Dean Sewell and Margo Kingston at #BentleyBlockade
(At the time of the interview on April 30 the #BentleyBlockade was the subject of shouting matches in NSW Parliament as the Labor Opposition Party belatedly tackled new Premier Mike Baird over his plans to unleash riot police on thousands of peaceful farmers and townies. Senior police had confirmed that a riot squad deployment of up to 700 fully kitted out storm-troopers would arrive soon. Social and local print media was roaring with anger at this affront to democracy, food and water security.)
Underneath a small marquee in the heart of the Bentley anti-coal seam gas protest camp I’m sipping lime cordial with renegade journalist Margo Kingston. It’s a dry camp, but the 500-odd people currently in residence on this cool, late April evening have no problem enjoying themselves – to go by the hum of conversation and the hubbub of drums, guitars and didgeridoo emanating from the nearby fires.
Margo is highly animated, cackling and thumping the table for emphasis as she regales us with her adventures in journalism – and her plans for the future.
Seated next to her is Dean Sewell, now a freelance photographer of no small renown and Margo’s offsider during her most famous exploit, her coverage of Pauline Hanson on the campaign trail in 1998 for ex-employer the Sydney Morning Herald.
Dean is frequently Margo’s foil as she reminisces about the extraordinary intensity of that mission. The Hanson saga, and her ensuing book Off The Rails spelt the beginning of the end of Margo’s career as a mainstream journalist which finally burnt out after a series of spectacular forays into difficult truths. She had already run a notorious path through the displeasure of editors and powerful people alike and blazed a pioneering trail through the future of journalism with her prescient (and doomed) online forum Webdiary, first for the SMH then as an independent site and after her 2004 book Not Happy, John! Defending our democracy.
Margo’s Twitter-based new baby, the ‘citizen journalism’ site No Fibs, heralded her return to public life after a prolonged ‘retirement’.
“What I’m doing with No Fibs is really no different than what I was doing with Webdiary,” she says. “I’m very keen on citizen journalism, very keen on getting people’s ideas into the site, very keen on debates.
“I’ve said many times I feel the future of journalism is a collaboration between the professional and the citizen journalist – and if we don’t collaborate our profession could be lost.”
Margo’s had rock-star treatment in the camp – she’s been provided with a nicely appointed tent and beautiful meals as befits a bona fide guerrilla-journalist paragon whose narrative is grounded in the coal face of democracy and whose brutal honesty is a driving compulsion. She’s quite flabbergasted with her reception, being used to campaigning rough in the thick of the action.
This camp sits in a humble cow paddock some 15kms from Lismore, precariously balanced between the unfriendly territory of Richmond Valley County Council, whose pro-gas Mayor has failed to evict it, and the home turf of Lismore, whose extremely vocal residents are overwhelmingly opposed to having an industrial gas field in their back yard.
Margo thrives on this charged atmosphere.
“I’m really pleased to be reporting in this green shoot space now that the media system is fucked worldwide.
“It’s closed and it’s insular. People just argue stupid points and nothing ever changes. Australian media is locked into the establishment way of looking at and reporting politics, that closed world of the Canberra belt where anything else is like, ‘Well a focus group will sort that out for us’, or ‘What’s that poll say?’
“But #leardblockade and #BentleyBlockade and #Pilliga is people on the ground saying, ‘Y’know, we’re gonna try doing something else. They’re real stories, actual real stories, and I’ve got the field to myself because the mainstream media won’t walk into camp.
“My point of view always has been since Hanson and all through Webdiary that it’s best if you say what you believe. And you’ll be judged on your accuracy and your this and that, but it feels more honest.
“I feel that this whole idea of journalistic objectivity is completely bullshit in the modern world, because politics and business and sport and entertainment – they’re staged events. We’re not standing back reporting what they do, they’re producing an event for us. It’s bullshit.
“I’m very well aware that I’m walking a tightrope, and I’ve walked a tightrope my entire career because I only write about what I’m passionate about and what I’m outraged about. I actually can’t just tap it out, can I Dean?
“I’ve always pushed the envelope and I feel this is a natural progression for me. Now that I look back, I thought when I retired hurt – I had a nervous breakdown, a financial breakdown, a physical breakdown – that I was gone. It took me two and a half years to get off the floor. I never thought I’d come back, so for me to come back and to be so excited by journalism again after being so burnt out by it, I feel like I’ve been given another go.
“I have these terrible arguments with my sister (veteran journalist and editor Gay Alcorn) – she says ‘You’ve completely crossed the line, you can’t be doing this’.
“I say ‘Well if I don’t do it no-one does it and this doesn’t get out – this world, this movement, this energy’.
