Down the rabbit hole
Leah Jessup talks to Liz Jackson about her 20 plus years as a journalist and her latest gig as the host of Media Watch.
It’s early in the evening and Liz Jackson is standing outside a closed coffee shop a block from the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters. She scans the adjoining shops contemplating where, on a Wednesday night, two women can find a decent coffee and a quiet place to chat.
Right now Jackson doesn’t look like the cool, calculated presenter who exposes media shenanigans Monday nights on ABC’s Media Watch. Instead, she stands on the sidewalk, slightly frazzled, bulky handbag over one shoulder and sleeping bag under the other.
‘I’ve just come back from Terrigal,’ she says. ‘I look more like a traveler than a journalist don’t I?’
She eyes a flashing neon arrow and asks me if I mind conducting the interview in the ‘Bar and Lounge’ below. Minutes later we are seated on high stools sipping lemon, lime and bitters and nibbling peanuts as grey hound racing blares from the TV screen behind us. The lounge is full.
After 21 years in journalism, Liz Jackson is used to being thrust into unexpected situations.
She speaks excitedly about the time, a decade ago, that she was sent alone to Somalia to cover the country’s famine and civil strife. Somali society had completely collapsed and Jackson was stuck in Kenya, desperate to find a way into the country. With the help of aid agencies she arrived by plane at two in the morning before being transferred to the Mogadishu airport where there was no customs or control. At the time US troops were yet to enter the country and anarchy had taken hold.
“Basically the first thing you have to do is find someone you can hire for 100 US a day to guard you, ” she says.
Then there was the time a mysterious brown paper envelope turned up on Jackson’s desk a day before her story on industry heavy handedness over the pharmaceutical benefits scheme was going to air. The package was simply labeled ‘Liz Jackson, ABC TV Sydney’ and contained a certain revealing document she had been trying to track down for months.
“I still don’t know to this day how I got it.”
For the past 11 years Jackson has been part of ABC’s Four Corners investigative team and has gained a reputation as a smart, uncompromising and intense journalist who has exposed bureaucratic stuff ups and squeezed startling confessions out of unbending interviewees.
Stories such as her 2002 ‘Children at Risk’ exposé on the inside workings of the NSW Department of Community Services sparked government action even before the story went to air. So how does Jackson feel about commanding such a response from her reporting?
“It’s really satisfying. You hate to think that you are just writing and reporting in a vacuum and that you have no influence. Part of what you do is to inform the community about what is going on but in a way that you hope will make people more accountable.”
During her Four Corners stint Jackson scooped up four Walkley Awards, two UN Peace Prizes and three Logies for a variety of stories on subjects ranging from cricket match fixing to Northern Territory mandatory sentencing laws. Jackson denies that there is a magic formula to her success.
“You set out with a story that interests you and in the process of doing that you’re following every rabbit down every rabbit hole. You are chasing. When something comes your way and someone gives you something that you were hoping for I’m delighted. What can I say? It’s great. It makes a lot of the hard slog seem worthwhile,” she says, breaking into a huge grin like a child who has just devoured an illicit candy.
“What I am generally driven by is an interest in trying to find out just how something came about or just what is going on or who is accountable, or highlighting an issue, and so when something almost unexpected comes your way, well it’s great, but I’m not saying that’s necessarily the motivation.”
Walkley judges have used such phrases as “exclusive interviews”, “forensic examination”, “superbly told story” and “fresh analysis” to describe Jackson’s reporting. Surely there is some hidden secret?
Jackson admits that a certain amount of credit comes just from going to dangerous, far-flung places, getting a story on your own before it breaks or searching out a new angle to provide fresh insight into something that hasn’t received a lot of air play.
Journalists mustn’t be afraid to ask the tough questions, says Jackson. She should know. In a 1996 interview with John Howard, Jackson managed to coax out the phrase “comfortable and relaxed” when probing the Prime Minister on his agenda. It quickly became a phrase that marked Howard’s approach to leadership, but it wasn’t a quip Jackson let him get away with at the time. She kept pressing him asking if that approach was “dynamic enough,” cheekily proposing that perhaps what voters really wanted was to feel “excited” about their leader.
“I think people often don’t ask the hard questions. You can cause offence, you can appear rude, you can appear intrusive but there is no question that is not proper to ask,” Jackson says with an air of authority.
