#Fakenews and facts: Journalism in the age of Trump

Fake-NewsPresident Donald Trump, who has railed endlessly against the mainstream media’s criticisms of him through the popular mantra of FAKE NEWS recently turned to his attention to fellow Australian journalist Jonathan Swan, a former Fairfax Media colleague.

Swan, who previously covered Australian politics for the Sydney Morning Herald (an affiliate of my newspaper The Australian Financial Review) has made a name for himself in Washington writing for American news website, Axios and interviewing major White House players like Jared Kushner, the son-in-law and senior adviser to  President Trump.

Swan recently drew the wrath of the leader of the free world when he co-wrote an article on Axios this week that claimed President Trump wanted to “explore using nuclear weapons to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States”.

President Trump responded in characteristic fashion to a story that did not paint him in a very good light:

But Swan stood his ground, replying:

Axios doubled down on its defense of the story, with CEO and co-founder Jim Vandehei writing that the publisher stands solidly behind its reporting, which he said was “meticulously sourced”

“Since we published, additional sources have corroborated our account,” Vandehei added.

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Australian journo Jonathan Swan

Axios has as a key element of its ‘Manifesto’ – ‘Don’t sell BS’ and so stakes its reputation on always been accurate.

 

This of course is the personal manifesto of any good journalist working today (including myself) and has been so since Gutenberg invented the printing press.

But its especially true now as ‘serious journalism (for want of a better word) is upended by the ability for anyone to set up a website and claim to be an authority and respected source of ‘real’ news.

However, all journalists, even brilliant ones, make mistakes from time to time, perhaps more frequently now in the age of 24/7 news and social media.

I don’t know of any journalist, including myself, who has not made an error in a story, big or small. It’s part of the job.

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President Trump 

However, a genuine mistake should never been confused with  FAKE NEWS which has been around long before Donald Trump set foot in the Oval Office and made it his mantra.

 

The tag FAKE NEWS should only be applied to news stories that are not only plainly wrong, but deliberately written so by either including untruths, half-truths, fabricated information or made-up quotes, or by deliberately excluding important information.

A story can be plainly wrong, but not be FAKE NEWS. These stories are easy to spot because a correction, clarification, retraction and/or apology will follow.

However, in the era of Trump, the boundaries have been deliberately blurred.

Trump’s favourite FAKE NEWS targets like The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN are broadly regarded as good sources of objective news, while those he admires and promotes, like Fox News (most of the time) have less then stellar track records on truth and objectivity.

It also got me thinking (based on my own experiences and those of my colleagues) about the reasons journalists make mistakes..

These I suggest are the main reasons good journalists sometimes make bad mistakes:

  1. Making incorrect or dubious assumptions
  2. Misreading or misinterpreting a document or pertinent piece of information
  3. Not verifying information supposedly from a supposed trusted source
  4. Not properly understanding the subject matter.
  5. Relying on poor sources for tip-offs and comments
  6. Poor judgement
  7. Tiredness, being rushed for time (a by product of the age we write in)
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My father the serial killer: discovering the real Shannon O’Leary?

out-of-the-fire-and-into-the-panIt’s hard to write an honest review about ‘Out of the Fire and into the Pan’, the second memoir penned by the Australian actor, performer and songwriter Shannon O’Leary, without confessing that a large part of my motivation for reading it was finding out the identity of the author.

Shannon O’Leary is a pseudonym adopted at the request of her family.

Her first memoir, ‘The Blood on My Hands’ which I read and reviewed almost 3 years ago, dealt with the author’s horrific childhood, where she was sexually, physically and emotionally abused by her father Patrick, a sadistic serial killer (never caught) whom the author witnessed murder young women on the rural outskirts of Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s.

Out of the Fire and into the Pan, which begins with the author’s move from Port Macquarie to the inner suburbs of Sydney aged 15, is the story of O’Leary’s bumpy journey through a string of failed relationships with damaged men to becoming a mother of five kids and entrepreneur. It also charts her eventful and ultimately successful career in the entertainment industry.

