Johanna Leggatt

The ABR Podcast 

Released every Wednesday, the ABR podcast features our finest reviews, poetry, fiction, interviews, and commentary.

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Anita Punton

Episode #74

‍May Day

As read by Anita Punton

ABR’s Calibre Essay Prize is one of the world’s leading prizes for an original essay. This year, we received a record field of 638 essays. Today we hear from Anita Punton, who was placed a close second for her essay ‘May Day’, a poignant memoir about piecing together her father’s life after his death. Our judges – Sheila Fitzpatrick, Billy Griffiths, and Peter Rose – described Punton’s essay as ‘a rich and moving evocation of a relationship between father and daughter’, one ‘written with humour and flair, offering a complex portrait of Punton’s father: a brilliant, narcissistic man, whose life was full of contradictions.’

 

   

 

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Is there a profession on Earth more mythologised than journalism? It’s hard to think of one. All that talk about the principles of the Fourth Estate, of keeping the powerful in check and guarding the public interest. In the days of well-funded journalism, university graduates were ushered into weekly shorthand training and could not advance further until their hand flew across the page at an unlikely 140 words per minute. Distinct from other forms of employment, the newspaper ‘profession’ (or is it a trade?) developed a weird and delightful lexicon around its daily production: page layouts were ‘furniture’, sub-editors were taught to avoid ungainly paragraph breaks known as ‘widows’ and ‘orphans’, while copy that was spaced out too sparsely was deemed to be ‘windy’. Meanwhile, many journalists, myself included, were seduced by the clubbish and contrarian quality of the profession, with offices resembling pool halls after 10 pm, rather than formal workspaces. There were certainly no key performance indicators to abide by, let alone an annual performance review.

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In today's episode, Johanna Leggatt speaks to ABR Editor Peter Rose about growing disquiet about ‘cancel culture’, censorious voices on social media, and Twitter's threat to writers and journalists. Beginning with the recent case of Rachel Baxendale, a journalist at The Australian, who was subjected to much invective because of her persistent questions about the quarantine fiasco in Victoria, Leggatt laments the ‘routine trashing of reputations on Twitter’ and wonders why Twitter has ‘devolved into a channel for our most juvenile emotions’.

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In early August, deep in the winter of Melbourne’s stage-four discontent, journalist Rachel Baxendale became the story. The Victorian political reporter for The Australian newspaper was attacked online for questioning Premier Daniel Andrews on his government’s hotel quarantine program, as an explosion of new coronavirus infections caused unprecedented economic shutdown and the curtailment of civil liberties. As thousands of people watched the premier’s live press briefings from their living rooms, Baxendale assiduously probed Andrews about the use of security guards instead of Australian Defence Force personnel to guard returned travellers.

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The imminent closure of Australian Associated Press, or AAP, has sounded alarm bells for many citizens and journalists already worried about the lack of media diversity in Australia. AAP has long played a fundamental role in investigative journalism, which we need more than ever in an age of government intrusion, evasion, and over-reach. Johanna Leggatt, a journalist who has worked for Fairfax, News Corp, and AAP, writes about this troubling threat to journalism.

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During my first month as a trainee journalist at The Sun-Herald newspaper in Sydney, I went on strike. It was the year 2000, and the newspaper enjoyed a full roster of reporters and photographers dedicated solely to one edition each Sunday, yet even during this well-resourced period there were inklings of the headwinds to come. 

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Two years before Rachel Cusk published the first novel in her acclaimed Outline Trilogy (2014–18), she wrote a searing account of her divorce, entitled ‘Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation’, which ignited a brouhaha in her homeland, the United Kingdom. The dramatic excoriation of marital life aroused apoplexy among critics and readers; they bristled at Cusk’s subjective and one-sided storytelling, as if any other account of divorce were possible. It wasn’t the first time Cusk’s work had raised eyebrows: her memoir, A Life’s Work: On becoming a mother (2001), offended many a book-club member with its frank and unflattering descriptions of motherhood.

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