In this Press the Press media interview, Tony Nicholls chats with John Ferguson, one of Australia’s most experienced journalists. He was highly commended by the Melbourne press club for his Black Saturday bush fire reporting. He is a former Canberra press gallery journalist, a London-based European correspondent, and currently an Associate Editor at the Australian.

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Tony Nicholls (TN): Welcome to the show, John!

John Ferguson (JF): Great to be here!

TN: John, you’ve been covering the George Pell case really closely. What is surprising you, what is intriguing you, what are you learning from that?

JF: Oh well, that is a million-dollar question today. I think basically what surprises me is it’s such contested space. I think that you have a very divided community. Did he do the cathedral stuff, did he not? It doesn’t help that you had a split or basically a dissenting judgement in the Court of Appeal the other day. You know, Justice Mark Weinberg who is the criminal expert on the panel, he basically said well, there are things that I am worried about – the complaints and evidence, it’s a really contested space.

TN: And what were your thoughts when originally all of the information of proceedings were suppressed?

JF: I don’t like suppression, I understand the absolute need to keep confidential the complainants sex abuse cases, particularly child-related sex abuse – any sex abuse, really. I get all that but I think they are ways, there’s too many suppression orders and there are ways of getting as much as information as possible out without identifying the people involved. I think the community needs to know exactly what evidence the jury based the decision on. And we’re never going to know that which I think’s are really unfortunate.

TN: Court reporting is a specialist round in an era of journalism where there’s not too many specialists left, what’s your feeling on the generalist’s nature of reporting now?

JF: I think that’s an interesting one, because my specialty would be politics. I have been a journalist for nearly 35 years, I call it my default gig to go back to politics because to be honest, it’s not my absolute passion. I’d much prefer to be covering a story like the George Pell story, than be trapped in Senate Estimates or something. I think there’s an absolute need for specialists, and the reality is in Melbourne, there are quite a few specialists court reporters. We have one on our staff Tessa Akerman who has done a lot of court reporting, and Shannon Deery who has done terrific court reporting. I think Emma Young from ABC TV and radio is another that comes to mind, Adam Couper at The Age – he is terrific. I think there is no doubt that the more specialists you have, the better because they make fewer mistakes. That’s the reality of it.

TN: So you mentioned politics you just covered the recent federal election, the one that no one thought Morrison could win. What are your thoughts on the culture wars, and the identity politics that are playing out all time but is quite pronounced during election time?

JF: I don’t like it, I find it really boring. I find it anti-intellectual in many ways that people just take sides and then they say you must have certain views in life. Well certainly I don’t, I am a contrarian, and the paper happens to have quite a few people like me that basically have different views. Like I’m actually all for putting a price on carbon, and quite pro the environment whereas our paper has taken a more pragmatic pro-business approach which I get and I understand it. It’s the same approach really as the financial view and it’s what our market is looking for but I think the culture is really boring and lazy.

TN: What are the numbers like? Is it a competitive gain? You know like it’s all measured on impression, clicks and registrations, likes and subscriptions. But how are you feeling, could you take me through some of the numbers?

JF: Our online product, my understanding in broad terms is we’ve got a lot of online paid subscribers. In the vicinity of 150 thousand, that’s just online which is fantastic that massive, unbelievable. We’re the strongest performing website in Australia in terms of a hard paywall. It’s performing in the top three newspapers I’m told in the world. The other two being high-end newspapers as well, that’s where the market is. Our newspaper sales are holding up okay, I think on Saturday in particular – but I don’t have the numbers in front of me so I won’t try to parrot something I’m not certain of.

TN: What’s your role? Associate Editor, it sounds like you’ve got the license to roam as you will.

JF: Yeah, up to a point they basically want me to break stories, and cover big stories and also write features and commentary. So I suppose the classic story at the moment is George Pell. I suppose I’m probably the main person on that story at the moment. I’ve got quite a history in terms of having grown up or being born in Western Victoria, in the diocese of Ballarat, so, I have had a personal interest in the story for decades, and I’d like to think if they have a big story that needs particularly down here in Victoria, that they need cover then I’ll be able to do it. But also, I think I could also do national and international stuff as well. So it’s a product of me being around for a long time that I suppose they can have a bit of faith that at the end of the day they will get a product that they need.

TN: We’re in an era of media where there is a lot of churn and burn of really young talent, that you know, really ambitious people to get in the system and maybe there’s not a career there for them. What’s the day in the life of a news reporter like when it comes to output and expectations?

