Sue Neales’ time with the Mercury will come to an end this weekend.
This is a matter of considerable importance to the people of Tasmania.
Every Tasmanian journalist other than Sue seems devoid of an informed opinion … for they consume and regurgitate the spin doctors or corporate advisors’ media or press releases ad infinitum.
Sue has always done her home work, dug below the surface, broken important stories all without fear or favour; in fact she has been Tasmania’s only professional newspaper journalist.
Her skill will be surely missed from the pages of a what will now become a third rate newspaper soon to be written and produced in Melbourne.
I hope that Sue will consider using her considerable skills to enlighten us through the medium of Tasmanian Times.
• Extract, from Sue Neales’ last Mercury column:
In a small community like Hobart and Tasmania, it is not always easy to be that impartial outsider, the onlooker or the watching-from-the-sidelines observer that a good political journalist needs to be.
The power elite here are few. Most have moved in the same circles for years, rotating between plum jobs in the bureaucracy, government businesses and politics.
With few major companies in Tasmania and even fewer with their headquarters here the corporate power scene is also small.
It makes for an incestuous world, where too often deals are done over lunch at a waterfront restaurant or in the chairman’s lounge in the Members’ Stand at Bellerive Oval watching the cricket. And too often negotiated between mates behind closed doors without regard for proper process.
For a journalist, it is a difficult fishbowl in which to operate.
While the smallness makes for easy passing of information and political gossip, it also encourages narrow-mindedness, parochialism and a strange defensiveness towards ideas, attitudes and people from “outside” the state. It is the island mentality accompanied by an unhealthy dose of “chip-on-the shoulder” cultural cringe.
Then there is the curious and unattractive Tasmanian habit of “playing the man and not the ball”, personally denigrating, abusing, bullying and even intimidating the person viewed as an opponent rather than the ideas and principles at stake.
At its least offensive when applied to the media, it is a case of “shooting the messenger”, a targeting of the journalist involved.
Think the Labor Party’s fury at minister Lin Thorp’s electoral loss last month blaming a “biased media” rather than her own multiple misjudgments.
Or Timber Communities Australia’s attempts to tie the Mercury and its journalists up in knots and presumably to intimidate younger journalists from ever wanting to write forestry story again with continuous complaints to the Press Council about how the forestry conflict was reported.
One particular Press Council case involved weeks of argument and document exchanges about whether a megalitre of effluent being discharged into Bass Strait could correctly be described to readers as equivalent to an Olympic swimming pool in measure (the worldwide accepted colloquial standard), when the race pool at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 held two megalitres of water. Time-wasting, petty and ridiculous.
At its worst, the intimidation can be ugly.
At the height of the pulp mill debate, printed stickers were stuck on hundreds of cars parked from Salamanca Place to Parliament House and Macquarie St one night, suggesting that I had been sacked from a previous job for incompetence.
Presumably this was because I was seen as some sort of “opponent” of the pulp mill, because I was reporting all sides of the heated controversy for the Mercury.
I’ve been abused in restaurants, targeted viciously on Facebook and accused of being a “political whore” in a wine bar, reducing me to flee in tears on one rare night out with friends. On another occasion, a menacing union official with a grudge made it clear he knew where I lived.
All by powerful men who should know better.
It’s this sort of behaviour that can turn the island fishbowl the glittery new Tasmania now being promoted as the hippest, coolest and hottest place to visit into a murky, slimy place in which to try to work effectively.
I write all this now not through self-pity or need for sympathy, or any inflated sense of being a journalistic paragon, but because this is my last column for the Mercury.
After six years of political reporting in Tasmania, it is time for a change.
When I came here in 2005 from Melbourne and north Queensland, it was immediately obvious that a fresh eye cast on the local scene from someone used to reporting politics in other states and federally was not a bad thing.
Political practices that would have regarded as abhorrent and unacceptable in other states were the norm.
They went unquestioned by few certainly not by most of the locally born and relatively young political press pack who either did not regard them as anything out of the ordinary (because they weren’t here), or did not have the broader experience to recognise them as undesirable and even improper.
It was the classic case of being the outsider looking in … and finding things that locals took for granted after years of inurement were awry.
Think nepotism in ministerial offices and top level job replacements. Special deals for special mates.
Think the propriety of a former politician acting as a lobbyist for Gunns retaining privileged access to the offices of MPs, and being allowed to reduce them to tears with bullying in their own private sanctuary.
Think the fast-track pulp mill approval abomination of a process that seemed to suck the very lifeblood of democracy out of the walls of Parliament House itself, rather like a deathly Dementor from the pages of a Harry Potter novel.
Think the interference by bureaucratic chiefs in the appointment of magistrates.
Think decisions being made about judicial appointments on the attitude of the aspirants towards a pulp mill.
Or a company helping write the legislation that would approve its own pet project.
Think also a boorish, ingrained disrespect towards the benefits of higher education that serves the state poorly.
This was epitomised in one of the worst exchanges I observed in Parliament when former premier Paul Lennon and Greens MP Nick McKim engaged in a Monty Python-esque born-in-cardboard-box race-to-the-bottom about which of the pair had the benefit of the least education and all at a time when Tasmania’s literacy and education levels remain the despair of Australia.
But after six years of living in Tasmania, I fear some of my “fresh eye” is fading. I find myself accepting occurrences that several years ago I would have raged against.
Where there once was fury and anger, sometimes now all I can muster is tired cynicism at the mediocrity of it all.
And Tasmanian politics and democracy needs, deserves and should demand better than that from its journalists.
So thank you …
Caption: Excellence in Investigative Reporting
Presented by Greg James
Sue Neales, The Mercury
Sponsored by Kingston Green