A little privacy, s’il vous plait, for a reluctant first lady

It’s not that she’s shy. In fact, Valerie Trierweiler is known at the magazine Paris Match, where she works as a journalist, for slapping a male colleague who made a sexist remark.
She also managed to win presidential hopeful Francois Hollande away from his partner of 30 years and the mother of his four children, Segolene Royal.
And she lashed out publicly when her own magazine featured her and Mr Hollande on its cover last month. “I am angry to see the use of photos without my agreement and without letting me know,” she posted on Twitter.
She followed up with congratulations to the magazine on having reduced her to a trophy partner “on International Women’s Day … (spare) a thought for all angry women”.
Assertiveness notwithstanding, Ms Trierweiler, 46 and a twice-divorced mother of three, will be a reluctant first lady of France if the voting in the election starting today results, as polls predict, in Mr Hollande becoming president.
She might not in any way fill the ballet slippers of glamorous Carla Bruni, the wife of current President Nicolas Sarkozy (Ms Bruni, a former supermodel, always wears flat shoes because she is 10 centimetres taller than her husband).
While she has sometimes accompanied Mr Hollande to political events, Ms Trierweiler stays in the background. She declines to be interviewed and journalists have been told they are not “campaigning as a couple”. The press does not call her Mr Hollande’s “partner” but his “companion”.
Nor is there any serious talk
of marriage, despite the
historic French preference for married presidents.
Asked during the campaign if he intended to marry her if he won, Mr Hollande said, “You do not get married just for reasons of protocol. You get married out of choice. “I stand alone as a candidate before the French people. Alone. It is not a couple standing but a personality who must convince with his ideas, his method … I will do nothing which is against my principles.”
All of which makes this relationship an interesting milestone in the evolution of French attitudes to the sex lives of politicians.
The French have long tut-tutted over what they saw as adolescent Anglo prurience in the obsession of British tabloids, for example, with the love lives of the rich and famous. Traditionally, French politicians were allowed to keep their peccadilloes off stage as long as they were managed discreetly. Paris Match revealed during his time in office that then president Francois Mitterrand had a mistress and a love child but the rest of the French media ignored the story.
The custom largely protected male indiscretions.
But there has been more publicity over Ms Trierweiler. Mr Hollande’s separation from Ms Royal was announced just after the 2007 election in which Ms Royal, also a senior Socialist, had lost her own bid to be president.
A few months later, a French website published news of his romance with Ms Trierweiler, which had begun when she interviewed him in 2005 in a meeting she later described as “a lightning strike”.
Since then, Mr Sarkozy’s flamboyant love life has grabbed the headlines. In 2008, he married Ms Bruni, 12 years his junior and with a colourful past of her own that included affairs with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, less than four months after divorcing his second wife.
The courtship was public, including kisses at the Great Pyramid of Giza and press conferences in which Mr Sarkozy meditated upon love and destiny, offending traditionalists who criticised it as American-style tabloidisation of French politics.
Ms Bruni, who is also a singer-songwriter, has also discomfited the French with confessional lyrics about falling in love with her husband, and about her indifference to public criticism: “Let them curse me and damn me/I don’t care.”
If anyone has broken the mould of France’s (unofficial) first lady, it is Ms Bruni.
For Ms Treiweiler, the attempts at distance from Mr Hollande’s public life have not been enough to protect her career as a political journalist from problems with conflict of interest. She had to stop attending editorial conferences at Paris Match during the campaign, saying, “They cannot deprive themselves of a subject and I cannot intervene.” She also recently gave up presenting a TV show called Portraits of Candidates for another on celebrities.
If the last Ipsos opinion poll taken before campaigning ended on Friday night is to be believed, Ms Bruni will soon be exiting the Elysee. It found Mr Sarkozy was narrowing the gap but still trailing Mr Hollande, 47.5 per cent to 52.5 per cent. The poll was taken before defeated centrist candidate François Bayrou told voters to back Mr Hollande.
Ms Bruni last year told the BBC that when she stopped being first lady, she would “just go back to touring, you know. Playing guitar and touring is what I miss the most”.
And her husband? “He’s going to work until he dies. He’s that type of man … After taking care of France in the way he did it, I think you can do absolutely any other job.”

First published in The Age.

Surgeon at arms

THE soldiers could hear a woman crying out in a house at the other side of the village. Two of them peeled off to investigate. Unluckily for them, Serb paramilitaries had left a booby-trap.
In Kosovo, Muslims take off their shoes before they enter a house. It is a gesture of respect for the home. But during this Balkans war, Serbs used shoes at the doorstep to disguise a tripwire that triggered fragmentation grenades. The moaning woman had been spared for one reason only: as bait to lure whoever would come next to this hamlet, site of a massacre by advancing Serbs.
Craig Jurisevic is an Australian doctor who had volunteered as a medic to help the victims of the Balkans War. This day, for the first time, he had picked up guns to go on patrol with soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army. He realised this was the moment when he crossed the line to become a soldier who could practise surgery, rather than a surgeon who knew how to hold a gun. What he did not know, when he holstered his pistol that morning, was that the doctor in him would feel forced to use it on a patient.
Hearing an explosion, he raced over to the house. He checked their pulses and confirmed the deaths of the soldiers and the woman. He had already found 15 bodies of women and old people riddled with bullets. He moved cautiously towards a second house that held another woman whimpering in pain. He inspected the doorway carefully; yes, there was the wire. It was snipped and he entered.
The woman was sitting up against a wall. Near her lay the body of her husband, his head in a pool of darkening blood. In her arms she cradled a dead child, a boy of about four or five — the age of Jurisevic’s own son, back home in Adelaide. The child had been garrotted.
The woman had been shot in both legs to prevent her moving and was sitting in a massive pool of blood. She had been partly disembowelled and the coils of her innards spilled from the gash.
“The wound to her lower abdomen is meant to cause enough pain to make her cry out without killing her too quickly,” Jurisevic later wrote.
She clutched his wrist and begged him to bury her son before the next day, as is Muslim custom. Then a soldier translating for her said, “Doctor, she is asking us to kill her.”
“To kill her?”
“Yes. That is what she is saying. Doctor, I am sorry, I cannot do this.”
Jurisevic knew he must be quick because the Serbs would have heard the explosion and would return. If they found her still alive, he was sure, they would torture her even more.
In his book Blood on My hands: A surgeon at war, this is how Jurisevic describes what happened next: “I move the woman as gently as I can and place her beside her dead husband. From the bedroom I fetch a thick blanket. I think she sees clearly enough what is to follow, and she nods and manages something like a smile. I turn her head to one side, gently place the blanket down on it, point the barrel of my pistol down and pull the trigger. I wait for a few seconds, then reach for the woman’s wrist. The pulse is gone. I slide the pistol into its holster and take my leave.”
That was 11 years and half a world away. Today, Jurisevic sits at an outdoor cafe in Adelaide, his camouflage gear swapped for an immaculate navy pinstriped suit — he has been in his consulting rooms all morning — looking every inch the successful medical man. We are in the shade but all through lunch his eyes are hidden behind mirrored sunglasses, the dark, shiny lenses reflecting the outside world and shielding the responses of his inner one. Despite his ready answers to questions, the shades give the impression of a surgeon who doesn’t fancy the prospect of a journalist cutting too deeply into him.
At 45, Jurisevic is still lean and handsome, with chiselled cheekbones, blue eyes that crinkle at the corners when he laughs and teeth that must be the despair of his dentist; they seem to be quite naturally Hollywood-perfect. Here, as on the battlefield, he makes quick, decisive choices; this cafe, this table, this chair are all picked out in very short order. He immediately notices any need and swiftly moves to fill it; a glass of wine, a menu, the salt and pepper, tomato sauce for the burgers. He radiates energy, and action provides opportunities to release it. It also seems that, if there’s a need or a problem, Jurisevic believes it is up to him to solve it.
This deeply seated sense of responsibility has combined with what he calls an “adolescent hunger for stirring times in exotic climes” to make for an exciting life — but a life with episodes that he sometimes looks back on with doubt and remorse. Not putting the pistol to that poor woman’s head. The decision was so clear-cut that, in a book where he debates every other moral dilemma he was faced with at the front, this incident is only briefly described.
“It wasn’t as hard as most people think,” he says, “because, if you take away the method I used, it would just be euthanasia for someone who is dying. But because it wasn’t a drip with morphine, because it was a pistol, people say it’s terrible . . . She would have been dead in a few hours. She’d been shot in both knees and she’d lost a huge amount of blood. She’d been cut open and her bowels — ” he gestures expansively. “We had no blood, and we would have had to carry her, and we couldn’t carry her. I had just a little bit of [anaesthetic] but I was going to keep that for the people who would survive. Also because she had lost a lot of blood, there was no way you could put a drip in and then wait for her to die with [anaesthetic]. And besides, we had to get out within minutes because the Serbs were coming . . . they would have tortured her more.
“I knew, it was instinctive, that’s what I had to do. She wouldn’t have suffered . . . It would have been a lot harder if she didn’t consent or didn’t ask.”
But he concedes that even if she hadn’t begged him, he would still have considered putting her out of her misery. “Even if I was a rampant anti-euthanasia activist, I can’t see how I could not have ended her life. I couldn’t have walked away saying, ‘I feel good about myself because I believe euthanasia is wrong, so I am walking away and leaving her to suffer more and to be tortured again, but I can live with that.’ You couldn’t!”
Jurisevic feels strongly driven to be a good man, and his idea of manhood was powerfully shaped by his childhood experiences. Although they later reconciled, he was estranged from his father for some time. He changed his surname from his father’s name, McLachlan, to his mother’s maiden name, Jurisevic.
His mother was a Yugoslav refugee who taught herself English and trained as a psychiatric nurse in Australia. It was she who told him inspiring stories of the wartime heroism of his Slovenian grandfather, Franc, who “put his life on the line for a cause, and was sent to concentration camps, then came back and saw corruption in Yugoslavia and spoke out against that, and was put in prison again by the people for whom he’d fought. So he had a very strong hatred of injustice.”
JURISEVIC volunteered to work with the International Medical Corps in the Balkans after being moved by the suffering of thousands of refugees pictured on TV news reports. He had previously done a stint with the Israelis, including about 40 medivacs in Gaza; there, too, he had picked up a gun because he came under fire when rescuing the wounded. “I saw taking up a weapon and using it to protect the patients as just part of my job, an extension of treating the disease,” he says.
What of the doctor’s Hippocratic oath, which warns, “First, do no harm”?
“When they say ‘do no harm’, it’s in reference to do no harm to your patient, not do no harm to anyone,” he argues. “So if somebody’s trying to kill the patient, you have to defend the patient. You can’t just say, ‘Sorry, do no harm,’ and stand by. That’s just ridiculous.”
Jurisevic has decided views; words such as “terrible”, “ridiculous” and “absolutely” punctuate his sentences. He says he is drawn to war zones because he has an abhorrence of injustice. He was alerted to the potential of this war when the Serbs began using medical terms and the phrase “ethnic cleansing” as euphemisms for atrocity.
He writes, “Whenever national leaders start applying metaphors of ablution and disinfection to human beings, you can expect killing on a large scale to follow . . . [they rationalise] murder by talking of cancer . . . of scalpels and intervention.”
When he arrived in the Albanian town of Kukes, 200 kilometres north-east of Albania’s capital, Tirana, Jurisevic was appalled. His gorge rose at the stench of untreated gangrene even before he entered the decaying ruin of a hospital. Inside, blood spattered the theatre walls, equipment was dirty, instruments were rusty and nurses were drunk, drugged or cruel. He caught a doctor hacking with blunt scissors at exposed muscle and tendons in the hand of a small child who had been given no anaesthetic. When the boy screamed and writhed, nurses slapped him.
He spent long days operating on refugees — women, children, old people — with horrific wounds. “So many amputations!” he writes. “Reports of casualties don’t fully convey what war does to people. Imagine if I were to give a weekly surgeon’s report to the news services and display the limbs that had been lost, the metres of bowel discarded, the eyes blinded.”
At times he found it hard to hold on to the surgeon’s clinical distance. Of retrieving wounded children from a bombed kindergarten littered with body parts, he writes: “I’d like to vomit or tear my teeth out or shut my eyes and fall to my knees.”
Jurisevic could not understand why supplies were so poor despite a flood of international aid. He learned that medicines and equipment were shut away in cupboards, to be sold on the black market. Patients with no money were turned away. The hospital chief was in cahoots with the local mafia, and they were using the flood of wounded as a revenue stream.
Jurisevic exposed the corruption with the help of the American military magazine Stars and Stripes. He was then warned the mafia would kill him, so he resigned from the International Medical Corps and accepted an offer from the KLA to run one of their field hospitals. There, he was alarmed by the lack of training that left the idealistic, untried young soldiers around him utterly unprepared for what they were to face. He set up his own combat training. The doctor there to save lives taught recruits the art of killing. He was practised with guns from his teenage years when he hunted and culled goats, roos and rabbits in the hills around Adelaide.
He puzzled over how to reconcile all this with his role as a healer. He decided to amend the Hippocratic oath with a principle laid out by Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice: “To do a great right, do a little wrong.”
JURISEVIC learned that the young volunteer soldiers at the front, Mount Pastrik, had been abandoned by their commanders and their doctors, who feared for their own lives. His book paints ultra-nationalist Serb troops as alcohol and amphetamine-fuelled war criminals, but he slams the KLA too, for cowardice.
Jurisevic decided that he would go to the front himself. He set up his own aid centre in a cave on a ridge line at Mount Pastrik, sometimes evacuating the injured down the mountain under a hail of sniper fire. At night, he slept with dead bodies in the cave waiting for burial. Day and night, he endured the Serb shelling.
And it was at this point that he made the decision that would trouble his sleep long after he returned to Australia. Jurisevic led a small patrol closer to the Serb positions. He mapped their co-ordinates in detail and sent the figures off to NATO troops. The next morning, those Serb units were heavily shelled by NATO. Later that day, a ceasefire was declared.
Years later, Jurisevic discovered that that last round of NATO shelling had killed up to 600 people. “I still don’t know whether or not the co-ordinates I gave resulted in that bombing,” he says. “And whether or not that bombing in the area of Pastrik ended the shelling, or whether it was just the ceasefire that resulted in the end of the shelling. But up to 600 people died. It’s still not a good feeling, even if they were all war criminals and baby-killers.”
Then his language hardens, and suddenly he is using the same ugly euphemisms he heard on television in Adelaide: “I realised that certain paramilitaries in the area were a hard bunch. They had no respect for human rights. So basically — it sounds terrible — I saw them as a disease. They were inflicting harm and illness on innocent civilians so they had to be stopped.”
The book makes clear that Jurisevic did suffer some kind of post-traumatic distress after he returned. He says, “One thing that I’ve realised is that I still can’t actually remember arriving in Adelaide and seeing [my wife and my son]. I still can’t remember several days, which can’t be a good sign.”
He did not seek professional help but found writing the book was therapeutic. He says he has had death threats since its publication, mainly from ultra-nationalist Serbs living in Australia. It is not because he shamed them, he says: “If you expose war crimes they don’t deny the war crimes, or even express remorse. They say ‘Yes, this happened, we did this because this happened 800 years ago.’ You can’t justify crimes against humanity now by crimes against humanity in the past.”
Jurisevic has now joined the Australian Defence Force reserves and has been to East Timor and Afghanistan but says he would like to spend the next few years in Australia with his wife and three sons.
He is on another campaign, though: he wants to mount a class action against the federal government to force the banning of cigarettes. As a cardiothoracic surgeon, more than 90 per cent of his work involves trying to remove lung tumours from smokers. He says tobacco kills up to 18,000 people a year but the government won’t ban it because it earns $4 billion more in taxes than it costs in healthcare.
“Of all lung cancers diagnosed each year, only 15 per cent will be early enough to be cured by surgery and chemo-radiotherapy . . . The death rate from lung cancer has not changed significantly in the past 30 years,” he says. “The greatest threat to Australian lives today is not terrorism, road trauma or knife crime. It is tobacco.”
The man who loves causes will never lack for one.
Blood on My Hands: A surgeon at war, by Craig Jurisevic, $32.95, e-book $11.25 from www.wilddingopress.com.au.

