uncle Fred for the same condition in the past and so the first part of the consultation was spent reminiscing. He didn’t know Fred had died some years before from prostate cancer. But he was unsurprised to hear how hard he’d fought that illness, right to its bitter end.

He was a fighter, old Fred, much braver than me. Ankylosing spondylitis is a painful condition which primarily affects the spine, in extreme cases fusing the vertebrae into a fixed, immobile position.

Fred had it far worse than your Girl Reporter. He told me near the end that he had been in continuous pain until finally his spine fused completely. At least it didn’t hurt anymore.

Then he broke his neck and was delighted to be able to move his head freely for the first time in years. He was laughing as he told me that the horrified medical team, far from sharing his joy, put a stop to that before he could do any more damage to himself.

Fred’s experience was extreme and nothing like mine, which goes to show that everyone’s immune disorder plays out differently, whether it’s AS or anything else. I wish I could deal with mine with the same good grace as my uncle Fred but this isn’t a whinge fest, this is about the things which are the same.

When we got down to business the rheumatologist asked me what had been going on in my life recently. It was an odd question which no doctor had asked before. And yet, he said, he had never known a case of inflammation which didn’t have stress as its trigger.

In other words, a compromised immune system will react to any change – perhaps an elevated heart rate or a surge of adrenalin – as if the body is under serious attack.

In my case that means pain in any or all of my joints, cold-like symptoms and extreme tiredness. Sometimes, but not this time, it affects my eyes with painful inflammation of the iris called Iritis or Uveitis which can lead to blindness – a symptom my uncle Fred never experienced.

The thing about stress which is hardest to get to grips with is the fact that it is neither negative nor positive. As Hans Selye, who coined the term in 1936, put it: it’s “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”

Sounds simple enough, but we are accustomed to thinking of stress as purely negative. In the months of house-hunting, house-choosing, house-buying, house-moving I heard over and over, “Don’t worry.”

But I wasn’t worried. I was excited, I was happy. This was a great thing. And, sensing change in the wind, my immune system wheeled out the big guns and went on the attack.

The best I can hope for before, during and after a flare-up is to try and keep myself on an even keel both physically and emotionally. Change is inevitable for all of us so even if you don’t have the pleasure of something like AS you will have a non-specific reaction to change which may not be immediately obvious or understood.

Stress is acknowledged as a major factor in a range of physical and mental disorders and there are numerous recognised strategies for minimising its effects. The purpose of my article is not to expound the benefits of meditation or gardening but to highlight the elusive nature of stress itself.

The highs of life can be just as challenging as the lows, as my recent experience demonstrates.

The great excitement of moving into our dream home and finally putting down some roots after years of wandering has laid me low for weeks now. The pain has been manageable for most of it but the lethargy lingers on.

There’s a link at the end to a long but rather good explanation of the debilitating effects of chronic pain and fatigue using a simple spoon analogy.

Put briefly, every day begins with a calculation, the must-do against the want-to, with most things adding up to the can’t-manage.

This will pass and when it does, experience tells me, it will pass pretty instantly.

I know the fog is clearing because I’m writing this, after weeks of simply not having the energy for anything other than the essentials.

The fog will lift and all of a sudden I will be skipping down the street and jumping on to a train flushed with the excitement of a brief run down the station platform. It will be euphoric.

And that euphoria will be a new danger. Coming out of a stressful situation can be a whole new stressor. Even as I long for the fog to clear I must remember not to dance too long upon the sunlit slope when I finally reach it.

And that’s where meditation, bush walking or healthy eating and regular bedtimes show their worth. A strong base line, however you choose to maintain it, is the best way I’ve found to keep the sine wave of simply living within manageable bounds.

It’s not the most exciting strategy, nor does it offer any guarantees against another flare-up. But it does provide a degree of protection against the worst effects. And if it can do that for me, out here on the perimeter, then a little stress-resilience must be worth building whatever your non-specific reaction to it may be.

