Panel: Paul Barry (4 Corners, Media Watch), David Marr (SMH writer, 4 Corners, Media Watch), David Leser (Good Weekend profile writer, author). Topic: Truth is stranger than fiction.
DAVID MARR: “I love people who invent their life stories, they fascinate me. But if they put the same amount of energy into their real lives, instead of being constricted in a web of lies, they could really get somewhere.”
“Journalists hear a lot of fiction – the stories police tell. ‘I slipped on a banana skin and shot him twice, dead. It was a comic accident.’
“The most outrageous story I’ve heard was the AWB – and Australian company working with the Department of Foreign Affairs to defraud the UN of $3million. You couldn’t invent it.’’
“At the Liberal Party campaign launch, [the SMH] sent three writers to Brisbane – one to analyse their policies, another to examine the impact of the launch on the party’s fortunes, and me to roll about in the aisle laughing at all the dead people walking again with fresh blood pumping through their veins.”
“The best female journalist in Australia is Marian Wilkinson. [They wrote a book together, about Tampa/ children overboard]. There was great tension between us. She’s very alert to telling a story by analysis. I want to tell things through a story. Luckily, we were in different countries, so our tensions were resolved over email.”
“I don’t like having a narrative imposed. You have to be careful not to pluck a story shape off the shelf. It could distort things.”
When asked about whether his comedy stylings are fiction, Marr said: “There’s an element of truth.”
“I’ve been asked, ‘Why don’t you write a novel?” Because I’m got an explainer’s mind. I love explaining complex issues that are misunderstood and cause a public panic.
“I don’t conceive characters.
On the topic of courage, DM said: “I’m not brave – I live in a very safe, muffled world.”
PAUL BARRY: I spend two years writing a book. I have sleepless nights – I wonder, Is this person as awful as I think? I had a dream about Kerry Packer, where he behaved like the nicest person I’ve ever met and I woke up in a cold sweat.
DAVID MARR: “I worry, what if I’ve got it completely wrong? What if this is a major delusion of mine and I’ve just found the facts to match what I believe? This usually happens when I’ve had to step aside from the topic for a while, do more research, then I come back to it, and think; Can this possibly be true? There’s a possibility that you create a Frankenstein and it takes on a life of its own.
Eg. Rudd. I’d heard a lot about the utter confusion and chaos of Rudd’s office. I was kind of convinced, yet completely sceptical. Could this be true?
Then I met another witness and asked him and he said, “Believe every word of it.”
PAUL BARRY: You have to make judgments on who to believe.
What is truth? It’s what you can defend in court.
DAVID MARR: “You can be convinced you got the story right and then incontrovertible evidence or a witness comes along and you have to change all of it. It often happens! But the new story is always better.”
The writers said they often ran details past their main subjects, but might refrain if it would trigger an injunction.
PAUL BARRY: I can send someone material saying they’re a fraud, shonky and a paedophile and they’ll often agree, correct some facts and add a bit more.
DAVID MARR: There are never disadvantages to checking stuff.
I don’t like the manipulation of facts – I like to say: ‘I don’t know about this bit.’
PAUL BARRY: It would have been suicidal to make stuff up about Packer and Bond. There are some rich and powerful people I won’t write about because they’re so dangerous. I would fear ending up dead. Jim Byrnes, a developer – not worth it.
If I had of written about Kerry Packer’s black mistress, who ran brothels for him in Palm Beach (and committed suicide when he cut her off financially), when he was alive, that would have buried me.
DAVID LESER: profiled Gina Rinehart and Rose Porteous. “Gina spoke in a strange whisper, I could hardly hear her. Rose was the Philippino house maid who married Lang Hancock. Gina hired SAS men to accompany her kids to school. She drove a bulletproof Jaguar. Her lawyer on $1million a year was Michael Kroger (Liberal Party power broker). I couldn’t make these characters up.”
“There’s a difference between holding a spirited position and taking liberties. You have to be fair.
“But ultimately, the truth about someone [when doing profiles] is unknowable and forever mysterious. You can’t even know the truth about yourself, it changes very day.”
“I’m surprised at how often people’s friends will tell a lot of stuff that’s negative.”