Death Knock : The Name Has Just Been Released

It’s like it happened in the next room a few moments ago. That is how clear the memory is.

I’m ten or eleven. My dad is the editor of the local paper : the Kiama Independent. We’re (five children and two parents) living on top of each other in a three bedroom house. Which left everybody with nearly no privacy : especially for my Dad to do his job as journalist. As I have just found out.

It’s a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon. With no particular reason,  I walk from the postage stamp sized kitchen into the postcard sized lounge room at the front. It was completely taken up by an old sofa, a coffee table, the TV and the phone. And my Dad.

I enter the room and my first thought is,” Why is Dad talking on the phone like that?” He isn’t using his normal telephone voice. That was a mellow and clear baritone : perfect for dictating copy. He is speaking so softly I could barely hear any of the words. Then I caught a fragment of the conversation. One phrase. And that phrase was enough.

He said, “The name has just been released.” And I knew instantly what it was all about. A deathknock.

Right now, Dad is the second person talking to the next of kin who has just lost a loved one. The first person to inform them was the police. Then the name would be released to the media for publication.

Optionally the media would then contact the next of kin. That contact was nicknamed the deathknock : a name I’ll never forget. Right now, Dad is doing his job. He has to report the story.  He isn’t enjoying it at all. If he could whisper away their grief he would. He knows right now that this phone call can only compound the grief being experienced by that relative or friend.

I want to leave. I feel like I have stumbled into a conversation in a foreign land. One that I didn’t want to hear, had nothing to do with me, was awkward as anything I would encounter. I left as quickly as I could. I didn’t hear him hang up.

That deathknock stayed with me for many years. It  was the one factor that affected my career choice of being a journalist. Over the subsequent years, Dad did talk about the deathknocks but only to say he had done them (from a distance as it were). He never said who he spoke to nor related what was said.

But now I’m listening to my father’s deferential voice and manner to someone who just lost a loved one. I’m thinking this is the one thing I could not do as a journalist.

And yet I don’t have to look far to find the insensitivity of journalists towards people in that situation.  I couldn’t do that either.

I Grew Up A NewspaperMan

I grew up a newspaperman. My dad was the editor of the Canowindra Star, the local paper in Canowindra New South Wales.  He wasn’t the grizzled editor from central casting : think of Perry White in Superman or Benjamin Bradlee in All the Presidents Men. No, he was my Dad (Kevin Whalan) : as he describes he was subeditor, editor, journalist, photographer, advertiser and publisher as well.

And my brothers and sisters were newspapermen and women too. For Dad, unusually and non-traditionally, took his family with him when he worked. I can recall seeing Rugby Union matches, the Friday night trots, and even the occasional council meeting (almost certainly I slept through that).

He would take the photos with a Brownie box camera. He would then put the paper together in his office during the week. I can recall visiting him after school as the office was next to the local barber (the one that wasn’t cranky).  Later when he worked from home, I saw him write, rewrite, subedit and then dictate copy over the phone.

On Tuesdays, Dad would drive to Cowra where the paper was printed at the Cowra Guardian for distribution on Wednesdays. He would take my brother and I (as far as I can recall) with him and we would go into the printery.

256px-Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-F011578-0010,_Boppard,_DruckereiWe’d first enter the linotype room. It was a confusion of activity. Men were running everywhere. Linotypes are smelly, loud and dirty. And overwhelming at first. And messy. I still can see in my mind’s eye the texture of metal filings in oil on the floor.  Much like shiny black sandpaper.  Men would sit on a steel chair and type at a keyboard with copy clipped to the machine. I could hear the roar of the motors and the clatter and rattle of the typing. Every so often metal would issue forth and be added to a metal square (the form).

It obviously was not a safe environment for children. Especially as one of the children (me!) was somewhat accident-prone. But nothing happened to me at all.

When the form was complete and cooled a roller was dipped into ink and spread over it. Then paper would be added and rolled over again. Then the result would be proof-read. I too can recall reading the proof.  I don’t recall making any corrections or being responsible for any misprints fortunately.  Once proofread the form and paper would be sent away.

Then later in the day, almost as a separate process, we’d see the printing press in action. It too was loud but fast.  It would produce the papers as one and then deposit them to be retrieved. It was then  we saw the paper come together and quickly!