JF: It’s high now, it has always been though. I started at the Adelaide News which was an afternoon tabloid in Adelaide in 1985. And we used to work quite often from 5am to 5pm. And you would have 4 editions of afternoon newspaper, rolling editions, so if a big story broke at 10am you know you have to be on the front at 10.30am. I think it’s always been hard, and I know that you worked at ABC Tony, it has always been a hard industry. I think deadlines can be crushing for some people, but others really thrive on it. I think the young ones today, there are fewer of them. I think that’s probably my main observation because staff numbers, everywhere is down. I kind of see it for the young ones that the time of enormous opportunity as well, if you actually get in, then your progression is really rapid but by the same token, look if you’re trying to get into it, put it that way.

TN: With the pressure of finding stories and the limited staff numbers, is PR the root of all evil or is there a role for it in the right context to find you interesting yarns?

JF: Oh no I think there’s always being a role for PR and it remains so. I don’t think it really matters where you get the story from, so long as it is accurate and if it’s something that the paper is interested in, they want to put it on page 1 and I’ll be prone to talk to anyone really. And it actually always amazes me that there’s not as much like you Tony, trying to keep in touch. I am surprised how few, not these agencies, these agencies know what they’re doing but other places that there’s isn’t a context and I would have thought that that’s a, you know people I don’t know whether they are risk averse, but there’s great opportunities I would have thought for mutual gain.

TN: I think people are terrified of journalists; they are terrified of the media. They see coverage that horrifies them, and they are terrified to pick up the phone, and hence, they are reluctant to build relationships that could be fruitful.

JF: Yeah look, that’s quite possible. I find that the ex-journalists that are going to PR are probably the easiest ones to deal with because they know what the landscape is, they can work out very quickly what the story will be and I mean if you have a relationship with someone that’s better, because you have this trust thing going. The media is not perfect, I mean we do get things wrong and people could have bad experiences. But I think it’s a bit like I suppose when you go see surgeons, surgeons fix it up and you move on, it’s a little bit like that.

TN: You had such a long career, and you have seen so much – you have seen industry change so much. What continues to drive you and challenge you?

JF: I have a really big mortgage and kids in school. No, no, I am still driven. Everyday I come in, I review what I’ve done, what I haven’t done, what I could’ve done better. I think that’s probably they key. Once you stop trying to be better at what you do, then I think it becomes problematic and I have only really probably had one or two flat spots – but that’s pretty normal. I would have thought that I’ve had 30 good years, which is pretty lucky in any job if you can say the vast majority of it has been worthwhile.

TN: I look back at a much shorter stint in the media than you. How many interviews do you remember? How much good talent is out there? There are so few interviewees that really stick in my mind that are incredible. There is a handful and they’re good to reflect on. Over your long career, are there any interviews that jump to mind? In particular good talent?

JF: When I was the correspondent for the Adelaide Advertiser based in Canberra, so we had 2 hours of Paul Keating in his last term. And I’m pretty sure it was the only major print newspaper to interview him in that term. And we got it basically because Labor was in a lot of trouble in South Australia because of the collapse of the State Bank. And I did it with my then editor Peter Blunden. We went on to run obviously on The Herald and Weekly Times. He moved over and I worked with Peter again here at the Herald Sun as well but that really stands out.

I’ve interviewed quite a few Prime Ministers. I think Kevin Rudd was weirdly interesting. Just an angry man and I just knew straightaway well this is not normal. So, that was kind of funny. And look, the other day I interviewed John Elliot, and he’s getting on now, he’s in his late 70’s, but he is a seriously charismatic individual and I think one of the things that I am going to try to do from now on is maybe interact with more of those sorts of people. Nelson Mandela, came to a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Auckland many years ago. John Major, the British Prime Minister. I covered the rise of Tony Blair in London. So it was really fascinating period and instructive. I mean of course I am going to the top of my head, if I was prepared I could have think of some other people but I suppose there are a few names. I met the Queen, she was really interesting. I really admired her. She was with a whole heap of journalists in Emerald House in Sydney and she is a really good person. She must hate journalists, but basically they had this level of training, like the Pope, and their acceptance of people regardless of who they are is pretty profound.

TN: Well, what a career and congratulations, what a privilege to be around all of the world’s decision maker that you have been. John Ferguson, thanks for joining Press the Press.

JF: That was great, and very painless, Tony. Thank you!

Tony Nicholls

Tony Nicholls

Founder and Director of Good Talent Media

Tony Nicholls is an accomplished journalist who has held roles for more than ten years with the ABC, SBS and Network Ten, covering thousands of news stories across Victoria, Australia and in the international media.

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