BORN 1965.
FAMILY Married Donna, also a medical specialist; three sons.
WORK IN CONFLICT ZONES Israel and Gaza 1992-3; Albania and Kosovo 1999; East Timor 2006; Afghanistan 2008.
CAREER Cardiothoracic surgeon, senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide, member of the International Humanitarian Law Committee of the Australian Red Cross.

The ABC’s brave new world


WHEN Mark Scott took the podium at the Melbourne Press Club last month, he departed from the text of his speech. He noted that there were many colleagues in the room, and he singled out two: Michael Gawenda, former editor-in-chief of The Age, and Steve Harris, who had been the paper’s publisher and another of its editors-in-chief. In one swift, mocking flourish, Scott — now managing director of the ABC — stripped them of their gravitas.
“They remind me of those two guys in The Muppets,” he quipped to his audience, “the gallery there — ready to provide the ongoing commentary.” The room broke into mirth.
Then Scott took a breezy shot at competitor SkyNews and its Australian Public Affairs Channel, which had asked his permission to send a camera to film his speech: “I’m happy for that to happen. Any contribution I can make so there’s less New Zealand Parliament on Australian television . . .”
Critics and competitors neutered, his dominance of the room established, and his audience now duly attentive, Scott peaceably returned to the formality of his prepared speech.
On a personal level, this looked like an Oedipal display by a younger buck keen to lock antlers with the stags. At 47, Scott is effectively a generation behind Gawenda and Harris, senior newspapermen he worked with at a distance in his previous incarnations as a journalist and then executive with Fairfax in Sydney (Fairfax publishes The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald). He was telling them that they had had their day in the sun, which was now beaming on him. It was the sort of heady, vainglorious moment that probably comes to every successful man, although not all care to parade it.
The display was also intriguing on another level. Mark Scott is doing what no ABC chief has done before him: he is taking on Australia’s media proprietors at their own game. As competitive as any businessman, he has also shown himself to be an astute political player, an unflinching opponent and an expansionist in his vision for his fiefdom. Under his leadership, our venerated Aunty is not just hitching up her skirts a little; she has broken into a cancan.
His plans for the ABC include a 24-hour digital television news station; online “regional hubs” (websites for rural Australia); a new online site, The Drum, that runs written commentary and analysis by ABC broadcast journalists; and web portals for the arts and religion. He boasts that the ABC has introduced hundreds of thousands of Australians to podcasts (radio interviews that can be downloaded on the internet); that Aunty set up the nation’s first catch-up TV service on the internet, iView; and that many of its senior journalists are on Twitter.
The broadcaster is even looking at “future forms of narrative, with initiatives in games, whose stories appeal so powerfully to the generations coming through”, Scott says.
Scott’s most vaulting ambition? To establish an international news service to rival the BBC and CNN and advance what he calls Australia’s “soft diplomacy” around the globe.
Some cynics in the commercial media have dubbed his ambitions Messianic, and his package, “Mark’s plan to take over the world”. Others, pained by the contrast between his focus and energy and the continued floundering in other areas of the media, have mockingly gibed, “Great Scott — a plan!” The proprietors themselves have naturally squawked in protest at Scott’s taxpayer-funded incursions on to what they see as their turf.
But you don’t need to be a media proprietor or a shareholder to wonder what it will mean for Australia’s media — and, ultimately, the openness of its democracy — if the ABC becomes the digital era’s emperor on a throne.
The role of the public broadcaster in a time of media abundance — and simultaneous mass-media fragility — is a crucial one. Would a more dominant Aunty really hasten the decline of quality journalism in the commercial media, as proprietors claim? If so, would the ABC then become a lifeboat for the nation’s journalism — Gawenda points out that it now employs more journalists than The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald combined — or could Aunty’s treasured editorial independence also be endangered by some of Scott’s initiatives?
Rupert Murdoch, seemingly the last of the great media barons, has public broadcasters in his sights. In August 2009, at a speech in Edinburgh, Murdoch’s son James attacked the dominance of the BBC and what he saw as its distortion of the media market. James, who is also non-executive chairman of pay-TV company BSkyB, said the BBC’s $9 billion in government funding was crowding out new and existing news providers.
“The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit,” he said. “The scale and scope of [the BBC’s] current activities and future ambitions is chilling . . . In this all-media marketplace, the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy. Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet.”
It was also in August that Rupert Murdoch announced plans to put online news behind a pay wall, to ask a generation that has never paid for news online to pay for Murdoch news online. Bloggers and sites such as Google — “the content kleptomaniacs” — should not be able to use his company’s news free: “The philistine phase of the digital age is almost over.”
Mark Scott retaliated in a speech at Melbourne University in October in which he effectively derided Murdoch as an emperor with no clothes. The ABC would continue to supply online content without charge; taxpayers had paid for it once and would not be required to pay a second time. Murdoch’s pay-wall plan, he said, “strikes me as a classic play of old empire, of empire in decline. Believing that because you once controlled the world you can continue to do so. . . Acting on the assumption that you still have the power that befits the emperor.”
The only media organisations to survive, Scott warned, would be those . . . who can see now what many generals only see after devastating loss — that the tactics that won them the last battle might just be the ones that deliver them defeat in the next.”
Within the ABC, Scott and his plans have been greeted largely with delight. According to many insiders, staff had been feeling battered and bruised by years of management that was seen to be either hostile or lacking in vision. They are relieved to have this time scored a leader with media experience, people skills and ideas who has also become a trenchant advocate for the broadcaster. In a vast continent such as Australia, Scott says, the much-loved ABC “is a commons, a shared space . . . a cultural experience we all have in common at a time when common cultural experiences are harder to come by”.
The host of Melbourne’s ABC morning radio news show, Jon Faine, says he has worked under five managing directors and Scott “is better than the rest of them put together. He’s clear about what he wants the organisation to be and what he wants the staff to do. He’s energetic. He’s affable. If he’s in Melbourne, he will walk the floor. He remembers people’s names, he knows what you do, he cares what you do.”
Faine says the ABC is flying high: “Whether you measure us by ratings, agenda-setting, impact on debate, mentions by other media or mentions by parliamentarians, state or federal — by every possible measure, the ABC is doing extraordinarily well compared with any time I can remember in the 20 years I have been a participant. You would be the biggest suck to attribute all of that to the managing director, and I don’t, but obviously there’s a role management has to play and he’s playing it very, very well.”
Scott’s current dexterity on the media trapeze has startled some of his former colleagues at Fairfax; there, he was not so known for taking up big ideas, and a couple of senior appointments he presided over were perceived by his troops as misguided. At the ABC, however, he has received nothing but praise for his selection of lieutenants, particularly Kate Dundas as director of radio and Kate Torney, who is seen as able and dynamic, as head of television news and current affairs. Torney is believed to be the source of many of the initiatives he has taken up.
He is on the record as being committed to being open to the ideas of others and has talked about the need “to seek and be excited about finding and working with people who might turn your organisation upside down. To sit in meetings with people half your age. And listen. And act.” Scott is also known for being genuinely interested in the new technologies that are driving change and sees that the media future is digital.
But for the commercial mass media, the digital era has meant unparalleled “challenges”, as they like to say in MBA-land. With the coming of the internet, advertising markets are “fragmenting”; the advertiser’s choice used to be limited to “old media” such as billboards, papers, radio or TV, but now there is a blizzard of niche websites attracting readers and viewers and breaking up the advertising dollar. The result is declining revenue for “old-empire” media. In response, they have cut staff.
This is happening at the same time that the internet and other technologies demand that journalists, for example, work across and file stories to different “platforms”— newspapers, television, radio, online, and Twitter. Media companies must work out how to engage with readers’ desire for material on devices such as mobile phones and iPads. Revenue and staff are decreasing but the work is intensifying and the need for innovation has never been so great.
While the commercial proprietors are wrestling with these lions, into the arena strides Mark Scott, shielded by the gleaming armour of $800 million in government funding, plus a $150 million increase granted by the Rudd government last year. Says Mark Hollands, chief executive of the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers’ Association, “God knows, it’s hard enough to make a quid out there as it is, and we don’t need the ABC and taxpayers’ money making it harder.”
But if the ABC does not take advertising, where is the threat?
Hollands says: “It’s the potential to take readers or users [whose numbers draw advertisers]. It’s a virtuous circle, but it clearly requires the readers first.”
He says the broadcasting regulator in Britain now insists that the BBC does media impact studies before expanding its operations: “If you launch a website, are you going to tip over a local publishing company, and what loss and impact will that have?” And he warns that a monolithic ABC presence would discourage newcomers here: “I know for a fact that the national broadband network will pull out all sorts of entrepreneurs in towns like Bendigo and Ballarat and Kalgoorlie. People will be using high-speed internet access to challenge the incumbents. It’s happened in the US and Britain. But if you have the ABC entrenched in, say, Bega, you are effectively dissuading new players from competing.”
Hollands believes the roll-out of the broadband network is also a factor in Scott’s thinking: “He’s getting there first and claiming the high ground.”
Says Gawenda: “Most commercial media companies are desperately searching for a way to make their sites and their digital journalism pay, and they are running up against the roadblock of the free ABC sites. If you made people pay for theage.com.[au], it would lose 95 per cent of its audience. They would go elsewhere, where it’s free.”
But part of Scott’s job is to ensure that taxpayers get value for their money. Even some of his competitors concede that he is doing that. Greg Baxter, corporate affairs spokesman for News Ltd in Australia, says, “I think he’s doing a terrific job and I think as taxpayers we are getting better value than ever.”
He says News has no problem with the ABC’s existence: “I can’t remember us ever arguing about [ABC] funding. They have been part of the landscape for 70 years . . . But when Mark comes out and makes the comments he did last year in the end-of-empire speech, then we feel compelled to respond because he’s got $800 million a year from taxpayers.”
News Ltd also argues that Scott’s 24/7 news station won’t be able to do anything Sky News does not already do, and that “to argue that it won’t cost any more money when you are recruiting journalists and building a studio in [Sydney] is nonsense”.
News also takes issue with Scott’s suggestion, at Senate estimates hearings, that the contract for the Australia Network should go to the ABC without being put to tender. Baxter says: “Clearly, we have an interest in Sky . . . and we can’t see any reason why there shouldn’t be an open, transparent and competitive tender for that service.”
Scott declined to be interviewed for this story, so it is not possible to ask him the reasons for his transformation into the most creative, expansionist and “out there” managing director the ABC has seen. Whatever his ambitions for himself, it seems his ambition for the broadcaster is to ensure the digital era does not leave it stranded, like a cuttlefish on the beach, in the ranks of “legacy media”. He has money; he has the support of his staff below and his board above; and he has the backing of the government.
At the ABC, Scott is freed from the straitjacket of the business plan. He is not required to defend his ideas with promises of short-term profit. His plans stand or fall by other criteria: whether they will fill a market gap, or offer a public good. He must provide a benefit to the citizen who is a viewer, listener or reader, rather than a dividend for shareholders. He acknowledged this advantage in his end-of-empire speech: “Being willing to innovate and take risks so that we can produce a social benefit through the ABC is a responsibility that comes with not having to produce a financial profit. ”
For commercial media proprietors, Scott’s freedom is maddening. “The ABC is transforming into a taxpayer-fuelled broadcasting gorilla with a huge appetite for territory, more public money and a control over public policy,” fumed Sky News managing director Angelos Frangopoulos in an article in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph in January. He was angered by the announcement that the ABC would set up a 24/7 news channel to rival Sky’s subscription-TV news channel, which is connected to almost 40 per cent of homes.
THE new ABC news service, Frangopoulos pointed out acidly, would be on the high-definition spectrum and so would itself only be available to the 40 per cent of homes that can receive HD. But Gawenda, now director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University, says: “I absolutely accept Mark Scott’s argument that the ABC had to have a 24-hour news service. It fills that gap in the market; there is no free-to-air 24-hour news service. You have to get cable TV, and 70 per cent of people are cut off from that.” An ABC staffer says it is “a bit rich” for Frangopoulos to complain given that Foxtel and SkyNews have had 10 years to recoup their investment in cable news.
