No more lies

As a passionate reader of other peoples’ work, I always liked the idea of being a writer, but I was never really sure how to make it happen. I certainly had the idea that it isn’t necessarily easy.

So when Margo Kingston put out a call on Twitter for citizen journalists to cover their electorate during the election for No Fibs, my interest was piqued. My immediate response, however, was that as I lived in a safe Labor seat (Kevin Rudd’s no less), I assumed she would probably not be interested.

Bill Glasson

Bill Glasson with staffer between debate and ABC612 appearance on August 5th

Margo tweeted back: “Phone me”.

Twitter has its own hierarchy. There are ‘celebrities’ happy for you to retweet their stuff, but who rarely deign to reply. Not so Margo: when I followed her some months before, she followed back. This was delight for me, because I’d known of Margo for some years and respect what she is about. I listened to her on Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live and read her pieces, especially during the Pauline Hanson years.

It took me a day or so to work up the courage to call back. When we finally talked, Margo outlined her vision for the No Fibs election project. She wanted to provide an alternative news source, through which voters could read about the minor candidates who rarely get a voice in the mainstream (MSM) media. Contrary to my initial reaction, Margo said this approach is especially important in safe seats, because sitting candidates often get away with little scrutiny, and no-one gets to hear from their opponents.

I hesitated, but she reminded me that the other point of interest in Griffith was of course Kevin Rudd himself. He was still circling Gillard, and the future of the Labor leadership was becoming increasingly uncertain, while polls predicted the Labor Government was headed for a massive defeat.

Over the past few years I had become increasingly distrustful of the newspaper journalism available to me. I lived in Adelaide before I moved to Brisbane – both are ‘News Limited towns’.

As News Limited became more partisan, I went from having the daily papers delivered each day – I felt I couldn’t start the day without them – to not buying or reading newspapers at all. The experience was similar to giving up smoking.

Then I found Twitter (perhaps a new addiction?), and it made me feel a little like I could be a participant, and that was a completely new experience. I also found some fabulous online journalism. I started reading The GuardianCrikeyThe Global MailNew Matilda, and The Conversation.

Joining the No Fibs project seemed to be a natural extension of my alternative media experience. It also offered an opportunity to get closer to what was happening in my community.

I was deeply disappointed, as I think many women were, when Rudd finally toppled Gillard. It felt almost personal to me, and I went into something of a funk.

In my disillusionment, the offer of participating in the No Fibs project was a helpful reminder that there are genuine people out there participating in the political process, and that politics is about more than what happens in Canberra and during election campaigns. So, I said “yes” to Margo, and was on my way.

My campaign

I had never written anything for publication before, apart from restaurant reviews (under a pseudonym) for a friend who runs an online food guide, and I was uncertain about how to proceed.

The first step, for me, was to prepare a profile of the electorate and to find out who the candidates were. Starting that task was easy enough: previous election results can be found on the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website; statistical profiles are published by the ABS; and of course as a local, I was describing the place I live in.

I found it was important to marry the hard data with personal experience. The data can both confirm and challenge your assumptions about your own community.

The next step was to find the candidates and approach each of them for an interview: a much more daunting prospect. For the candidates I didn’t know about, I started with their party websites, and the social media. Independent candidates with no party were the hardest to find.

The two principle candidates, Kevin Rudd and Bill Glasson, were well known and already attracting national and local media. Feeling a little awkward, I telephoned each of their campaign offices, explained my task, and requested an interview. I was told politely that: “Someone will get back to you”. For good measure, I followed up the phone call with an email stressing that I was part of a citizen journalism project with a focus on local issues and candidates. To give some oomph to my request, I dropped Margo’s name.

After a few follow-up calls I did not hear back from Bill Glasson’s office. Kevin Rudd’s office did respond, but the answer was a clear: “Sorry, but no”. I hadn’t expected more.

I have studied anthropology and history and I believe there are overlaps with journalism.

Anthropology and oral history in particular involve listening to stories told by others (often very personal stories) and reporting on them, usually within a broader context. There is a tension for the observer/writer in these disciplines, and in journalism, that Janet Malcolm and Helen Garner frequently explore in their writings. It concerns the mutual need of the writer and their subject: each is in a sense using the other. One needs a story, the other needs their story to be told. Both want to manage the output.

