I recently spent a few days driving around the southern NT with Michael Coggan – a bloke that I’ve know for quite a few years – as much as anything through the lens of the ABC TV, where he has been a journalist for some years. Not long ago he and his family came back to the NT after spending a year working in India.

We had a yarn while sitting in the car munching down on a couple of sausage rolls outside the Tilmouth Well roadhouse, a couple of hundred kilometres north west of Alice Springs along the Tanami Track.

Michael Coggan filing by firelight
Michael Coggan filing by firelight from somewhere in the southern Tanami Desert

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The Northern Myth: We’ve just come away from 3 days travelling through central Australia. Anything that comes to mind from being out here?

Michael Coggan: It reminds me of when first came to the Territory and feeling the sheer power of the country here. That it is as strong as it has ever been and for me the connection between blackfellas and whitefellas here is that we both love this country. We all have connections to country.

TNM: What is your current job at the ABC?

MC: I’m doing ABC Radio & Current Affairs. I report for the ABC’s AM, The World Today and PM programs. I’m mixing it up a bit and doing a bit of TV, like with this last job I was shooting video and recording sound myself. That is similar to how I was working when I was in India. Reporting one-out. I really like the challenge of putting together a whole package from start to finish and then seeing it go to air…

TNM: What do you drive, and why?

MC: I drive a Subaru Outback. It drives well and I can do a bit of bush driving in it  though it is mainly used as a city car around Darwin. And I drive that because I can’t ride my BMW motorcycle anymore – I had to sell that.

TNM: Your favourite city?

MC: I love Darwin.

TNM: You’ve just come back to Australia after being in India for 12 months. Did you work with local fixers over there?

MC: No, mostly by myself. Not all that often with fixers. I only had fixers a few times. Because it was a very low budget arrangement I tried to do it as efficiently as possible and often that would mean teeing up with people who were a part of the story and they would also be part of the translation process.

TNM: Was it is a different set of challenges working in India than here?

MC: Yes it was a challenge because in the bureau we had to share scarce resources. We only had the one vehicle. There were big challenges and the stress of living in India itself didn’t help. It is a very challenging place to live. But it was a fantastic experience.

TNM: What is your favourite Sunday morning music?

MC: At the moment I’m listening to Sarah Blasko. She is very different to the driving music I listen to of course (laughs). I go for a run on Sunday mornings so I usually get something on the headphones. Sarah Blasko’s new one, “As Day Follows Night” or Beck’s “O’Delay“.

TNM: And Saturday night music? Getting ready for a night on the town?

MC: A bit of Funky Kingston by Toots & The Maytals, a bit of reggae always goes down well..

TNM: Your Desert Island disc?

MC: Something by either Jeff Buckley or his father Tim. I know Jeff Buckley’s music better than I do his father’s music. I’ve only just started listening to Tim…so I’d be taking Jeff Buckley’s Grace.

Michael Coggan & Sammy Butcher. Nyrripi, November 2010
Michael Coggan & Sammy Butcher. Nyrripi, November 2010

TNM: What was the most satisfying work you did in India?

MC: It was great to be a part of the coverage of the Mumbai terrorist attack. I was very happy with my work on that, it was very hard work and an amazing experience as a reporter. Following such a long-running, fast-breaking news story and being able to report on it. Essentially that was the start of the 24/7 platform reportage at ABC Breakfast. I was also reporting to the Australia network. So for me it was the start of things to come.

TNM: What are you reading in non-fiction at the moment?

MC: Right now I’m reading Peter Corris’s biography of Fred Hollows. It is a really good read. Fred was a gutsy independent thinker, all warts were out there and visible. A strong advocate, good on social justice issues and he did a lot of work that sadly appears to have been lost or forgotten. He set up a lot of programs that would be making a lot of difference today if governments had followed his lead and were still listening, particularly in terms of the NT Intervention. Little things like medical records would always be given in triplicate. One copy for the treatment team, another for the local clinic and the other for the patient. There would always  be an Aboriginal liaison person that would go in before the medical team to clear the way and make sure that everyone understands what would be happening.

TNM: When did you last break the law?

MC: Last night (laughs). Camping out with you. I think we accidentally camped on Aboriginal land without a permit.

TNM: What makes you angry?

MC: Ignorance and injustice. Seeing the little man being stepped on and abused. And kids being mistreated.

TNM: What makes you happy?