But, in another salvo, last month Fairfax chief executive Brian McCarthy accused the ABC of threatening Fairfax’s rural publishing arm with its plan for online regional hubs. McCarthy said the ABC Open project, designed to allow regional people to share their ideas and tell their own stories online, might undermine Fairfax by stealing its rural audience: “I do not believe it is the role of the ABC to disrupt the commercial landscape by building empires with public funds.”
Faine and others at the ABC dismiss such protests as vested interests fighting to retain them. But the proprietors’ stance received unexpected reinforcement last week when The Times of London reported that the BBC would close two radio stations, halve the size of its website, sell some of its magazines and slash spending on imported programs to give its commercial rivals more room to operate.
The Times claimed: “It will be seen as an attempt to show the Tories that the BBC understands the effect the advertising recession has had on commercial rivals and that it does not need outside intervention to get its house in order.” The Times had earlier reported the Beeb was considering cuts to ward off Conservative proposals to cut the television licence fee that funds it, because the party was concerned that the BBC’s expansion online threatened to destroy commercial competitors.
The Guardian described the cuts as “a tentative peace treaty, not a surrender . . . Mark Thompson [BBC director-general] is getting strategic because he was making only enemies as corporate expansion blithely continued”.
In other words, the contraction is due to fear that the change of government expected in Britain later this year could lead to a Tory hatchet job on the BBC; it is a concession to political might, not a sincere admission of philosophical defeat.
Defenders of the ABC and the BBC, including Scott, point out that commercial media in the United States are also falling over — 142 daily and weekly newspapers closed in 2009 — even though America has no major public broadcaster offering competing news. “How reckless would it be for Australia to stop funding a credible, independent news service to somehow prop up business models that may continue to struggle in any event?” wrote Scott on the ABC website last week. He was responding to a call by News Ltd columnist Mark Day for Australia’s government to consider getting out of media altogether.
Later in the week Scott slapped his critics down again using the ABC’s opinion website, The Drum. He said the ABC had not exceeded its charter and that media companies were criticising the ABC because they were “threatened by the pace of change, the inflexibility of their own business models and their reluctance to invest”.
There is some disquiet in federal opposition ranks about the growth of the ABC. Responding by email to an inquiry from The Age, shadow communications minister Helen Coonan wrote: “If the ABC did not innovate, it would be a broadcasting backwater and not value for taxpayers’ money. The critical question, however, is whether it is appropriate to have a publicly funded broadcaster that sees a vastly expanded role for its services, e.g. 24-hour news and soft diplomacy, and whether that will come at the expense of other valued programs (e.g. science and religion). It will be important for Mark Scott and the board to be mindful of the constraints imposed by the ABC charter, which did not have in contemplation the new media landscape at the time it was adopted.
“I would not be surprised if these expanded activities prompted calls for a re-look at the charter given the . . . legitimate concerns of commercial operators that the taxpayer-funded broadcaster may well crowd out the competition. That said, Mark Scott is a talented operator. . .”
The doubters and critics, however, are currently howling into the wind. Scott is believed to have a cordial relationship with the ABC board — although that may have been tested this week with a warning by chairman Maurice Newman that staff had succumbed to “groupthink” in their reporting of climate change. Newman, a Howard government appointment and “climate change agnostic”, told staff they must “re-energise the spirit of enquiry” and cautioned against hubris.
While the ABC had “never been more popular, never stronger,” he said, “I think that now, when the corporation is at its strongest, is an ideal time to take a look at ourselves. Not when the critics choose to.”
However there is believed to be no perception at board level that Scott’s current plans might exceed the ABC’s charter. As for staff, they are relieved that none of his initiatives introduce any reliance on advertising, keeping Aunty pure in that regard.
Scott also has the strong backing of the Rudd government. He won that extra funding last year in the teeth of the global financial crisis. At least two of his grand schemes dovetail with government agendas. His plan for the 24/7 news service will hasten households’ take-up of digital and bring forward the time when the analog system can be switched off, something the government is keen to see happen as it rolls out the national broadband network. And his proposal for an international television service to promote the nation’s “soft diplomacy” efforts overseas fits with a Prime Minister keen for Australia to stride the world stage.
In a speech last year, Scott advocated “a more vigorous approach to international broadcasting in keeping with Australia’s global ambitions”. In a veiled reference to the ABC’s tender for the contract to continue running the Australia Network, he said it should be a public broadcaster, and not a commercial outlet, that is employed to use “soft power” as a strategy that “co-opts people rather than coerces them” by “putting your nation’s culture, values and policies on show”.
Scott argued that the ABC should be funded “to become the dominant regional provider of news, information and English-language learning material” and warned against China, in particular, as a rival for influence in the Asia-Pacific region. (This, as the ABC negotiates with China for “landing rights” for ABC telecasts into the country.)
Specifically, Scott wanted to boost the number of ABC foreign news bureaus in the region to 14, “more than either CNN or the BBC . . . [it would] firmly establish us as the pre-eminent source of news and current affairs about and for the region”. Long term, he wants to roll out ABC TV and radio services to China, India, Africa and the Middle East, then to Latin America and finally to Europe and North America. “Even a doubling of our existing effort adds up to less than half the budget of Baz Luhrmann’s [movie] Australia,” he argues.
Rupert Murdoch used an appearance on Sky News to hit back at Scott, saying the international proposal was folly: “Spending $800 million putting Australian culture and didgeridoos around the world is huge over-reach.”
While the debate to date has been couched in terms of a turf war, there is more than turf at stake here. Scott claims it would be possible to be “diplomatically deft” and further Australia’s global ambitions while not sacrificing key attributes of the ABC’s quality journalism.
But isn’t there a tension between the idea of editorial independence, and the offer to allow the ABC to be utilised by government to further its aims overseas?
“People can say, regarding the BBC, for example, that the act of quality journalism and quality coverage is in effect promoting the values of liberal democracy,” says Jason Wilson, a media columnist with newmatilda.com and lecturer in digital communications at the University of Wollongong. “Probably most of us wouldn’t have any problem with ‘soft power’ if it means everything from Hollywood movies to CNN programs. But there’s a difference between that and promoting a specific government line on particular issues . . . Australia is having a diplomatic dispute over whaling with Japan; what are you going to broadcast there? Are you promoting your own government line? Who knows?”
Wilson speculates that Scott had been speaking to “multiple audiences” with that speech, “signalling, perhaps, an understanding of the kind of job that perhaps the government would prefer to be done”.
Within the ABC, there are other debates, too. While generally supportive of Scott’s initiatives, staff also wonder how the new 24-hour news station will differentiate itself from what is already available. “We want to see the schedule,” says Quentin Dempster, an ABC broadcaster in NSW and former staff representative on the ABC board.
There are also worries that the ABC is trying to do much with too few. In the digital era, there is a temptation for all the media players racing to keep pace to be reduced to “churnalism” — shallow, continuous coverage of obvious news, rather than in-depth reporting and the hard work of digging to find out something nobody else knows.
Dempster says: “We’re delighted that the ABC is hiring. But there are significant human, quality and creative impacts which are radically changing broadcasting or ‘cybercasting’. There is deep distress among those being displaced, and among the technological survivors, that quality will suffer, that everyone will be stretched too thinly . . . pretty soon the MD will have us broadcasting direct live-to-air by holding up our HD camera-equipped iPhones at news conferences. Foreign correspondents are already doing this. What many of us want to know is this: will ABC journalism in future be more than ambulance-chasing?”
Another insider says foreign correspondents already think of themselves as “satellite monkeys”: arriving in a hot-spot only to find they can’t chase the story because they have to stay on a satellite link or internet connection for 10 hours a day, filing to different programs. “There’s the Midday Report, the 7pm news, Lateline, AM, PM, The World Today, hourly radio news, the News Breakfast show, the News Radio station, the 7.30 Report — and then the local radio stations get your number and you’re stuffed.”
Too often, he says, correspondents are reduced to loading up with web articles before they arrive so they can “rip and read” when they hit the ground, recycling news but not generating it themselves.
Chris Masters is an award-winning investigative journalist who retired from the ABC’s Four Corners program in 2008 and now freelances and works for The Daily Telegraph in Sydney. He says: “If there’s any area where it’s particularly under threat, it’s television. I don’t want a situation where it’s just the gun programs like Four Corners that are seen to be the ones that break news. The ABC doesn’t have a good reputation for breaking news, particularly in TV.
“I know from working in TV, it actually is very hard to be a journalist when you have got all these production responsibilities. There are TV journalists who go through an entire day without making a phone call.”
It is in newspapers, he says, that “the hard work of journalism” is done. “A newspaper reporter will come into the office and make 20 or 30 phone calls in a day. I might be wrong, and I won’t please a lot of my colleagues, but I don’t think too many people at the ABC do that.” So he believes it is important that a balance be maintained between the public broadcaster and the commercial media: “The nation would be so much the lesser if we didn’t have competitors. You don’t want the ABC turning into [former Soviet state mouthpiece]Pravda, and you don’t want Alan Jones taking over either.”
Wilson, too, believes too little investigative journalism is now done in broadcasting, a problem he says pre-dates Mark Scott but which still raises questions about his direction. “It has been decades since we had current-affairs broadcasts at the ABC that really had politicians worried, that surprised them, that break stories and get people off guard on a regular basis. Once upon a time, that was the sort of programming the ABC led with.”
ABC staff are also talking about the role of online and, in particular, the site called The Drum, where senior reporters write analysis and commentary. Quentin Dempster says, “There is a debate inside the ABC about the wisdom of asking our news reporters to write pieces for The Drum. Some are bagging it as self-indulgent opinion and self-promotion. Through The Drum, the ABC is morphing into a text publisher. We have to see how the guidelines and examples delineating analysis [generally seen as permissible for those reporting on news] from opinion [seen as undermining a reporter’s objectivity with the readership] evolve.”
Gawenda takes a tougher line: “You have got to wonder how The Drum fits the ABC policy of journalists not being involved in commentary. In my view, it doesn’t fit at all. They’ve tried to mount this ridiculous argument that there’s a difference between commentary and analysis, but they can’t even define where that line is.”
Gawenda warns that Scott must be careful to sniff the political wind in case it should shift direction. “Both the board and the CEO have to understand the political environment in which they are working. If they get it wrong, they will have political problems in terms of their budgets.”
But he also warns against attempts to rein in the broadcaster: “I actually think we are increasingly lucky to have an ABC. The national broadcaster will become increasingly important. That doesn’t mean you want commercial media to die, but the answer for the commercial media is not to knacker the ABC.”
May 22, 2006
Appointed ABC managing director
and immediately comes under
fi re for refusing to state his position
on whether there should be
advertising on the ABC. However,
says he strongly supports the ABC
Enterprises division to try to raise
independent sources of funding.
Believes the ABC’s biggest
challenge is “staying relevant in
a digital world”.
July 16, 2006
In fi rst national interview, says he
would green-light important stories
that might upset powerful people.
December 21, 2006
Following fi ndings of an independent
study, orders immediate
closure of ABC’s Brisbane studios.
Twelve women had been diagnosed
with breast cancer in the
previous 11 years.
July 1, 2007
ABC celebrates its 75th
September 10, 2007
In speech to the National Press
Club, Scott describes Rupert
Murdoch as the last best hope for
quality newspapers
September 12, 2007
Controversial episode showing
Chaser team breaching APEC
security during the forum’s
Sydney summit is watched by
2.24 million viewers nationally.
“I am a great fan,” says Scott. “I
think they work incredibly hard
and I am delighted for them for
the success . . .”
July 23, 2008
Launch of iView, an internet
platform that enables catch-up
viewing of popular programs.
November 3, 2008
The News Breakfast program goes
to air on ABC2 fronted by Barrie
Cassidy and Virginia Trioli.
May 12, 2009
The federal budget allocates
$165 million over three years
to fund a children’s TV channel,
more Australian drama and
regional online content.
June 10, 2009
Head of television comedy
Amanda Duthie removed by ABC’s
director of television, Kim Dalton,
after The Chaser’s controversial
Make a Realistic Wish sketch.
October 20, 2008
Religion Report presenter
Stephen Crittenden suspended
pending an inquiry into comments
he made about the axing of fl agship
programs on Radio National.
October 26, 2009
Scott announces new arts website
intended as a one-stop web
portal for arts practitioners and
December 4, 2009
Kevin Rudd switches on ABC3,
a children’s TV channel.
January 21, 2010
Announcement that ABC will
launch a 24-hour television news
network to be running by second
half of year on its fourth channel.
March 5, 2010
Communications Minister
Stephen Conroy endorses ABC’s
expansion online and Scott,
saying the expansion and new
channels are legitimate activities
for a public broadcaster.