I felt this tension acutely. I am not a member of a political party but I do have opinions on a range of issues and personalities. Because of this, I decided that I would not add any critical commentary to the candidates’ opinions. It was important to me that I remain impartial and objective, and I wanted candidates to speak for themselves even when they said things that were erroneous or that I considered personally offensive.

After my first story I felt miserable when my partner commented that my writing style is somewhat bland, but it was true, partly I think because I am an administrator, and also because I might have been too careful to be objective: there was nothing of me in the stories.

Because there were experienced journalists working on the project I felt even more embarrassed by my first attempts. A few weeks into the project Margo set up a Facebook page for those participating in the project. This was a great idea and much needed by some of us. Through it I got some good advice from others and some very necessary sub-editing assistance.

Margo and I discussed my style and she suggested when I cover a local candidates’ forum that I include some personal observations, and she said: “Observe the other media”.

Inside the press gang

The most positive feedback I received during this project was for a story I wrote about the candidates’ forum between Rudd, Glasson, Karin Hunter of the Palmer United Party (PUP), and Geoff Ebbs of the Greens, organised by the South East Brisbane Chamber of Commerce (SEBCC).

It was an amusing experience for me. Kevin Rudd had been PM for less than two weeks, and media interest was high. All the MSM media were in position outside the venue by the time I arrived. I watched the reporters practising their pieces-to-camera. I had turned up with my little Olympus Pen camera and tripod and somehow by then I had lost all self-consciousness.

I took some photos and proceeded upstairs, only to find I had to run the gauntlet of the check-in desk. There was nothing to be lost.

“Hello,” I said in my most confident voice, “I am from No Fibs and I am here to cover the forum”.

If they were cynical about my little camera and notebook, they didn’t show it, and I was allowed entry. I found what I thought was a good position, unfurled my tripod and stood guard. It hadn’t twigged that when the Prime Minister arrived, the MSM camera operators would hoist their oversize cameras onto their shoulders and follow him with lights and microphones into the venue. I and my camera were brushed aside in the melee.

Looking around I saw that the PUP candidate was looking as dismayed and sidelined as I was. We had spoken on the phone but so far I had not had a commitment from her to talk. Seizing the opportunity I introduced myself and we agreed to make a time for an interview.

In my article on the forum I described the candidates as follows: “I expected Rudd to be at ease with his audience, and he was. Given his relative inexperience I was surprised at how well Greens candidate Geoff Ebbs was able to hold the audience: he even had them laughing at times. Palmer United Party (PUP) candidate Karin Hunter stuck rigidly to script and for a party that wants to stand out from the mob, there was a disappointingly lacklustre and repetitive tone to her responses”.

When I did finally talk with Ms Hunter she finished our long conversation with reference to an upcoming forum engagement, and quipped: “I promise not to be so lacklustre next time”. I gulped – she had read my piece.

Working with the candidates

There were eleven candidates in Griffith, and I eventually talked with most of them except the two principle candidates, Rudd and Glasson, and the Independent. I initially thought it would be hard to get people to talk with me, but as no-one else was asking them, I was providing what was the only opportunity for some of them to get their profiles and ideas into the media. I am not sure if this process worked for the candidates, though I did notice that a couple reposted the stories on their Facebook sites.

I did find, much to my surprise, that I liked most of the candidates I spoke to, even those I did not agree with. I was struck by their commitment to their ideas, and to getting out there even when they knew their chances of getting elected were hopeless. A few said to me that the election provided a platform for them to get their ideas to a broader audience, but it was still tough work.

Some I liked more than others, and, as it turned out, the opportunity for direct engagement did change my usual voting pattern.

The Greens candidate, Geoff Ebbs, suggested I republish my No Fibs pieces in the local online community journal Westender. Margo agreed, and this added a more intimate connection between what I was writing and the electorate.

A scoop of sorts

I never expected that this process might lead to getting my own little scoop, but one did come late in the election campaign.

Things were getting tight in Griffith. Almost daily, local and national MSM were speculating that Rudd could lose his own seat, and it became evident that the minor party’s preferences may play a crucial part in the election.

I had asked all the candidates to send me their how-to-vote cards. The Katter’s Australia Party (KAP) candidate, however, said the party was holding off, and told me they had printed two versions of their cards.

Party leader Bob Katter had made a deal with the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA). The Griffith candidate and six other ALAEA members stood as KAP candidates. Finally, late talks between Katter and ALAEA boss Steve Purvinas led to the party’s unusual preference arrangement, and may have contributed to the poor showing by the party in the election.