After 11 years Jackson has yet again been thrown into an unfamiliar environment. In March this year she took over the reins of Media Watch, ABC’s forum for media analysis and comment.
When I start asking Jackson about the move she again takes the conversation back to Four Corners, reminiscing about its 45 minute format (she only has 15 minutes on Media Watch) and the craft of documentary film-making, which she admits she finds just as alluring as the journalism itself.
“What you are doing is not just writing, you have to know what pictures you need, you have to craft it. Obviously the camera people film it, the editors cut it, the producers set up things for you and have a sense of what it is, but you’re writing it and writing it isn’t just writing the words, writing is deciding which chuck of this you want, which vision and which segments.”
So when you are flying around the world, experimenting with an exciting journalistic style and receiving both national and international acclaim, why on earth would you want to leave?
“I felt that it was a time in my life when I needed to do something different. I think Media Watch is a really important show because there aren’t that many mainstream, widely viewed, accessible media accountability programs and I think they are essential. So I though I’d give it a go, it’s about as strong as that.”
“I don’t see myself signing up to Media Watch forever.”
Jackson’s mannerisms reveal her bold, intense personality. She leans forward as she talks and her eyes are constantly open wide with alertness. She speaks about her career with such conviction that her long arms flail out in every direction as she talks. A couple of times I get such a shock I almost topple off my bar chair. Mid sentence she jumps up and politely asks the burly barman to turn down the racing.
In seeking to uphold the Media Watch tradition, Jackson sees her challenge as twofold. On the one hand she wants to make the media feel there is somebody keeping an eye on them and holding them accountable for their actions. On the other hand, she wants to increase people’s understanding of the way the media works and the influences that shape the information we obtain. So what skills does she think she brings to this job?
“I think that the skills that you bring to Media Watch are just your knowledge of how the business works and the fact that you have been there for a while and in that period of time you get a sense of what short cuts are taken.”
Jackson admits that she has entered the genre of “journalism about journalism” at a time when the old cliché – the media are just about as trustworthy as a used car salesman – is as strong as ever.
“There is so much journalism driven by financial reasons and ratings. The public isn’t stupid and knows that there is a lot of nonsense and rubbish and superficial stuff about. Sure, it rests in the hands of journalists but it also rests in the hands of editors and financial proprietors [who control them].”
Jackson says these are the people she wants to bring to account on Media Watch.
“They are the people who are making the big decisions in terms of how events are generally covered. They’re directing it. The people who are at the bottom end of the pecking order don’t necessarily have a lot of control or influence over story selection, story spin, what’s covered and what’s not and why.”
Media Watch has never had any difficulty finding shameful examples of journalistic transgressions and media malpractice. In fact Jackson points to the reporting of the day’s lead news story – the four to six year sentences given to four teenagers who had bashed a boy to death – as one such example.
“A particular hot button is pressed which is ‘they are letting them off with nothing’ and there is a complete lack of interest in actually understanding why a judge might make a certain decision. I think it’s a lynch-mob mentality and vigilante journalism. Just no interest in understanding, just an interest in fuelling outrage.”
Part of the appeal of Media Watch has always been the way it publicly shames its victims and roasts them with the cunning yet simple weapon of sarcasm. Other journalists have described the program as a “blood sport” and “gore fest”, words that could just as effectively describe the questionable journalistic practices it guards against. So is Media Watch dabbling in the same sins it seeks to disgrace?
“Golly I hope not. We can make mistakes, few and far between I hope. But when you do you have to be upfront about it. We got something wrong this week.”
Jackson pauses and laughs: “In the five weeks that I have been there I have just fessed up to our first error!”
To set the record straight Jackson’s offense was reporting that it took ABC news three hours to tell viewers the Pope had died, when in fact it was two. And yes, Jackson apologized in the next program.
While Jackson worked as a lawyer and a bureaucrat before becoming a journalist, it appears she was always destined for the job. Growing up in Melbourne as a child, Jackson’s mother subscribed to at least four daily newspapers and four news and political magazines. With no television to keep her otherwise occupied, Jackson describes herself as “a born and bread journalist.”
“Despite mum being a complete newspaper junkie she had complete contempt for journalists and was tremendously disappointed [with Jackson’s choice of career] – well that’s a bit of an exaggeration – but she was like arrhh!”