BORN October 9, 1962, in Los Angeles (he
holds both US and Australian citizenship).
EDUCATION Knox Grammar School,
University of Sydney, Harvard University.
FAMILY Married to Briony Edmonds in 1993.
They have three daughters.
CAREER First job was as a teacher at
St Andrew’s Cathedral School in 1985. He
left in 1986 to work as a researcher for
Terry Metherell, a NSW opposition frontbencher.
In 1990 became chief-of-staff to
Virginia Chadwick. Became education editor at
The Sydney Morning Herald, aged 31,
in 1996. At Fairfax he rose through editorial
management, in charge of human resources
and industrial relations, holding titles of
editorial director and editor-in-chief. Managing
Director of the ABC since 2006.

Crime and treatment


Karen Kissane – Karen Kissane is law and justice editor

Helping criminals rehabilitate involves looking on them as human beings worth saving rather than monsters, says the clinical head of Victoria’s service for mentally ill offenders.
AS ANYONE working in the trade will tell you, even the nicest people sometimes have the urge to punch their psychiatrist. Professor Paul Mullen works with those who sometimes act on the impulse.
He never holds the grudge. Not when he’s cleaning up his bloodied nose or nursing his bruises; not even at the moment of impact.
Take the time a man came into an emergency clinic late one Friday afternoon claiming to be Jesus Christ.
“Which denomination are you?” Mullen asked.
“Anglican,” the startled man replied.
Mullen said drily, “Are you sure you shouldn’t have told the Archbishop of Canterbury first?”
The man answered him with a punch to the face. Mullen tipped backwards in his chair and crashed to the floor, even then thinking to himself, “If anyone ever asked for it, you did!”
Recalling it now, he says with a rueful smile, “Most times that people have hit me, I’ve actually deserved to be hit. You have a moment of carelessness; you lose concentration and you say something you should have best left unsaid, and somebody hits you. It’s not the worst thing that happens in the world.”
As a forensic psychiatrist and the clinical director of Forensicare, Victoria’s service for mentally ill criminal offenders, Mullen is rather an expert on the worst things that happen in the world. He spends much of his working week shut in a small room talking with people who have committed the kinds of crimes that make us shudder: murder, rape, child molestation. The stalkers are light relief, really.
Mullen is a tall man with a shock of white hair and blue eyes that seem always to look out on the world with wry amusement. He has the kind of genial, unshockable manner that would be useful to someone whose work involves trying to elicit confidences. While his chat seems open and friendly, his pose suggests a man who likes to keep his distance. For the whole of our interview, he sits with his legs crossed and his arms tightly folded across his chest.
Mullen says he was a painfully introverted child. Now he is a professor (of forensic psychiatry, at Monash) and he speaks with the confidence of one who is accustomed to being heard – slowly and at length, his accent high-end Pom, his words placed with the care and grace of a writer crafting a sentence, his funny anecdotes scattered like gold coins along the trail of a treasure hunt. He talks about himself entertainingly, with an engaging mixture of wit, vanity and self-deprecation – and he doesn’t need an observer to tell him any of this. He analyses himself as sharply as he does others.
“It never occurs to me that people don’t want to hear what I want to say,” he acknowledges, with a charming shrug. He puts it down to his “peculiar childhood” as a treasured only child of older parents who doted upon him: “It’s left me with certain vulnerabilities but also certain strengths.”
Mullen has developed strong views over his years of work with people who have done dreadful things. He does not believe in evil, in the existence of the unconscious, or in pedophilia as an illness. But he does believe that a lot can be done to help offenders become people who no longer commit crimes.
He also believes that we are locking up too many people in general, as governments try to win votes by beating the law-and-order drum, and that in particular we are locking up too many people who commit crimes because they are mentally ill and cannot get the medical help they need to keep them stable and safe. “We manufacture mentally abnormal offenders . . . by failing to adequately manage young psychotic patients,” he warned in Forensicare’s annual report, released last week.
Mullen says up to one-third of people in Victoria’s jails have either major depression or a psychotic illness (this does not include those with personality disorders or substance abuse problems). “If you look at violent crime in Victoria, between five and 10 per cent of it is going to be committed by young male patients with schizophrenia, although they constitute only a tiny proportion of the population; about 0.5 to 0.7 per cent of the population have schizophrenic illness.
“The vast majority of people with schizophrenia don’t harm anyone. It’s a small group, which we can readily identify, of young, male, substance-abusing people who do not co-operate with treatment and are living disorganised lives in contact with criminals. Those people are in the mess they’re in, in no small part, because they’re ill. And if you treat them and bring their illness under proper control, they’ve got a reasonable chance of living a relatively normal life and even making some contribution to the community. And certainly, if you manage them appropriately, the chances of them finishing up in prison drop dramatically.”
Mullen was born in Bristol, England, during the war. He came to Melbourne in 1992 to set up what was planned to be a model forensic mental health service. He had spent the previous 10 years working in New Zealand, where he and his family had fled to escape Thatcherism. “The Falklands war was the last straw,” he says.
By the age of eight, he knew he wanted to be a doctor, probably because he had met so many during hospital stays for the operations that cured his childhood deafness. By 14, he had decided upon psychiatry as his specialty. He found his choice as a result of his precocious intelligence being harnessed by teenage testosterone.
“Like any curious, oversexed adolescent, I got into the dirty books – Emile Zola and all that sort of stuff,” he says. “And in the library at Muswell Hill in north London, where we lived by this time, they had this locked case where all these books came from. I noticed there was a book of Freud’s case histories. I read the cases and thought, ‘That’s wonderful, that’s what I will do. I will be that kind of doctor.”
What was so juicy about Freud’s studies?
“There wasn’t much sex, actually. It was very disappointing. But the reason Freud appeals is that he makes human beings seem terribly complex. He flatters us that beneath this banal, superficial ‘us’, are these fascinating depths of unconscious and forbidden desires and conflict.”
Mullen did his psychiatric training at the then world-leading Maudsley Hospital. The motto of its chief was, “Not everyone who’s out of step is able and creative. No one who is able and creative is in step.” Says Mullen, “They had a penchant for selecting oddballs really, as long as you were a smart oddball. I found myself with this group of extraordinary able people.”
Psychoanalysis did not work out for him. He rebelled against the authoritarianism of its teachers, using his then-photographic memory for facts and quotes to challenge them in classes and reduce them to “inchoate rage”. It even got him thrown out of one seminar. The memory still makes him smile. He likes that smart mouth of his. Later, he decided that the idea of an unconscious was nonsense: “We’re much simpler than we like to think.”
Forensic psychiatry – working with criminals – he also wandered into by a less-than-conventional path: the “trip tents” at Britain’s pop concerts in the 1960s. He was a bit of a hippy himself – “Long hair, boots, bells, bangles, the whole thing really” – and used to work in the tents as a doctor offering medical aid to people who had overdosed on acid. “No major pop event was complete without one,” he grins. “And we always removed all of their drugs from them.”
And where did the drugs go?
“Ah well, that was another story.”
That work led to giving psychiatric reports in court on those who were charged – for which he could charge money. By then, he had a young family and liked the extra income. It did not take long for him to work out that he could consult for longer and charge more over serious crimes such as murder. Soon, he became intrigued by the phenomenon itself: “To be honest, it was almost the ordinariness of murder which became fascinating.”
He had to work through the idea that murderers must be monsters, not real human beings, and come to terms with the fact that “it really is people who kill people, and that many of them are not particularly unusual, and very few of them are monstrous”.
To help people, he says, he must try to see them as human beings worth saving, and focus on the roots of their behaviour. That doesn’t mean he has to pull his punches. He says crisply that child molesters are just as able to control their sexual impulses as other people, and that they are not sick.
“It’s very convenient for individuals, or organisations like the church, to say that they or their priests have some kind of illness. They don’t. They’re committing what’s called sin. The sooner the church faces up to that and accepts that it has a responsibility to alter the social and psychological realities of the priesthood so they don’t fall into molesting children, the better.”
If pedophilia is not an illness, how does it make sense for psychiatrists to “treat” it?
“What we’re doing is managing people,” Mullen says. “Many of the people we see, their child molestation arose from opportunistic, unthinking brutality, really. They were drunk, they were frustrated, they had access to a vulnerable child. It isn’t their first sexual preference, it’s just that for one reason or another, that’s how they acted.
“For that group, you have to increase their awareness of the damage they’re doing. You have to increase their empathy for their potential victims, you have to give them some skills to more effectively direct their sexuality towards adults, and to some extent you try and reinforce effective normal sexual behaviour while trying to get them to associate their desires to molest children with painful, distressing ideas.
“You do get a small group whose primary sexual desire is towards children. And for that group, we often think of using libidinal suppressants. These are things which just decrease sexual drive.”
What the Americans call “chemical castration”?
“Only the very insensitive Americans!”
Mullen says he tries to shift a little the kinds of traits in offenders that are destructive to themselves or to others. Stalkers, for example, tend to be obsessive loners who are touchy about their own feelings but indifferent to those of others. “You can’t change them from being rather nerdy, insensitive people into perfect, sociable human beings. But you only have to change them a bit and they stop stalking people. That’s what we do.”
He is not often thanked. A few years ago, Mullen was outside Myer in Bourke Street when he saw a large man rushing at him from across the road, arms outstretched. Mullen was unnerved: the man was a former patient, a serial rapist who had spent his adult life in and out of jail. Mullen had treated him with drugs to suppress his sex drive.
The arms turned out to be affectionate. “He hugged me and thanked me. He was a hypersexual man, very high level of sex drive, very poor personal and social skills. In the previous five years, he’d been working, he’d re-established his relationship with his mother, and he even had a relationship with a young woman – presumably not a sexual one, but one which he valued. And he said his life had been transformed.”
Mullen has the kind of job that would lead one to think about the meaning of life and suffering. Does he believe in God?
There is a long pause while he considers. “Only very late at night,” he says at last, smiling.
And evil?
“Oh God, no. No, no, no, no, no. No.”
Most people use the term “evil” to talk about behaviour they abhor and cannot understand, he says. “But I just don’t think it’s very useful. If you want to stop bad things happening, it does not help to call them evil. It leaves you looking at them as some sort of overwhelming absolute, instead of something which, if you can get a few elements of understanding, you might actually be able to stop happening again.”
Karen Kissane is law and justice editor.
BORN 1944, Bristol, England.
EDUCATED London University.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS Graduating as a doctor, 1968, and as a psychiatrist, 1974.
FAMILY Married, five children, seven grandchildren.
HOBBIES Reading novels, listening to jazz and modern classical music.
· www.forensicare.vic.gov.auFirst published in The Age, 10 November 2007