While I was curious from the start to know who O’Leary really is (not too many memoirs claim a serial killer for a father) the stimulus to try and solve this mystery actually came from O’Leary herself: her second memoir seemed packed full of clues about her real identity.

For instance, she writes that in 1977:

I was always busy acting. I had a guest spot on a well-known soap opera, appeared in some television commercials and gained some extra work on a few films

A footnote identifies the soap opera as ‘The Restless Years’ and so I spent a great deal of time trawling through the list of actors that appeared on the show, to try and work out which one was Shannon O’Leary.

When that proved fruitless, I tried Googling her work as a ‘reporter’ on popular television show from the early 1980s, and another, a childrens show, she said she appeared on called the Super Flying Fun Show.

Later in the memoir, she mentions a scandalous story about her that appeared in a gossip column when she was dating a much old British-born cinematographer called ‘Henry’ and again I dug around online looking for the article without any luck.

She also writes about her work on a 1980s ABC mini-series  where she agonised about having to appear topless in an embrace with a “young blond Shakespearean actor [who] was already a star in Britain”.

All these clues were enticing, but led me down rabbit holes and towards red herrings.

In the end, it was the return address on the back of the package which contained my review copy of her book which proved the most valuable clue. After a bit of digging and cross-referencing of property records, I discovered who she was and soon came across the concise Wikipedia page of the real Shannon O’Leary. I also found other stories about her and her family online.

While, I do not plan to reveal who Shannon O’Leary really is – that was never my intention – I can say that the information online corroborates the major biographical details shared in her memoirs – though unsurprisingly, there is no mention of her disturbing childhood or who her father was.

It was also nice to see a photo of Shannon O’Leary and learn a bit about her interesting family, in particurlar her kids, which have also been successful in the entertainment sphere.

As for her second memoir, it is worthy sequel to the harrowing story of her childhood, and also an enjoyable chronicle of what life was like in Australia for a young aspiring actor and entertainer in the 1970s and 1980s.

The second memoir, while not nearly as shocking as the first book, still includes graphic flashbacks to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, who continues to make sadistic appearances in her life, a hissing shadow of a man that refues to go away, and whose crimes went completely unpunished.

I heard him laugh and opened my eyes to see him pointing the gun at me. The shot cracked out, whizzing over my head making me jump and teeter on the branch.” I think you can stay there for hours,” Dad said, as he walked inside.

Thankfully O’Leary also  takes time, amid the many traumatic and sad episodes, to recount her successes, big and small along the way. Most pleasingly for the reader there is a sense of progress, of building towards something hopeful: a loving relationship, a happy family and a comfortable home in a NSW country town.

Despite her abusive childhood, O’Leary emerges as a victor, as someone who triumphs over the rotten hand dealt to her at the start of her life. That she survived at all is a wonder, even she struggles to fathom:’Why was I spared?’

If I am to make any sort of criticism of her memoir, it would be to say that the author sometimes says too much when less would be better.

But that is a very minor criticism. O’Leary is good story teller, blessed with the gift of objective self-reflection. All of her experiences are retold with a feeling of ardent authenticity. The key moments in her life, both good and bad, become her “stepping stones” towards a place of relative normality.

For O’Leary,  the act of writing and telling her incredible story, as painful as that must have been at times, is way for her to liberate herself from her past and to find healing.

“Letting people know about my childhood was like I’d experienced a coming out – a shedding of skin,” she writes towards the end of her second memoir. “By writing the book and with my father dying (in 2009), I had liberation from my past.”

Don’t be a twit: Be careful what you tweet (or even retweet)

retweetI recently had a stark reminder of the potentially costly dangers lurking on social media.

It wasn’t even something I’d posted myself on Twitter, but just a simple and stupid retweet which brought the threat of legal action rushing into my inbox the next morning.

“RETWEETING A FALSE AND DEFAMATORY TWEET” the headline of the email read.

It was then explained to me, by the subject of the tweet, that the person who posted the original information – an anonymous person – had made an allegedly “fabricated allegation”.

Having been identified as one of the handful of people who had retweeted the provocative tweet, I was then invited to “provide proof” of the material I had in effect republished through the simple click of a mouse.

