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It is tempting to dismiss the ABC’s annual Andrew Olle Media Lecture as a media anachronism, a piece of long-form audio content left over from the days before everyone abandoned the medium and switched to podcasts.

An annual black-tie gathering of the media tribes without the anxiety of the Walkleys, the 24th lecture was delivered in the upscale Ivy Ballroom in central Sydney on Friday night by Peter FitzSimons, the Sydney Morning Herald columnist who “speaks four languages … has played rugby for Australia … written over 27 best selling books … [and] is the most popular after-dinner speaker in Australia”. 

Despite murmurs of some turning their noses up at the choice of speaker, it was a sellout. Nine (both print and TV) was well represented. Everyone at the ABC — including Chair Ita Buttrose and Managing Director David Anderson — turned up for the event, founded in honour of the legendary ABC journalist Andrew Olle.

A reason for the full house became apparent. FitzSimons had texted his friends and contacts and asked them along. There was Mike Carlton, Andrew Denton, Jennifer Byrne and Amanda Keller. Nick Fordham (FitzSimons’ agent) took a table, while Derryn Hinch cancelled a previous engagement. There was a rare appearance at an ABC event by David Hill, the fondly remembered ABC chairman who decided everyone would be better off if he switched jobs and became managing director.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher and his wife — Sydney jeweller Manuela Zappacosta — stood near the entrance talking to Sky News political editor David Speers, who is en-route to the public broadcaster.

But News Corp Australia, (perhaps not approving of former Fairfax journalists giving the address two years in a row), largely stayed away.

The night was a lot of fun. ABC News director Gaven Morris bounded up to Four Corners reporter Louise Milligan in deep conversation with Sydney Morning Herald editor Lisa Davies and Nine’s managing director of metro publishing Chris Janz in mock seriousness to ensure they weren’t poaching his reporter.

The Andrew Olle lecture itself is often a 45-minute interruption to the night’s true purpose — the reminiscing, networking, yarning and bitching. Oh, and the drinking.

Few, if any, previous speeches have received the standing ovation bestowed on FitzSimons this year. But the speech was traditional to the point of pedestrian. Some key takeaways: journalism is great; the old days of the Herald were great; Kate McClymont is great; Waleed Aly is great; Louise Milligan is great; The ABC is great; press freedom is great; the Uluru Statement From the Heart is great; climate change denialism is bad; clickbait and overly partisan attacks are bad; and so are the Australian Federal Police.

Here he was preaching to the converted.

The lecture had some beautiful phrases but was really a column far better read on the page than rolled off the tongue. Journalism was “the enduring shimmering thing that lights the way across the grand avenues, the dirty boulevards and the dusty track winding back … ultimately more important to the nation’s overall health and vitality than the momentary comfort of the government of the day”.

For all his critics, FitzSimons was genuine, self deprecating and very funny. He started out in journalism in sport and news before gravitating to his favourite round: “Me, my life and what I think about things.” It brought the house down. FitzSimons ended by saying it was “the greatest honour of my life” to deliver the lecture. Despite his efforts to fight it, there was a catch in his voice — and at this display of genuine emotion the audience rose as one.

The real surprise of the night was that the entrée proved far better than the main event.

In his speech, ABC journalist Danny Tran, winner of the 2019 Andrew Olle scholarship, pulled off an astonishing trick, a powerful defence of public interest journalism, without sounding like a self-important wanker.

Tran said the media could operate here “because journalism is an established tradition. The public expects us to rack muck and report on stories that is in their interest to hear. But we do so with little legal standing. We simply have a social license.”

He warned oppressive national security laws were criminalising journalism and threatening sources. “As a result, in newsrooms across the country, journalists and editors are being forced to ask the same question: does this story matter enough for us to break the law?”

It marked him out as a rising ABC star, just as a speech by previous scholarship winner James Glenday, now a North America correspondent, once did.

At 2am, the night was still going —  just — at the rooftop bar. Three stayers, part of a group of juniors from various companies invited to the event, had stripped to their daks and jumped into the Ivy’s famous rooftop pool.

They were exhibiting that precious journalistic commodity still rightly prized, and something that explains why FitzSimons is one of our most successful journalists: enthusiasm.