“I think people would say that I have taken a radical position, but the thing that thrilled me was that when the Daily Telegraph (reported) that I was arrested they put “radical journalist arrested”… both their articles called me a journalist.” (Police claim intimidation via Twitter by anti-mining protesters, including former Sydney Morning Herald journalist Margo Kingston.)
“They didn’t say ‘a former journalist who’s gone right off the rails’.” (See Getting #leardblockade arrested, WTF is journalism and who’s the extremist: @margokingston1 interview with @dailytelegraph.)
Formerly a practising solicitor, and having worked for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the Canberra Times and Jana Wendt at A Current Affair, Margo is well aware that being embedded in protest camps violates just about every tenet of modern journalism. But it’s a deliberate act about which she has formulated a few tenets of her own.
“It’s really difficult because I come from a tradition where, y’know, (journalists) have all got their own sources and they know things they can’t say – I couldn’t stand that stuff. I’m like Dean, I go in, I want to get the story out. So then you’re embedded and there you are, you’re witnessing their training and their tactics and what they’re gonna do, but I can’t report any of that.
“If I report the details of their training, that’s evidence for a conspiracy, If I report that they’re planning to wake up at three the next morning and do something, well I can’t. You have to be trusted to be able to get inside something like this.
“Now potentially that’s terribly compromising, so you have to make a judgement. If something goes wrong on the action, my policy is I report that something went wrong. At ActUp 2 at #leardblockade they had this beautiful structure outside the gate and tripods and everything and they forgot that there was a side gate and the police went in through there … (laughs)
“If I was ‘in there’ I’d pretend nothing happened, but I Tweeted “outfoxed – go to Plan B”.
Margo reports via Twitter, a domain she refers to as a ‘public diary’, where she maintains that her feeds are augmenting a new kind of journalism.
“I read an article which said that Twitter has become the birth of news. That’s where it hits. All these different people asking these different questions. All the journalists are on Twitter now and they’re all watching people who they feel they need to watch. I’d hate to be a mainstream journalist now, you have to do that as well as everything else like write five pieces a day, do some video …
“I went to Canberra for Cathy McGowan’s maiden speech and watched journalists watching a press conference on TV. One dictated grabs at another typing – they’re all trying to press the button first. It’s just a nightmare.
“Mainstream media flicks from one thing to another – who knows what happened last year or yesterday? But (the people on) Twitter do. They say, ‘What about who said that there’ and publish the link, so Twitter is building its own story and the good journos will take that and go with it. You’ve actually got an incredible resource with Twitter.”
Margo became a convert to Twitter in late 2012 and has deferred her nearly-completed nursing degree.
“It was a huge decision to defer because all my friends except one said, ‘Oh my god Margo, move on. Journalism is something that you have an interesting relationship with, but inevitably it means you go off the rails and that’s the end of it.’
“In my opinion no-one knows how Twitter works. You find your spot. There’s a million different worlds in Twitter. So my spot is Australian politics. That’s my milieu.
“I got a head start when I got into it. A lot of people followed me early, they said things like ‘Oh I thought you were dead’, y’know, ‘You’re back!’
“Just being a Twitter-based journalist I was creating – and I hate using these words – I was becoming quite powerful in my own small way. I don’t wanna tell people what I had for breakfast. I run a pretty hardcore political tweet thing and I think I’m ahead of the curve.
“For example imagine how thrilled I was when The Guardian ran my #leardblockade portraits, then published my pic for their piece on war veteran Bill Ryan where he told his story about why he got arrested at #leardblockade.
“The Tele ran pictures by me too, and were shocked because they had this conspiracy theory that The Guardian was paying me at #leardblockade.
“I said no, I’m doing this as a service for the mainstream media. They can pick up my pictures and rely on that I’ve given them accurate figures of arrests and accurate accounts. Y’know, take it and run with it, it’s yours.
“The Tele reporter asked, ‘Who are you working for Margo?’ I said ‘I’m working for my site’. He said ‘Are you a member of any of these (environment) organisations?’ ‘No.’
He said ‘You believe that climate change is real and that coal mine shouldn’t happen, don’t you?’ I said ‘Yes I do believe that’, and he goes, ‘Well how can you say you’re a journalist?’ I said, ‘I’ve told readers what I believe, what’s wrong with that?’
“Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel they can’t touch me. I work for no-one but myself. I haven’t got bosses coming down on me and every time the Tele targets me it increases my profile. So I feel they’re in a no win – but maybe I’m just being silly.”
This kind of exposure to the news, in becoming the news, has come with its own problems and credibility issues.
“It’s a very knotty area, I’m not saying I’m completely confident. Several times I’ve had images of things I’ve done at the blockade come to mind and gone ‘Oh I shouldn’t have done that’.