Children and trauma: chocolates, hugs and tears


The principal of Winchelsea Primary School mothered a whole town as it tried to cope with the drowning of three boys in a local dam.

JUDI Fallon still remembers too vividly the funeral of a small child that she once attended. “He was a two-year-old. His father walked down the aisle of the church, carrying this little white box. I will never forget it, even though it would have to have been 30 years ago.”
So she knew how to respond when it was suggested that the children at Winchelsea Primary School act as a guard of honour for the coffins of the three Farquharson boys. “I said, ‘We can’t do that, because I can’t expose little tackers to being near little white coffins.’ You’ve got to be thinking of those sorts of things. So we put the coffins into the hearses; the children were lined up in front of the hearses and the hearses drove through. There was a distance between the cars and the children, and the children knew what was in the coffins but it was the hearses they saw.”
Children and death are a grievous mix, a mix that Fallon, the principal of Winchelsea Primary School, has learned far too much about it in the past two weeks. Two of her pupils, brothers Jai Farquharson, 9, and Tyler, 7, died along with their two-year-old brother, Bailey, on Father’s Day when the car their father was driving veered off the road and into a dam. Their father, Robert, escaped but all three boys drowned in the car.
Fallon geared up for emergency measures from the moment she got the call from a parent telling her of the tragedy at 11.10 that Sunday night. Winchelsea is a small town of only 1200 people and 190 of those are children at Fallon’s school. In a rural community, she says, “the school is the town and the town is the school”. The children are also closer to each other than city children; those of the same age have often gone to the same kindergarten and been with the same classmates every year at school.
Fallon is a small, determined and practical woman. She talks quickly in this interview, the story pouring out of her. It is hard to know whether the speedy delivery is her normal mode or the result of the enormous tension she has been under for the past fortnight. She is clearly a warm and open woman; during this interview a small child knocks at her closed door to show her a painting he did in art class. Later, in the playground, a little girl runs over to show Fallon the new Band-Aid on her finger. Both are utterly confident of their welcome.
Fallon has been at the school for only 41/2 years but has embedded herself deeply into the local community, her networks extending to all kinds of groups, from the Lions Club to the local police. She knew the shock and grief would be enormous.
She also knew that there were few protocols to guide her; in the next two weeks, she would rely almost entirely on her instincts. She undertook many roles: informal counsellor, funeral planner, media liaison officer. Fallon became the woman who mothered a small town through its loss.
That first night, she telephoned an Education Department manager and told him she would need grief counsellors at her school first-thing in the morning. She did not ring her staff: “They needed a good night’s sleep.” She lay awake all night, thinking of all the people who might be hit by repercussions: teachers, parents, bus drivers, lollipop ladies. Then she got up at 5.30am to face the hardest day of her working life.
At 6.30am she began phoning her 15 teachers to tell each of them personally; over and over she recited the news. When the staff arrived at 8am the grief counsellors were waiting for them. Fallon told the weeping teachers about trauma and handed them pamphlets of symptoms that they or the children might suffer. Shock is not just an emotion; it has a physical effect on the body. Fallon sent her secretary up the road to buy chocolates and jellybeans for staff and students. “When shock hits, you get chemicals in your system and sugar is an excellent way of coping with them. Sweet drinks, sweet food.” She laughs bleakly. “We absolutely bought out their confectionery department, I think.”
Fallon herself was having trouble believing the news: “It’s like, ‘This can’t be happening!’ It took me a long while to accept that there were three little boys lost. I mean, I’m a mother. I can’t imagine imagine losing one of my children, let alone having your whole family wiped out. You ask yourself why. You ask yourself how. But I just go into what I call work mode. You’ve got a job to do. And if you fall apart, who’s going to lead?”
She had students bring the school flag down to half-mast. Then she took the morning assembly in front of 190 children and more than 50 adults. She explained that she had sad news and told them the facts as briefly as possible. She told parents that counsellors were available for them and for the children. “The counsellors were fantastic,” she says. “The children were allowed to come in and out of the library whenever they chose. Everyone was told that they were allowed to do a drawing or a picture or a story. The thing is to get children’s emotions out. Children actually cope better than adults. Adults don’t want to talk about it, but children ask the hard questions.
“We got the community policing squad in first-thing Monday and we sat the grade five and six kids (Jai’s class) down to explain how an investigation might go, hypothetically. Because the kids were asking, ‘Why did the car go down? How long did it take the car to go down? How long would it have taken before the boys died?’ They ask those horrible hard questions, and that’s what you’ve got to give them the answers to.”
Younger children were also imagining the children’s deaths but were satisfied with much simpler responses, often the ones they made up for themselves. Fallon spent a lot of the week on yard duty to keep the media at bay, for fear a distraught child would be further traumatised by being photographed. “I was down in the sandpit with the little ones and one of them said to me, ‘I know, Mrs Fallon, how Tyler died. He didn’t have his seatbelt on.’
“And I said ‘Oh, I think he might have had his seatbelt on. He probably released it to try and get out.’ But ‘Oh no, if you don’t have your seatbelt on you die.’ To him, that was the explanation.
“And another one asked me, ‘Do you think he would have drunk much water?’ And I said, ‘Let’s hope he kept his mouth closed.’ And the child said, ‘Oh yeah, that would have been sensible.’ To her, that was fine. To me, it was . . .” And she makes a strangled sound, as if no word can express the ghastliness. “They think those things. They have visions in their heads. Once we told them it was normal to have visions like that, normal to ask questions, normal to have trouble going to sleep or bad dreams, they got through that and moved on.”
It was suggested that the school should suspend specialist programs such as religious education. Fallon resisted. “I wanted to get the school quickly back to routine. That was just gut instinct too.” She peals with laughter: “It works for me! It also does work for children when they’re upset.”
As well as hovering over her students and staff – Fallon was particularly worried about Tyler’s teacher, a caring woman who had taught him in both prep and grade one, and Jai’s friends, who were old enough to understand the finality of death – Fallon phoned the grieving family every day.
“Mum was still in hospital (sedated for shock) and Dad was an absolute wreck. It took a few days to work out what their wishes were, how they wanted to do things. They were at a loss. And the coroner hadn’t released the bodies, we had to work our way through that. And then a couple of days later Robbie (Farquharson) was taken in for questioning; I had to deal with the homicide squad as well.”
Questions remain about the accident, which left no skidmarks on the road. The car was found with its lights and engine turned off. “My aim was to make sure that everyone was aware that the two parents were supporting each other,” she says firmly. “And the kids need to feel that too . . . This sort of thing can bring a town together. It can also destroy a town. At the moment, here, it’s brought them together.”
There was a torrent of communication in the wake of the tragedy. Fallon received more than 200 emails of support from other principals, and established a sympathetic correspondence with the principal of the Balwyn school that lost two boys to a stabbing just days after the Winchelsea tragedy, and to the Sunshine special school principal who lost a student in a house fire. She phoned her staff every night to see how they were travelling (“Because it’s when you get home that you reflect”).
And she fielded 50 or 60 media calls a day. “There must be a newspaper somewhere or a small radio station up in Upper Quambatook or wherever that hasn’t rung me, but I guarantee everyone else has. And that was something I hadn’t planned for at all.”
Fallon had been asked by two older members of the community to handle the media, a task she took on “to protect Cindy in hospital and Robbie at home . . . So I’ve learned a little bit about the media now. They’re doing their job, that’s all they’re doing. If you give them the little grabs that they need they are happy, and that keeps them off your back and everyone else’s.”
Fallon seems to have a native shrewdness that stood her in good stead in this regard. The grandfatherly man who edits the local paper was given hot tea and warm advice when he came around after the funeral almost too upset to write his report of it.
But when a bigwig from Channel Seven rang, Fallon bartered with him: she would give him an interview if he would put in a request for her to Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy. He agreed, and Essendon footballers – the Farquharson boys’ team – will come to the school next term to help with its memorial garden and to speak to the children on how to handle adversity.
And how does Fallon get through adversity? She schedules. She held her own grief at bay until Thursday morning, the day after the Farquharson boys’ funeral; she cried for the first time when her staff gave her flowers and a card to thank her for her strength and support. But then she rallied again and is holding off until this weekend, the start of the school holidays.
“I’m not quite sure when it will, but it will hit,” she admits. “It’s like you will stub your toe and all of a sudden the world will end and you will think, ‘But this was just a stubbed toe!’
“And it will have nothing to do with the stubbed toe, just with what you have bottled up and not let go. But I have a gorgeous family and two wonderful daughters, and they will look after me.”
· Born in Melbourne
· Degree in marketing, Monash Caulfield, followed by career in advertising/marketing
1975 and 1979
· Birth of daughters
· Returns to university to train as a teacher
· First teaching job, at Traralgon Primary School
· First principal’s job, at Hamilton Primary School
· Principal of Winchelsea Primary School

First published in The Age.

