Resplendent in canary yellow and looking as if she is just about to set off for a Melbourne Cup lunch, Kerri-Anne Kennerley floats into the Green Room at Channel Nine with the regal air that one would expect of the queen of Australian daytime chat. With me on the sofas are the British comedy duo Hale and Pace, and a heroic former police officer from South Australia whose on-air billing is ‘SHOT 14 TIMES’. My segment’s catchline, ‘FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT’, seems rather prosaic by comparison. Still, my book publicist could hardly contain her delight when ‘KAK’ came a-calling.
I have arrived at the Willoughby studios armed with a few yarns that I suspect the producers will like. In fact, I know the producers will like them because we have already conducted two longish pre-interviews in preparation for the five-minute segment. Road-tested at various dinner parties and barbeques down the years, my Bill Clinton anecdotes usually raise a smile. They also like my story of how the world’s media was duped on the night that Diana was killed. For hours we based our reporting on an eyewitness — an American in Paris, no less — who claimed the Princess was walking around at the scene of the crash. His testimony was riveting, but his pay-off, ‘Baba Booey,’ was idiosyncratic to say the least. Unbeknown to us at the time, ‘Baba Booey’ was a codeword used by fans of the American shockjock Howard Stern, who encouraged listeners to provide fake eyewitness accounts at moments of major drama. Here then was a case of news breaking, and journalists not being quick-footed enough to fix it. Kerri-Anne seems genuinely shocked. Then she levers herself out of her armchair and crosses over to the studio kitchen, where 20 bottles of unopened champagne await for her next segment: putting the fizz back into springtime.
Jon Faine, ABC’s morning presenter in Melbourne, satisfies an entirely different taste — a malt whisky to KAK’s bubbly Cristal. He invites me onto his program to talk about the section of my book bemoaning the state of Canberra politics. With approving nods, Faine reads hefty chunks, and the interview appears to go well. However, as soon as the on-air light is extinguished, the mood suddenly changes. ‘F*** off back to Pommyland,’ I’m sure I hear him say, rather cruelly. It takes me a second or two to realise that he is reading from the scroll of text messages that have popped up on his computer screen during the interview.
I am in Melbourne to chair a few panel discussions on the perilous state of the tourism industry. The conference is being held at the MCG, and I have rarely seen Australia’s great sporting cathedral look more beautiful. As the sun dips behind the stands, soft peachy lights illuminate the playing surface, giving the gigantic stadium the warm and intimate glow of a candlelit dinner for two. I stand there in silence for a moment, admiring what is surely the most gleaming jewel in Victoria’s crown. Then I notice the advertising banner hanging majestically above the scoreboard:
‘Nothing beats Queensland.’
As part of the after-dinner entertainment, I have been asked to conduct a Parkinson-style interview with the head of the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, the delightful and daring Canadian Stephan Bognar. ‘You have worked in some of the world’s most dangerous and challenging places,’ I say by way of introduction, in the most solemn foreign correspondent voice I can muster. ‘Afghanistan. Iraq. Cambodia. But I guess the question on everyone’s mind in this audience tonight is simply this… what are Brad and Angelina like?
To the Brisbane Writers Festival on the city’s South Bank. I am listed in the program to take part in three sessions, but am asked, at the eleventh hour, to participate in a fourth on the state of Australian political journalism. I am a late stand-in for Annabel Crabb of all people, which feels a bit like deputising for Cadel Evans at a gathering of Lycra-clad cycling enthusiasts.
The depleted panel still features a stellar cast, and in the presence of Dennis Atkins of the Courier Mail and the great Laurie Oakes I feel decidedly orbital. For what it’s worth, my hunch is that too much column space is taken up by polls, too much airtime is handed over to politicians wearing fluoro jackets and too little time is spent hearing what they have to say. The average length of a soundbite is now below ten seconds — enough time to assail but not always to elucidate. Laurie also hates these contrived photo-opportunities, and points out that such have been the advances in television graphics that the evening news could easily survive without footage of Julia Gillard manhandling a piece of light industrial machinery or Tony Abbott shovelling cement into a mixer. On the abbreviated ‘grab’ question, however, he comes up with a fine riposte. He thumbs through his annotated notebook — young journos take heed — to retrieve a pearl of wisdom that Paul Begala, a former Clinton advisor, once delivered to his boss. Begala quoted from the scriptures: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ The essence of Christianity in 6.4 seconds flat.
Saucy old Mark Latham responds in these pages to my love letter to rugby union, as I suspected and feared he would. Mischievous thing lifts a few quotes out of context, snips out a few time references and thus confuses the past with the present, a not uncommon failing among retired politicians. But no matter. I expected worse. After all, he could always have told me to ‘f*** off back to Pommyland.’
Nick Bryant is the author of Adventures in Correspondentland.