Don's Diary

May 31, 1996

Laughter and disbelief were my initial reactions. Laughter because the letter said I was invited to become an artist in residence at the University of Wollongong. The title is a result of the fact that journalism is part of the faculty of creative arts. Journalism, a creative art? Me, an artist?

And disbelief because Wollongong, home to BHP's massive steel works, was described to me as the most beautiful industrial city on earth and the journey, a train ride south from Sidney was said to be a knock-out.

I couldn't wait. I had to wait. Wollongong was at the end of my three-month visit to Australia. This at least gave me time to bone up on the media, witness an election which saw the end of 13 years of Labour rule and the start of John Howard's Liberal/National party coalition, visit two other universities and take note of the major issues. University lecturers thought they had been promised a pay rise under Labour, Howard has not declared his hand and there are rumours of funding cuts of 5 to 10 per cent.

Sunday. I sat upstairs on the double-decker train in order to see the view. The first half of the journey was through the western suburbs of Sydney, home to generations of new migrants. The second half a total contrast: miles of national park, rain forest and glimpses of the Pacific. The mountains at times meet the sea, for the rest they wander away from the coast leaving just enough room for a settlement. It was stunning; I vowed to return and take a closer look.

Wollongong means "hard land by the sea". Black coking coal, a deep natural harbour and a supply of migrants eager to do any work enabled BHP to create an industrial city which once produced the cheapest steel in the world. Not any more. The majority still work for BHP but all too many are unemployed. I walked for hours along the beach towards the giant chimneys belching smoke into the Pacific. If it isn't the most beautiful industrial city I wonder where else deserves the title?

Monday. The campus made me blink: there were palms and pools, ducks and rabbits, and students in shorts and bare feet. I was allocated a room in the Long Gallery and told to watch where I walked. There were aboriginal sandpaintings on the floor: part of a student's doctorate.

A faculty meeting: plans for the annual August open day were top of the agenda. We were not supposed to be listening. Until the pay dispute is resolved, open days are extras to be ignored.

Clem Lloyd, professor of journalism, reported that his distance-learning programme was in jeopardy: the university top-sliced the fees to such an extent that he had no money to finish the videos, let alone update them. I felt at home.

Tuesday. Journalism is postgraduate only here, offering an MA after 18 months. Some students have several years' journalistic experience and were exempt from basic modules.

I helped a beginners group grapple with a speech given by a former editor of a Malaysian newspaper in which he criticised the West's superior attitude to the East. Fair point.

Wednesday. Professor Lloyd gave a lecture on the proposed 20-point code of ethics for journalists. An excellent document which, for the first time, accepts the right to privacy of every person. I talked about our codes in the United Kingdom and about the Press Complaints Commission.

The students grilled me on our tabloid press and Royal gossip. I asked them too for their images of Britain: the results amused me.

Thursday. Between lectures I discussed with the students how they funded their studies. Both undergraduates and postgraduates have to pay 20 per cent of fees but payment can be deferred until they earn around Pounds 14,000.

They thought the system fair. Most students rely on part-time work. I joined them on a tour of their local paper, The Ilawarra Mercury, and watched photographs being "doctored" by computer. Who said pictures cannot lie?

Friday. I was invited to read a graduation play called Newsworthy, an engrossing yarn with a violent ending. The male journalists were portrayed as foul mouthed and sexist and female journalists as too clever by half. The author is male.

Lecture by John Senozuk, designer of David Williamson's new play, The Heretic, based on an Australian academic's unravelling of Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa. Williamson disowned the production at the last minute. Senozuk skilfully demonstrated how journalists turned a squall into a storm.

Saturday. Pilgrimage to Thirroul to find beach house rented by D. H. Lawrence while he wrote Kangaroo. Invited to party given by sociology lecturer. Subjected to aggressive questioning: why is journalism in creative arts? Because the best journalism is an art, I heard myself answer.

"How do you know you are asking the right questions?" How does a composer know he is using the right notes, I heard myself answer. It had taken a mere week. I felt stimulated by and at ease with the writers, composers, artists, designers. No more laughter, or disbelief.

Linda Christmas

Senior lecturer in journalism, City University, London, on a Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies fellowship.

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