Then Dad would load up the car and take the early editions back home to Canowindra. The rest of the issues were distributed the following day. He would take a rather circuitous route dropping issues off  as twos or threes or sometimes half a dozen at some of the small stops. I can recall too that the papers were never ever bound together : they were loose.

And that detail stayed with me. And was recalled by a conversation with a friend who was working for one of the local Melbourne papers. She was saying how she delivered the papers to the shops all bound and tied. And sometimes they would stay that way. And in the middle of that conversation,  I nearly said, “Untie them when you deliver them!” I didn’t realise why until later.

Even in Year 9, I didn’t know how much stayed with me.  Edmund Rice College were looking for  volunteers to edit the school magazine. My brother David and I stepped forward (or were nominated!). And the school got two newspapermen for free! Except we didn’t realise it at the time.  But somehow we knew what to do as well as what to change! We had a page on Anzac Day featuring the Ode of Remembrance.   I lobbied successfully for more of the poem to be published. It was then I realised that putting together a paper was hard work. But Dad did it every week! The strangest part was putting it together and then sending off the draft to the offset printers. It was surreal to send it away and have it reappear in another format without seeing it typed, set and printed for real.

Even, in the workforce, I didn’t realise how much Dad’s work had stayed with me. As a software developer and system manager, I would often rewrite procedures, correspondence and emails  as they were unreadable. What I found was that I could  summarise quite complex writing briefly and succinctly.  But all I was doing was what Dad did : sub editing his own copy. Perhaps somehow I had learned his art by osmosis. Ultimately I ended up writing training and technical documentation.

But I didn’t realise how much it stayed with me until the conversation with my friend. Which of itself led to a recollection of what my brother and I remembered from our childhood.
The irony was that this newspaperman wanted to become a journalist. But
due to various circumstances I didn’t have that opportunity. In truth, I don’t know what sort of journalist I would’ve made. But somehow it has led to this blog…

Journalism After Murdoch : What Now?

Amazing! My inbox changed again! That hadn’t happened for at least 45 seconds. But this time the email was actually interesting. In the first place, it wasn’t spam and secondly, it concerned a subject of interest to me: journalism. While not a journalist, I’m a writer, and my keen interest came from a close observation of my father, Kevin Whalan, a journalist.

Dad ran his own paper (editor, photographer, etc), edited another paper, was sub-editor for yet another, and ran a regional office for finally another before retiring. By the way, he still remains a journalist, he just works for himself, which is just the way he likes it. As a young man fresh from high school, I considered following him. But fate acted in another way. That should be left to another blog.

Today’s most interesting email was from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Tonight, Tuesday 5th May 2015, they had spare tickets to their Fifth Estate interview series focussed on media and journalism. Tonight’s guest was Nick Davies the author of Hack Attack. His book had uncovered the phone hacking scandal and worse, much worse, perpetrated by News Limited and other Fleet Street papers.

Nick Davies, author of Hack Attack, at the Financial Times Business Book of the Year award 2014 at the V&A

Nick Davies, author of Hack Attack, at the Financial Times Business Book of the Year award 2014 at the V&A

I clicked through, collected and printed my ticket, and at 6:10pm arrived and took my seat at the back.

Nick Davies was introduced. Up until then, I had never heard of him. Yes, I had heard of the phone hacking scandal. That to my mind and heart broke every rule of journalism. But I had no idea of its ongoing impact. Nor had I any idea of the threat journalism now faced.

Davies detailed the other methods used. He noted the extensive use of private investigators which meant that any illegality was borne by them rather than the journalist.

Then he talked about their dark arts. Phone hacking I understood as it was childishly easy. Then he detailed a technique called blagging which is where information is solicited from an organisation by the contact posing as a fellow employee. Much like the uber-hacker Kevin Mitnick I thought.

Davies then expounded on email hacks, burglary, intercepted phone calls and bribing police. I had only heard diluted whispers in the local media. But now it was starting to resemble a Le Carre novel.

This was a scandal that had existed for years and had wended its way through the Royal family and then celebrities and politicians. Even victims of the July 2005 London bombings, the families of injured and killed soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan had been hacked. On the occasions the newspapers were found out, they resorted to threats and of course the handy out of court settlement.

Despite that, the scandal appeared to be a creeping stain without end. But end it did when a murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone was hacked in 2011 and the actress Sienna Miller refused to accept a court settlement.