“I look forward to your apology and immediate removal of such retweet” – the email ended by saying.

Of course I had no proof and nor did I wish to be sued so I hastily undid my retweet and wrote an apology to the person who had contacted me.

It was the obvious and sensible thing to do.

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I have always been aware that you can be sued – and many have – for what you say on social media, and because of that I am quite careful not to put myself in the firing line.

But on this occasion my good sense deserted me, though I do recall a mental warning bell tinkling in the background at the moment I hovered over the retweet icon.

Thankfully, the aggrieved party was satisfied with my sincere apology and removal of the offending retweet, much to my relief and chagrin.

Now that the shock has worn off,  I am now deeply cognisant of what I tweet and retweet, post and share online. (What a strange world we live in!) and of course what I write on this blog.

In that regard, it still amazes me what people say about, and to one another on social media , often without hiding their identity at all.

It’s very brazen and defamatory stuff (most of which would never be uttered face-to-face in the ‘real world’) and carries with it the very real threat of a costly lawsuit should the subject of derision be upset enough to take action.

Indeed, there are many examples of people who have been sued, sacked or had their reputations damaged or destroyed by the things they have tweeted, posted and retweeted on the plethora of social media platforms that now dominate daily life.

Just type in “defamation + social media” into Google and you will find plenty of good reading material.

There is of course a very obvious reason why people sue others for what they say on social media and the word is ‘viral’. (Just ask this poor woman).

Information posted on these platforms can spread like wildfire via retweets, shares and likes. This phenomenon occurs everyday when unlikely tweets and posts start ‘trending’.

This point was highlighted by a judge in the first social media defamation case in Australia to proceed to full trial in 2013. In this case, the plaintiff – a high school music teacher – was awarded $105,000 in damages and costs after a former student at the school made false allegations about her on Twitter and Facebook.

District Court Judge Michael Elkaim remarked in his March 2014 judgement of Mickle v Farley that ” when defamatory publications are made on social media it is common knowledge that they spread”

“They are spread easily by the simple manipulation of mobile phones and computers. Their evil lies in the grapevine effect that stems from the use of this type of communication. I have taken that into account in the assessment of damages that I previously made,” the judge said.

This case, and many others around the world, should serve as a warning to anyone about the care one should take in how we represent ourselves online. Certainly tweeting or posting while drunk or mad with rage is not a good idea!

Even if you are rich and can afford a costly legal battle, there is also the potential damage to your reputation – just ask this famous billionaire.

Be careful what you tweet.

 

 

 

‘Black territory’: the dark story of Sunbury’s asylum on the hill

IMG-2945In 1945, Maraquita Sargeant, a young teacher and concert pianist living in rural Victoria was admitted to a notorious lunatic asylum north of Melbourne.

Here she would remain for the next 22 years, incarcerated against her will and tragically, completely sane.

Years after her release in a more enlightened and less cruel age, psychiatrists would describe Maraquita as being nothing more then “mildly eccentric”.

Her ‘lunacy’ in 1945: not wanting to have any more children.

Her youngest child, Tony, who was only 18 months old when his mother was taken away, calls the now empty lunatic asylum “black territory”.

“This is a black place. I don’t want to be here,” he says in a short video about his mother produced by Washington’s famous Smithsonian Institute.

This “black territory” is a place I have only recently discovered for myself.

It’s only a 20 minutes drive from where I live and somewhere I pass almost every day on my train ride into work.

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Maraquita Sargeant (from the Smithsonian video)

For months I’d thought the majestic looking red-brick mansion rising above trees on a distant hillside was a country estate, perhaps built long ago for a Melbourne land baron.

It was only when I found myself standing outside its locked-up gates, staring up at the classically proportioned Victorian structure with its steep black roof, long-tall chimneys and large empty windows that its real purpose came into focus.

Known originally as Caloola, the vast complex of mostly abandoned and decaying buildings was for over 100 years a lunatics asylum. It occupies almost the entire hillside of housing estate called Jacksons Hill.

In its most recent incarnation, until 2011, the asylum complex was a study campus occupied by Victoria University. Search online and you’ll find plenty of ghost stories.