Rocking the boat

KAREN KISSANE TALKS TO JENNY WARFE   The co-ordinator of the Blue Wedges coalition against dredging in the bay returned to her childhood home for a quiet life. She got anything but.
JENNY Warfe was born in a small local hospital across the road from Dromana beach. Her mother told her that the nurse who delivered her had sand on her feet because she had just returned from walking there.
Warfe herself spent all the warm months of her childhood on that same beach, playing in the curve of its bay with her brothers and a brood of cousins while the aunties knitted and chatted in deckchairs nearby. That beach was the edge of her world, the landscape of her childhood dreaming.
She left it, as you do, to enter the adult world; she studied, trained, moved interstate and had a string of serious jobs behind large desks surrounded by lots of people. Until she got sick. She doesn’t say how sick, or what her ailment was, other than to clarify that she is not facing a death sentence. But the setback made her stop and think, and what she found herself thinking about was her childhood beach. She decided, she says dryly, that she would rather die in Dromana than behind a desk.
She quit the big job and moved home, hankering for a quiet life. She found the perfect setting for it: a low, wide 1970s bungalow on a ti-treed block set into a hillside, with sweeping views of treetops and her beloved beach (Dromana is about 90 minutes south of the city on the Mornington Peninsula). From her deck she can also see the nearby roof of her childhood home, where her father and one of her brothers still live. But the second half of the equation – the quiet life – has not eventuated.
Warfe is working 80 hours a week, fielding 100 emails a day and managing an incessantly ringing phone from her dining table, which is littered with paperwork and laptops. She is the co-ordinator for Blue Wedges, the umbrella group of strange bedfellows who have united in a desperate attempt to stop the Port of Melbourne dredging millions of tonnes of silt and rock from the bottom of Port Phillip Bay. The State Government says it is an economic necessity, that without it Victoria will lose jobs and become a second-rung international port. Warfe fears it will be an environmental catastrophe.
The group suffered a big setback when it lost a Supreme Court challenge to a smaller trial dredge, which began this week. From the timber decking that runs along the back of her house, Warfe photographed the large pale clouds of sand that stained the blue surface of the water around the dredge.
It is this cloudiness – technically known as “turbid plumes” – that she dreads. Speaking wearily with her head resting on one hand, she launches into yet another explanation of why sand and silt in the water, and coating the plants and sponges on the bay’s bed, would be dangerous.
“The whole food chain of the bay is reliant upon light, and plants producing their own photosynthesis and nutrients, and higher-order organisms feeding off that. There is a nitrogen-cycling process that goes on in the bay because of all the little organisms; they filter the waste in the bay and turn it into nitrogen, which is the main component of the air we breathe. The bay provides this incredible service by this really delicate balance of an ecosystem that depends on how much light is in the water.
“If there isn’t much light in the water, if it’s cloudy (from dredging), you run the risk of the whole thing spinning out of control and tipping into a poisoned state. In areas around the bay you could have algal blooms, or in the worst possible case” – she sighs heavily – “as the (State Government) panel hearing said, the risk of a baywide catastrophic incident has not been sufficiently eliminated. If things went as badly as they possibly could, that whole ecosystem in the bay could tip over. And, however much money you threw at trying to correct that, you wouldn’t be able to bring it back to how it was.”
She argues that the cloudy water that would kill off small plants and organisms would also damage the small fish in the bay upon which three of our main tourist attractions rely: dolphins, sea lions and penguins. For example, if toxic sediments at the mouth of the Yarra are stirred up and kill off the anchovies that spawn there, this might damage the penguin colonies that rely on the anchovies.
“Until I got involved in this campaign, I didn’t realise that 20,000 penguins from Phillip Island rely on Port Phillip Bay. They make a three-day round trip into the bay to feed and then go back to Phillip Island again to feed their chicks. If there’s not enough anchovies there . . .”
A small woman, Warfe wears her thick, honey-tinted hair loose in the unstyled abandon of the ’70s, but she wears her doggedness discreetly, behind the diplomatic front of the experienced bureaucrat. In the job she threw in to return to Melbourne, she had a staff of 100 and a budget of $25 million and the often-fraught task of administering hearing services for the Federal Government (she is an audiologist by profession). It was excellent training for her current gig, she says cheerily – constant interruptions, too much to do, big issues to cope with – but she does rather miss having staff to whom she can outsource problems. And that $25 million budget. Blue Wedges has never had more than a couple of thousand dollars in the bank.
“We’ve got about $1000 in the bank now. And a bill for $1000 for the pamphlets for the last rally. Contrast that with the Port of Melbourne Authority, who have access to taxpayers’ funds to print their glossy brochures and put on their information nights.”
It’s a battle that has been likened to David and Goliath, or more prosaically, as she points out, The Mouse that Roared. Does she think they have a hope?
“Yeah!” she yelps, as if startled by the idea of doubt. “Of course! Because we are right! I just think common sense and reason have to prevail.”
She will not be drawn on the group’s future tactics – perhaps it has yet to decide them – except to say that it is time to become more structured, dividing up and assigning roles such as fund-raising and media management, and that Blue Wedges is still considering whether to appeal against the Supreme Court ruling. But she is wary of pouring too much time and energy down the legal route. “We have to keep the ability to be reactive. I’m not attracted to being locked into the legal system.”
It could be argued that the very fact that the group still exists as a group is a triumph in itself, consisting as it does of people who would normally be at loggerheads, such as deep greens who are opposed to the whole capitalist system and commercial fishermen worried about their livelihoods.
Monash University marine biologist Simon Roberts says Warfe and her brother Len have held the group together because they have not played power games and listen to the different concerns of all parties. He says Warfe “is morally very sound. She’s genuinely altruistic and is there because she feels she has to protect something. She’s not putting herself up for the sake of kudos. She’s not power hungry at all.”
Asked to name her weakness, he nominates the flip side of the same quality: the fact that she is not a charismatic speaker who demands to be the centre of media attention. But, he says, while a pushy personality might have made a bigger blip on the public radar, he or she would not have been able to maintain the fragile unity of the group.
Warfe herself doesn’t see it as fragile and nor does she believe that her personal qualities have held it together. The members’ fear for the bay is a unifying factor that overrides all other differences. Looking back, the only thing she would have changed about the group’s strategies was to “go harder” earlier, “come out with economic arguments sooner than we did, rather than talking about it in isolation as an environmental issue”. She believes that dredging risks destroying local jobs already based in the bay in the fishing and diving industries to increase profits for foreign shipping companies. How can the dredging be necessary, she asks, when the Port itself estimates that its business will quadruple by 2030 either way?
Her chief opponent in the debate, Port of Melbourne chief executive Steve Bradford, says he believes Warfe is misguided and “has not understood our debate”. But, he says, he has found her unfailingly courteous. He says Blue Wedges had more success early on and that some protesters’ actions, such as sailing surfboards dangerously close to the dredge, have been seen by the public as misguided.
Warfe, in her turn, says that the Port has moved into “shutdown mode” to try to deprive the debate of oxygen and accuses it of releasing “sanitised” information. She has been waiting nine months to see the results of toxicity testing from the Yarra, she says.
She is used to the role of thorn in the side; at her previous workplace she was often told she was like a broken record. She was politicised by an English teacher in her teens, who once told her class that they always had the right to question. “From that time on I’ve always felt like having a say, or at least thinking a bit differently . . . I was probably a bit like that in the organisation I worked in. I always liked to pose an alternative view on the executive.”
She looks over with her direct gaze. “There wouldn’t be any change in society if people didn’t challenge things. We’d still be sending kids up bloody chimneys.”
Warfe is adept at side-stepping difficult questions (she received media training as a bureaucrat that included the advice, “Don’t answer the question they ask; answer the question you want to answer”.) So she will not be drawn on what it will be like for her if Blue Wedges fails.
But there is no doubt that this experience has changed her life. After years as a single woman, she has a new partner, Queenscliff diver Len Salter, whom she met at the panel hearings into dredging. He strode up to her one day thrusting his mobile at her and demanding that she speak to the person on the other end of it, who wanted to know something about the issue. He recently moved in with her, and they did this interview like a couple, her talking about the beaches and him describing the bright corals, sponges, fishes and caverns in their depths.
Her beloved bay has thrown up a different kind of happiness for her now.
· Boxing Day 1954.
· Completes a Bachelor of Science at La Trobe University.
· Trains as an audiologist at Melbourne University.
· Works in Melbourne as a pediatric audiologist, a manager of hearing centres and a trainer of other audiologists. Moves to Sydney to work with Australian Hearing.
· Retires to Melbourne after a health problem.
· Attends first public meeting of 20 people that would develop into Blue Wedges.
LINKS: www.bluewedges.org

First published in The Age.

Birth mother

Sheila Kitzinger has spent decades pushing natural birth. But the scalpels are still out, writes Karen Kissane.

A woman at Sydney Airport heard that Sheila Kitzinger, the high priestess of the natural childbirth movement, was expected to arrive at any moment. “I know her books,” the woman said. “Tell her she’s a liar. She says you can push them out so easy; it’s not like that at all.”

What does Kitzinger say to women who are wheeled out of the labour ward wanting to burn her book – or her?
“They’ve got to be angry with somebody and I suppose I’m as good a person as anyone because I can take it,” she says, with unruffled British calm.

“I do a lot of work with women who’ve had distressing experiences in childbirth and they feel they’ve been cheated, and that it was so awful that it must be the women who write books about childbirth who cheated them. But of course it isn’t, because we know that birth can be beautiful and exultant.”

Kitzinger is credited with having done more than any other activist to change the way hospitals treat women in labour. She has written more than 20 books on birth and female sexuality including Pregnancy and Childbirth, which has become the pregnant woman’s bible since its publication in 1980.

She is in Australia for a conference of the National Association of Childbirth Educators in Sydney this weekend and to speak at the Australian Breastfeeding Association in Melbourne next week.

Her message has never changed. It is simple but, for the medical profession, confronting. She says women should resist medical intervention during birth unless it is truly necessary. She accuses technology-focused hospital systems of disrupting women’s emotional and physical flow in childbirth, which she sees as a psychosexual process akin to lovemaking in its natural rhythms and its need to unfold spontaneously.

She warns that one medical intervention leads to another; a mother who is induced, for example, is more likely to need pain relief and therefore more likely to be unable to push out the baby without forceps or a caesarean. She says that mothers angry about the natural childbirth ethos “tend to say, `Thank God I was in hospital, and thank God I had my labour induced and thank God I had my uterus stimulated and had an epidural because look at all the other things that went wrong.’ And, of course, they went wrong because one thing led to another”.

Kitzinger, 74, is often described as grandmotherly. She wears her hair up in a soft bun, has a face that creases into myriad kind wrinkles when she smiles and is warm and charming to interview.

But there is matriarchal steel beneath the soft demeanour. She never raises her voice but she rarely concedes a point. Doesn’t the fistula hospital in Addis Ababa, which repairs the torn insides of African women left incontinent by obstructed labours, suggest that non-intervention in childbirth is catastrophic for some women?