Then and only then did the newspapers publish. Speeches were made, enquiries followed and laws passed. But I sensed that Davies implied that things really hadn’t changed greatly.  Certainly the recent UK election was the result the press wanted.

But what Davies talked about was how the politicians, celebrities, etc. lived in fear. Fear of the media (led by Murdoch and News Limited) exposing their private lives. Fear that the Murdoch media leveraged to get what it wanted: freedom to make money and freedom to operate without too many restraints. Fear that other organisations would be targeted to the point of disintegration (see  the relentless attacks on the UK Labour Party much like the campaign against the ALP, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd here in Australia).

And all underpinned by a culture of compliance amongst the editors and journalists employed. Davies stressed that Murdoch was not an interventionist owner, in the tradition of say William Randolph Hearst, but he expected his staff to ensure that the commercial interests of News Limited were paramount. Davies made it clear that Murdoch didn’t operate politically but that he operated commercially.  Having heard that my thought was that would disappoint many of Murdoch’s enemies.

But his most telling points were on journalism itself. His initial comments were that Murdoch through the newspaper the Sun had driven journalism down-market. Due to the Sun’s success, others had followed with a corresponding decline. Certainly as the son of a journalist, this accorded with my father’s comments on the profession.


Old fashioned media

He said that journalism was now an intellectually corrupted profession. The main reason was that the internet has broken the business model of the traditional media.  The traditional media had responded by cutting back on resources. These included journalists but also foreign correspondents, so-called stringers and photographers (especially Fairfax in Australia).

Now there were fewer journalists required to find and publish more stories. Fact checking and investigation had been set aside due to time constraints. Consequently the publication of outsourced stories and recycled PR material were favoured. As a result, newspapers were more likely to put out stories that were distorted, propaganda or untrue.

He summed up by saying that the public may well say good riddance to bad journalism and end up perceiving journalism as an unethical profession.

From the floor, questions began. The first concerned the rise of online and citizen journalism.

Davies’ response was that through the internet, one can now buy news to suit one’s prejudices, for example, right-wing, Christian, socialist, left-wing, etc. The result now was that anyone can produce crap except for some notables such as Eliot Higgins who determined that Syria was using chemical weapons from satellite and other photographs.

Another question followed on regarding the future of new newspapers. He did state that newspapers ultimately will be electronic as newsprint, ink and distribution would be too expensive.

The final questions concerned what should a person making a career in journalism do? Davies said that there were many good journalists working for bad organisations that were run by executives who cabal beforehand. He reiterated that they relied upon news already published rather than investigative content. He emphasised that the future of journalism required good investigative content such as Higgins and Vice. He suggested finding a good mentor.

With that answer, I left with a sense of disappointment. If anyone worked for a newspaper where the culture was as clear-cut as Murdoch, it would be extraordinarily difficult to find good investigative content even though it is achievable and is occurring. And a mentor?

My misgiving concerned the future of journalism itself. From Davies’ perspective and my own perception, journalism is in mortal danger. Some of the comments from the audience as they were leaving suggested that it was the fault of the Murdoch Empire. But that’s too easy and too glib a reason. Yes Murdoch has made short-term gains and dominates media world-wide. And yes that has created a long-term malaise for and probable demise of journalism as we know it.

But as Davies pointed out earlier, that’s not the only reason. He suggested a new model is needed and it is still evolving via the internet.

The most telling point for me was that with the decline in journalism, people will be only told what they want to hear. It is true that we only choose facts to suit our prejudices but that can only lead to our demise.

It is vital that we are informed without prejudice. It is vital that we find out the unbiased facts. It is vital that we hear what we don’t want to hear or don’t want to know about. Otherwise we cannot learn, we cannot grow and we cannot teach.

That is why journalism cannot be allowed to become comatose and die. That is why a new model is needed.


The Dad Interview

It started as I’m the family blog expert. My sister wanted my Dad, Kevin Whalan to create a blog and record his memories.

So I took it on and found that the blog had been started. But there was no content. So I tidied it up and passed it on to Dad. And he added a couple of blog entries. But then there was a pause.

I was unsure how to encourage Dad to add more content. In passing, I mentioned my dilemma to a friend. Typically, she batted it back at me. Interview him, she said, it worked for her family: namely her brother and father.