Caloola’s history goes back over 150 years to 1864, when it became the site for one of Victoria’s  twelve ‘Industrial schools – institutionalised homes for delinquent or neglected children, that were a horror of diseases, death and discomfort in their own right.

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The ‘Hospital for the Insane’ or ‘Sunbury Asylum’ was built in 1879 and then expanded over the next 40-odd years into a complex of 20 separate buildings, including a psychiatric hospital.

Back then there would have been very little to see from the hillside apart from farmland and another famous Sunbury landmark, the grey-spired Rupertswood mansion – home of The Ashesgrey-spired Rupertswood mansion – home of The Ashes. Rupertswood was completed in 1876 and is now incorporated into a posh private school.

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Rupertswood: Home of The Ashes

While the building of a modern highway has made Sunbury an outlying suburb of Melbourne today, back in the 1870s, Caloola asylum inmates would have felt very isolated from the wealth and power of boom town Melbourne, then one of the richest cities in the world thanks to the Victorian Gold Rush.

This separation was of course deliberate – people considered ‘mad’ in those days like Maraquita Sargeant were locked up far away from the chattering middle-classes, often to be forgotten about or no longer mentioned (except in whispers) by their own families.

“Asylums were typically distant from population centres, with extensive grounds and ha ha walls to prevent escape,” the Victorian Heritage Database entry says of Caloola.

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This is black territory, a dark place of menace.

According to the VHD,  the purpose built Sunbury asylum with its “pavilion wards in brick with terra cotta roofing tiles conformed to international standards of asylum and hospital planning adopted in the later nineteenth century”.

“Caloola is of historical significance for its physical fabric and spaces which demonstrate nineteenth century attitudes to the treatment of mental illness, including the padded cells, ripple iron cells and dormitory accommodation.”

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An inmate of Sunbury asylum, in what appears to be a strait jacket

In the Smithsonian video, Tony Sargeant enters one of the claustrophobic former padded cells, the cushion lining peeling back from the wall like dead skin adding to the sense of horror. In another, he finds the large empty former linen room, where his mother spent her days monotonously patching up sheets and pillow cases.

“That was her big job in life. Even though she was a concert pianist,” Tony says.

Caloola remained a mental institution and training hospital until 1985 when it housed intellectually handicapped people.

From 1992 to 2011 it was a campus of Victorian University. Some of the building are still in use as a primary school, radio station, art gallery and theatre company.

For a while – after the university campus closed – a passionate local lady called Julie Mills and her husband ran popular two-hour guided tours of the asylum buildings providing insights into how the facility operated and how patients were treated at the time.

Ms Mills told the Sunbury Leader in November 2015 she wanted to shine a light on the mental health system in those days, and how it has changed, and tell the stories of some of the people treated, often harshly, within its walls.

“A lot of the Sunbury asylum history is about stigma and it is something that was buried in family histories,” she said.

Often people – many of them women – were placed into the asylum for conditions that today would be compassionately treated like post-natal depression,  or for just being drunk and disorderly.

In the case of Marquita Sargeant, she was denied her freedom – and later sent for a failed lobotomy at the Royal Melbourne Hospital – because a director at the asylum deemed her “a threat to certain prominent people’s reputations”.

I found countless other example of the cruelty, deviancy and filthy conditions that were part of asylum life for inmates, right up until the 1990s when the asylum housed mental patients, many of whom were abused or over-medicated.

A newspaper article that appeared in the Melbourne Argus in December 1881 reported on investigations into the lecherous behaviour of the asylum superintendent at the time Albert Baldwin, after he had a 17-year-old girl Agnes Simmonds visit him in his office, where he locked the door.

“The patient was alone with Mr Baldwin in his officer for some time,: testified William Walker, the asylum storekeeper and clear.

“Eventually she left with the attendant. Baldwin then called me in, and I found him in a flurried state. He pulled up the blind of his window, washed his hands and face and brushed his hair. The patient Simmonds left on the 5th September and I believe has gone to New South Wales.”