“It’s not just a question of looking at non-intervention,” she says briskly. “It’s a question of looking at the conduct of the whole second stage of labour. Throughout that part of the world there is tremendous emphasis on `Push push push, come on try harder, you can do better than that, mother!’ ”
But she agrees that women in the Third World have too few caesareans and those in the First World have too many.

Kitzinger has undoubtedly been a major influence on mothers and midwives for several decades. Most big Australian hospitals now offer “birth centres” in which midwives try to support natural childbirth.

Partners or friends are allowed to stay with a labouring woman, and it is not uncommon for women to arrive at hospital with “birth plans” detailing their preferences for treatment during labour.

But there is also evidence of ways in which the movement is failing to get its message across. Caesarean rates in much of the Western world have risen steadily and, in Australia, one in four babies born this year will arrive via caesarean section.

In 1991 Australian caesarean rates were 15.7 per cent for public patients and 21.8 per cent for private. The latest figures, for 1999, showed that 19 per cent of public patients, and 30 per cent of private patients, had caesareans. In some private hospitals – the kind nurses nickname “caesars palaces” – the rate is well over 50 per cent.

“I don’t know how they can justify that,” Kitzinger says tartly. “(It’s about) fee for service, more money for obstetricians and anaesthetists.” She says the World Health Organisation suggests a justifiable rate is 12 per cent.

But what of doctors’ claims that educated private patients pressure them for caesareans: for convenience, or supposed safety, to keep their vaginas “honeymoon tight” or, as some critics put it, “because they’re too posh to push”? What if the increasing rates are partly about a distortion of Kitzinger’s long-held goal: women exercising their freedom to choose the birth they want?

The debate has been too value-free, she says. “We have been talking about choice in childbirth as if we are talking about breakfast cereals on a supermarket shelf; as if each choice was equally valid and free.

“I think this is cheating women and misleading women, and I think an analysis of choice needs to be made.

“The medical system . . . is advertising caesarean sections as the safest option for the baby, and any woman that isn’t being selfish is supposed to choose it because it’s healthier for the baby. And there’s absolutely no evidence that this is the case.”
In fact, she says, babies born by caesarean are more likely to have breathing difficulties, possibly because they have not been stimulated enough by the hard contractions of the birth canal.

She is dismissive of claims that doctors operate because they fear litigation: “Of course it’s an element but what are they saying? `These women are getting uppity? These women are suing us? If they didn’t do that, everything would be all right?’ It’s somehow blaming women.”

Kitzinger’s next book, due out in May, is an expanded edition of Pregnancy and Childbirth, with more information about studies of the consequences of interventions. “There are all sorts of research findings to consider that are evidence-based, and I would ask women to look at them,” she says

Is she dismayed by the fact that so many smart, sassy women don’t? Take American feminist Naomi Wolf. She was shocked by her experience of a bad birth in an American hospital. Nothing happened the way Wolf thought it would. She was put on a drip to speed up her labour; staff watched the foetal monitor rather than her; they terrified her with threats of surgery and her labour stopped.

She finished up lying naked and cold on an operating table, watching the reflection of her emergency caesarean in glass doors opposite as people worked up to their elbows in her body, “a cauldron of blood”.

Wolf later told an interviewer, “I feel absolutely staggered by what I discovered after giving birth. Birth today is like agribusiness. It’s like a chicken plant; they go in, they go out.”

If anyone should have read up beforehand on the politics of childbirth, it was Wolf. What does this say about the childbirth movement’s failure to get its message across? And how does Kitzinger feel about younger feminists discovering, as if for the first time, the need for a crusade when Kitzinger has been waging it for decades?
Kitzinger says Wolf asked for support with her book on motherhood. “I found it awkward at first because I didn’t want to attack Naomi,” she says of a meeting they had over the issue. “It was a real experience for her, and a very painful one. And I wanted to take her in my arms and say, `Good for you. You’ve done something with this awful experience. But I don’t agree with what you’re saying.’
“I think her whole interpretation of it was just looking at the facade. She thought women were being misled about how awful birth was.” Kitzinger believes Wolf had post-traumatic stress disorder. Kitzinger is speaking on distress after childbirth at the Sydney conference tomorrow. She now spends much of her working life with such women, through a birth crisis helpline she has set up in Britain. “I don’t tell them anything; I listen to them. They often say they felt raped, or they look at what was done to them and say they were treated like meat on a table.”

She says that medicating such women with anti-depressants only makes them worse. “With depression, you wake in the morning feeling grim, unable to face the day. When you’re suffering post-traumatic stress, you’re in a state of permanent alarm; you have panic attacks, you might not be able to walk past the hospital, you can’t bear to see anything about birth on television. And flashbacks are a central part of it. That’s different from depression.”

Kitzinger is a social anthropologist who began studying birth in different cultures because the male academics at Oxford ignored women’s lives – “and Margaret Mead (the pioneering US anthropologist) encouraged me”.

She has five daughters and wrote part of her first childbirth book on a notepad that rested on the back of her baby, Polly, as she lay on her lap being burped.

Three of her five daughters are lesbians, which Kitzinger says suggests she has done something right as a mother, “that three women in the family could make such a powerful decision in their lives”. Previously she has suggested that the girls grew up comfortable in a women’s world because they were thrown back on each other as she and her husband Uwe, now a research fellow at Harvard, were so busy with their work. She and her husband are about to take a holiday in Bali to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

The marriage has been successful partly because they have usually lived on different continents, she says, smiling. “And when he is at home he’s a very keen sailor, so he’s out in his boat, and I don’t like housekeeping on a boat. And anyway I don’t like having a skipper in charge of my life. So I tend not to go on the boat.”

Looking back on her life’s work, she believes she can point to progress, but it is uneven, she says. “Midwives in Britain are so much more aware; I can’t handle the number of hospitals who want to send midwives to my workshops. And we still have home births in Britain. In the Bath area, it’s 16 per cent home birth and in part of Devon we’ve got 22 per cent home births.”

And it sounds as if British activists have been more successful than Australian ones in harnessing political will for the cause.

“Another thing we have is an inter-party parliamentary committee (that advises the government on childbirth issues). We are giving an award to the unit in Britain which has increased its home birth rate most in the last two years. And we’re asking units to see how well they can do in promoting normal birth (in hospital).”

Her eyes light up with wicked delight that the system will be subverted to the goals of its critics. “The award will be presented by the Minister of Health. It’s official.” And she laughs.

Sheila Kitzinger will speak informally on birth and breastfeeding at Gasworks Park in Port Melbourne on Wednesday at 11am. Bookings 9555 5135.

Karen Kissane is an Age senior writer.

Delivering the facts

“Normal” birth is far from the norm.

Only a minority of first-time mothers have no intervention, according to a study of 171,000 low-risk women by the University of Technology Sydney.

Sally Tracy, researcher at the Centre for Family Health and Midwifery at UTS, said: “Less than one quarter of public, first-time mothers and one-fifth of private patients give birth without intervention.” The study found that labour was induced or sped up for one in three public patients and half of private patients, while between a quarter (public) and a half (private) of women used spinal anaesthesia. One in three public patients and half of all private patients received an episiotomy (a cut to the vagina).

Dr James King, obstetric epidemiologist with the Royal Women’s Hospital, says Australia’s caesarean rate would now be about 25 per cent, and women have more depression and more problems adjusting to motherhood after caesareans. But he says there are fewer damaged babies than 30 years ago, because doctors no longer allow long and arduous labours.

First published in The Age.

In a softer light: Peter Singer

He’s been picketed by the disabled, vilified by the right-to-lifers, and ridiculed by meat-eaters. But in exploring his own past, Peter Singer might just have found a way to speak to us in a voice we’re willing to hear. Karen Kissane reports.

Even smart people have their dumb moments. Just ask Peter Singer. There he was, a great man of ideas, one of the world’s most influential living philosophers, the father of animal liberation. And then he went and wrote a review of a book on bestiality for the online sex magazine Nerve.com.

In his piece, Singer wrote about the history of sex between people and animals (men prefer horses and calves, apparently; women favour dogs) and told us more than we ever needed to know about human congress with poultry. He said sex across species was not normal but it did not offend human dignity because we are animals too. The story’s headline was “Heavy Petting” and the photo was of a dog with a lolling tongue.

Singer loves throwing intellectual firecrackers, preferably at smug moral certainties. But this one backfired. “The love that dared not bark its name,” sneered one American critic. Another website announced Singer’s engagement to an orangutan which, it said, came in the wake of a marriage to a chicken that had ended tragically on their wedding night.

Hearing that story, Singer winces and smiles weakly. “People got some laughs out of it, anyway. That review was maybe something that, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have done. It was probably one taboo I should have left covered up. It gives another cudgel to beat me with to all my opponents. As well as reading that ‘Singer is the man who wants to kill babies, and who thinks chimpanzees have more rights than humans, and who thinks we should give all our money to dictators in Africa who transfer it to their Swiss bank accounts’, there’s now, ‘And he thinks it’s OK to have sex with animals’.”

But not, of course, to eat them. Singer – who first hit the headlines with his 1975 book Animal Liberation – remains one of the world’s most famously committed vegetarians.

The “controversial” Peter Singer, as he is often known, is more used to outraging people than amusing them. He wants to expand the rights available to animals and shrink those available to humans. He says it is sometimes ethical to kill babies and other people who are sick or disabled; that the tyranny of humans over animals causes suffering that is as morally significant as the misery caused by the tyranny of white people over black; that it would sometimes be as ethical to conduct experiments on disabled humans as it would on apes.

Philosophically, Singer is a utilitarian. Utilitarians are like the utterly rational Mr Spock in Star Trek; they believe moral decisions should be made by calculating what choice would produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Singer’s version is called “preference” utilitarianism: the goal is to be achieved by trying to satisfy individual preferences.

His logic allows little room for human love. Singer insists that ideas be separated from emotion. As a result, his work sometimes reads as if he lacks imagination (can he really believe that parents are incapable of loving a child with Down syndrome?) or has a dead spot in his emotional motor (would you see your mother as a “non-person” if she developed dementia?)

This is the riddle of Peter Singer: he is an ethicist whose preoccupation is minimising suffering but who sometimes seems without compassion. Is the man as cold as the philosopher sounds? Does Singer’s heart always follow his uncompromising head or, in real life, does impartial theory sometimes give way to softer, messier human values?

Singer is a career academic. He studied philosophy at Melbourne University and in 1977, aged 31, was appointed to a chair of philosophy at Monash. Later, he was a founding director of the university’s Centre for Human Bioethics. In 1999 he moved to New York to become the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Centre for Human Values.

He has taken research leave from Princeton for 12 months and is back in Melbourne to see friends and family and promote One World: The Ethics of Globalisation, the first of two new books due in the next few months.

He is 56 but doesn’t look it. His forehead is lined and his grey hair wispy, but he is lean and rangy and moves like a much younger man. He dresses for his conscience, leather-free: woven belt, plastic watch, black running shoes. He does not smile often but has a habit of raising his eyebrows to reveal a wry gleam of amusement behind his glasses. He chooses lemon-ginger herbal tea and a banana muffin to sustain him through our interview, which starts in a coffee shop in Richmond.

Singer has three adult daughters – a linguist, a would-be film maker and a community development graduate – with his wife Renata Diamond. Diamond, who is now writing her second novel, previously worked as a history teacher and as an editor with Community Aid Abroad.

The two met in a history tutorial at Melbourne University and married in 1968, when Singer was only 22. Wasn’t that young?
“I didn’t really see getting married as a totally irrevocable commitment,” he says coolly. “Deciding to have children was more of a commitment. Until we decided to have children together, this was something we could just end if we wanted to.”

Does his wife agree with all his philosophical ideas? “Certainly not all of them. That would be boring. But I would say a lot of our ideas were formed together. It’s not a question of her agreeing with my views.”

His children sound less respectful. “None of them would do philosophy. They all thought that what I did was stupid, just all of this academic stuff. None of them wanted that.”

