Tag Archives: documentary

The death of newspapers…greatly exaggerated?

Will newspapers die? When will newspapers die? And what will happen to news if and when newspapers die? These were questions posed by ‘Page One: Inside The New York Times’, questions which were in the main deliberated by The New York Times journalists working the Media desk.

I went to see this documentary with a fellow ex-journo. How nostalgic were we upon seeing the messy desks of newspaper folk? I remembered her desk as a feat of physics with towering stacks of paper that threatened to collapse and bury you until the next Ice Age if you didn’t tiptoe past. Watching this doco, I was pleased to see journalists still excelling at doing several things at once. I recalled how my cadetship consisted chiefly of learning how to hold a phone under my ear with my shoulder and note the conversation while eating a burger and smoking a cigarette. Those were the old days of ‘analogue journalism’.

For my dysfunctional attraction to the world of deadlines and excess, I blame my father. For most of his career he was a print journalist at The News, a long-defunct tabloid. It was an early victim of Australia’s media ownership laws or Rupert Murdoch’s ambition, whichever way you want to spin it. The News was Rupert’s first newspaper, inherited from his Dad, Sir Keith Murdoch, and the first building block of the News Ltd empire. Legally, one can’t own two or more of the same medium in one city, so in 1987 Rupert sold The News to buy Adelaide’s other newspaper The Advertiser, a broadsheet which once stood proudly as the patrician alternative to The News but has since become more tabloid in its approach. That’s a nice way of saying it’s now a rag. As for The News, it closed down in 1992.

Anyhoo, as a kid I’d go to visit my Dad at his office and be made a fuss of by a bunch of kindly drunks amid a fug of cigarette smoke and a symphony of clacking typewriters. Later, when I said I wanted to be a journalist, my Dad tried to talk me out of it by telling me I would likely become an alcoholic and lose my marriage but there was no better job. I was 16 and not Appalachian, so the marriage thing didn’t faze me.

‘Page One’ is a real heroes and villains kind of documentary. The heroes are in the main  journalists from The New York Times, including the star of the show, David Carr, a former crack addict who knows how fortunate he is to be rebirthed as a media journalist at arguably the US’s finest newspaper. In one scene, he casually mauls a VICE co-editor who’s all uppity about the fact they’ve reported from Liberia, ‘while The New York Times might write an article about surfing’. In another scene at a conference about the future of the media, David Carr holds aloft a paper cut-out of Michael Wolff’s aggregated news blog, having removed the stories that have been sourced from traditional media such as The New York Times. It’s mostly holes.

The villains come in the form of all those circling around the dead and dying newspapers that are now all too commonplace across the United States. There is footage of Sam Zell from his days as the new owner of the Tribune Company, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. A real estate mogul with no journalism experience, he’s sweet-talking his new journalist charges with a diatribe against the ‘journalistic arrogance’ of quality news gathering, basically saying that if they think they’re too good to write stories about puppies, ‘F*** you!’ ‘We should have a porn section!’ he declares. He’s the cartoon villain of every journalism traditionalist. It would be funny if not for the fact that less than a year after Zell’s takeover, the company was bankrupt and more than 4200 people had lost their jobs.

David Carr’s process of researching and writing his extensive article on the Tribune Company’s collapse, together with scenes from the daily meetings of senior editors make a compelling case for finding a sustainable model to keep the institutions of quality journalism afloat. As one Times editor described eloquently, the editors’ meeting is where their combined experience is brought to bear on each story. Is the story framed properly?  Are the sources the right sources? Are all the facts sound? This is the kind of vetting process that only happens in a well-resourced newsroom that values journalistic rigour.

‘Page One’ reveals a considerable generation gap between journalists of Generation X and beyond and Gen. Y. Young blogger-turned-New York Times reporter Brian Stelter bemoans his colleagues’ lack of use of Twitter while David Carr of the Old School jokes that Brian, with his one eye on his Twitter feed and the other scanning two computer screens, might just be a robot invented to destroy him. The meta example of how swiftly The New York Times is having to pivot to adapt to a new media landscape comes in the form of Wikileaks’ release of thousands of diplomatic cables. The New York Times was one of five newspapers worldwide who collaborated with Wikileaks on the simultaneous publication of the initial run of documents. As the Times’ media desk covers the story of Wikileaks’ role as media player, a broader and fascinating debate emerges within The New York Times as to whether Wikileaks should be regarded as an equal, as a fellow publisher and ‘partner’, or merely as just another news source. The thing is that the power dynamic between media and ‘source’ has shifted. Wikileaks, as the ‘source’, can publish with or without the newspaper’s involvement, i.e. it can now have a dual role as source and medium.

At the conclusion of the documentary, there was a panel discussion on the future of journalism. No one mentioned the documentary’s salience in view of the fact that sub-editing at the Fairfax papers The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald has been outsourced this year, with approximately 80 jobs lost. A young blogger somewhat gleefully predicted that newspapers would not survive beyond our lifetimes. Thankfully I can’t remember his name, nor that of his blog. Sophie Black, editor of Crikey, the online news service, said that Crikey was not only surviving but expanding despite operating under a subscriber-funded model. Yet, she said, seeing the resources of The New York Times  made her drool. Crikey delivers its daily news bulletin and website with a staff of seven plus a bank of freelancers. I can’t imagine they would have the time and resources that enabled David Carr to spend several weeks researching and writing his Tribune Company story.