A feature article on Sunbury Asylum that appeared in The Age newspaper in 1999 talks of  Elizabeth Kennedy, 31, a suicidal dressmaker, who spent 7200 hours “in seclusion”, from 1894 to 1896 which meant she was forced to wear a camisole – the notorious straitjacket – and webbed trousers daily.

“A woman in seclusion also wore canvas gloves shaped like oven mitts.  Many of the inmates died of pneumonia and, in the early years, they were given cold baths. Difficult patients were deprived of dinner,” the article says.

Last May, Jackson’s Hill and asylum complex was acquired by the State Government’s Development Victoria.  However, plans to turn it into a community, arts and cultural precinct appear to have stalled.

Instead, it stands still and empty, a decaying and ghoulish Dickensian shrine to those who suffered unjustly and often terribly behind its walls.

As for my mistaken belief that this hillside of horrors was a majestic country estate, I can take some solace from a 1996 article in The Age newspaper, in which the writer described Caloola’s gardens, open-air pavilions, and curved ha-ha walls as having a “beauty that seems at odds with their original purpose”.

Is it OK, now, to like Lance Armstrong, even just a bit?

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In 2009, at the Tour Down Under

There are almost endless reasons to dislike Lance Armstrong, the former king of the Tour de France, once the greatest endurance sportsman in the world.

There’s the cheating, the lying (for years) about cheating, and the suing of those people like journalist David Walsh who (for years) rightly accused the Texan of cheating.

There’s also the manner of Armstrong’s cheating – an elaborate, carefully planned scam – and the damage he did to the reputation and integrity of cycling and the hurt he caused to his friends, family, co-workers and fans.

If that’s not enough, there is the fact that despite having to pay back millions in fines and penalties, he remains by all accounts exceedingly wealthy courtesy of his investments (funded from his cycling pay cheques) in funds that backed the likes of Uber.

Perhaps – most galling for some – is the fact that he appears to have put all the doping and cheating behind him, forgiven himself and moved on with his life. He has embarked on new business ventures and hosts podcasts, like The Move, about the Tour de France. In short he appears pretty content for someone whose fall from grace has in its Icarus-like plummeting – had no equal in the world of sport.

An unexpected reaction

But  a strange and unexpected thing happened to me when I listened to an interview Armstrong gave on the popular podcast, Freakonomics Radio: I found myself liking (just a little bit) the Lance Armstrong I heard during the course of his conversation with host Stephen Dubner.

I mentioned this to a friend, who was appalled.

For him there was no forgiveness. In essence, he said repeatedly, I had been duped by Armstrong who according to my friend had fooled me and others with his seemingly sincere words.

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Armstrong during his racing days

But I wasn’t the only one. The podcast host himself, Stephen Dubner (author of the best selling book Freakonomics) had an even stronger positive response that bordered – dare I say it – on admiration for the world’s most famous sports cheat.

Finishing his hour-long interview with Armstrong, Dubner said, without any trace of irony or sarcasm:  “Lance Armstrong, you’ve come a long way. It’s impressive.”

I emailed Dubner, told him how similarly I felt and my friend’s angry reaction. He replied:

“Yes, I heard quite a lot of the responses that you described. I tell people that I love living in a world where people are free to rabidly disagree about who/what they like, as long as they can stop short of violence.

No doubt many people (including my friend) “rabidly disagree” with my softened position on the disgraced cyclist.

In many people’s eyes what Lance Armstrong did is unforgivable and some would even go so far as to say he has not been punished enough.

Charismatic, candid and interesting

So what softened my opinion?

Well for one thing I found Armstrong to be a charismatic, candid and interesting interview subject.

I guess I was also charmed by the way he spoke; Armstrong has a propensity to include cycling metaphors into his speech:

“Life adjusts, the burn rate is taken down,” he says referring to the end of his sporting days, and with reference to the cycling union he says “it has no power, no stroke”.

Asked about the infamous Oprah Winfrey interview, Armstrong admits “it did not go well”.

“For cycling fans it was not enough and for the general public, it was too much,” he says quite eloquently.

He also admits that “he sued people and treated them badly” but that he has “travelled the world to sit down with people, to talk and to apologise”.

“I have tried to make amends and move forward,” Armstrong says.