“These are really curly ones, but my point of view is that it’s far better to make those compromises and get that story told which otherwise wouldn’t have been told. Tim Blair (Daily Telegraph blogger) would say, ‘Well you’re not getting both sides of the story are you?’
“No, I’m not. I am reporting this side of the story. There are many people reporting that side of the story, and there are many journos in the middle and long may they reign. Both sides will speak to them. I don’t know if they would speak to me, I’ve never asked. And maybe I should but I felt it’s a good role for me to say, ‘I’ll tell you what’s happening on the ground and you do what you like with it. That’s my job, that’s what I do, I’m there. You’re somewhere else, you do your job.’”
Margo attributes the nature of her new vocation to the evolution of reporting in the volatile social media era.
“Basically I’m one of the players in the radicalisation of Twitter, and more and more people want to be a bit more radical so I think I’ve found a bit of a niche there.
“Basically No Fibs is a site of radical action. There’s a lot of angst around Australia and No Fibs is reporting that.
“I think there was frustration last year with both the performance of the Labor government and the media’s role in the failure to scrutinise the opposition. You had a Murdoch press that made it impossible and you had the worst ever campaign by a Labor leader. Yet the Libs did not win in a landslide. So you’ve got this unease and I think people like me have helped convert that negativity of Twitter into – ‘Well, what you gonna do about it guys?’
“After the election Abbott was so bad so early that people really wanted to do something. #MarchinMarch was a big breakthrough because everyone, including me, completely wrote it off as a sort of virtual reality type thing – yet people turned up.
“No Fibs did the best coverage of #MarchinMarch, with people on the ground live tweeting into our hashtag and then, even up to two weeks later we had people writing in and saying ‘Would you mind if I told my story?’
“Like the campaigns on the ground for Lock the Gate, people just went off and did their own thing where they live but it came together and it was so exciting and so empowering. A lot of Tweeps went off at the mainstream media about their (lack of) reporting. I thought the MSM were dealt a devastating blow with the lack of #MarchinMarch reporting. Embarrassing. It showed why the Press Gallery is out of touch.
“The role of the Press Gallery is to bring the people’s concerns to the powerful and hold the powerful to account on behalf of the people. It’s really simple. If you don’t have a clue what the people’s concerns are or couldn’t give a shit because it hasn’t been proved by some focus group which gives you dot points, it’s awful.
“I just think if they don’t report things like #MarchinMarch they’re out of the game, because this is where the game is now.”
Margo’s passionate belief in this new form of journalistic shorthand, where brevity and immediacy are the parameters, has been confirmed in the field.
“The head of the NSW Minerals Council Stephen Galilee did an op-ed where he just went for me, really hard. And I know why – it was my coverage of the #leardblockade campaign in early January. Greenpeace had gone on holidays and the protesters had been evicted from camp and there was just a little group left. A friend dragged me in really, and I start live tweeting ‘civil disobedience arrests’ and established the Twitter hashtag and educated my followers and the environment groups and people on the ground to use it and it became Twitter’s news feed.
“Twitter loved the live stuff. Like, ‘now the cops are coming’, ‘now they’re consulting’, ‘now this is happening’. The momentum built and at the debrief after the second ActUp the Greenpeace guy said ‘I’m convinced’. Basically Twitter got the campaign going again and when Greenpeace got its act together they took over. The Minerals Council and the Mining Australia magazine and the Right use #leardblockade too, so whoever’s interested in goes there.”
Margo has now been asked to write another book as part of a Phd for Macquarie University, a project that will include documenting and analysing her ongoing experiment – collaboration between citizen journalists and professionals.
“I’ll have to tone down the Twitter addiction and not worry about being on top of everything. Take a step back. But I do have a commitment to the #leardblockade campaign. I feel that’s where I’m taking a stand on climate change and I’m very interested in the broader movement and how this might play out.
“These are the possibilities. This is what Webdiary was doing between 2000 and 2005 until the SMH stupidly fucked it up. Anyway, they admit that now. Pity they had to destroy me in the process, but it probably was about time.
“I remember saying to a friend of during Webdiary, ‘Oh it’s so frustrating’. She said ‘Margo, you’ve got away with the impossible for years. You are one of the luckiest journalists in Australia, if not the world. You have had this space in mainstream media which you’ve done whatever you like in.’ I had to say, ‘Yeah’.
“You know what I feel Dean? What I’m doing now with Twitter is reporting grass roots movements, like the Hanson phenomenon. It’s seat of your pants, anything could happen. I’m really loving it and I really think I’m doing good work. I just do. I know I am.”