Reporting the Brisbane G20

I want to try to spend tonight inspiring some of you to become reporters. What’s in a name? I use reporter because the word, journalist, is a too lofty for me – a name popularised by the self-important – journalists!

A tip. As a reporter I used my real name, Jim Beatson. Mistake. If you are reporter starting your print career in class-conscious England as I did, Jim was a bad choice. In my last year of submitting articles to new outlets I became James Beatson and commissions increased.

But what I should have called myself when starting? Beat Jimson. Sticks out. Memorable.

Why a reporter and why mainstream media?

Every Friday afternoon for almost two years a small band of women wearing SOS sashes stood in Anzac Square in silent protest against the sending of conscripts to Vietnam.
Every Friday afternoon for almost two years a small band of women wearing SOS sashes stood in Anzac Square in silent protest against the sending of conscripts to Vietnam. Photo: Courier Mail (probably) circa 1965

A year before Triple Z started I was handing out leaflets in Anzac Square. You know the routine: first person takes one, then the second does, then a third. Next a gap. First one refuses, second refuses and so on. Sheep, depressing.

A year later I’m working at Z and a man comes into the station and says because he does not have a permanent address Social Security has refused to give him the dole. I ring the Federal Liberal member for Brisbane and explain I work as a journalist at 4ZZZ (see how you learn to spin) and want to know why, blah, blah, blah. He’ll get back to me. And one hour later I receive a call a from the Member’s office saying if our man goes to the Adelaide Street Centrelink and asks for staffer, So and so, it’s all been fixed and he will get paid.

My first moment of truth of the power of being a reporter – a bit better than handing out leaflets.

It was either Lord Beaverbrook or Lord Harmsworth, the two evil British Rupert equivalents in the early part of the last century, who described media as: Raw, Political, Power.

Good reporters, and the great majority are bad or lazy, or frequently both (but some are great and helpful so always try for the best in them), yes the good one are required to have 4 qualities:

An inquiring mind. Absolutely essential. Well you’re here, so a good start.

Perseverance.  Absolutely essential. Well you’re here, so a good start.

Smart. Because you are always trying to second guess sources and your opponent’s response.

Always be truthful and fair. If the interviewee makes a mistake and corrects themselves use the corrected version. That way Z, and you, get a good reputation with your audience and other media outlets knowing you are trust worthy.

Why mainstream media?

Yes old media is dying, but slowly. Radio, TV, newspapers and magazines are well and truly still alive and kicking – our backsides – and determining the nation’s state’s and city’s daily news cycle agenda.

I love new media with its huge volumes of inspiring content. But people wanting change need to be convincing more than the already converted and our friends. And how many good, and even great sites, like Ben Penning’s Generation Alpha (, are out there? Not just hundreds, but thousands. Hope you’ve got a lot of time. But the great majority of Australians don’t.

The thing I love about mainstream media and especially radio, television and YouTube is you can directly corner the polluters, corrupt politicians, crocked developers and cops, steroid enhanced body builders (er delete that last group) outside their office, car and home and ask very hard questions. “Why Premier Newman are you developing coal fields whose pollution and impact on climate change will kill your and my grandchildren?” “Why Prime Minister Abbott did you appoint Tim Wilson to head the Human Rights Commission after Wilson campaigned vigorously for its abolition? Is it your intention to destroy the commission from within?”

The interaction between a smart quick thinking reporter and the person you are interviewing whether on radio, TV or YouTube provides an interaction that is compelling – one that trumps yards of worthy print or online critiques.

In 1975 a group of activists, music fans and comedy lovers decided to set up a radio station, 4ZZZ, to bring down the corrupt, violent, incompetent Bjelke Petersen government and to have fun doing it. And we did. It took 12 years to knock off Joh because the Fraser government would not give Z a licence to broadcast to all of Brisbane until 1980. If they had I believe Joh would have been gone in three to five years. Z reporters didn’t get help from The Courier Mail, 4BC or Channels 7 to 10. But as Z reporters uncovered the corruption and violence of Bjelke in hourly news bulletins from 6am to 6pm with regular special live reports the mostly lazy and incompetent journos from the mainstream had to jump on the Z bandwagon, copy our stories or get left behind. Yes, the Four Corners program, Moonlight State, was the final nail in Joh’s coffin. And who were the researchers for that 4 Corners program? Staffers from the 4ZZZ Newsroom.

