The journey of a journalist (Part 6B) -PHASE OF OZ: DOING AND TEACHING JOURNALISM
Posted on October 3rd, 2009

Shelton A. Gunaratne ©2009

During my decade in Australia, one of my major newspaper articles appeared in the national daily, The Australian, as its featured Forum column on Feb. 23, 1977. The article, which appeared with both my byline and picture, was headlined “Telling the Third World like it is.” It was an attempt to explain the network of dependent co-arising factors that engendered the proposal for a nonaligned news agency pool, which The Australian and other Western mass media thoroughly criticized. One obvious reason for the proposed pool was the unbalanced and prejudiced reporting of the developing countries by the major Western news agencies, I argued.

“The fact is that little attention is paid to the Third World by the Australian press partly because the major news agencies themselves fail to cover the non-Western world adequately well,” I pointed out.

Charles T. Duncan, a professor from the University of Oregon where I studied for my master’s degree, responded to me in another featured Forum headlined “Proposed pool could drown freedom” (The Australian, March 8).  In a personal letter, Duncan told me that his comment was not meant to be argumentative “for indeed there is much in what you say with which I am in full agreement.”

However, to my utter dismay and surprise, the racist avijjƒÆ’-¾ fringe of the Australian society was unable to restrain its intolerance of my use of the public sphere to rationally discuss a matter of global importance. I received an anonymous letter (dated Feb. 25, 1976) with the return address of the Catholic Commission, Dean Street, Manly, NSW. The writer asseverated that my article in The Australian was

“honestly a joke to us …  We are not interested in the Third World. We would be damn happy if all you niggers would return to where you came from … Do leave us alone … We have bloody well had enough of you all. Is it not time that you lowall students stopped coming here; it’s all our pocket, nigger?                                                                                                                                

When I brought this anonymous letter to the attention of B. A. Santamaria, the anti-immigration conservative columnist for The Australian, he sent me a personal note: “I trust that you do not associate the thoughts I have expressed in my “ƒ”¹…”Australian’ article with the perverted and hateful nonsense which he [the anonymous letter writer] expressed.”

 Advocacy journalism

As an advocacy journalist, I was determined to fight racism even at the expense of provoking the network of power at the CIAE. Whereas Indonesian journalism had to abide by the Pancasila philosophy and Malaysian journalism by the Rukunegara philosophy, Australian journalism, on the pretense of backing freedom of expression, often accommodated racist views to appear in news outlets.

When the weekly National Times published D.P.B. Milligan’s open “racist” letter to Al Grassby, commissioner for community relations, on the changes to Australia’s immigration policy, I wrote a detailed response (NT, June 14-19, 1976) dismantling Milligan’s main arguments. I concluded:

Different people prefer to migrate to different countries for different reasons. Milligan cannot know these reasons unless he does a sample survey. His armchair deductions are clearly intended to exacerbate white racism in Australia.

 I unsuccessfully lodged a charge of white racism with the Australian Press Council against the (Brisbane) Sunday Mail (SM, Aug. 28, 1977) in relation to a feature titled “Simon Says” favoring minority rule in Rhodesia. As the council put it:

Dr. D. S. A. Gunaratne of Rockhampton complains of an article and some letters published in the Brisbane Sunday Mail. His complaint is that the article and the predominantly one-sided tendency of the letters present white racist propaganda, playing up one side of the Rhodesian issue without sufficient presentation of the opposite point of view.

The council took the view that the newspaper “has done no more than exercise the rights which must be conceded to a free press by those who disagree with it as well as those who agree.”

The (Rockhampton) Morning Bulletin, the local daily, published a letter I wrote on prejudice against Aborigines (MB, Sept. 27, 1977). I said:

All Australians must understand that the Aborigines comprise only a very small percentage of our population. … Everything must be done to eliminate prejudice against them both at home and school.

In a subsequent political commentary headlined “New legislation must ensure all rights for our Aboriginals” (MB, July 14, 1981), I urged the Queensland government to ensure the land, citizenship and wage rights of these people when it repealed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Act later in the year.

 Advocacy for mall

 When I first arrived in Rockhampton after broadening my horizons through global travel, I intuitively felt that the city had the potential of blooming into a much more attractive and environmentally pleasing metropolis. So, drawing on my knowledge of Eugene, Ore., and the Dutch city of Rotterdam, I fired off a letter to the Morning Bulletin, explicating my rough thoughts on how to go about achieving this. The Bulletin carried Rockhampton Mayor R.B.J. Pilbeam’s reaction to my letter””‚an example of raw advocacy journalism””‚in a story headlined “Newcomer’s views get blast from Mayor” (MB, June 16, 1976):

Although Mr. Gunaratne has been living in Rockhampton for a month, it seemed he had not opened his eyes … Mr. Gunaratne should have learned that we already have a system which provides our residents with one or more trees for their footpath at no cost at all … [A] shopping mall in East Street as suggested by Mr. Gunaratne would be a bad move.

Apparently, my letter to the editor the previous day had touched a sensitive spot in the mayor’s nervous system. It was an unexpected spark that introduced my nƒÆ’-¾marƒÆ’-¦«pa to the Central Queensland community and an extraordinary way to begin practicing advocacy journalism in Australia.

My suggestion was to convert East Street (from Fitzroy to William) and Denham Street (from Quay to Bolsover) to a shopping mall emphasizing “human details”””‚sculpture, trees, fountains, stalls, benches and some soothing music. I also put forth the case for imaginative planning “to beautify the Fitzroy River bank across the shopping area.”

