George Negus – Australian journalist

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George Negus is an iconic Australian journalist and one of our best known media personalities. George has had an illustrious career and has travelled the world reporting on major political and international issues. He’s a man who’s not afraid to tell it like it is and despite his career in the spotlight, he still manages to stay grounded. George talks about his life in the media, Australian politics and why he calls this area home …

You have a property up here in Bellingen, don’t you?

It’s not a property; it’s home. It’s our real home. We have lived in The Promised Land, outside of Bellingen, for 16-17 years. We come up as often as we can, which is never often enough!

What do you love about the area?

Pretty much everything. We bought the house around 23 years ago and, while we retained our place in Sydney when we left, we chose to live in The Promised Land. We always fantasised about having the kids grow up in the country. Our theory was you could live in the country and go to the city, but people who live in the city have never really had any serious time in the country. So it was almost a philosophical decision. We were tree-changers before the term was even invented!

Let’s talk about your career for a second … last month I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter FitzSimons, the Australian writer, whom I’m sure you know. He told me that the reason he got into journalism is because he loves to tell stories. What influenced you to become a journalist?

Asking questions. I discovered that they pay you money to ask questions in journalism and, in my mid – late twenties, I started asking some questions about life, love and the pursuit of political happiness. I found myself in journalism as a result. I went from school teaching to print journalism, and then from print journalism to television … and the rest is history. But it was my own inquisitiveness about what made the world tick, or not tick. I haven’t stopped asking those sort of questions ever since.

Is it true that when you were first starting out, you were one of only a few journalists who were actually qualified?

I’m one of the rare tertiary qualified journalists of my generation, and I was treated with a high degree of suspicion. The attitude then was that you didn’t need a university qualification to be a journalist. So, I was regarded as this suspicious character who had been to university. It’s pretty rare these days of course; university qualified journalists are a dime a dozen.

Was it hard for you then, if you were treated that way?

It was an attitude, really; it wasn’t that I was treated that badly. It was more like, “You did WHAT? A Diploma of Journalism at university? What’s that all about?” It was more curiosity, but it was my way of getting in. I didn’t start in journalism until I was 29, and I think that also meant that I was treated with a bit of suspicion, because I’d actually grown up by the time I got into journalism. I knew what I thought about things before I started.

As you said, things have changed a bit now. Everyone seems to be qualified and battling for the same big stories. Do you have any advice for young journalists?

I think the most non gratuitous advice I’d give is know yourself; and that means knowing what you think about  and believe about things, because you can’t start telling other people about what’s going on in the world if you haven’t worked out what you think. I think the problem with the younger generations (without sounding like a dinosaur) is that there are a lot of young people coming out of tertiary institutions with qualifications in Communications and Media and Journalism, which is terrific, but you can’t learn experience and perspectives.

So the advice I would give is crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. If you think that the tertiary education you’ve got is enough, I doubt that you’ll make it. And that means being a bit humble occasionally and not pretending that you know things that you don’t know.

I enjoy working with young journalists who ask a lot of questions of an old bugger like me, and I can bounce off the enthusiasm of youth. So it’s a good thing – the older and experienced and the younger and enthusiastic is what we need. But I’ve never lost my enthusiasm, or I wouldn’t have stayed in the media as long as I have.

You’re predominantly a political and international journalist. What do you think are some of the major political issues we’re facing in Australia at the moment, and how do we tackle them?

Politics is crap in this country at the moment … absolute nonsense! We have managed to de-ball politics. We talk about the Labor Party leadership crisis – we have a leadership crisis full stop! I’m an ideologist by the way; there’s only one way to understand politics – and that’s to understand why these parties even exist. The Labor Party doesn’t know why it exists, and the Liberal Party isn’t even the Liberal Party. If they told us what they really believed, they’d scare the sh*t out of people!

So, we are caught between a rock and a rock politically. Nobody really knows what they’re voting for; hence, a not so well hung parliament. It is extremely ordinary, because people no longer know what the parties stand for. And while they don’t know what the parties are about ideologically, how do they work out the vote, or why do we bother having one?

