Michael Bachelard is a Walkley and Quill award-winning investigative reporter who currently works as Indonesia correspondent for the Age and Sydney Morning Herald. He covered the Black Saturday bushfires and the Royal Commission for the Sunday Age and produced a series in 2009 about the coal industry in Australia. He has also worked at the Australian and the Canberra Times. He has written two books, The Great Land Grab: What every Australian should know about Wik, Mabo and the Ten-Point Plan, and Behind The Exclusive Brethren.
We spoke to Michael about why the world needs journalists ‘even if it’s not sure how to pay for them’, tangling with a religious cult, and travelling all over Indonesia to find the people who can answer questions on the subjects that interest him.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
It was some long-forgotten (including by me) personal reflection about undergraduate life in a publication called ANU Reporter, the official newspaper of my university, where I was an intern. It was the first time outside a school essay that anyone had read my outpourings and it was enough that nobody hated it too much. Even now, 25 years later, the buzz of seeing my byline in print or online is undiminished.
What’s the best part of your job?
There are so many it’s hard to say. Let me think … Nope, I can’t choose between: a. responding quickly to a breaking news story and bringing to people something they really need to know; b. dreaming up subjects that interest me, then travelling all over Indonesia to find the people who can illuminate them and asking them questions; c. wrestling what they’ve told me into something that’s accurate and readable and makes sense and is relevant to Australian readers; d. learning and employing all available storytelling techniques (text, video, photo, graphics, social media) in pursuit of journalism.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Trying to ignore all the stories that I simply do not have time to pursue.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and journalism career so far?
The moment I got the chance to have a career in writing at all: when the editor of the Canberra Times gave me a cadetship in 1990. I was a copy kid (a pretty old kid at 21, but a baby in terms of experience) and had a degree in English Lit, but they took the punt anyway. My first assignment was a new angle on a running sports story and my first byline was on the front page.
What’s the worst advice you’ve received about writing?
It was to not even try, and it came from my schoolmates. I was in Year 11 when an author and journalist visited to speak, and asked anyone who wanted to be a writer to raise their hand. Once the mumbling and shuffling quieted, mine was the sole hand in the air. A hundred or more schoolmates scoffed, ridiculing what they saw as arrogance and pretension. If I’d listened to them, I’d have ended up a lawyer or banker, I suppose. Fortunately I ignored them.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it was when the Exclusive Brethren religious cult, through their PR firm, issued a press release saying the book I had just written about them after two years of painstaking research was ‘a work of fiction’. They made the claim about 24 hours before they had even seen it. They continued to criticise it in every available forum, but they were wrong. And they never sued.
If you weren’t a journalist and writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Landscape gardening – and the way print journalism is going, that day may not be far off.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I think the building blocks of writing can be taught – they are as simple and as vexing as grammar, vocabulary, the organising of thoughts. I believe that with good building blocks any intelligent person can write readable prose. The spark of insight that makes a piece of prose into a piece of magic cannot be taught. But perhaps everyone has it within them, if only they knew how to recognise it.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a journalist?
The smart answer here is, ‘Don’t’. But I choose to believe the world still needs journalists, even if it’s not sure how to pay for them. My advice, then, is to be open minded — to what kind of stories you should tell, the medium by which you tell them (the medium is no longer the message) and how you find an audience. The era of formulaic journalism is passing and the future will only be revealed after much trialling and many errors.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both. But I still prefer the ritual of prowling the aisles looking for what I want, open to serendipitous encounters.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Herbert Badgery, the Illywhacker from Peter Carey’s 1985 novel. We’d get drunk and argue about his self-diagnosis as a liar. I’d tell him that the glittering illusions he dreamed up could have become realities if only he’d had a little more faith in himself.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
I can point to dozens of novels and poems that thrilled me, but in terms of impact on my life and work, it has to be a newspaper, the National Times. My family subscribed to the Canberra Times and, on weekends, the now-defunct, investigations-focused Fairfax. It combined writing style and journalistic substance in a way that inspired me as a teenager to give up notions of writing bestsellers or playing cricket for Australia, and to throw my lot in with journalism.