I’m taking a winter break. I’ll be back in July with more Adventures of a Girl Reporter, more delving into the Big Baxter story, more observations both light-hearted and serious. Til then, relax! It’ll be fun.

Further reading:

What is stress? – The American Institute of Stress

Explainer: What is the immune system? – The Conversation

The Spoon Theory – Christine Miserandino

Your Girl Reporter (usually) blogs fortnightly on the past, present and future of journalism – from growing up in Hong Kong, to working in the UK and now observing the state of the world from my native Australia. Read more Baxter here


Francis James – the long stumble to freedom

On 16 January 1973 Australian Francis James emerged from three years’ imprisonment in Canton (now Guangzhou) with just a brief announcement from China to herald his expulsion to the border and into the waiting arms of Hong Kong and Australian officials.

He collapsed at the Hong Kong border into the arms of John Slimming, Government Information Services director, and an Australian consulate official and was taken straight to the Matilda Hospital, a fair wreck of a man, according to my father the Big Baxter.

Australian newspaper The Age, which had secured a contract for the James story, dispatched top gun Creighton Burns to Hong Kong and had just one instruction for Bax, their local stringer – get a photographer.

“Greg Clark from The Australian got into the hospital room first and knocked off a strong piece for his paper. Francis was a bit embarrassed by it, because he was under contract to write his story for The Age in Melbourne and the Sydney Morning Herald,” Bax said.

“The Age had a top man coming in to handle things and I was given one task: to organise a photographer.”

If Bax was miffed at being overlooked to cover the story, he never said. It was the common lot of the stringer, after all. If anything I suspect he was happy to hand the story over to someone else because of his own friendship with Francis.

Bax said the best black-and-white photographer he knew in Hong Kong at the time was Dinshaw Balsara, who took the shots of Francis sitting up in bed in a dressing gown and an enormous black hat.

My father said he often wondered about the stories Francis told in those first crucial hours after he regained freedom.

“Ballsi would shake his head at me and say, ‘Your friend Francis, that’s some man.’ I suspect he told Ballsi some things he didn’t tell me,” Bax said.

What Francis told The Australian’s Greg Clark lay dormant for nearly 20 years. After Clark’s initial article, a furious Graham Perkin, Editor of The Age, slapped an injunction on him and his newspaper and the story was abandoned.

It’s a tale full of the fantastical flourishes that could only invite scepticism and yet, and yet… there was always an ‘and yet’ to every Francis James story and Clark’s account has a little beauty, right at the end.

If Francis told my father anything, Bax didn’t repeat a word of it. He always managed to sidestep the controversy that swirled around Francis like the folds of his signature black cape.

He spoke of him often but I never heard him give any kind of opinion on the veracity or otherwise of Francis’ story.

Derek Davies, the Editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, never lost his trenchant scepticism and, as Clark relates, his opinion was important to Francis in restoring his reputation.

“Derek and Francis saw some matters differently but I have no feelings or observations on their relationship,” was all my father would say.

Creighton Burns, The Age’s top man, noted that James in those early days at the Matilda didn’t want to talk, except to old friends, but once he started he couldn’t stop.

“He positively concentrates on not talking about China. But every now and then he is drawn back to some private association to those three years when he was shunted from one prison to another,” Burns wrote.

From his hospital bed he telephoned his tailor to apologise for not having paid his last bill, dated 1969. “I have been unavoidably detained old boy, for reasons beyond my control,” he is reported to have said.

His tailor forgave him – inviting Francis to his daughter’s wedding a few years later, as recounted by your own Girl Reporter in The Curse of James.

Then, according to Burns, he asked for someone to come and measure him for new clothes – striped pants, black jacket and court breeches of purple velvet.

“You know, those chaps took my shoes with the silver buckles – I can’t possibly understand why,” Francis told Burns.