When at home in the Eastern suburbs Jackson is careful not to submit her family (she has a 15-year-old son still at home) to the ins and outs of the news front, although she admits to still listening to the radio news by the stove. It’s important to have a life, she says, even if it does mean having dinner with the family instead of watching the 7 o’clock news.
“I try not to let [my career] dominate my whole life. Do you have the impression it does?”
Jackson fishes her mobile phone out of her bag. Four missed calls.
“I can’t believe they are all important. Clearly not. There’s only one message.”
Even in this dimly lit bar Jackson can’t escape the hustle and bustle of the outside.
“In the grand tradition of journalism I should have bought you a whisky,” says Jackson as we reappear on the sidewalk and she attempts to hail a taxi. Something tells me that might be one of the only things that might chill Jackson down.
Liz Jackson on her final Four Corners story ‘Secrets and Lies’:
Jackson’s story ‘Secrets and Lies’ created controversy when it was aired on 14 February 2005. The program was an interview between Jackson and former Australian intelligence officer Rod Barton, who acknowledged during the interview that Australians in Iraq were aware of prisoner abuse, not only at Abu Ghraib but also at a number of other Iraqi camps.
“To me if we are part of a coalition in which we know or suspect that [prisoner abuse] is happening and we chose to do nothing about it and we chose to say nothing about it, then we are part of that and it is clearly an extremely important issue, I think, in the post September 11 environment…I liked the human side of [the story] as well. I liked the fact that [Rod Barton] himself felt guilty about not kicking up more of a fuss about it and then you can place that in a broader context about why people don’t tell what they do and why he had the courage to say what he knew was going on.”
Liz Jackson on the constant pressure to break news at Four Corners:
Jackson said that even after 11 years at Four Corners she never felt that she was in a comfort zone.
“Every single story is about are we going to get more and should we push it over the boundaries of the ordinary. You set out knowing that you have got enough, you have got a story there but with every story you want to push it over to be that much better. You want to get the news, you want to get a news break out of every story if you are going to put 45 minutes into it and you can’t necessarily get it you know [but] you’ve got to in a sense have that going for you all the time.”
Liz Jackson on A Current Affair and Today Tonight:
Jackson used this example when discussing the difference between quality journalism and ratings.
“The increasingly intense rivalry between A Current Affair and Today Tonight has driven those programs down market. A Current Affair a number of years ago decided they would actually go up market but the pressure when they have been beaten this year in the ratings is just irresistible and that kind of journalism is never going to command any huge respect, even though it might rate.”
Liz Jackson on the influence of the Internet on journalism:
The latest ‘State of the News’ media report from a US based project has said that the internet allows for unchecked information to be broadcast over faux-news websites and that the shear prevalence of information now means that journalists must do more than simply present information but must distinguish what is true and what is false. Jackson disagrees that the internet poses a threat to Australian media.
“I actually find the internet a huge boom and I think it is fantastic for journalism because if I want to access any report from say the Pentagon, if I want to look what the Washington Post is saying or the New York Times is saying [I can find it]…I don’t feel that threatened by it…I think there is still a role for country based journalism about Australia that comes from Australia or, taking Iraq, [with the internet] you can access the American stuff, but the Australian perspective and Australian involvement is different and important and that is what we can provide. The fact that I can get information from the internet that helps me with that is, as I say, just a boon.”
Liz Jackson on Media Watch’s influence:
Jackson argues that Media Watch has not been without influence over the years.
“There are obviously huge stories that have been very influential, cash for comment being the most influential. Somebody may say well look Alan Jones and John Laws are still on air but I absolutely don’t think that that means that the work that Media Watch did on exposing that has been without influence. One, there is the new ABA [Australian Broadcasting Authority] disclosure laws, but two, in terms of an understanding of facts and how it works, that’s what lay behind a lot of comment and it has added to a lot of people’s understanding and appreciation and capacity to make their own judgments about the media.”
Liz Jackson on paid interviews:
Jackson felt uncomfortable about Mamdouh Habib being paid for his 60 Minutes interview.
“The more colorful and the more sensational a story is the more it is worth. There’s an expectation that you will deliver…Generally speaking if you are paying someone then you are holding to them as well…I don’t think that it is conducive to people telling the truth. The relationship between the journalist and the person they are interviewing should not be a commercial deal, which creates problems on both sides of that relationship.”