There is an old movie line I often recall: A life filled with activity suggests a life filled with purpose.
I have no hesitation in borrowing that line in applying it is an apt portrayal of well-known Australian author and journalist; Margo Kingston. I’ve been a big fan of Margo’s since her book Not happy, John hit the shelves in 2004, so I was chuffed to be granted an interview with her last week. I was to discover just how active and purposeful her life has been, and still is, and that there is far more to Margo than the book which first introduced her to me.
But first, a little background.
Margo, a Queenslander, graduated from university with a degree in arts and law and practised as a solicitor in Brisbane before lecturing in commercial law in Rockhampton. The move to journalism saw her working for The Courier-Mail and within a year moved to The Times on Sunday. She had since worked for The Age, The Canberra Times and A Current Affair before moving to The Sydney Morning Herald, where she worked until her retirement in August 2005. Her first book was Off The Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip which recounted her experiences (as a journalist) on the One Nation Party’s election campaign in the 1990s. She is also known for her now defunct blog, Webdiary.
“Writing the book about the One Nation Party experience was a testing time for me and I vowed never to write another book again. I didn’t consider myself an author or a person willing to be one. A journalist, yes. An author, no” recalled Margo. At this point I was wondering why she later decided to write Not happy, John, however, a slight hesitation on my behalf gave her the opportunity to proceed with an explanation. “While I was working for the Sydney Morning Herald I was invited by Phillip Adams (from Radio National’s Late Night Live) to be on the discussion panel of the Adelaide Festival of Ideas. It was there that Phillip tapped me on the shoulder and said I needed to write a book about John Howard. Of course, the answer was an insistent ‘no’ but the response was “it’s your duty” and one thing led to another and before I knew it I found myself writing Not happy, John“.
It wasn’t long before the book put her on the outer with her employer.
“After a long-term Government everyone in the media seems quite happy with how the country is governed and so after many years of Howard the Sydney Morning Herald had drifted slowly to the right. The publication of the book was frowned upon and my run-ins with the SMH editor are now famous”.
I could sense that Margo is more excited about her post-SMH life, even though when she began her new incarnation she did so as an emotionally shattered soul.
“From the time Not happy, John hit the shelves I was battered from pillar to post at the SMH. They grilled me relentlessly because of the damage this could cause to Howard. I put up with this shit for a few months before I limped away in search of a new Margo Kingston. The old Margo Kingston was driven from the head and now felt broken. Everything was draining the life out of me, even running Webdiary. I’d had enough. The new Margo was going to be driven from the heart and that’s how my life flowed over the next seven years. My new love was my family, my garden, and especially my friends. The latter being the most important. I’m a disaster at love and I chose to lead a celibate life – and you can print that – as I don’t want relationships to interfere with the love between friends. I want friends, not lovers. I also wanted some recovery time”.
In this period of ‘recluse’ Margo began a degree in nursing. It was difficult for me to understand how one of Australia’s best-known journalists would consider such a move, as admirable as it was. “It was the new Margo” she reminded me. “The new Margo that was going to be driven by the heart. I just knew it was the right thing to do”.
Then, after taking an interest in social media recently and recognising what a wonderful and powerful tool it is, the passion for media slowly returned. But it was more than that; it was also the realisation that the old media was leading this country down a dangerous path.
“Journalists used to be a bridge between the people and the powerful. Journalists used to be outside the circle but now they’re inside the circle. They’ve joined the powerful and this very dangerous for a democracy”.
Now she was firing up.
“It’s scary that the media are not doing their job. Many journalist friends have expressed the same concerns; they don’t feel as though they are traditional journalists anymore, they are simply writing what the powerful want them to write. The real turning point for me came after Mark Scott’s treatment of John Faine recently. That was f*cking pathetic. Faine was doing his job and Scott publicly chastised him. The ABC under Scott has lost it’s way. I repeat, it’s pathetic. I’m not going to let that episode go away. It’s the social media users, such as Twitter users and bloggers that will do something about it. We need to keep pushing it”.
The firing continued. “Fairfax, the ABC and even Crikey are too f*cking timid to do anything to upset the powerful. It’s up to social media. And there are journalists in the traditional media who secretly admit that the new, independent media is the way of the future and we must join with them. We need to build a bridge between the new media and journalists who see the corruption within the mainstream media. We need to collaborate and work together. We can do this by luring traditional journalists into the new media and free them of their shackles. If we do this, one day we in the new media will look back and be grateful for the decisions we make today”.
And how does all this feel? “It’s just like the good old days of Webdiary. Social media provides a forum for all Australians and I’m loving it. Without Twitter and my own newly established site Australians For Honest Politics I couldn’t have got the fight back. I see hope now. But first we need to build those bridges”.
Who better to lay the first plank than Margo Kingston?
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