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article imageInterview: Kerry O’Brien — Leading Australian journalist Special

By Elke Nagy     Jan 9, 2015 in Entertainment
Kerry O’Brien has worked in the field of journalism for nearly 50 years, and has interviewed Barak Obama, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Renowned for his interviewing skills, particularly in the political arena, O’Brien has received six Walkley awards, as well as two honorary doctorates.
These days, he hosts the investigative current affairs program, Four Corners. In a recent interview, O’Brien shared some insights into journalism, starting with how he first entered the field.
Well, I kinda stumbled into it. I was a deeply bored young public servant at the age of 20 when I managed to catch a spot at Channel Nine as a cadet.
Being somewhat directionless, I thought that maybe I wanted to do law, maybe I wanted to do journalism — English was a strong subject.
One piece of advice I was given very early that I certainly took was to jump around as much as you can, and try as many different things you can. You know, go to the bush, try print, sample it all — and I did.
I went from my cadetship at Channel Nine in Brisbane, to a provincial newspaper in Ipswich, to AAP Reuter and Wire Service, and to a tabloid newspaper in Sydney — I wrote a column for Time Magazine — then back to television and to This Day Tonight.
All of those things were new experiences for me, and with all of them I was learning the good and bad of what they offered.
On being asked about his hopes and aspirations on becoming a full-blown journalist, O’Brien responded:
I had a natural curiosity which I hadn’t really thought about before, but realised as I was getting my hooks into the game. And the more I got into journalism, the more I realised the power, the appeal, the excitement of it.
Journalism has a kind of nobility at times too — without making too much of it. It took a while for me to understand the fundamental importance of journalism as one of the fundamental pillars of any healthy democracy, and that you can’t have a sound democracy without strong journalism.
So I guess the hopes and aspirations that you ask about were things I really developed as I grew as a journalist, and realised after a while what a privilege it was. It was gradual process, but really, I suppose, it was the more I heard people’s stories and understood the range of people’s lives, the differentiation of incomes, barriers — which were, to some degree, class barriers — well, I never really quite bought that we were a totally classless society.
There always were the haves and have nots in Australia. Once you understand about the class system in Britain — which is incredibly stratified — well, then compared to Britain, we don’t have a class system. But there are strands of elitism in Australia. Certainly there are those with power, those who don’t have power.
You learn over time about how power functions, and you learn how power can be abused. You meet people who are somewhat helpless in terms of the cards that life has dealt them, and I found it very difficult to point the finger of blame at people for the kind of plight that they might sometimes find themselves in.
O’Brien worked as a press secretary for Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Equally celebrated and detested for a raft of ambitious reforms, such as those providing free access to university and granting land rights to Indigenous Australians, the Prime Minister was eventually sacked by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, in 1975.
O’Brien related:
I guess it was my curiosity that drove my attraction to political journalism — and drove my desire to work for Gough Whitlam when that opportunity came up — because I wanted to see what it was like behind the scenes. I wanted to see what it was like to be a part of the process, rather than just reporting on it.
When I came back to journalism, I realised that the experience I’ve had in the back rooms of politics was like gold for me — in terms of being able to understand and second guess what was really going on behind that sort of opaque screen that the political processes, the processes of government throws up.
At least then, apart from anything else, I would be less intimidated by the unknown of politics.
I also learnt that most politicians at least start out well motivated, and many of them maintain their passion to be in politics for the right reasons. But in this day and age, it’s the political process itself that grinds them down. It’s a narrowness of focus — a kind of instinctive and defensive fear of boldness which is why, I think, we see so few real leaders.
And when you do see a real leader, you’re inspired by them. Even if you don’t agree with them, you’re at least reassured that there is somebody out there who understands what leadership is.
Whitlam died last October at the age of 98. Thousands attended his public memorial in Sydney, and O’Brien, as master of ceremonies, delivered a moving eulogy.
O’Brien has become one of Australia’s most formidable interviewers. For instance, in a live television interview in 2010, the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was forced to concede that only his ''absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted” statements can be relied on.
Abbott has since become Australia’s Prime Minister.
According to O’Brien, two essential elements are involved in conducting an effective interview — the first being painstakingly meticulous preparation.
The more complex the topic, the more research you should try to do in preparation for an interview. I mean, when you sit down to interview a person, you should be at a point where you bring an understanding with you of what it is about that person you want to know.
If it’s a profile, then you want to dig out every skerrick of information that you can about the person so you have some better understanding of what might motivate them — where they come from — and then you let your natural curiosity take over, if you like.
The more you are able to do your homework, the more confident you are. The more competent you are in framing your questions, and in presenting them — and in being able to hold your own if the person you are talking to is challenging the substance of your questions.
It’s very much about being prepared. Think through the issues related to what you’re talking about — think them through. Look for the logic. Try to understand as best you can, then you try and cut to the heart of the issue in the same way, I suppose, a lawyer might. I’ve often thought that journalism, particularly the interviewing side, is not that much different to being a barrister. A barrister has to get on top of his or her brief, cut through the dross and go to the heart of the issues — and then you let the logic take over.
On talking with O’Brien, it becomes clear, despite haphazard beginnings, immutable impulses had always been present. An insatiable curiosity propelled a journey into unknown terrain, with passage constrained by an exacting thirst for hard facts.