Wanting The New York Times and news producers like it to survive is not based on inter-generational competitiveness, or misplaced nostalgia. In ‘Page One’, there are people across generations who care deeply about the work of sifting information, asking questions, researching, fact-checking and assimilating the gathered information – sometimes complex and often conflicting – into a fair and accurate account. This role of intermediary, of sorting the wheat from the chaff, is the service of journalism. This is why I don’t accept Julian Assange’s description of himself as a ‘journalist’, or view an aggregation of unchecked material found on the Internet as ‘journalism’. In the long run, it’s not important how the news is delivered but the quality of the news.  The question remains – and it’s an important one – how best to ensure the survival of news outlets that are committed to striving for journalism’s tarnished prize – as Carl Bernstein describes it: ‘the best available version of the truth’.

Page One was directed by Andrew Rossi. For Melburnians, Page One: Inside The New York Times is now showing at Cinema Nova.


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Brother Number One – an extraordinary film

Since my return from Cambodia, I’ve been living something of a double life. I began a new, part-time job, which has involved getting reacquainted with the culture of the government shared office. There’s ‘Casual Friday’ – the day on which staff who wear neatly pressed shirts and pointy high heels on any other day of the week suddenly arrive in their gardening clothes. There are cheerfully aggressive notes pasted around the kitchen, about cleaning up and taking your food out of the fridge. There’s talk about work/life balance, as if ‘life’ is what’s left over after the 40-hour working week.

Meanwhile, my double is where I was physically three weeks ago. I’m making a radio program about the music that’s being made in Cambodia.  So in listening to the interviews, the music, the sounds and the lovely clucking intonations of the Khmer language, I’ve been regularly transported back there.

Telling this story is daunting. Like every story about contemporary Cambodian culture, it must refer to that country’s darkest time, when nearly two million people died during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. The genocide and its effects have shaped Cambodia’s present and will continue to do so for many years.

But it’s not for nothing that there is a stream of therapy – narrative therapy – in which the stories we tell ourselves are reframed, often to give us a greater sense of agency over our lives. Every day we tell ourselves stories to make sense of things. These stories become memories. They become the framework of how we view the world and our place within it. Stories are important.

I saw an extraordinary documentary as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. Brother Number One tells a tragic and deeply moving story that began during those darkest years of Cambodia’s history.

The title refers both to the moniker that Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot bestowed upon himself and the position in the Hamill family held by one of his victims, New Zealander Kerry Hamill, the first-born of five children.

At 26 years of age, Kerry Hamill set sail from Darwin, heading to Asia on one of those long journeys of discovery through the hippy belt.  He sailed through Indonesia with a new Australian girlfriend and his Canadian friend, Stuart Glass. Thankfully, his girlfriend Gail returned to Australia, with a plan to meet Kerry in two months’ time. In the film, there is a photo of Kerry and Gail on board the yacht, smiling and suntanned. Kerry, a good looking man, looks like he’s having the time of his life. After Gail left, Kerry and Stuart picked up an English crew member, John Dewhirst, who was on his own adventure far from his home in the Yorkshire dales.

It was August, 1978. The men were sailing past Cambodia when a storm blew up around them. They had been at sea; they were young and innocent; it was the pre-Internet days – so they did not know of the horror the Khmer Rouge was unleashing on the people of Cambodia.  They headed to the island of Koh Tang to shelter from the storm.

Then, a boat appeared and began firing shots at them. Stuart Glass was killed. Kerry and John were taken captive and transported to the Tuol Sleng (S21) prison in Phnom Penh. Few who entered Tuol Sleng as prisoners left alive. More than 12,000 people were tortured and killed there – including Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst.

The documentary, made by New Zealander Annie Goldson, traces another journey from New Zealand to Cambodia – that of Kerry’s youngest brother, Rob Hamill. Thirty one years after his oldest brother arrived under arrest, Rob Hamill arrived in Phnom Penh to seek answers about his brother’s death and to testify at the trial of Comrade Duch, the Commander of Tuol Sleng.

Rob Hamill is an Olympic and trans-Atlantic rowing champion. The film builds a picture of him as a dedicated family man – dedicated to the siblings of his birth family and his late parents, Miles and Esther – and to the family he has made. The film also reveals him to be a man of incredible courage and resilience. In trying to find answers about what happened to his brother, Rob interviews survivors of Tuol Sleng and the prison photographer who takes a ghoulish pride in the quality of photographs he took of every new arrival. In court, Rob’s victim impact statement will affect the sentencing of Duch, so in the presence of the man responsible for his brother’s murder, Rob has to articulate his family’s terrible pain. In addition, Cambodians and others associated with the trial remind Rob that he is one of the few who will have the opportunity to testify. All those whose loved ones were tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng have been waiting for justice for more than 30 years.

The Hamills were a close family, from Whakatane, a little town on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island. When Kerry disappeared in 1978, people overseas could only contact each other by letter. The family endured months of silence before they found out what had befallen Kerry. How could they possibly conceive of this fate for their son and brother?

To say that this is not an easy film to watch is a great understatement. A major element of Brother Number One’s efficacy is Rob Hamill’s lack of self-consciousness about being filmed. It means you are going with him on this journey. There is one scene in which Rob reads the ‘confession’ to being a CIA spy that his brother Kerry has fabricated after months of being tortured, a letter that will lead to his death. His brother’s statement is funny. Kerry used coded words that only his family would understand. At this point, you realize how special a person was Kerry Hamill, who would have comprehended that he was signing his death warrant, but had the chutzpah to write a letter that would make his family laugh.

Brother Number One is a fine example of how one person’s story can illuminate a dense and complex narrative. Through Rob’s communication with people in Cambodia – including the translator – whose father was killed by the Khmer Rouge, one gains an understanding of this country’s history post World War II and how the dark years of the Pol Pot regime continue to affect Cambodians today. With the trial of Pol Pot’s lieutenants happening now, the screening of Brother Number One is timely and shows how difficult it is for the legal system to deliver peace and restitution, especially 32 years on.

 Brother Number One is showing again as part of MIFF this Saturday, August 6, at 1.30pm.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

There’s also a Brother Number One website.


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