How to fix cycling

I also thought he had a lot of good things to say, like how to fix the sport of professional cycling.

According to Armstrong there needs to be a strong cyclists union so that riders earn a fair cut from television revenues.

I was amazed to learn – I’m assuming its true – that the organiser of the Tour De France, ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) takes all the television rights revenue that come from the race, sharing nothing with those that compete.

Or to put in Armstrong’s vernacular: “[For riders] it starts with a zero, and ends with a zero.”

Armstrong believes a strong union could push for a fair cut of the Tour’s revenues, starting small and then negotiating a bigger amount over time.

Under the current system, he explained, a cycling team that loses its sponsor has nothing (apart from some bikes, gear and vehicles) at the end of the season, and this “creates the incentive to do what ever you can to succeed”.

But, if everyone is making money off TV revenue – regardless of if they come first or 20th – “then you would think and I truly believe athletes would self-police” Armstrong says.

Throughout the interview it seemed clear to me that Armstrong had changed a lot.

Nothing encapsulated this more than an incident Armstrong recounted to Dubner where he was heckled by former fans. It was in Denver the previous summer and Armstrong was about to catch an Uber taxi to a cycling event.

A guy at the bar got up and in Armstrong’s words: Started yelling “Fuck you” over and over again and would not stop. Soon the whole patio was chanting it and Armstrong was shaking.

“I thought to myself. I am Lance Armstrong. I have to do something,” he tells Dubner.

But rather than storm back into the bar and pick a fight, he phones the restaurant, gives the manager his credit card details and tells him to use it to pay for everyone’s meals and drinks.

It’s the only thing he could think of doing at the time, he says. “I get it,” Armstrong tells Dubner referring to the anger people still feel about him and how he let them down.

It’s anecdotes like this, that paint a picture of a guy who is not all bad.

Dubner also reminds us that for all his faults, Armstrong the cheat is also the guy who encouraged a generation of Americans – a country with a massive obesity problem – to get on a bike and do a bit of exercise.

He was also the guy, who founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation, now called Livestrong, a charity which has raised tens of millions of dollars to support cancer sufferers.  Armstrong resigned as chairman in 2012 after the doping scandal, but the charity continues and has helped over 100,000 people battle the disease.

Let’s also not forget Lance Armstrong  defied the odds and beat an advanced stage of testicular cancer in a truly inspirational story

The truth is Lance Armstrong is a complex character, with shades of light and dark, good and bad.

Even the great racing commentator Phil Liggett, who knew Armstrong better than many of his fiercest armchair critics, admitted in an interview he gave to Brisbane’s Courier Mail in 2016 that he still had some affection for him:

 “…I find it extremely difficult to hate him because of the way I had seen him help cancer victims. And he was still the best rider of his era. I have always said drugs don’t turn a donkey into a thoroughbred.”

 

The anonymous Casefile host: the mystery solved?

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Incredibly, a year has passed since I first blogged about the identity of the Casefile host, after which he blocked me on Twitter.

During that time I have also blogged on the topic of doxxing, written about my favourite true crime podcasts (republished in the Financial Review) and most recently I provided those curious Casefile fans with a guide to solving the identity of the Casefile host for themselves.

Of course the reason WHY he chooses to remain the anonymous host of a hit podcast is an entirely different and perplexing mystery – but I think I might have finally solved it.

The reason I hadn’t worked it out earlier (it was staring me in the face a year ago) was that I did not realise the host (Brad) has a different surname to his father.

The host’s late father was a chief inspector in the NSW police.

I think the anonymous host may be sensitive about this connection given the content of his show, or perhaps his family is.

In addition it also explains his interest in true crime and why he chose to make a podcast about it.

The police connection could actually run a lot deeper – the host himself might have been a policeman at one time.

How do I know this?

At the funeral for his late dad, the host’s mother said Brad intended to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a police officer.

Whether he actually went on to become a policeman, I don’t know – but if it were the case, it would be another reason for his anonymity.

The police connection is certainly a more plausible explanation then the host just wanting to “stay out of the story and “let the facts speak for themselves”.

Case solved?