Over time, a latent ferocity is given expression by an unflinching awareness of social inequality.
But there is also something else — far less readily defined — as revealed by his exposition of the second essential element. O’Brien explained:
To me, it’s all about understanding human nature — in all its simplicity and its complexity.
It’s as simple as this. The more exposed you are to life, the various examples of how people live — either by choice or are forced to — the more chance you have of understanding what human nature is all about. And the things that we are responsible in our own lives and the things that we can’t be responsible for.
You learn the good and the bad of human nature. You learn about the magnificent heights that people can rise to — and the great depths we can plunge to.
So if it’s a politician you’re dealing with, understand their motivations as best you can. Try and anticipate the kinds of answers they’re going to give to your questions. But be flexible, be prepared for them to surprise you. If it’s a human interest story that you’re working on, that’s where your understanding of humanity broadly kicks in.
And you need to have a respect for others. If you don’t respect them, what are you doing trying to talk to them.
For an outsider who might think it a simple process — to sit down in front of somebody and start talking — you can be as good or as bad a journalist as you like, you know.
To some degree, at least, it’s in your hands.
Next, O’Brien reviewed the key developments in journalism over the last 50 years. While acknowledging some of the positives, such as the greater ease of communications due to advances in technology, he had a great deal more to say about the negatives.
One of the things that’s changed is that all forms of media are converging into the one space. There’s this pressure to entertain, you know, infotainment — it’s the great threat, I think, in the end. The move away from depth — from analytical journalism into sexy journalism, so called. Stuff that will titillate — gossip, celebrity journalism. Stuff that entertains first, and maybe informs a little bit second — rather than informs first, entertains second.
While I don’t want to bore people with my journalism, I do want them to feel that they’ve had some substance.
On the changes in political journalism, O’Brien continued:
There was a time when, with the advent of television, it reached a point — once our use of it become more sophisticated — that perhaps more scrutiny came on to politicians. But now, too, you’ve got this terrible combination of the rise and rise of public relations — and news manipulation processes — combined with the decline in the numbers of journalists.
In just about every organisation, the output of news has increased, the numbers of platforms has increased, but the numbers of journalists is declining.
And the quality of the journalism is, I believe, declining.
The consumers are reading stuff that’s virtually comes straight from public relations press releases with little more than top and tailing on the material. And politicians have become much more sophisticated in their use, and I would say, their manipulation of the media. They surround themselves with often cynical spin doctors who take the task beyond just building a bridge between the politicians or the corporate leaders and the journalists — but rather trying to turn the process much more to their advantage — simply to get their message out with as little scrutiny as possible.
What I don’t think they really understand is that they’re not helping themselves at all in the end because they’re weakening the democratic process. I think also that’s part of the reason why people have become much more cynical about politicians — because if they don’t see clearly, they certainly sense that there is a dishonest process going on.
Having spent many years sampling various work environments, including a long association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), O’Brien maintained:
What I found was that no organisation in this country was going to offer me the opportunity to pursue excellence like the ABC. I realised it was my natural home. And even though I left it a couple of times, I always knew I would be coming back to it.
To me, a fundamental part of the ABC’s charter as the public broadcaster is to bring a depth to radio and television that almost doesn’t exist in the commercial television and radio world. There are some programs in commercial arena that go a little bit beyond skin deep, but not much.
The ABC should never lose sight of it.
But the pressure’s on us as it is for everyone else. There’s a pressure to be relevant, there’s a pressure to rate. That pressure may not be a strong as in the commercial world but it’s there.
There’s the drive to reduce prices, to reduce costs. That invariably means either reducing your number of journalists, and/or getting rid of the most expensive journalists on your staff who are invariably — almost invariably — the older, more experienced journalists and replacing them with young, less experienced, and therefore less expensive journalists.
By filling your news room with young journalists who may have talent — they may have potential — but they simply don’t have the years of work under their belt to have learnt the tricks of the trade to the extent where they can keep the people they’re writing about honest.
Since this interview took place, $254 million has been cut from the ABC’s funding. Managing Director, Mark Scott, states the loss will have a dramatic impact on the corporation’s ability to deliver television and radio content.
Finally, as to whether he has achieved his goals and objectives — and whether they have changed in any way — as he has progressed through his career, O’Brien replied:
As I’ve matured as a journalist, so has my view of journalism matured. I suppose my aspirations haven’t really changed — in the sense that I’ve always wanted to do the best job I could. I never had a grand aspiration, you know, to be at the top of a definable tree at a certain point of my life.
I wanted to be up there, I guess, in broad terms. I wanted to experience all that journalism had to offer. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to try new things. I wanted to let my curiosity go.
I’m 69. While that doesn’t mean that my working life is over, it does mean that I’ve got limited time left. In that time I’ll try my hand at a few different things, but it will be broadly within the fields I know.
I’m working on a book at the moment which is something new to me.
But I don’t have a kind of a vaulting ambition to do something that I haven’t yet tried. I am, to be honest, I’m pretty content. I think I’ve had a bloody good run. I’ve been lucky with that, and most of it I’ve enjoyed.
And if you can say that towards the end of your career then you have indeed been lucky and fortunate.
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