Thanks for indulging me in a long run of articles about Francis James – these were prepared earlier and have got me through a stressful house move which, not unexpectedly, has left me struggling with a pretty severe bout with my old friend Ankylosing Spondylitis. If it keeps up I may take an early winter break, but I’ll be back with more Adventures of a Girl Reporter in a couple of weeks.

Further reading: 

The real Francis James story – Greg Clark, October 1992

James asks for purple velvet breeches – Creighton Burns, Sydney Morning Herald 18 January, 1973

Creighton Burns: an ornament to his profession – tribute by Michelle Grattan, The Age 24 January, 2008

Read more Baxter:

Francis James, International Man of Mystery

A masterclass in China watching in three parts:

Part one: The Francis James mystery

Part two: Who was Francis James?

Part three: Why was Francis James in jail?


China Watching masterclass: Why was Francis James in jail?

Why would the Chinese detain Francis James, a man long regarded in Australia as being sympathetic towards China and North Vietnam? That was the question posed by the Big Baxter in the final part of his series for The Age newspaper in Melbourne in 1971, which we’ve been revisiting as an example of the arcane art of China Watching.

If it was true that he was being held for “profiting from lies about China” what might those lies be? China had already denied that James’ visit to Sinkiang had taken place at all, putting a seal for many observers on their own doubts about his story that he had interviewed nuclear scientists there and found their program far more advanced than had been widely believed.

Since James had been widely discredited, there seemed little point in going to the trouble of locking him up. But what if there was enough truth in his report to make the Chinese keen to check his story out for themselves?

Among the many people who had cast doubt on Francis James’ story were experts from Columbia University and at least some of the Hong Kong-based journalists known as China Watchers.

What was China Watching? Bax described it as “counting the Mao badges in every picture and checking the top-people lists out of Peking (Beijing) more diligently than any teenager ever studies the top 20 pops.”

In spring 1969, when James’ controversial visit took place, Sino-Soviet relations were openly hostile. “China and Russia were in confrontation along hundreds of miles of their border and war – even nuclear war – was a real danger,” Bax wrote.

In March 1969, just before James entered China, armed skirmishes had broken out resulting in heavy casualties and for months there were fears the Soviet Union would launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike. At the same time Moscow was wooing unaligned Asian nations with the Brezhnev Plan, a security pact aimed at isolating China among its neighbours.

And then along came Francis James with his claims that China’s nuclear capacity was far more advanced than anyone realised.

What if, Bax wondered, James had made some error “in fact or in interpretation” when reporting on his visit to Sinkiang? How would the Chinese react, especially since James had also travelled through Russia?

What if the Chinese assumed that he got some of his material from the Soviet Union?

“So the most popular theory is that the Chinese arrested him because they suspected he had used material gathered by the Soviet intelligence system and because he embarrassed them among their Asian neighbours,” Bax wrote.

If James was facing espionage charges, there would no trial – and no official word – until he had written a satisfactory confession. “That is a pity, because the Chinese are bound to prove far more stubborn than James.”

One thing Bax was sure of, and went to great pains to stress, was that James would be treated well, contrary to the prevailing ideas of the time in Australia and the West:

“Stories of torture and brainwashing during the Korean war and Hollywood trash like Fu Man-chu films have done great damage to the image of Chinese prison officials. One old nun I once met believed all prisoners in China were given weekly ‘manicures’ by plier-wielding gaolers.”

In fact, foreigners imprisoned in China reported afterwards that they had been well treated and Bax included the testimony of a few in his report.

It was a small consolation in the absence of any news but, as Bax detailed, there was little more that could be done to find out what was happening until the Chinese were ready to speak.

Official approaches had yielded nothing, enquiries from friends and supporters had met with silence. In London a committee had been set up to work for James’ freedom, presumably through companies with Chinese business interests and diplomats from friendly countries.

Apart from that, Bax reported he had raised the matter many times with journalists from Hong Kong’s communist newspapers who visited China.

“They always return with no news and I have great doubts as to whether they actually made inquiries,” Bax wrote.

