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TV & Radio

Feb 29, 2012

The quality journalism project: the Human Headline

Derryn Hinch courts controversy more than most Aussie journalists. He's the latest participant in Crikey's Quality Journalism Project.

Derryn Hinch courts controversy more than most Aussie journalists. When he underwent a liver transplant last year, the media was saturated with updates about Hinch, including live tweets from the hospital bed and a 60 Minutes special that even showed him examining his old diseased liver cut up into pieces.

Just two weeks later Hinch was imprisoned under house arrest for five months — which included a ban on communicating via all media, including Twitter and Facebook — after he breached suppression orders by naming a s-x offender, a crime he went to prison for in the 1980s.

He happily calls himself the Human Headline — a brand name he uses as his Twitter account, blog name and memoir title.

Hinch hosts 3AW’s Drive every afternoon, but he doesn’t listen to radio. He was bureau chief in New York for Fairfax during the late ’60s and early ’70s and later edited The Sydney Sun. He’s written a stack of books and updates his blog daily.

But what does Hinch think is the best media outlet in the country?

He’s the latest participant in Crikey‘s quality journalism project, where we quiz the top journalists in the country about good journalism and where they go to get it.

Now over to the man with the mouth, Derryn Hinch …

How do you define quality journalism?

When you’ve been around a long time, and I’ve been in the business 50 years, it sounds corny but you just know. You know when you’re reading something and you think “this is great” or you’re reading something and you think “this is crap” or you’re reading something and think “this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about”.

How do you know when it’s good?

It’s not just show off-iness. Not just who’s got the biggest access to Roget’s Thesaurus, who uses the biggest words and the longest sentences. Kevin Rudd-speak doesn’t make it quality.

I find increasingly that simplicity of language is good. Although you can take it to the nth degree — I recall when I first joined The Sydney Sun as a police reporter in the ’60s, somebody had told me that it [good writing] was no more than six words to a sentence and no more than one sentence to a paragraph. So my first couple of stories read like I was paying for it by the word.

I think a bit of that might have still stuck because even in my books I write, I have no compunction about writing in incomplete sentences and I start more sentences with the word “and” then anybody, anywhere. Because of the way I talk , I break up sentences into separate parts. I might even write a sentence then put “but” as a separate sentence and then go on from that.

Most English teachers would say that was a disgraceful way to write but it forms a narrative then gets the message across.

In that sense, quality journalism doesn’t have to stick to the grammar rules?

No. It has to stick to the facts and that’s when the quality comes in.

Derryn Hinch’s top 10 quality journalism sources in Australia:

  1. Sky News: David Speers has grown incredibly. In my mind they’ve got Canberra covered.
  2. Twitter: It’s the biggest advance in journalism and news gathering in the 50 years I’ve been in the business. It’s also the most dangerous. Just because something comes off the internet, doesn’t mean it’s true. Classic example was [Phillip] Coorey and his 73-29 [Coorey tweeted the wrong result from the Labor leadership count on Monday]. Everyone went with it because you thought “no one would be stupid enough to go on a hunch” or whatever it was. I was very glad because I had money on Rudd at 31-35 at $2.50. Was looking like a loss there for half an hour!
  3. Laurie Oakes (Nine Network): I’ll switch back to Channel Nine if I know Oakes is going to be on. I turned it on Sunday morning because I knew that Today would have Oakes with Kevin Rudd.
  4. Paul Murray (Sky’s Paul Murray Live): Mainly because he’s a doppleganger. I was guesting on his show once and said “did I know your mother in a previous life?” He’s fresh, he’s trying. He reminds me of myself 20 or 30 years ago.
  5. Michelle Grattan (The Age): Because she’s Michelle Grattan. She has the take of history. I don’t always agree with her but I like her take on things.
  6. Samantha Maiden (News Limited’s Sunday papers): Because she gets some good stories.
  7. Latika Bourke (ABC): During the 2010 election I had her on every day and she was great radio talent. I think she’s wasted at the ABC. She’s just disappeared. She was the hottest thing on the campaign trail in 2010.
  8. Andrew Bolt (Herald Sun): Don’t agree with him but he makes a cause. Also I think the court action against him was an absolute disgrace. To do this was bad for journalism, really bad. On that I support him 100%.
  9. Patrick Carlyon (Herald Sun): Takes after his old man Les.
  10. Tony Wright (The Age): I’m waiting for a new Matt Price or Peter Ruehl, and I think Tony Wright is getting there.
What media do you consume on a daily basis?

I turn on my laptop and I check Twitter, because any breaking story is going to be on Twitter.

Then I flick on my emails to see if anything urgent has come in. Then I go to my door and get my papers: The Australian, The Age and the Herald Sun. During the day online I read the best of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Telegraph and The Australian Financial Review.

In my five months of house arrest I developed the bad habit of reading more slowly, so I could spend a couple of hours reading the papers. When I got back to work I felt myself having to pick up and not read everything, save features for the weekend or at night time.