Most of all being a reporter is exciting, challenging and a lot of fun.

Fun for you and fun for the audience. I remember when a 17 year old Z reporter in the early ‘90s on her first story met Qld Premier, Wayne Goss, as he disembarked from a plane at Brisbane airport after a visit to the United States. There were about 15 reporters there and calmly she jumped in with the first question as he hit the tarmac: “Mr Premier, before the last election you said you would legalise abortion once Queensland public opinion supported it. While you were away a new poll showed a majority now support abortion. When will you be introducing legislation?” Goss looked stunned, as did the rest of the media. Goss said the figures must be wrong. She said “no” and quoted the figures back to him. He tried to patronise her by implying she was so young she must be confused. Three days later she got her revenge by asking the same question at his weekly media conference. It was great Z radio – and TV too because the commercials couldn’t resist broadcasting Gossy squirm.

Z had a permanent desk in the Journalist’s Room at Queensland’s Parliament House which, during session time, is where we hung out doing phone live reports back to the station. In the quiet bits we played in the very nice Parliamentary Billiard Room.  And if politicians or other people you contact don’t want to talk to you and you ring back several times, you record all the fob offs, edit them together and have a news story that starts: Over the past week we have been trying to get a statement from … asking … so let’s hear their reply. A lot of “He’ll get back to you… Not in… Try tomorrow morn, etc” makes great listening. And with your good question the listeners love it. A win without even getting the ‘talent’ to air.

Z made news so popular even old people started to listen – just for the news and the current affairs inserts – because they hated the music. But over time the same people even started to like Z’s punk music and subscribe.

If Z’s licence was auctioned off commercially today, and I haven’t checked its value for a few years, it would go for around $10 million or so because that is the value of its potential audience. Big, very big.

Yes. You have to be smart to take on Abbott and Newman. If YOU can’t do that, then do the research for those that can. Or raise money to pay for a full time newsroom. Why don’t the G20 media activists join together and set up a permanent media office at Z forever, or better still in Parliament House, Brisbane or Canberra and run a 24/7 online video news service. Think big. Not small. Are we destined to be little people?

What do I think of G20 demos? I think they play into the game where activists rightly get angry, hold placards, fight cops, swear and so on. Few but already committed hearts are converted among the defeated worker slaves who just want to get home quickly in peace, buy a new McMansion or just go for a swim. And if you don’t get angry, fight cops, and swear don’t worry the government will provide provocateurs to ensure you fit their bill of being angry, foul mouthed, cop fighters. I could be wrong, but that is my guess.

Because that’s what I would do if I were Tony Abbott or Campbell Newman.

Build for the future. Don’t let the existing Z volunteer news service be your model. There are thousands of former staffers and audience members with fairly fat wallets who remember when Z changed governments and put crooked cops (Terry Lewis – formerly Sir Terrance Lewis, head of Qld Police), Ministers (Leisha Harvey, Don Lane etc) and business men (I’ve forgotten their names) behind bars. Old Z staffers and listeners will only want to help the ambitious. And there are plenty of professional reporters happy to provide training if you think you need tips. And there are plenty of quick tips to be learned. But the best form of training is just ‘do it’ and analyse the results.

Do many thousands of Brisbanites want an interventionist news service that believes in the values of democracy, justice, protecting the environment and fun? I think so.

If not, we are lost.

Jim Beatson
at Brisbane Free University
10 Jan 2014

Jim Beatson was a radical activist at the University of Queensland in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Jim’s career in media and journalism has included working for The Economist magazine (London), The Guardian (London and Australia) and the Australian Financial Review, along with contributing to The Washington Post, The Independent (London), The Observer (London), San Francisco Chronicle, Sydney Morning Herald, Time magazine, the BBC and ABC radio program. (For more info see Jim has also taught journalism at the University of Queensland, Griffith University and the University of Technology Sydney, been a successful co-author of two radio and one television metro-wide station license applications and has developed and written the media curriculum for TAFE, NSW. He is one of the founders of 4ZZZ, the National Radio News network and was a member of the Whitlam Government’s Working Party which first developed Community Radio in Australia. Since moving to Byron Shire he has worked on resourcing existing community-based institutions and working as Research Officer for Byron “Greens” Mayor, Simon Richardson.

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