“Any communist reporter from Hong Kong who runs around in China asking questions about foreign prisoners would risk having questions raised about his political integrity.”

And there the story rested for almost another two years until, just as Bax had predicted, James turned up one day at the border.

“An immigration official on the Hong Kong side will reach for a telephone and that will be the first anyone hears that the ordeal has ended,” Bax had said. And so it proved, but that’s a subject for a later post.

Final part of a Baxter Special Report into the arcane art of China Watching, based on a three-part feature in The Age newspaper. Links below to previous posts or skip to Further Reading if you just want to read my father’s original articles for The Age.

Part One:  The Francis James mystery: A masterclass in China Watching

Part Two: China Watching masterclass with Francis James

Further reading:

Part one: Francis James: where is he? – Jack Spackman, The Age 16 March, 1971

Part Two: Puzzle of his great scoop – Jack Spackman, The Age 17 March, 1971

Part Three: Was he pawn in war game? – Jack Spackman, The Age 18 March, 1971

Sino-Soviet Border Disputes (March 1969) – from ‘Nixon’s China Game,’ PBS

Your Girl Reporter blogs fortnightly on the past, present and future of journalism – from growing up in Hong Kong, to working in the UK and now observing the state of the world from my native Australia. Read more Baxter here

China Watching masterclass with Francis James

In November 1969 Australian Francis James was last seen in China, trying unsuccessfully to cross the border back into Hong Kong. For three years there was no word on his whereabouts although it was widely assumed he was being held by the Chinese. In 1971 my father the Big Baxter wrote a three-part feature for The Age newspaper in Melbourne on the Francis James mystery which today is a masterclass in China Watching. After setting out the story of his disappearance in part one, Bax turned his attention to why James was of interest to China in the first place. 

While the Chinese authorities were silent on Francis James, Bax cited one report, unattributed but accepted as reliable by experienced China-watchers, that James had been held ‘for making profit out of lies about China’. That report, according to Greg Clark writing after James’ death in 1992, came from Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett.

To appreciate the full meaning of such a charge Bax wrote, “we must re-examine why James went to China in 1969, not once but twice, and what he did the first time he was there”.

But before we get into the second part of our masterclass, who was Francis James before he made his highly contentious visit to China in March 1969? His obituary in the UK’s Independent newspaper describes him as, among other things, “publisher, businessman, journalist, airman, churchman and prisoner.”

His attire included silver-buckled shoes and breeches of purple velvet, finished on a flourish with a cape, a wide-brimmed hat and dark glasses. The hat and glasses were to protect his eyes, seriously damaged when his Spitfire was shot down in World War II.

Your bespectacled Girl Reporter can attest that Francis’ contact lenses, made especially for him by a Harley Street specialist, were terrifying thick, hard discs of enormous size which were enough to convince me to go glasses all the way.

Back in Sydney after the war, James edited and published The Anglican, an independent newspaper with a distinctly High Church Tory tone, and never stopped referring to what we today call the ‘mainstream media’ as the ‘secular press’.

He printed the original Oz magazine on The Anglican’s hallowed presses when no other printer would touch it and was consequently a defendant in the first Oz trial of 1964.

He was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War and in 1965 persuaded Australian bishops to write an open letter to Robert Menzies, then prime minister, calling for an honourable and peaceful settlement.

In 1966 he stood, unsuccessfully, for Parliament on an anti-war platform and, in March 1969, where Bax resumes his story for The Age, James was in Hong Kong after a friendly visit to Hanoi.

Bax, stringing for the Sydney Morning Herald, was asked to get a comment from James who had just been named in the Australian Parliament by then prime minister John Gorton as a “well known apologist for North Vietnam”.

In the course of their half-hour conversation, James told my father that he was heading to Russia, via the remote areas of north-western China and would be leaving Hong Kong “in three days.” It was this first trip to China and its aftermath that Bax explored in detail in the second part of his feature for The Age.

James had returned from this visit with sensational claims that he had visited the Lop Nor nuclear weapons site in the remote province of Sinkiang and interviewed three of China’s leading nuclear scientists.

