George Negus loves a good moustache, an open-necked shirt and is one of our most trusted faces in news, according to a poll this week by Essential Research. He’s written a pile of books, interviewed world leaders and pop stars, hosted a swag of shows including 60 Minutes, Dateline and Foreign Correspondent and now hosts 6.30 with George Negus on Ten. Heck, the man even appeared on Celebrity MasterChef.

Just don’t call him a journalist, says Negus. Considering that he asked more questions than he answered when Crikey interviewed him, he sure acts like one.

Negus is the latest expert in Crikey‘s quality journalism project, where we quiz the best and brightest in the biz for their take on quality journalism and where they go to get it. So far we’ve had Laura Tingle, Leigh Sales, Chris Mitchell, Wendy Bacon, Alan Kohler and Mark Colvin and there’s plenty more to come (we’d still love to hear your suggestions).

But this week’s the spotlight shines brightly on George Negus …

CRIKEY: What is your definition of quality journalism?

GN: Actually, I think a term like quality journalism is a documentary rather than a question — maybe even a book. Honestly, it’s such a subjective thing — a bit like beauty. It’s in the eye of the beholder or the ear of the beholder, if it’s beautiful music.

Everybody in the game probably has a different definition of quality journalism because everybody thinks differently about subjective terms like quality — and have a very different idea about exactly what journalism is. It’s not an exact science. I have a hard time calling myself a journalist. I prefer to regard myself as a communicator who’s been using the media as a vehicle, somebody who uses journalism as a vehicle for expression, opinion and analysis.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison. It depends on the outlet. Is it print? Is it audiovisual — like television? Is it radio? Is it magazine? If you ask me, you almost have to have a different working definition for whatever part of the media you’re in.

CRIKEY: Do you have your own preference for which medium produces the best?

GN: No I don’t. It is a matter of personal choice.

… Television journalism I chose consciously because it’s the closest to reality. That might offend a lot of our colleagues. But, simply because somebody buys a newspaper, doesn’t mean to say they are going to read it. Just because somebody has the radio on doesn’t mean they’re listening. But with television, you’ve got to sit in front of the damned thing and watch it for at least some of the time. When you do, what you see on the screen — in terms of journalism — should be close as we can possibly get to reality and genuineness — I wouldn’t say truth, I don’t know what the hell that is. But, when you get in front of that television camera, you’re accountable. I like being accountable.

CRIKEY: Why is it important to have quality reporting and journalism?

GN: That goes back to our first comment. It depends what you think quality journalism is. Is the term quality tabloid, for instance, a contradiction in terms — a bit like military intelligence? Is there such a thing as quality reality television? Is there such a thing as quality shock-jock radio? The term almost defies itself, depending on what part of the media you’re talking about. Is only long-form print journalism quality? Is broadsheet quality journalism and tabloid not-quality? Are documentaries more quality than daily current affairs program? Is the ABC news more quality than commercial news? The whole idea of the question is subjective and depends upon so many of these factors. I guess I’m posing questions rather than answering them. Then, that’s what I do for a living.

CRIKEY: What are your personal top 10 quality journalism sources in Australia?

GN: I don’t think this is avoiding the question when I say you get different things from different forms of the media. I wouldn’t know what a lot of people in this country were thinking unless I read tabloid newspapers even though I’ve never worked for one. I wouldn’t know what the shock jocks are going off about, unless I occasionally listened to that kind of radio. I wouldn’t know what the less than 1% of the people who listen to Radio National were thinking unless I listened to that. Would I know what was fully going on internationally without reading The Guardian Weekly? So when you say sources, I don’t think there can be 10 quality sources. Some of the sources I find myself using to top up my journalistic reservoir are crap. But if I’m going to understand what readers and viewers and listeners are thinking, I need to spread myself pretty thinly right across the board of sources.  And some of the quality is very low and some of the quality is very high and somewhere in between is everything else. I read heaps on a regular basis — but much of that is for my personal edification, not just in a professional sense.

CRIKEY: What do you read on a regular basis?

