The Weekend Australian
Ripped from the headlines, a tale of modern journalism
A debut novel considers the reporters should fairly cover conundrum of how distressing stories
Imagine for a moment that you are a journalist who has just discovered a big story about a wellness blogger who did not, in fact, cure her bone cancer by drinking celery juice. She is a fraud, and you think you can prove it.
You publish your yarn, and since the blogger is young and gorgeous and has a huge social media following, the story goes viral. Her fans start abusing her, with more than one telling her to “go and die”. And so she kills herself.
This is the crisis right at the beginning of an important new Australian novel, The Truth About Her, by Sydney journalist Jacqueline Maley. Such events are also always a possibility when even good people practise journalism in real life.
Maley’s protagonist, reporter Suzy Hamilton, hears about the wellness blogger’s suicide on her way to work. She begins to sway on her feet with nausea.
Her editor tries to reassure her, saying: “But she was troubled, right? This is not your fault. Your story was accurate.”
And maybe that’s right, and maybe it’s not, but if Australian journalists have learnt anything during the past 12 months it’s that accuracy on its own isn’t nearly enough. Readers also want the story to be fair and, while great newsrooms have always striven for fairness, the definition remains nebulous
What’s fair to you may not seem fair to me or indeed to somebody else. Let’s take the Christian Porter story as an example. Some people think it was absolutely right and fair for the ABC to report the fact a young woman had accused him of rape, back when they were teenagers. Others think it’s completely wrong. We can argue back and forth on the details but, the point is, social media allows everyone to have their say.
Maley’s protagonist soon finds herself at the centre of a storm.
“Don’t go on Twitter today,” her colleagues tell her. “It’s more feral than usual.” Because on social media people are saying things like: “I hope you’re proud of yourself. You killed her!”
But of course Suzy soon finds her own life collapsing around her. She is a single mum with a gorgeous, funny daughter. She works at a media company that publishes a newspaper, and she has 50,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 10,000 more on Facebook.
Like everyone, she wants to get clicks, and likes, and scoops.
“All journalists fear people knowing things before them,” Maley writes. “It is our job to know things before other people.”
Of course, the pressure on reporters to get a scoop isn’t new. It’s what journalists have always done and will always do. Good, important stories can, and most certainly should, also always be told, even and perhaps especially when the subjects don’t want them told.
Maley’s novel draws on reallife examples of good journalism, in particular Richard Guilliatt’s story, first published in The Australian, about blogger Belle Gibson, who did not have brain cancer, let alone cure it with kale. Maley herself certainly knows the stomach-churning anxiety that comes with having explosive material in her hands. Last year she won a Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism, for uncovering the Dyson Heydon story — a High Court judge accused of sexual harassment — with Kate McClymont.
Each of these stories had to be handled so carefully: there are perpetrators, and there are victims, and there are reporters in newsrooms, and none is a cardboard cut-out. All of us have secrets and all of us have struggled. Victims take their lives. So do perpetrators. Journalists often break down.
About six months ago I found myself sharing a media room with Maley during the long coronial inquest into the deaths of two Sydney teenagers, Jack, 15, and Jennifer Edwards, 13. They were a brother and sister who loved each other dearly and also depended on each other so much because they were frightened of their dad.
John Edwards had the veneer of a successful Sydney businessman, and a long history of terrorising the women and children in his life. He wasn’t supposed to know where Jack and Jennifer were living because he had made threats against them. Their mother, Olga, was doing all she could to protect and shield them, but John got around that by hiring a car and following Jennifer home on the school bus.
He was armed. Jack was playing Fortnite in his bedroom when John jumped out of the car and chased Jennifer into the house. She ran down the hallway to her brother’s room, and the evidence suggests that Jack did all he could to try to save her, shoving her under the desk and getting in front of her, but of course there is no hiding from a gun.
John Edwards shot his children dead, went home and shot himself.
“It is difficult to imagine the pain that their mother felt when she returned home that night,” NSW State Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan said in her findings this week. “To find police at her home and learn that her two children, who she loved dearly, had been killed.”
Olga Edwards crumpled to her knees in the front garden. In time, overwhelmed by sorrow and grief, she would take her own life.
It was awful, having to sit there while the harrowing evidence in this case was presented to the court. But this, too, is one of the responsibilities of journalism.
A teacher came to talk about how Jennifer — a pretty girl, with dark circles under her eyes — struggled to make friends. The other kids didn’t really get why she always seemed so exhausted.
Another witness talked about the time John Edwards bought a puppy — he knew his daughter loved animals — so he could mistreat it, in an effort to lure Jennifer to his house.
All in the media room cried that day. It is details such as Jennifer trying to make sure the poor puppy didn’t go hungry that tend to seep into your bones, and friendships are often forged between reporters who attend the worst of these inquests together. It would be impossible to do them alone.
So, I’m proud of my friend as she launches her first book today. Maley’s novel isn’t only or even mainly about the conundrums and sorrows of journalism. It has many important themes, among them pride, shame and atonement. At its heart, it’s also about a mother striving to raise and protect her daughter. In that sense, it is what Julian Barnes has described as the only story. It is a story of love.