The trouble was that experts and prominent journalists – including the respected Editor of Hong Kong’s Far Eastern Economic Review Derek Davies – regarded many of his claims as unlikely, right down to whether he had actually visited China at all.

I imagine James’ humiliation would have been complete when he attended a luncheon in New York with a group of church leaders on the very day in July 1969 that a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry denied James had visited the nuclear test sites.

For anyone who knew Francis James, the idea that he would return to China in an effort to clear his name seemed reasonable according to Bax, who again starts at the beginning and works through the evidence, clearly showing us his workings, including his own failure to ask an important question.

Bax admits he was puzzled as to how James had scored a visa for China but never got around to asking about it because “James is one of those people who make the impossible sound easy and the difficult sound trivial”.

He retraces James’ known movements in the days before he left Hong Kong bound, not for China, but for New Delhi and compares his claimed itinerary with flight schedules to determine, in the end, that the disputed China trip was possible, if unusual.

What was also unusual was that when James returned to Hong Kong in October that year on his way back to China he failed to contact any of his Hong Kong friends, a group which included my father although he does not make that explicit in his articles.

Bax also noted that the October trip to China, which ended in mystery, was not on James’ itinerary when he left Australia six months earlier.

James crossed the border into China on 24 October 1969 and was seen four or five days later “holding court” in a lounge in a Canton hotel.

On 4 November he caught the train from Canton to Hong Kong.

“According to the Foreign Affairs Department in Canberra he was seen on the train by a group of travellers and these same people later saw him arguing at the border with Chinese officials,” Bax wrote.

“They crossed over the bridge into British territory, but he did not. And since that day nobody outside China has seen or heard anything of him.”

Part Two of a Baxter Special Report into the arcane art of China Watching, based on a three-part feature in The Age newspaper. Links below if you want to read ahead or stay tuned for the last part of this masterclass in my next post.

You can also catch up with Part One here: A masterclass in China-watching

Further reading:

Part one: Francis James: where is he? – Jack Spackman, The Age 16 March, 1971

Part Two: Puzzle of his great scoop – Jack Spackman, The Age 17 March, 1971

Part Three: Was he pawn in war game? – Jack Spackman, The Age 18 March, 1971

Burchett, Wilfred Graham (1911-1983) – Tom Heenan for the Australian Dictionary of Biography

And more from Your Girl Reporter on Francis James:

Francis James – international man of mystery

The Curse of James 

Your Girl Reporter blogs fortnightly on the past, present and future of journalism – from growing up in Hong Kong, to working in the UK and now observing the state of the world from my native Australia. Read more Baxter here

A masterclass in China Watching

In November 1969 an Australian named Francis James disappeared without trace. He was travelling by train from the southern China city of Canton, now called Guangzhou, to Hong Kong. He was last seen by his fellow passengers at the border arguing with Chinese officials.

A year had gone by with no word of James or his whereabouts when in January 1971 my father the Big Baxter sent a telegram to Chou En-lai, Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China, pleading for information.

It was the springboard for a three-part feature Bax wrote for The Age which, in their entirety, make for a pretty good masterclass in the arcane art of China Watching.

From 1949 through to the 1970s the People’s Republic of China was largely closed to the outside world, making straightforward reporting of its affairs impossible. Thus was born the China Watcher – a term which covered journalists, diplomats and spies.

Most of them were based in Hong Kong and their work consisted of endless weighing and measuring of the official against the unofficial in an attempt to get a glimpse of what was actually going on behind the Bamboo Curtain.

What’s interesting about Bax’s articles on Francis James is the way he shows us his workings. He’s very upfront about the limits of his investigation and leaves it to us, the readers, to judge whether his conclusions stand up.

He’s less upfront about something which today would probably be considered a glaring journalistic omission. While he drops enough hints to make it reasonably clear, he never explicitly mentions that he and Francis James were friends.