GN: The Guardian Weekly, The New York Times, Channel 4 News, The Week,  the weekend newspapers from cover to cover.

… On a daily basis,  you read endlessly depending on what the journalistic assignment or report or story or interview that you’re doing in my case, is. Sources? These days, anybody who says one of them is not Google is lying. But then you have to qualify yourself out of existence by saying Google, of course, is the good, the bad and the ugly of sources. “Google it!” is probably one of the most used phrases in the world right now — let alone in the media. It’s become a bloody substitute for knowing anything.

Personally, as well as my laptop, in my briefcase I’d probably have this week’s Guardian Week, this week’s Economist. A myriad of bits and pieces from weekend magazines from the newspapers. I’ve even been known to carry around with me transcripts of interviews from something like Radio National Breakfast or AM. There’s also usually a book, depending on what I’m into at the time. You need something to read other than the daily journalistic reading  to produce a television program.

On a regular basis, the seven o’clock ABC news and early AM is my start to an information and opinion-saturated day … I’m a 7PM Project viewer because I’ve worked on it and it’s fun. I often catch Media Watch — is there anybody other than journalists who watch Media Watch? There must be because its numbers are not real bad. Q&A and Four Corners on an irregular basis. I’m a member of a family too, so I don’t necessarily dictate the terms of what we watch. I don’t leave work to work. That said, you can’t stop yourself thinking. That’s what you have accept about what we do for a living. But, I would be interested in what I’m interested in even if I wasn’t doing it journalistically.

CRIKEY: I still want to hear about your top 10 …

GN: Well you got close, that’s as close as you’ll get. I can’t really give you a top 10 when I’m disputing the whole notion of quality journalism. But, the sort of things I’ve mentioned are what I subscribe to or read or listen to on a pretty regular basis — personally and professionally.

CRIKEY: Are there particular journos you keep an eye out for?

GN: That’s an invidious question. Nobody’s ever accused me of avoiding answering questions, but it would be crazy to nominate particular journalists as people who do so-called “quality journalism”. As soon as I get off the phone, I’d think ‘holy sh-t, why have I mentioned them and holy sh-t, why didn’t I mention him or her?’. Other people were happy to do it?


GN: Congratulations! They are very gutsy people. I guess it also means that I have been around so bloody long, apart from anything else, how the hell would I remember? There are heaps of individuals within the profession who’ve been huge influences on me over the years.

CRIKEY: Who are they?

GN: Nah, I wouldn’t be fair to the people I forget — editors, executive producers, producers, researchers, fellow reporters, all sorts of people on a daily basis I’ve admired for the quality of their work, but I would never nominate them. Why not? Maybe it’s because I’ve been lucky enough to work with the best and the worst in the business and I wouldn’t start to differentiate by naming names.

CRIKEY: Leaving aside quality journalism, what particular stories stand out for you as top yarns?

GN: I try desperately not to even use that horrible term “stories.” One of the more pertinent reasons I find it hard to use the word stories? Stories are usually things you make up  —  fiction. What we’re into is surely faction, not fiction. I tremble every time a journalistic colleague says “that’s a great story” or “”that’s not much of a story.” I can’t stand the term.

CRIKEY: What do you call them?

GN: It could be a piece, a report. Or it could be a package, an article, a segment. Whenever I hear the term “story” I have this picture of a huge warehouse full of bits of people’s lives with “story” written on it. When we need one, we grab it and stick it in our television program or in our newspaper or our radio program. If you ask me, it denigrates the people whose “stories” are being told to call it a “story.”

CRIKEY: Well, what particular pieces or reports or packages or articles or statements stand out?

GN:  How many thousands are we talking about? How could anyone possibly point to one piece of work or 10 pieces of work? Maybe this is a sign of age, but I refuse to nominate any particular pieces of quality journalism that I’ve seen or heard or read.

… We don’t hear a lot of talk about bias these days. Maybe that’s because a lot of younger journalists wouldn’t know what to be biased about? We were paranoid about it — but we lived to tell the tale. Occasionally, who knows, it might have even been what you might deem quality journalism?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey