Jonas Løvschall-Wedel chats to five-time Walkley Award winner Monica Attard about her journalism beginnings, personal connection to Russia and the role of The Global Mail.
The clock is just turning to 9am. Monica Attard is sitting behind her computer in her modern but spartanly decorated office. It’s still quiet, but in just an hour or so the building, opposite the botanical garden in Sydney’s CBD, will be buzzing with stories ticking in from all over the world.
After 28 years at ABC in a variety of different roles, ranging from foreign correspondent in Russia to hosting the Sunday Profile and Media Watch, Attard left the world of broadcasting to become managing editor of Australia’s new cosmopolitan website The Global Mail.
During her illustrious career, Attard has experienced more than most journalists could ever hope for. She has covered the collapse of a superpower and won several Walkley Awards; including the golden one. She has been Australia’s watchdog barking from Media Watch and found a home in an organisation that shares the same journalistic values that she holds so dear.
That being said, the climb to the top has not always been a light mambo for Attard. Before she could bow before the Walkley Committee and hold some of the most attractive positions in Australian journalism, she had to work crazy hours and endure working in a sexist environment; where women got the coffee and men handled the scoops.
At the age of 53 years old, Attard reflects about how she grew up in Sydney as a budding journalist. She first went into journalism in 1977 doing a cadetship split between Channel Seven and The Sydney Morning Herald, which were both part of Fairfax then.
In those times Channel Seven was already quite commercial, but she remembers there being a good news service with some great journalists, including a news director named John Campbell.
“He gave me my first break and I’m therefore very fond of him. There were some really fantastic news people around at those times who knew the game and knew how to do news and how to write, so it was a great learning experience,” she says.
When she joined the journalistic ranks back in the late 70s it was somewhat of a man’s world. Reminiscing of her first years she recalls it being really tough to be a woman in commercial media. As a cadet she was always the one sent out to do the flossy supermarket stories.
“I remember standing in an isle doing a story on an extraordinary rise in the price of sugar. And I remember finishing and thinking: if this is what its about I don’t want to be doing this,” she recalls.
Before going into journalism, she had first started at university then dropped out to go into journalism. “I remember thinking: oh my goodness I think my father was right, I should have stuck with studying law. I remember thinking at the time, as a very raw and ambitious seventeen to eighteen-year old that I was in the wrong game because it was just awful, that degree of sexism and in those days it was quite blatant inside newsrooms as well.”
“You would always be the one to go and get the cups of tea and coffee. They would never ask a young male cadet to do the same thing, never, and they would often come with sexist barbs. Not sexually related barbs but sexist – that was offensive. It was just the way it was in those days,” she says.
A few years later Attard did find the spot that suited her in the Australian media landscape, and she stayed there for 28 years. “I feel like I found my spiritual homeland at the ABC,” she says.
At the ABC, she found a culture where the values were; to get a story out because it was an important story, rather than because it might be a popular one. She came from a culture of commercial media at Channel Seven, and after that at 2WS and 2GB, where she didn’t feel comfortable. This changed at the ABC.
“I felt as if I shared their news values. I loved their programs, I loved their commitment to fairness and accuracy and public interest journalism,” she says.
Attard stayed at the ABC for almost 30 years, during which, she was able to move from one program to another over a long period of time. During this time, she worked both in Australia and abroad. She felt as if she changed jobs every few years, but stayed within a culture that felt very comfortable.
Winning five Walkley Awards, it is not surprising that Attard is proud of her career. But there is one epoch that does stand out, as something she looks back on with particularly warm feelings. That being her coverage of the collapse of the Soviet Union. She was in Moscow from December 1989 to 1994 and reported on the last years of Gorbachev’s rule, the cue against him, the rise of Boris Yeltsin and the collapse of Soviet communism. A time she found to be absolutely mind-boggling.
She had come from a background of almost clear obsession with everything Soviet. And suddenly found herself in Moscow reporting back to the Australian people about the biggest story in the world at the time, and was actually getting paid to do it.
“I used to wake up every morning and think that I was the luckiest person on the face of the earth. It was an extraordinarily privileged position to be in,” she says.
As exciting as the job was, it was an equally strenuous one as she worked 15-16 hours a day for almost four years. She remembers it as a hard job, but certainly also as a fascinating one.
Today Russia still takes up a big place in the former foreign correspondent’s heart and she can’t help small frown lines from appearing around her eyes when she talks of all the fascinating characters she met: the ordinary Russians on the streets, some extraordinary characters in the Russian political milieu, and in the foreign correspondent corps. Here she worked alongside people like David Remnick, current editor of ‘The New Yorker’.
“To have been in such a privileged position to have been able to watch these people in operation was an extraordinary thing,” she remembers.
Today Attard still follows Russia avidly. Even though she does at times find the news to be most distressing. After her posting she spent many years going back and forth between Australia and Russia because she was married to a Russian then.
Between 2003 and 2005 she ended up living in Russia again working as a lawyer in Moscow. Again she found it to be an extraordinary experience living there because of the changes that had occurred. The old Soviet was absolutely dead, and she found the new Russia to be an almost ugly 1970s Saudi Arabia.
“It was extraordinarily ugly, and I found that very difficult to cope with. But when I now look at what Putin has done to Russia and the fact that he has just been re-elected president, a lot of things make sense to me.”
“We have always known that the Russians love authority, they love a firm hand, and the fact that they have re-elected him gives you an inkling that this must still be true, even now 22 years after the fall of communism.”
In spite of Russia’s unfortunate development and her being less than impressed with President Putin, she still feels a very close connection to Russia, and she’s not about to close the door on her overseas romance.
“I would love to move back. I quite often feel, on a very deep guttural level, that I ought to be there. I feel in many senses that I was kind of born to live there. But at the moment it’s just not possible, so I’m here,” she explains.
In 2005 it was announced that Attard was taking over as host for ABC’s high profile watchdog program Media Watch. She stayed in this role for two years but found it to be a very taxing job and decided to resign after the 2007 season. She took as many blows as she could endure.
“I hate to say it but it’s a pretty tough job. People have always said to me, that if you are going to throw stones, you better be prepared to have a few thrown back at you. I just didn’t know that there would be quite so many stones thrown back at me. It’s a tough job, and not one that I especially enjoyed; I’ll have to say,” she admitted.
The hard days at Media Watch are now long gone, but Attard has far from slowed down. In the beginning of February she launched The Global Mail, which is funded by Wotif.com entrepreneur Graeme Wood. And the first two months has been intense.
“It has been chaotic, busy and crazy. Crazy hours, where you are in this building from seven in the morning to three the next morning. Just crazy hours, crazy lifestyle but a heck of a lot of fun,” she says.
Her hope is that the The Global Mail will function as a disrupter in Australian media, and a publication that people will value for approaching stories for their public interest worth and their values. Just as she hopes that people will appreciate the new sites’ worldwide reporting.
“I think that it is very sad that so much mainstream media has abandoned international coverage. As though Australians, because we are so far away from the rest of the world, are not interested in international affairs, when in fact I think we are. And I certainly think that if we are not, we ought to be,” she says adamantly.
“To be in a situation where you can have correspondents around the world who are on staff and professionally paid, who are doing a professional job, and bringing you information and news from the various regions of the world, is a very luxurious position to be in, and I think that it’s a really important role that they are playing.”
The Global Mail is unashamedly a current affairs website. Attard says that they will take note of the 24-hour news cycle, but that’s all. With all the other media fighting over the news she doesn’t feel that there’s anything particularly deep or penetrating that ‘The Global Mail’ could add to the current news cycle. There’s no need for another news player, but there is a need for a current affairs player.
“Today they are all writing the same thing, so our mission is to stay outside this echo chamber where they are all talking about the same thing. The mission here is to write stuff that in some cases is in the mainstream and is being talked about – but is not necessarily being written about in depth with some degree of thought and analysis.”
The Global Mail has been given funding for the first five years. As to whether the Australian people are in fact interested in foreign affairs remains to be seen.
But Attard remains optimistic.
“I think that the role of The Global Mail is to bring the world and Australia in the world to Australians and hopefully to anybody else around the world that likes the coverage.”