Chris Hammer: Lost in Transition

This was the year my life changed forever. This was the year I stopped being a journalist and became a writer. A fiction writer, no less: someone who earns their living by making stuff up.

I know. I can hardly believe it myself. And I couldn't be happier.

And yet.

“Suddenly I felt comfortable calling myself a writer. I thought the transition was complete: a journalist no more, a writer at last. An author. Maybe even a novelist.” Credit:Simon Letch

At some point during the transition, in the year between signing the first of my book deals and my debut novel, Scrublands, arriving in the stores, I found myself mourning the passing of my former career, even as I celebrated the arrival of my new one.

I lost my job in the middle of 2017, just one of thousands of experienced, well-paid journalists retrenched over the past decade and a half from an industry in decline. So for a full year, I was no longer a journalist, yet I was not yet a published fiction author – it was August 2018 when Scrublands hit the shelves.

"What are you doing now?" people would ask. "Writing books," I would reply. Some reacted with thinly disguised pity, thinking I was putting on a brave face, covering for unemployment like many of my former colleagues. I mean, whoever heard of anyone making a living out of writing books? "No, really," I would protest.

During that period, I found it difficult to own the description "writer". Sure, I was starting to receive advances, but until the book was actually in print and in bookstores, until I could hold it in my hand, it still felt unreal, as if I might be tempting fate, that I risked jinxing myself, that it would all fall over. After all, it was kind of unbelievable. Still is.

But I could no longer call myself a reporter, either. That was gone. I was a journalist for more than 30 years, a reporter of facts, not a fabricator of fiction. It wasn't so easy to let those years go, not so quickly, not like that. Not when it hadn't been my decision. And it was only then, only in its passing, did I realise the pride I had taken in being a journalist; only when it was abruptly taken from me did I begin to realise how central the profession had been to my view of the world and of myself.

After all, I'd had a great run, covering every prime minister from Hawke to Turnbull, reporting from close to 40 countries on six continents, splitting my career between federal politics and international affairs, reporting for SBS, The Age and The Bulletin, among others.

Chris Hammer, author of Scrublands. Credit:Michael Bowers

In retrospect, it was those experiences reporting from overseas that were the real source of my journalistic pride; not from what I did myself but from the local reporters I met. Because it was in those obscure backwaters, reporting for SBS's Dateline, where I encountered journalism in the raw; it was there I met newsmen and women stripped of the pretence and ego, the salaries and celebrity, that so often characterise the profession in Australia. Here were journalists who put me to shame; journalists so dedicated, so motivated, so brave, they risked imprisonment and death in order to report the news.

I recall one old fellow in Azerbaijan, an editor of an independent newspaper. This was in the mid-1990s, when the country was ruled by a despot called Heydar Aliyev, a relic from the Soviet Union's politburo. Azerbaijan was awash with oil, so all the world was sucking up to Aliyev, including the Americans, the Europeans and the oil majors. Then, as now, oil trumped human rights.

Unusually, this editor agreed to be interviewed on camera, despite the risk of being sent back to jail. After the interview he showed me his prison scars, from cigarette burns to flogging welts. But it was his hands that shocked me. I'd naively thought he suffered from crippling arthritis. Not so. The authorities had broken each and every one of his fingers, to prevent him from typing, to make it a torture in itself for him to set the type on his mechanical printing press.

And yet he persisted. Every week, he would take his paper to the censors, and almost every week they would ban some story or another. But instead of replacing the offending articles with less controversial material, he would simply run the name of his paper over and over again in the vacant space, so his readers might know a story had been redacted.

After I interviewed him, that same afternoon, he was off to see the censors, to run the weekly gauntlet once more. "They'll lock me up again, sooner or later," he told me matter-of-factly. "I may die in prison. Others have."

That man – name shamefully forgotten – embodies for me the real heart of journalism: speaking truth to power, reporting facts the powerful want hidden, holding governments to account. Putting your life on the line. The best journalists are dogged, disrespectful of authority, and impervious to intimidation. I was occasionally those things, but not often. Yet I still took pride in the profession, if only by association.

And so it was, as this year of transition unfolded, as my transition continued, I struggled to surrender the identity of the journalist. Journalists aren't always nice people. Some of the best are obsessives, always looking for the next scoop, the next front page, driven to find the next adrenaline hit, to out-compete their rivals. They badger and bully some sources even as they protect others; their imperative is to lead the pack, not to follow it. These people make fine journalists, if not always fine people.

And they may not risk death or arbitrary imprisonment, but they remain an essential pillar of our democracy. Whatever their shortcomings, I was proud to count myself among them, even on those days when the story was mundane and the headlines predictable.

Last to go was my union card, carried in my wallet, boldly identifying me in large letters as MEDIA. I'd been a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance ever since I joined its predecessor, the Australian Journalists Association, as a cadet reporter back in 1985. In the end, I let it go. Of course I did. It made little sense spending several hundred dollars a year to remain a member of a union that could no longer represent me. I resigned, took the card from my wallet and redirected my fees elsewhere: to the Australian Society of Authors and to newspaper and news-site subscriptions.

Then August came: Scrublands was published, in the stores and in the bestseller lists. Suddenly I felt comfortable calling myself a writer. I thought the transition was complete: a journalist no more, a writer at last. An author. Maybe even a novelist. Bloody hell.

But not quite. There was a final psychological step waiting for me. I was filling out an author questionnaire for my UK publisher, part of the publicity and marketing push for Scrublands' January 2019 release there. The questionnaire was full of such penetrating questions as: What's your favourite food? What is your favourite bookstore? Do you have a pet? Then this: What do you care enough about to campaign for?

Campaign? It made me think.

Journalists don't campaign, not as a rule, not as individuals. Certainly not those who work for the public broadcasters. I'd spent 17 years at SBS in one guise or another and it had penetrated my persona, this idea of neutrality. The image of impartiality may be important to the authority of newspapers and commercial broadcasters, but the reality is fundamental to public broadcasters and the trust placed in them. Whatever private views I might have held, professionally I'd been expected to remain removed from the fray.

The questionnaire made me realise I am now free of that, the last stricture of journalism gone. I am at liberty to say and do as I wish. Not just in private but in public. I can join a political party and tell the world (unlikely). I can sign petitions without thinking about the consequences (yes, please). I can lend my name to whatever cause I choose (if it might help).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not about to dive headlong into the culture wars; life's too short to waste it on arguing with people with closed minds. That's not the point: the point is, I can if I want. The point is, my identity has changed.

For I am no longer a journalist. I don't miss the job. To be honest, I was well and truly over it by the time it left me behind. Even if I hadn't been sacked, I would have resigned the moment that first book deal materialised. Instead, I got a nice redundancy package. Thank you.

It wasn't journalism I had trouble leaving, it was thinking of myself as a journalist.

Now that's fading as well. I have a new career and, it would seem, a freshly minted identity. I have been liberated. I wouldn't go back, not for quids. For this was the year my life changed forever.

Chris Hammer's debut novel, Scrublands (Allen & Unwin, $33), was released in August.

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