First of all, most of my input for news is television. I don’t ever listen to radio. Never.Paul Murray as a present gave me a digital radio which has 17,000 stations on it around the world and I used it to tune into Libya during the Libyan crisis, but I don’t listen to the radio. I watch television.

My television is locked on Sky News 24/7. But I click through news, I watch ABC’s Diane Sawyer at 10.30 every morning. I go to the BBC. At night time, for cringe worthy purposes, I tune into Fox and Friends and a bit of Bill O’Reilly. You can’t get one non anti-Obama story among them and it’s just fascinating to watch.

I’ve got The Washington Post and The New York Post on my iPad. I read on the iPad when I’m going back and forth to the hospital, it’s 20 minutes each way and waiting. If there’s a good story on The Times you’ll get it because someone on Twitter will tell you. I don’t read The New York Times every day unless I’m in New York on holidays.

I don’t read amateur blogs, I read the real blogs. I think The Daily Beast is a terrific one. Politico is pretty good too, and The Huffington Post.

I watch Q&A, Media Watch, Four Corners. I will occasionally do Australian Story. The only night I’d watch the ABC would be Monday night.

If there’s a specific reason I’ll watch 60 Minutes or I’ll watch Sunday Night. Twenty years ago when I had a farm at Mount Macedon, Hanging Rock,  you’d say “do we drive home before 60 Minutes or after?”. That was a Sunday night major decision. Don’t do that any more.

On Sunday night there was a thing called The Last Race [on the ABC], a fantastic  half-hour movie about organ donors. A lot of shows like that get sent to me and I can just watch them at my leisure.

I don’t have time to listen to the radio. I’m sure they hate it here that I tell them I never listen.

What made you join Twitter?

The 2010 election and our IT guy. Two years ago I was the biggest critic of Twitter you’d ever had. I said “I don’t give a fuck what Shane Warne had for breakfast and all the lovey dovey stuff with Elizabeth my darling s-xy fiancé, makes you puke!” Now I read it every day and I’m on it and I’ve got about 24,000 followers.

I write my tweets, I don’t just bang them out. I have a Twitter folder,  I write them out [in Word] and count the letters. I do it like a newspaper.

I think I was probably the first person in the world to be banned from Twitter. I could consume it, but not produce. I got 2000 more followers when I wasn’t speaking, that may be telling me something.

What particular stories — either Australian or international — are classic examples of quality journalism?

Watergate was a classic because it had quality reporting, it had a system in place for checking your sources — they wouldn’t go with something if they didn’t have two sources for it. They had an editor backing them to the helm in Ben Bradlee, which you’ve got to have. And you had the world against them. No matter what you thought of Nixon, he was the president of the United States. And they had the source. Deep Throat was just a classic source.

It’s shameful. I think, of [Simon] Crean and [Julia] Gillard to say to journalists “you must give up your sources”. You would never get another story in your life and you wouldn’t deserve it. I’m sure Kevin Rudd was briefing people and probably Laurie Oakes but I can’t prove it and he’d go down in my estimations, and would never get another story in a minute if he said “oh yeah, he briefed me”.

If you’re giving up your source, then you should give up the business because it’ll be the last story you’ll ever write.

On the one hand Rudd knew he could look people in the eye and say “I did not leak” because he would presumably have spoken only to reputable journalists whose own reputation would prevent them from leaking. It is Machiavellian but you’re trapped. And I think you should be trapped.

Is the press gallery too reliant on off the record conversations?

It was ever thus.

Which medium produces the highest quality journalism?

Newspapers because you have the time and the space to extrapolate.

Radio is number one for immediacy.  Before you’ve got TV cameras there, we can do it with a mobile phone. With television you’ve got a huge Panzer division of equipment and lugging it in and getting it all set up and you had to always have pictures. Radio, you’re like a boundary rider, you throw a couple of things in your saddlebag and you’re off. Television, though, has the power of pictures which ended the Vietnam war.

But newspapers still have power. Craig Thomson could not have been brought down by radio or television because you’ve to show all the credit cards and the hooker address and the accounts and all the correspondence.  Television will bring down a few people — they will catch a politician sneaking out of a brothel — but if all you’ve got is the phone records and the credit card records, the newspapers are going to do better.

Are dropping circulations and budgets at newspapers going to have an impact on the quality of reporting they put out?

Yes. They say no but I don’t see how you can have quality journalism, — that, say, a budget-free Graham Perkin had — and do it when the place is run by bean counters. It’s an equation that doesn’t work, sadly.

Why does quality journalism matter?

Because it just does. It’s not just journalists who’ll tell you that, quality readers will you that. Quality journalism brings quality readers.

There will always be people looking for quality writing. Take Jill Baker’s piece [in the Herald Sun] for which she won a Gold Quill. Admittedly I’m biased, having been through a similar situation, but that was just a beautiful piece of writing. That’s where quality journalism will always shine. And why books will always be around in some manner or form.

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