JOURNALISTS IN FICTION AND ON FILM
Historically, the journalist is a key figure in the narratives that populate popular culture. According to Richard M. Ness, up to 1996 more than 2000 feature films had been made in English about journalism. These include Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), All The President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) and The Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander MacKendrick, 1957). Novels and stage plays such as The Front Page—many of them adapted for the screen—frequently have engaged with the figure of the journalist. Brian McNair’s research has identified more than 70 films made in English since 1997 which deal centrally with the topic of journalism, including romantic comedies such as The Runaway Bride (Gary Marshall, 1999), dramas such as Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005) and bio-pics such as Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005).
There are several explanations for this level of interest. First, the journalist is not only a producer of news and other content, but is crucial for maintaining healthy and accountable democratic processes. Journalism is famously the fourth estate, and journalists are the watchdogs. Many filmic and literary stories of journalism—Citizen Kane, for example—address the theme of the news media’s relationship to power. Sometimes they celebrate the journalist, as in All The President’s Men, about Watergate. Elsewhere, as in Citizen Kane, a fictionalised account of William Randolph Hearst, writers are critical of the contribution of journalists to democracy.
There is another reason why there have been so many films, novels and plays written and made about journalism: journalistic narratives simply make compelling stories. The journalist confronts power, witnesses conflict and investigates crime. Journalists move on the inside of the power structures of a society, licensed to go where others dare not. Stories about journalists are inherently dramatic, and often they are also true, at least in part.
Australian writers have shared an interest in the subject of journalism with their international counterparts. In fiction, W.S. Howard’s You’re Telling Me! (1934) centred on a party involving a group of thinly disguised Smith’s Weekly journalists. Kenneth Mackenzie’s The Refuge (1954) tells the story of a Sydney journalist and a young woman refugee from Europe. George Johnston’s My Brother Jack (1964, made into a television mini-series in 2001) and Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) form the first two parts of a trilogy about journalist and war correspondent David Meredith. Murray Sayle’s A Crooked Sixpence (1961) tells the tale of a young Australian reporter, fresh off the boat, brimming with enthusiasm and ambition, who secures casual shifts on a mass-circulation Fleet Street Sunday scandal-sheet.
More recent novels include a series of six murder mysteries (1987–95) by Jennifer Rowe about Verity Birdwood, a ‘scrappy TV researcher’. Several take gender as a theme. Maggie Alderson’s Pants on Fire (2000) is about a British journalist who takes a job on a women’s magazine in Sydney, while the main character of Sonya Voumard’s Political Animals (2008) is ambitious newspaper journalist Ally Chesterton, who works in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery. Boned (2008), by ‘Anonymous’, inspired by an alleged remark by Nine Network executive Eddie McGuire, is a tell-all novel about commercial television and current affairs centred on a female protagonist.
E-books include Attack at the Dolphin (2013) by Bridget Wilson and the crime novel Late Final Extra (2013) by ‘Jen Gregory’ (Greg Lenthen and Jenny Tabakoff). Many of these works are semi-autobiographical.
In television drama, notable representations of journalists include The Paper Man (1990), which describes the rise to power of media mogul Philip Cromwell, who is clearly based on Rupert Murdoch. A young Clyde and Kerry Packer are represented as the Slater brothers. The Oracle (1979) was a 12-part ABC drama series about the life and work of a Sydney talkback radio announcer, possibly inspired by John Laws. Four Southern Star produced or co-produced mini-series have recently focused on the Packer empire: Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo (ABC, 2011), Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (Nine, 2012), Paper Giants: Magazine Wars (ABC, 2013) and Power Games: The Packer–Murdoch War (Nine, 2013). Murdoch is the subject of the 2013 play, Rupert, by David Williamson, who wrote an earlier play, Influence (2005), about a talkback radio ‘shock jock’. A satirical approach to television journalism was taken by Working Dog Productions’ comedy series Frontline (1994, 1995 and 1997).
In cinema, two films stand out for their portrayal of Australian journalists. Newsfront (Philip Noyce, 1978) tells the story of the early newsreel producers in a rapidly changing Australian society. Balibo (Robert Connolly, 2009) told the story of the Balibo Five and the efforts to achieve official recognition of the crime. The film explores the challenges faced by foreign correspondents in conflict zones.
Australian images of journalists range from harrowing and deeply serious (as in Balibo) to inspirational and instructive (the first Paper Giants). Many of the works are intended purely for entertainment, while others engage with the big issues that surround the performance of journalism in our era. Taken together, they are an evolving resource on the role and place of the journalist in Australian society. In recognition of the importance of this representation, in 2010, the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne hosted a Journalism on Screen Film Festival.
REFs: B. McNair, Journalists in Film (2010); R.M. Ness, From Headline Hunter to Superman (1997); ‘The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture’.