Finally, on September 4, just two days before the election, the candidate contacted me again. KAP had finally settled their preferences. I tweeted: “Katter Party Candidate in #Griffith has told @nofibs that he will preference PUP 1st then Greens – Glasson 4th & Rudd 10th #ausvotes”.

To date there has been no serious commentary on the ALAEA/Katter alliance.

More questions than answers

Later in the campaign, the Brisbane Times (Fairfax’s online news site focussed on Queensland) organised the ‘House of Power’ candidates’ forums for several electorates, to be held on the same evening at Brisbane’s Powerhouse. Topping the bill was a debate between Kevin Rudd and Bill Glasson.

On August 22, the day of the event, Kevin Rudd pulled out. The already hostile media became even more entrenched. Dr Glasson was described the withdrawal as an insult to the people of Griffith.

Then the ABC’s QandA program announced that Mr Rudd would be doing a solo appearance on September 3.

Some months before, I had registered with QandA to be in the audience. As most episodes are broadcast out of the ABC’s Sydney studios I hadn’t heard back and I had forgotten about my registration, until an email arrived inviting me to join the Kevin Rudd Brisbane audience.

This was my opportunity, finally. I submitted my question and my seats were duly confirmed. I wouldn’t know until the day whether I would be one of the questioners, so Margo suggested: “Why don’t you live tweet?”

We arrived at the ABC’s Brisbane studio at least an hour in advance. People whose questions had been selected were identified and given their cue-cards. I wasn’t one of them.

When we finally got into the studio, we were relegated to seats in a dark corner next to a boom operator. “I could tweet from here,” I thought.

Then the warm-up person came out. She amused us as she explained proceedings for the night, then she said: “Please switch off all mobile phones”, so no question from me, and no live tweeting either.

Tony Jones was introduced to the audience and went through a rehearsal with the questioners. This was a surprisingly manual process. Questioners were asked to stand, camera and sound technicians noted the order and locations of questioners, and Tony Jones hand-wrote their positions on his cue-sheet.

When I received my invitation from QandA, a range of suggested questions came with it. I was curious to see if these questions turned up during the course of the night. I am pleased to report that they didn’t. The questions really were those proposed by the questioners.

More jollity ensued as we waited the appearance of the host and the PM.

I think we all sensed when Mr Rudd appeared that this really was his last ditch effort. He is a master of these situations, maintaining the appearance of relaxed confidence, but the first question was alarmingly hostile. He was asked how he could be trusted to be leader after having spent the two years “perniciously undermining the government from within”.

The question that was most reported from that night, the one most people will remember, was from a church leader who asked Mr Rudd why he had changed his views on same-sex marriage. Mr Rudd did not hold back, reminding the questioner that the Bible considered slavery to be a natural condition, and the audience erupted in applause. Rudd had finally won them over, at least in that forum, on that night.

I was amused to see, as we filed out of the studio, that a number of the audience had surrounded Rudd, switched on their phones and were taking selfies. Four days later it was all over for Mr Rudd.

The story continues

My final story focussed on the MSM coverage of the electorate and its candidates.

I observed that: “When I wrote my first profile of Griffith, Kevin Rudd was still a backbencher and the electorate was apparently the safest Labor seat in Queensland. By the time I submitted my second piece, he was prime minister again and Griffith was the focus of national media attention”.

“I could not have predicted that in this last week of the campaign, the media would not only be talking about a probable Labor loss in the national election, but the possible loss of Rudd’s own seat.”

Ignoring the polls, or perhaps attempting to influence them, the MSM, and not just News Limited papers, had been unrelentingly negative about Kevin Rudd throughout the election.

The tone was set by The Courier Mail, whose headline on Saturday, August 24, was “Poll shock, voters in Rudd’s own seat say ‘Time to Zip’,” and claimed Rudd was “on the verge of the ultimate political humiliation”.

In fact, Rudd won comfortably, with 53% of the two-party preferred vote.

The surprises on the night, and ones I had not predicted or pursued as closely as I could have, were the decline in the Greens vote, and the comparatively low vote for the PUP candidate in Griffith: only 3.3 percent compared with a Queensland result for PUP of over 11 percent.

As I completed this, my No Fibs 2013 election wrap piece, many already suspected this is not the end of the story for Griffith.

Now that Rudd has resigned and there will be a by-election, I have already donned my citizen journalist hat again.