The Spectator

By Mary Kissel

‘Terrifying.’ ‘Scary.’ The ABC’s Annabel Crabb is worried about the rise of digital media and the slow yet steady decline of print journalism. Putting out a newspaper used to be done by ‘a dozen blokes nursing hangovers’. The crowd at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House, amazingly, doesn’t blink. She is shocked — shocked! — at a revelation that more people bought a certain publication for the TV guide than for her column. So the readers are the blame and not the quality of the product? Hmm.

I’m in Sydney for the Public Knowledge Forum, hosted by the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, which I’ve just joined as a research associate. Bates Gill, the USSC’s chief executive, and Tom Switzer, editor of Spectator Australia, have invited journalists, academics, CEOs and others to mull the future of public knowledge, which is a fascinating topic. How best to distribute the work churned out daily by reporters, think tankers and professors at the lowest possible cost, to do the greatest public good? But much of the discussion focuses on the travails of journalists. They are a navel-gazing lot.

I wrote an article for the conference titled ‘Don’t Believe the Naysayers’ which argues that digital competition is traumatising but ultimately good for old-line media companies because it’s forcing them to focus on their customers: readers, viewers and listeners. It’s a quaint idea in a country where the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is a sacred cow. I learnt that quickly when the conference opened and the a member of the very first panel held my piece up as wrongheaded. Mary Kissel misunderstands the value of a government watchdog that’s overseen by government!

My fellow panellists include the esteemed liberal commentator, Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, and Melissa Chan, a feisty TV reporter who was recently turfed out of China by the Communists — a sure sign of outstanding work — and now reports for the brand-new Al Jazeera America. Eugene worries that local coverage of city halls may suffer as print publications shed reporters to control costs. He quotes a stunning decline in the Post’s circulation over the past few years. Melissa, who works for deep pocketed Qataris, is far more sanguine about her future.

The second panel isn’t such smooth sailing. The moderator, an NBC News journalist, tells me before we go on stage that she’s a climate change believer and dismisses raw data to the contrary, seeing political motivations behind such claims. Sure enough, the minute I raise questions about climate change on the panel she pounces on me and the crowd backs her, hooting. ‘Are you a moderator or a participant?’ I ask, eliciting chuckles from one fellow panellist, a Keynesian and admirer of Marx. At the question and answer session, a heckler whom the moderator lets rant says I should never talk to Miranda Devine, lest I ‘infect’ her with my ideas. Someone Tweets and asks if I was pelted by tofu too. Thankfully not.

The earlier part of my trip was rather more relaxed. A friend and I flew to Melbourne, where we grazed our way around the city. Breakfast at Pope Joan in East Brunswick, tapas for lunch at Naked in the Sky (photos of the wallpaper are a must), rooftop drinks at Madame Brussels, dinner at Chin Chin, after-dinner drinks at the City Wine Shop. The weather was grey but the city had much to offer. I liked it far more than I thought I would.

We then flew to Cairns, rented a car and drove north along the coast, including a stretch where we sped through the flaming embers of a wild fire. John, the co-proprietor of the Meridian Port Douglas, welcomed us warmly and explained the rules of the establishment. ‘We close the front desk’ at night, but ‘see that sign that says “push”?’ he says, pointing to the door. ‘Just push.’ Is that secure? ‘Don’t worry, the locals can’t read,’ he says with a wink. We find our apartment sparkling clean and spacious and the hotel pool divine. It’s the perfect spot a block from the beach and only two blocks from the town centre. Northern Queensland, more generally, felt like my home state of Florida: tropical, relaxed and dotted with sugar cane fields.

We snorkled on the Great Barrier Reef, trekked through Mossman Gorge and sampled the local culture by attending a cane toad race at a local Port Douglas bar. I was one of six people picked to ‘jockey’ the race, which included kissing the toad (twice, gross), and then encouraging it to bound off the table before the other contestants’s toads did. I kept whacking my toad in the eye with the party favour I was given to prod it, but the damn thing just sat there, blinking. Then it suddenly jumped off the table and into the squealing crowd.

The next day included a boat ride down the Daintree River with our guide Lex, (‘That’s short for “Lex”’), who managed to spot a crocodile, tree snake, blue heron and various other animals from great distances, all the while entertaining the guests. ‘Do you know what those sticks are in the mud? Sticks in the mud.’ Upon arrival an hour later back at the dock, he laments to the waiting driver that he tried to get us to ‘swim across the river, but there’s no adventure in them.’

Back in Sydney, it’s Melbourne Cup Day and the US Studies Centre has asked me to do a Sky News segment with the unflappable David Speers, only an hour after the race. My friends don’t think anyone will watch. ‘How can you beat booze and fascinators?’ Indeed.

This article was originally published in The Spectator