MC: Going on adventures, spending time with my family. Spending time with the kids.

TNM: Are you comfortable with working across two or three platforms at once?

MC: I like it. I like the flexibility in being able to say, “I know that this is a good radio story, but not a very good TV story.” I really do love the radio medium. It is so intimate. Whereas with TV you can have so much more impact because it gets so much more coverage. And I like the option of being able to put up a story online as well. And being able to write more, where often you in radio and TV you are unable to do that.

TNM: Top-loader or front-loader?

MC: Front-loader. Clothes in the Territory get some pretty heavy-duty abuse and front loaders  have a gentler, better wash and take up less space.

TNM: Cats, Dogs? Neither, both?

MC: Dogs. Not cats. I’m not a cat-hater. Though I do hate feral cats. I have a natural aversion to cats.

TNM: You are still relatively young and we just celebrated your 42nd birthday over a bottle of good red wine yesterday evening. You’ve been a journalist with the ABC since 1993 and it has gone through a lot of change a lot in that time. Any thoughts about how your work has changed?

MC: I think that being able to file, as I have done over the past few days with the sat phone and with the 3G Network, is both a good and bad thing. There are expectations of being able to file more material more often and I think that can be dangerous. But I also think that the beauty of new technology is in being able to file from locations that in the past have been almost impossible to work from.

TNM: Like we just saw over the last couple of days? You can file from the satellite phone from the side of the road anywhere in the country.

MC: That’s right. But if I was properly set up and resourced I’d have broadband satellite technology that I could use anywhere in the world and file from location live. I think that is the way that journalism out here is going to go – and I think that is a good thing.

TNM: In a sense is it a development from the ENG [electronic news gathering] van of not very long ago to the ENG suitcase?

MC: Yes, or even to an ENG shoulder bag. It is much easier now to go to places like Nyirripi or Yuendumu and do a positive story and it is less costly then there will be more stories and a greater variety of stories.

TNM: Pen or pencil?

MC: Pen. I mostly write on the computer but I do like to write longhand sometimes.

TNM: When you talked about ‘positive reporting’ were you referring to positive reporting on developments in communities?

MC: Well not necessarily all positive. We need to do critical reporting on things that are going well as opposed to the focus on all the things that are supposedly going wrong.

TNM: It seems to me that in the recent past there was a sort of “black  war porn” school of reporting from the NT – particularly the mainstream media reporting of the NT Intervention. It was as if it needed a picture of a the beer can and the baby in dirty nappies to go with the negative reporting. Some photographers and reporters that I’ve spoken to really railed against that editorial line and direction.

MC: It is interesting because for example in India during the time that Slum Dog Millionaire was very popular Western reporters were being accused of being obsessed with “poverty porn” – which is the same kind of thing. But when you go to and live in India you just cannot ignore the poverty and chaos around you. Coming from a western context you just say “Why don’t they fix this up? Why don’t they help these people?

TNM: After a year in India did you have a better understanding of that?

MC: No, I didn’t. I still felt the same. It is a very different perspective. And here it can be a real problem – particularly coming from a western culture and not having seen Aboriginal communities before. When journalists go to a community for a day – and as a  journalist that is usually what you do – we fly-in, fly-out, or drive-in, drive-out. We usually have no idea of the cultural  and long-term context of what is going on in the communities that we travel to. Unless you have  got very good contacts in those communities. Thankfully often we do, but it is very easy  for reporters that don’t spend a lot of time on the ground to come in and say “Oh, it is all just a mess – we need to report on this,  there will be a political & media focus on this and then it will all be fixed.

But the demands of the short-term news cycle can be a real problem. There needs to be a long-term dedicated focus on reporting issues and getting a lot more information out to our readers and viewers. But new journalists will still come in and hopefully be able to spend enough time on the ground with people, like I was lucky enough to be able to do, and realise that “I didn’t know all this was here, I didn’t realise there was such a strong  population and culture in this part of the world.” I had no idea of those things when I first came up here.

TNM: And in the NT it is not just one monolithic cultural and linguistic bloc – there is an incredible diversity here.

MC: Exactly. I think that the majority of Australians see the Aboriginal communities up here as just an homogenous group, whereas in reality it is completely the opposite. Aboriginal politics on the ground up here are just as – if not more – complex than western politics.

TNM: Apple or PC?

MC: Apple!

TNM: Where do we go when we are dead?

MC: Well, my ashes will be going into the ocean.

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