A Career Born At Woroni

I worked with several editors between 1970 and 1972, and was part of a triumvirate with Dave Wright and Bill Forster, who edited it during 1972. Woroni then was pre-occupied with protest, particularly in relation to Vietnam, conscription, apartheid including the Springbok tour of 1971 and Aboriginal rights, including the Aboriginal Embassy affair. Aboriginal Embassy leaders were frequently to be seen to campus, and marches to protect and defend the Embassy began from the ANU. But Woroni also covered ANU sport, issues of student and university government, student housing and general fun, as well as using a fair bit of material (and cartoons, such as Crumb and Cobb, the latter with close ANU connections) pirated from the American underground press. While working on Woroni, I picked up a job at The Canberra Times as a copyboy. On the morning I started work, the then editor told me, “That fool of a chief of staff hired you, not knowing who you were. But I know all about you (which wouldn’t have been hard, since I regularly featured in court reports of demonstrations). I am not going to sack you. But you should know that you will never ever get a chance to get a journalistic cadetship here – because you are publicly identified with political positions, and we need our journalists to be regarded as neutral.”

That was a momentous moment for me. I was a law student (if a peripatetic one, more interested in student politics). I had never particularly wanted to be a journalist. But, as Groucho Marx remarked, who would want to be a member of a club which would have people like yourself as members? I hung on, and, in December, when Whitlam was elected and the warrant for my arrest as a draft dodger was cancelled, I was given a cadetship. Over intervening years, I worked most reporting rounds, but particularly on politics, Aboriginal affairs, public administration and the law. I became deputy editor in 1987, editor in 1995, editor-in-chief in 2001 and, for more than a decade editor-at-large, a vague title meaning I had no administrative duties and a general licence to write about whatever took my fancy. I am more than four years retired now, but still write a column a week in that form.

Journalists are sometimes told that their job is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Years after leaving Woroni, I talked to an editorial collective whom I had accused of being too serious and humourless. A student publication – in print or online – had to have a cheeky personality and attack sacred cows, I said. But not my sacred cows. Attacking them was humdrum. One had to critically scrutinise, and if needs be mock and question ideas prevailing among the student generation. A satiric eye was essential.

At this point I think I had most of the collective onside. But then I spoiled everything. “For example,” I said, “there should be the occasional racist or sexist joke in Woroni.”  That, it seemed was going too far!

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