You’ve travelled the world in your career … what have been some of the highlights of where your career has taken you so far?

The world has been my oyster. If I told you the highlights, I’d get off the phone and think of 10 more! Everywhere that I’ve been, everything that I’ve done and every person I’ve interviewed has been significant for one reason or another. Psychologically, I’ve always approached everything I’ve done at the time as the most important thing I’ve done. Or, the situation I’ve found myself in internationally or nationally is the most important thing that needed explanation for people. I’ve never really thought: “This is the greatest or most important thing I’ve ever done”. It’s actually an impossible question to answer.

That’s a good attitude to have though, because everything IS significant. 

Yes, it is. Some things are significant because they’re economically or politically important, and sometimes it’s significant because it’s just funny and you meet a really interesting and worthwhile human being occasionally. I’ve also been lucky enough to travel the world at other people’s expense, which is nice!

I wanted to ask you about social media. I remember you at Bellingen Readers & Writers Festival last year referring to Facebook as ‘In-Your-Facebook’ …

(Laughs). Well, I think it’s potentially very dangerous. We’re seeing instances day after day of the pitfalls of the social media. When you’ve got a technological development like IT, and you’ve got someone sitting at the computer saying something not because they want to help mankind, but because they want to make a lot of dough … that’s as crude as it gets. When people’s motivation is at odds with the really useful aspect of something like social media, then that’s where we get into trouble. And, I think one day it will cause havoc in one way or another.

People say that World War III will be started by water, but I think somebody is going to make a gigantic mistake on the internet or on social media, and who knows what it could lead to! It’s already been seen to have some beneficial effects, but we see far more things like bullying, sexual harassment and people whose reputations are being slandered on the social media, without any recourse.

Yes, you certainly have to be very cautious of what is said.

Oh yeah. It has got enormous usefulness, but boy oh boy, the dangers and pitfalls have to be watched very carefully as well. We somehow managed to live without it before. It’s just changing the way we interact with each other. Developments always have plusses and minuses, but what I find difficult, as a person who is paid to analyse, criticise, dissect and evaluate … if you do that in the wrong way at the wrong time with the social media and IT generally, then you’re written off as some sort of dinosaur – a mindless old fogie who hasn’t moved with the times.

Well, that’s rubbish! What is it about social media and the internet that means someone like myself, who is a professional skeptic, is not allowed to say anything critical without appearing to be out of date? Well, that’s crap!

I think one day we’re going to wake up and find all of our mobile phones surgically attached to our ears! They’ll all be nuclear powered, so the battery won’t run out …

You know what … it might not be too far away!

Maybe that should happen at birth – stick a chip in the kids’ ears at birth, and they won’t ever have to think about anything. They won’t have to go to school, and you can just Google somebody’s brain.

Don’t put ideas in people’s heads, George!

(Laughs). I’m joking … but I’m not. That’s the nature of the beast. You stick your tongue in your cheek and say something absolutely outrageous, but you’re actually saying something that you think is very serious!

So, what projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m actually deliberately in a transition period. It’s a case of how do you take advantage of the experience you’ve had, rather than keep repeating it. I’ve tried to slow down, and I’m not having much success, but when your brain keeps operating – your body is going to follow!

I’ve had a very fortunate life, and I’ve got no complaints about how things have happened. But when you’re a parent of twenty-somethings … maybe my role in life is to mentor my son’s generation – as long as they don’t get bored sh*tless of the ‘dad jokes’!

Thanks George.

Interview by Kim Gould.

Listen to George.

George Negus will be speaking at the next Business Leaders Luncheon, presented by ETC and WHK on Wednesday 23 May, 2pm – 4pm at C.ex Coffs. $40 and can be purchased by visiting

www.etcltd.com.au

phone.6648 5400.

This story was published in issue 20 of Coffs Coast Focus

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