PS. An interesting aside, someone told me there’s a rather amusing Facebook post floating around about the Casefile host. To find it, simply log on to Facebook and search for “Casefile host”. 

‘100 Hundred Years of Dirt’: a classic Aussie memoir

NEWOne-Hundred-Years-of-Dirt-CoverWhen I picked up journalist Rick Morton’s memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt I had a sense it would be a great read.

This was partly due, I think, to the evocative photograph on the front cover  – a lonesome tin-roofed shack set against the contrasting colours of the deep blue sky and that distinctive red earth – and the title, which suggested this would be a gritty tale embedded deep within the Australian landscape.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Morton, a journalist with The Australian newspaper, has written a fine book which draws comparison in its storytelling to the works of Helen Garner, Clive James and Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net.

I mention Robert Drewe as I just finished reading The Shark Net for the second time, a rare effort on my part.

The Shark Net chronicles Robert Drewe’s childhood and early adult life as cadet reporter in Perth during the time crazed serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was on the loose. It is also an evocative depiction of suburban amid Perth’s sand dune suburbs in the 1950s and 60s.

Rick Morton also chronicles a young journalist-to-be’s life in the making (he is only in his early 30s). But whereas there is an overall lightness to Drewe’s middle-class Perth tale (his father was a Dunlop executive who hosted tennis great Rod Laver in his living room),  Morton presents a modern ‘Heart of Darkness’ that begins near the very bottom of the socio-economic sphere.

First our young hero (to steal from Clive James) has to navigate the brutality of a remote outback station, then the oppressive poverty of a hand-to-mouth existence in a conservative Queensland country town and then later – as a young gay man – battle anxiety and depression amid the neon lights of the Gold Coast.

It’s certainly not light reading, nor its it easy reading at times, but thankfully Morton adds dollops of wry humour, fascinating family anecdotes and insightful academic research to his tale of tragedy and woe.

It’s of course something of a miracle he survived it all, let alone emerged triumphantly as one of the country’s top journalist writing about social issues – though after you read his memoir, you realise how well-qualified Morton is for that particular journalistic beat.

The ‘dirt’ in the title refers to the origins of the Morton family – in remote outback Queensland – who at one time owned five enormous cattle stations near the Birdsville Track in an area known as ‘Channel Country’ that collectively were the size of Belgium.

“It’s that red earth…,” Morton reminisced in a radio interview. “I’ve always been disappointed with regular dirt.”

It is here that we hear about his grandfather, the legendary cattleman George Morton, who ruled the family’s vast pastoral lands with great cruelty and vengeance.  It was his grandfather – Morton informs us – who discovered the bodies of the Paige family who succumbed to this most “vicious” and inhospitable of landscapes when they got lost in Christmas 1963.

It is in this inhospitable terrain, where deadly Brown snakes invade the homestead, kitchen, that tragedy unfolds when Morton’s brother Toby is horribly burnt in a terrible accident.

It’s also where he learns that his father, Rodney, is having an affair with the teenage governess. When his father abandons the family and takes off with the governess, Rick, his mum, his badly burnt brother and two-month old sister ends up in Charlesville in emergency public housing with no money. Later they move to Boonah, south of Brisbane, where the struggle to survive continues.

In many ways the book is a tribute to the stoicism of his mother Deb, who made up for a lack of money with unconditional devotion and love for her children (including her self-destructive son Toby, an ice addict) and who realised her younger son Rick, was cut from a different cloth (she lovingly referred to him as an “alien” to explain his more sensitive and intelligent nature) and potential to make something of his life.

It’s also a meditation on social inequality and its inherent unfairness (the family’s finances were so tight they did not have enough money to take advantage of ‘two for one’ offers in the supermarket) and how hard it is to break out of that cycle, with Morton drawing on his own experience trying to make it in a profession dominated by the private school-educated middle classes.

“There’s this creeping sense, this argument that poor people are morally inferior, which I think is repugnant for a start,” Morton said in the same radio interview – his poignant memoir is a powerfual antidote to that snobbish view.

It’s also about what can emerge from the dirt and grit of a tough upbringing.