In a follow-up letter to the editor (MB, June 24), I responded:

Mayor Pilbeam need not have reacted so strongly to the suggestions I made to beautify downtown Rockhampton. Instead of putting off those who do not think like him, he should encourage Rockhamptonians to come up with ideas.

Nick J. Dean of the Capricorn Conservation Council telephoned me to say that he appreciated my reply to the mayor. In a letter to the editor (MB, June 29), Dean supported my proposal for a mall:

The idea [of a shopping plaza] has never really been given a fair go in Rockhampton, and opposition to it has no basis in actual, working experience … The grid pattern of Rockhampton’s streets lends itself to the creation of plazas.

While the mall/plaza idea remained a hot topic, Akhtar Qizilbash, CIAE senior lecturer in transportation engineering, announced that his students were planning to do a feasibility study for a shopping mall in Rockhampton.

Today, more than three decades later, Rockhampton is a thriving city of 77,000 people. Downtown East Street has turned into a shopping mall. It also has the City Center Plaza, Northside Plaza, Allenstown Plaza, Kmart/Stockland Plaza, Farm Street Marketplace and Red Hill Center. Rockhampton’s Riverbank Parklands were constructed in 1998 and are home to the Twilight Markets and Twilight Movies which are held at the start of every month.

 Political journalism

My doctoral training enabled me to perceive that Australian journalists were not making good use of the annual reports and other documents released by numerous federal and state agencies, e.g., Electoral Commission of Queensland, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Valuer General’s Department, etc. I taught by example (students in my Public Affairs Reporting class) how to use these reports to write in-depth analyses of elections, do population analyses of cities and suburbs, compare property values within and among cities, and evaluate political performance of members of the state and federal legislatures.

From late 1980 onwards, I began writing a series on political journalism for the Morning Bulletin prior to the Nov. 27, 1980, Queensland state election. These articles examined the voting patterns of the electoral districts in Central Queensland. They began with a story headlined “ALP would have won with uniform swing” (MB, Oct. 22) containing my views defending the accuracy of Australian political opinion polls released prior to the federal election on Oct. 18.

My next article headlined “Labor certain to slash coalition’s majority in Qld” (MB, Oct. 30) speculated on the outcome of the election for the Queensland Legislative Assembly scheduled for Nov. 29. Queensland had swung to the ALP by almost 5 percent at the federal election. If a similar swing were to occur at the state election, the coalition’s majority would nosedive from 36 to a mere 10.

Bruce Simpson, the National Party candidate for Rockhampton North, challenged my forecast of his certain defeat, in a story headlined “‘I can win state poll'””‚Simpson” (MB, Oct. 31). My forecasts for each of the other CQ electoral districts appeared in the following order:

  • “Belyando: now a marginal seat” (MB, Oct. 31)
  • “Callide safe for National Party” (MB, Nov. 1)
  • “Port Curtis still safe Labor seat” (MB, Nov. 5)
  • “Roma a safe seat for National Party” (MB, Nov. 10)
  • “Four-cornered clash has made Mirani marginal” (MB, Nov. 15)
  • “Auburn safe for Nationals” (MB, Nov. 20)

My final forecast of the state election spread over two pages, including four tables and a map, appeared two days before the election under the headline, “Labor will gain more seats; coalition rift will continue … Saturday’s election will not cool political blaze” (MB, Nov. 27).

I thoroughly enjoyed doing and teaching political journalism. On Election Day, I was far away from Queensland””‚holidaying on Bora Bora in French Polynesia. The election resulted in Labor gaining two seats, Liberals losing two seats, and Nationals holding on to all of their 35 seats.

I met with Morning Bulletin’s manager Gordon Bevan and chief of staff Martin Simons on Dec. 23. They were of the opinion that my political articles were “dry.” But they asked me to write regularly on Central Queensland politics. They were pleased with my election analyses.

My electoral district analyses appeared in other Queensland newspapers as well, e.g., Bundaberg News­­-Mail, (Mount Isa) North-West Star, Maryborough Chronicle and Gladstone Observer.

In the aftermath of the state election, I focused on Cabinet selection, poll results for some districts, parliamentary performance of CQ members in the federal parliament and state legislature, etc. Below are a few examples of the variety of public affairs reports I produced in the early “ƒ”¹…”80s:

  • “CQ loses voice in state Cabinet” (MB, Dec. 30, 1980)
  • “Not fit for Queensland eyes” (Brisbane Courier-Mail, Jan. 3, 1981)
  • “Thefts, break-ins make most police work” (MB, Jan. 8, 1981)
  • “How did your parliamentary representative perform?” (MB, July 21, 1981)
  • “City property values rise at snail’s pace” (MB, Nov. 19, 1981)
  • “Anula is the boom suburb of Darwin” (NT News, Oct. 27, 1982)
  • “Open government law a landmark” (Adelaide Advertiser, Nov. 16, 1982)
  • “The facts of life in Perth: Wanneroo the pacemaker” (Weekend News, Jan. 3, 1983)

Perhaps on a tip from an adversary, the Australian Journalists Association (Rockhampton branch) suggested that I should apply for membership if I continued to write features for the local press. However, the AJA rejected my application for membership on the grounds that I was a journalism teacher, not a professional journalist.

 Next: Part 6C Phase of Oz””‚Four Winds, odds and ends

[The writer is a professor of mass communications emeritus at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He dedicates this installment to the memory of the late Harry W. Morgan (1934-2007), the founder of the World Press Institute.]

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