Terry Maher reports for Crikey on a Melbourne Press Club gabfest at Colonial Stadium last Friday which had its serious highs and lows.

I hope I got enough who/what/when/where/why traditional journalism into my opening par to please David Salter, my former Zeitgeist Gazette colleague, who gave the real keynote address in a piece called “The Trouble with Journalism”, which The Age published in Saturday on their Op-Ed pages.

Salter’s prognosis was basically this: “During the 1970s and 1980s our union pursued a silly goal of trying to achieve genuine ‘professional’ status for journalism. In keeping with those pretensions, we ignored the slow death of the cadetship system. We watched as proprietors recruited armies of young graduates who knew nothing of the street and could barely write. The media was quickly colonised by the educated, upper-middle class, and it inevitably began to reflect their interests and value systems.

“At one extreme, this means that the process of politics is now largely reported with ludicrous reverence. At the other extreme – actually it’s become more like the mainstream – there are thousands of talented and capable journalists who now spend their entire working lives churning out fluff for the lifestyle sections and TV shows. They most probably could no longer file 10 tight paragraphs on a bus smash if they tried.”

Outside of Salter’s acerbic observations, there were two highlights and one lowlight during seminar. The lowlight was supposed to be the highlight, until it broke down into farce. The topic of this particular plenary session “Terrorism, War and Journalism” was a late addition to the program following the S11 terrorist attack on New York and Washington.

The topic was fantastic. The setting and timing were sublime. But the strategy was flawed. The topic was wonderfully served by two of the panel – Peter Eisner, managing director of the Centre for Public Integrity in Washington (appearing by satellite) and Brant Houston, executive director of the American Investigative Reports and Editors Group (live in Melbourne).

The trouble was the dumbo locals who made up the numbers. It was chaired by The Age’s Corrie Perkin, whose father was once editor of the Age.

She was joined (live by satellite) by the equally vacuous Michael Usher, who is styled as Channel Nine’s foreign correspondent, but in fact is just the Hollywood showbiz reporter from La La Land, who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time – ie NY on S11.

After Usher spent much extremely-expensive satellite time telling us he was “un-nervous” during the terrorist attack, he then went on to tell us he had walked eight miles into Manhattan and got to Ground Zero only to find his camera wasn’t working.

He felt upset about what he saw. But he reckoned that Lady Di’s death was much worse “because she was one lady he really felt close to” and he was working the showbiz rounds in London at the time she died.

Corrie Perkin agreed with this moronic observation immediately. “Yes, Lady Di was very special because she was an individual and we could all focus on her agony.”

Hello! I don’t know what non-mind games these two Aussie morons were playing at, but I had cried my eyes out when I saw the NY footage that came up at the start of the seminar (the first time I had seen it for three weeks) and just wanted to throttle the idiots who thought the accidental death of a royal slut was even in the same ball park.

But the day started and finished well. It started with a re-enactment of the Melbourne Press Club’s first function 30 years ago when the three Melbourne editors got together to shoot the breeze.

Age editor, Michael Gawenda, nearly gave moderator John Fitzgerald a heart attack, and indicated he was about to resign because journalism today was stuffed and he was really pissed-off with the current status of the profession. Then he said he was just kidding and it was all fine. Hum.

The last session of the day was titled “Top Yarn or Bottom Line” and it was a ripper. It was chaired by Neil Mitchell (3AW) and featured none other than old Sydney mate Harto (John Hartigan, CEO News Ltd), old Sydney mate Mark Day, old Sydney mate Eric Beecher (Text Media) and old Sydney mate (I wish) Deborah Thomas (Australian Women’s Weekly).

Harto, who sounds more like Murdoch every day, really got stuck into Beecher for allegedly failing in both business and journalism. Beecher did not respond.

Harto then told me that the Evil Star had reopened. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you should not be reading this.

Editor’s Note: The Evening Star was the local pub and favourite haunt of hard living newsmen like Harto near News Ltd’s office in Surry Hills but it closed for a couple of years to have some apartments built on top and has now re-opened in a seriously yupped up form.

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Peter Fray

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