She was a political journalist until her retirement in late 2005, after five years writing and editing Webdiary on the Sydney Morning Herald’s website. She has also worked for the Age, the Canberra Times, the Courier Mail and A Current Affair.
Margo was Phillip Adams’ Canberra Babylon journo on Late Night Live for five years. Margo has written two books: Off the Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip (Allen & Unwin, 1999) and Not Happy, John! Defending our Democracy (Penguin, 2004, 2007).
She tells us how covering Pauline Hanson’s 1998 election campaign transformed her view of journalism, how she overcame her phobia about the ‘I’ word, and advises against going into a journalism career.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I had a breakdown in my mid-twenties while lecturing in business law. During my recovery my sister, a reporter on Brisbane’s Courier Mail, suggested I write a travel piece for the paper. Two pieces about my recent trip to India were published, and on the back of that I wrote to the editor asking for a cadetship. The paper had decided to move away from employing school leavers and he put me on as a D grade journalist. Big luck.
What’s the best part of your job?
Seeking out and fostering new writing talent.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Succumbing to the vortex of virtual reality and forgetting to take a walk and enjoy nature.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and journalism career so far?
Getting down and dirty in the real Australia on Pauline Hanson’s 1998 election campaign, which I covered full-time for more than a month. The experience was so confronting I wrote Off the Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip (Allen & Unwin, 1999) as therapy. It also transformed my view of journalism, and convinced me that there were two Australias, neither of which could communicate with each other.
The experience heavily influenced my approach to Webdiary, the Sydney Morning Herald’s 2000-2005 experiment in online interactive journalism. I sought to facilitate civil conversation between Australians of vastly different backgrounds and opinions.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
In the 1980s the Sydney Morning Herald sent me to Mt Etna near Rockhampton to report on the controversy between a mining company and protesters trying to save a bat cave. Activists smuggled me to a cave at night, but we were sprung by a mining employee and threatened with prosecution for trespass. I asked my then chief-of-staff how to write the story since I had become a part of it, and he said a journalist should never use the ‘I‘ word and that I should report that ‘the writer‘ was threatened with arrest.
A decade later I had no choice but to use the ‘I’ word in writing the Hanson road trip book because her relationship with her press pack was central to the story. It was very painful and confronting to do so, but since then I invariably use the first person in my work. I have come to believe that personal transparency actually engenders trust in readers, not takes away from it. I also believe that the concept of objective or detached journalism is a convenient and untenable myth.
If you weren’t a journalist and writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I deferred my final year of nursing studies this year to do journalism again after a break of seven years. My goal is to be a palliative care nurse.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
In the 1970s I did a writing subject at the University of Queensland as part of my Arts Law degree with a double major in English literature. The idea was to submit assignments following the conventions of different genres. I did very, very badly because I tried to experiment within the genres. I was shattered and did not pursue further writing studies.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a journalist?
Don’t! The industry is in existential crisis. There are very few full-time jobs, and people in them are run ragged. Freelancers are invariably unpaid or underpaid. I am into citizen journalism, where people interested in reporting news and views do it for enjoyment and challenge.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Generally in a bookshop: I haven’t got into ebooks.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character (or figure), who would it be and why?
Jane Austen. I fell in love with her work at university and see every movie and TV adaptation. I’ve read several biographies, and am totally fascinated.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
The Grapes of Wrath. It blew my mind when I read it in Grade 11, and I feel it solidified and even influenced my political beliefs.
Margo Kingston is the editor and co-publisher of No Fibs, a citizen journalism website.
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