So I took it on.  It just so happened that I was working a extremely short contract and was in Sydney Thursday and Friday the following week.  I thought if I rescheduled my flights to Sunday and visit my son for the weekend I could interview Dad Saturday.

I told my son and his partner of my plan. They were up for it. So I then invited them to come down and see Dad on the Saturday. I also told Dad what I was doing. He had no problem with it at all. I also bought a web cam and tried it out.

So on the Saturday, it all came together and we arrived. But then I was beset by technical problems. I set the laptop and camera up and nothing seemed to work. Laptop and Mouse

In the end, I managed to get a test video of Dad talking about his meeting Princess Diana. That story was both hilarious, inspirational and insightful.  My son and his partner were absolutely spellbound. Then everything stopped working again. I started to despair. I then thought that if I just get past this, something interesting might happen.

So I put on my desktop support hat. I diagnosed and fixed the problem despite having to borrow some batteries.

So I began again.  The video resumed. I audibly whooped for joy! It probably can’t be removed from the clip. Dad began  talking about how and where he was born. He was born at a small nursing hospital quite close to his parent’s home. I asked him about his parents and his childhood. He lightly touched on that so I didn’t delve.

Then I asked him how he got into being a journalist. I was astonished by his story. He said he was asked to write a story as no-one else would. “So what did you do?”, I prompted. “I just wrote it,” was the reply. Yes I thought, I know that one, no-one told me either. Once a writer, always a writer.

And Dad was away. He spoke about how he became a journalist. He more or less taught himself. He then spoke about how he leased the local paper, the Canowindra Star. It was running at a complete loss. In time after the interview, he ended up writing about it in his blog.

I prompted him again. I asked him why he took it on and how did he know it would work. His reply again just completely surprised me. He said, “he just knew it would.” He just went ahead and leased the paper. It as he writes was incredibly successful.

As the conversation continued, I tried to make myself as scarce as possible. I was amazed how much I remembered as a boy. I quite clearly remember how Dad knew everyone and would say “Gidday” to one and all. So did I and I made sure to drawl out the greeting just like everyone else. I also clearly remember going with Dad to Cowra, the nearest major town each Tuesdays when the paper was printed. I remember the linotype machines and the printing presses. All in all the noise was incredible. It was an oily grimy gritty place to work.  But it had an energy to it that I caught.

"Linotype-vorne-deutsches-museum-annotated" by Clemens PFEIFFER, Vienna; Paul Koning - Original photo (Image:Linotype-vorne-deutsches-museum.jpg by Clemens PFEIFFER, Vienna. Annotations by Paul Koning. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons -

“Linotype-vorne-deutsches-museum-annotated” by Clemens PFEIFFER, Vienna; Paul Koning – Original photo (Image:Linotype-vorne-deutsches-museum.jpg by Clemens PFEIFFER, Vienna. Annotations by Paul Koning. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons –

Every so often, the operators would assemble the molten type after dousing it with water into a metal print form. They would then smear it with ink. The would place newsprint over it and run a roller over it. My job was to read the proof. As I was six or seven I can’t be held responsible for the bloopers. But it helped my education.

In truth I didn’t realise how much it helped until I was a teenager. I and my brother were asked to help publish and print the school magazine. It was hard work but it was a job that we both just seemed to know. And the magazine was a success! Thanks to my Dad. It wasn’t until much later that I realised how much I remembered. Besides during the interview, I only touched lightly on these subjects. For you see, the silence was beginning to do its work.

So setting aside my musings and returning to Dad’s story, the Canowindra Star fell on hard times. Due to circumstances beyond his control, the paper was sold and Dad was retrenched.

Since that time, Dad had quite a few ups and downs. On two occasions, he went from finishing  a role on Friday to starting a new one on Monday. While that was not always his experience I began to discern a pattern. But I didn’t say anything.

For I could see and was surprised by the effect of the silence. As the interview continued I became quieter and quieter. In truth, I still think I speak too much and need to listen more. But I learnt much that day about interviewing and especially my Dad.

For Dad became more expansive as he relaxed. He too realised that there was a pattern in the stories he was telling. It was there the silence called it forth much as Anna Deveare-Smith described.

Each time he encountered ups and downs he prayed. He really thought that things would work out. And they did. Every single time.