While they were close friends in later years I have no idea how well they knew each other before James’ imprisonment but the nature of both men leads me to presume they would have taken a pretty instant liking to each other.

And, once he’d done his spell in the Matilda Hospital after his release, it was to the Baxter residence in Macdonnell Road that James repaired for the remainder of his recovery.

When I read today Bax’s three-parter for The Age I find the same mixture of fond regard and caution that he always seemed to hold in equal measure for Francis.

Without his underlying friendship for his subject I wonder if my father would have written such a scrupulously detailed account of all his sources, named and unnamed – and for the purposes of our China Watching masterclass, note well when sources are unnamed.

Bax’s cable to Chou En-lai went unanswered, the latest failed attempt to establish James’ whereabouts.

“If one deals only in hard facts, all we can say is that nobody outside China knows where James is or what is happening to him,” Bax wrote for The Age.

“But, if one is prepared to accept reasonable theories and to believe there is a pattern in official Chinese behaviour, then it is possible to put together a fairly credible picture of what is happening to James today.”

Bax proceeded to lay out those theories and make the case for and against each one.

He drew on meticulous research of what little information was on the official record, the testimony of eyewitnesses and inferences drawn from what was known of James’ character.

It was possible that James had left China by some unknown route, said Bax, but highly unlikely.

“One of his better acquaintances has pointed out that if he had left China surreptitiously he would now have to be living somewhere in anonymity. To the people who know the gregarious Francis James such a suggestion is laughable.”

So, assuming that James was in China, Bax (prime suspect for the role of ‘better acquaintance’) next asked where exactly he might be.

He discounted a report that James might be under room arrest in a Canton (now Guangzhou) hotel called the Hsien Chiao.

No such place, Bax’s research confirmed, although there was a hotel by that name in Peking (now Beijing), well known to anyone in the China-watching business – citing two foreign correspondents who had stayed there.

One was Reuter’s Anthony Grey who stayed at the Hsien Chiao as a free man in 1967 on his first night in Beijing. He was later imprisoned (elsewhere) by the Chinese from 1967-69.

The other was British journalist Eric Gordon who was held under room arrest in the same hotel for more than a year with his wife and teenage son when his employment with the communist regime was disrupted during the Cultural Revolution.

“Any report that places it 1000 miles south of its actual position must be suspect, in full and in detail,” said Bax.

If he was in Canton, he was probably in the main prison. Bax related the story of another good friend of the Baxters, the cartoonist and journalist Bill Yim.

Yim had spent a year in the Canton prison after getting picked up by the authorities while on assignment for UPI. After six months behind bars he was tried as an American spy and sentenced to 12 months, with the time already served taken into account.

It was possible James had been transferred to a Beijing prison, depending on the charges he was facing but they were unknown. Bax explored that option with another renowned China Watcher, Norman Barrymaine, also a former prisoner of the Chinese.

Bax said there had been one report, accepted as reliable by experienced China Watchers, that James had been held ‘for making profit out of lies about China.’

No attribution is given for that one report and we’re left to assume that he’s run it past each of the experienced China Watchers he’s already mentioned and each has given it their blessing.

After all that meticulous showing of his workings, it’s a glaring omission but it allows him to finish part one with a set-up to part two – the complicated question of why Francis James might have been imprisoned in the first place.

Links below if you want to read ahead or stay tuned for more Baxter. I’ll be returning to this masterclass in my next post.

Further reading:

Part one: Francis James: where is he? – Jack Spackman, The Age 16 March, 1971

Part Two: Puzzle of his great scoop – Jack Spackman, The Age 17 March, 1971

Part Three: Was he pawn in war game? – Jack Spackman, The Age 18 March, 1971

And an excellent introduction to China Watching:

Assignment: China – China Watching – from the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute

Your Girl Reporter blogs fortnightly on the past, present and future of journalism – from growing up in Hong Kong, to working in the UK and now observing the state of the world from my native Australia. Read more Baxter here

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