Some of the language swirling around Singer is hot – he’s been called a “prophet of death” and “Himmler in academic tweeds” – but the man is cool. Mild-mannered but immoveable, he talks calmly, pausing to choose his words, and rarely concedes a point. He has a quiet charm and delivers his sometimes-brutal arguments in a tone of sweet reason; it is probably why he gets gentler treatment from journalists who meet him in person than from those who criticise his work from a distance.

In One World, Singer examines the ethics of world politics and how the selfishness of the West deprives millions. He argues that the momentum of international politics is towards world government, and that this is a good thing because it would prevent an egocentric America from turning globalisation to its own ends.

His vision of nations uniting to provide economic and legal justice will irritate big corporations and conservative politicians. It might even anger some in his heartland of the left because he concludes that free trade has helped many poor people. “But it has still left out the very poorest, perhaps 600 million people, who it hasn’t helped at all,” he says.

Singer criticises the World Trade Organisation for allowing economic issues to override all other values, including environmental questions, the rights of workers and animal welfare. “I am not against globalisation in itself, (but) I am arguing for a very different form of globalisation.”

He is a mix of romantic and cynic. He wants a better, kinder world, but his view of human nature is grim. One World argues that humans are hard-wired for genocide. Singer cites an obscure Biblical text about God telling Israelites to slaughter a neighbouring tribe as evidence that massacres are not due to social conditions such as poverty, or personal histories of child abuse. Centuries of mass killings have combined with genetic selection to ensure that now
“a significant number of human males have the potential to be perpetrators of genocide”.

He would include terrorists in that group. “That’s why it’s possible for organisations with a terrorist ideology to recruit people to do these things. There have always been people willing to do that, to kill innocent people. But what we have now are changes in technology that make it possible for those people to kill far larger numbers than they did before, flying jets filled with aviation fuel into buildings.”

Still, he thinks Australia should try to restrain America’s hawks as they push for war with Iraq, wants Israel out of the West Bank, and is no harder on Muslim fundamentalism than on any other kind. “I’m pretty hostile to any kind of religious fundamentalism. It means that people don’t really think independently, and take their views from some source without question, and I think that’s very dangerous.”

Singer was not even in his teens when he decided the central tenet of his philosophy: that there is no God. When his parents offered him a bar mitzvah at 13 he declined because of his atheism. He has since written that the degree of suffering in the world suggests that, if there is a God, he’s not worth worshipping.

Singer’s father went to temple on the high holy days but his mother was sceptical about religion. Singer did his own questioning. “I went to Scotch College and every morning we had religious assembly and it was pretty boring. And I used to read the Old Testament, quite often. There was much more sex; there was a lot of bloodshed, including a lot of bloodshed carried out by the ‘goodies’, the Israelites, with God’s approval.

“Also in the New Testament there were puzzling things that Jesus did, like cursing the fig tree and making it wither because it didn’t have any figs on it. Really petulant. And you had to wonder why no one ever talked about these passages, and how they were supposed to be reconciled with the idea that Jesus was God or everything he did was wonderful.”

Other central strands in his thinking can be traced back to the Holocaust and its effect on his family. Singer’s parents, who were Austrian Jews, escaped the Nazis in 1938. His grandparents were not so lucky and three of them died in concentration camps.

His mother, a doctor, and his father, who owned a small import business, arrived in Australia in 1938. Although German was their first language, they refused to speak it in the Hawthorn home in which Singer and his older sister Joan, now a lawyer, grew up. “I think they wanted me to be a proper dinki-di Australian, and they felt that if they spoke German to me I might be more of a foreigner. Perhaps also, after the war, they didn’t want to be speaking German in public.”

Their values were more conventional than Singer’s, he says, “but one thing I clearly took from them was a strong opposition to anything really racist or highly nationalist, because that was what had driven them out of their country. Appeal to irrational things like ‘the blood’, and so on”.

Organised religion, he says, “leads to close-minded sectarianism; you can see how much killing there is in the world as a result of people saying, ‘I’m Catholic; you’re Protestant. I’m Christian; you’re Muslim’.” Or I’m Aryan, you’re Jewish? “Yeah.”

What he is trying to do is develop a secular ethic – a principled way of living that does not rely on ideas of God or human sacredness – that acknowledges today’s realities. That includes, he insists, facing the truth about decisions we already make about life and death, such as illicit euthanasia of hopelessly suffering patients, or withdrawing food and water from severely disabled babies.

At the core of Singer’s philosophy is the idea of “sentience”, which he defines as the capacity to suffer or to experience enjoyment. He has argued that sick or disabled people who lack sentience are “non-persons”. Parents of severely disabled babies should, he says, have the option of killing them within 28 days of birth. “Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person,” he has written. “Very often it is not wrong at all.” It is a position that has caused outrage in modern Germany, where he has been accused of echoing the Nazi doctrine of eugenics, “life unworthy of life”.

Singer also argues that we should be morally impartial, giving to those in greatest need or those who can benefit others rather than giving priority to those closest to us. So, who would he save if two people were drowning in a pond – the three-year-old daughter who loves and trusts him, or the scientist with the cure for AIDS in his head? “Well, that’s really where you ought to save the guy with the formula to cure AIDS,” he says.

Is that what he would do? “I don’t know. Perhaps not. But I think it’s what you ought to do.”

Singer has never been one for questions about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. He has won his place in the limelight through a kind of journalistic savvy: a nose for controversy, meticulous research and a blunt writing style that makes his views accessible to millions. Like our other famous intellectual export, Germaine Greer, he sometimes seems to take an almost adolescent pleasure in using his erudition to shock.

Singer does seem to love attention. He says he abandoned his original master’s topic in history because it made people’s eyes glaze over at parties. He switched to philosophy because he knew he could always get people talking about the big questions.

He is entirely at home with the media. The day we meet, we have to race to get him to a radio interview. He strides down busy Swan Street, Richmond, holding my tape recorder at chest height and talking into it without a trace of embarrassment. At the ABC studios he sits behind the mike, dons headphones and starts fiddling with switches like a pilot in his cockpit. He’s not quite a media junkie, perhaps, but someone who enjoys the hit and is expert with a fit. And no media gig is likely to hold terrors for someone who has already featured in America’s 60 Minutes and New Yorker magazine.

His books have included one titled Practical Ethics, but aspects of his own life suggest that some of his ethics are not as practical as he would like them to be. More than once, the man and the philosopher have parted company, and now even the philosopher wants to moderate some of his pronouncements.

“Some of my early stuff was perhaps insensitive to people with disabilities,” he admits of his 1985 book with Helga Kuhse, Should the Baby Live? “I would like to be able to start afresh so that this preconception that I am this monster who hates people with disabilities and thinks they all ought to be killed would be avoided. I would write differently now about Down syndrome than I did in 1985. I guess I’m more open to the idea that parents might well think that having a child with Down syndrome is a blessing for them.”

He has softened partly because of his acquaintance with a disabled woman, Anne McDonald, whom he has known for more than 16 years. McDonald has severe cerebral palsy and it was assumed, wrongly, that she also had an intellectual disability. In 1979 she became a cause celebre when she was rescued from a Melbourne institution by one of its staff, Rosemary Crossley. McDonald has said that she likes Singer, “but he doesn’t think about individuals. We are all just a category to him.”

Singer still thinks he was fundamentally right. “Anne said to me at one stage she thinks it would have been better if she’d been killed,” Singer says. “She supports that view because what she had to go through at
St Nicholas was so awful that it would have been better for her to be killed at birth.”

After some prodding, though, he does admit that, “She doesn’t feel like that now. Rosemary is able to give her lots of love and care and quality of life … (Anne) thinks that (I was) too quick to accept that some lives are not worth living.” Isn’t it true that McDonald’s story could be read not as a justification for euthanasia but as a warning about misdiagnosis and the need for proper care for disabled people? “Sure,” he says. “But you sometimes have to think what you will do given the world the way it is.”

In discussions like these Singer ties himself in knots. He wants to move away from the severity of an earlier position but he’s damned if he’ll give up the general principle that underpinned it. Take his suggestion that strangers should have just as big a call on your generosity as your loved ones. Doesn’t this empty human relationships of all meaning?

Again, Singer equivocates. He says it is still true, “in a sense”, that we should not favour those close to us above other people. “But I guess I now think it’s only one side of the picture. I still think if someone can do that, and is prepared to look for what produces the best consequences, we should admire such a person. But we would also inevitably think that’s a pretty odd person.”

Does that mean he was an odd person when he was espousing it? “I never really did that to the ultimate degree. I never really did treat the children of strangers as well as I did my own children.”

Life offered Singer another lesson in seeing things differently when his mother, who has since died, developed severe Alzheimer’s disease. Critics pointed out that he was helping keep alive someone who lacked “personhood”. He was also supporting her with money that, according to his theories, would be better spent saving Third World lives. “Perhaps it’s more difficult than I thought before,” he admitted in one interview, “because it is different when it’s your mother.”

Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent American Catholic priest, journal editor and critic of Singer, crowed that, “It is a cockeyed theory that is embarrassed by a son’s caring for his elderly mother.”
Singer says his theories were not at all embarrassed. He dissects the issue with forensic chill. “I certainly think (people with severe Alzheimer’s) are not persons. That means they don’t have the same right to life, intrinsically, that a person does. But that doesn’t answer the question as to whether you should or shouldn’t end their lives. There are many non-human animals that are not persons either, but that doesn’t mean you should kill them. It all depends on the particular quality of the life that’s being lived; whether their lives have pain and distress and suffering, or whether they have certain pleasures in them.”

He says the more serious objection was that he spent money on his mother that could have saved the lives of people in developing countries. “I don’t always do what I think is the right thing. So there are some sacrifices I ought to make about money I spend on myself, and others (related to spending) on my mother. I wouldn’t attempt to argue that it was morally better to spend the money on my mother than on helping strangers.”

What sort of relationship did this man have with his mother?
A close one, according to fellow bio-ethicist Nick Tonti-Filippini, whose master’s thesis was supervised by Singer. Tonti-Filippini is Catholic, with very different views from Singer’s, but he speaks of Singer with great warmth. “Peter has a great sense of humour. He’s quite unlike his public image, where he’s always looking for an argument. I knew his mother and his mother was like that, too. She worked with him for a while. There was a kind of love of a verbal stoush in both of them.”

Tonti-Filippini believes much of what Singer advocates is evil, but says Singer himself leads a moral life. Don’t confuse the man with his pronouncements, he advises. “Peter’s principles don’t touch Peter’s emotions. They are two separate things.”

Singer’s views on animals, for example, are intellectual and not related to feelings about them. Tonti-Filippini tells the story of a passionately vegan uni student who found meat-eating sickening. Singer organised a regular lift for her, with a rendezvous point that caused much amusement in the Monash philosophy department. “Peter arranged to pick her up outside a butcher’s shop, which didn’t mean anything to Peter but meant a huge amount to her.”

But the Singer of practice is not always at odds with the Singer of theory. In 1992 he was charged with trespassing on then prime minister Paul Keating’s piggery after chaining himself to the stalls of sows he claimed were tethered so tightly that the chains were cutting into their flesh.

In Victoria, he has been a driving force behind upgraded animal welfare legislation. “He was instrumental in changing the culture and then the law,” says Glenys Oogjes, executive director of Animals Australia. “He’s got real vision for the movement and he’s very generous, too, financially.”

Singer also donates one-fifth of his income to international charities. Still, it is less than he recommends; he told the readers of The New York Times that their affluent self-indulgence was killing Third World people. Westerners, he wrote, should keep only the $US30,000 a year they required to live simply and give all other income away.

He has also been central to the acceptance of in-vitro fertilisation in Victoria. Says IVF specialist Professor Alan Trounson, “He was one of the pioneers in liberal thinking about when life begins. He had very strong views that a ball of cells that had no sentience (an embryo) was not worth the consideration that a sentient animal was.”

Tonti-Filippini also thinks Singer was influential, though for quite different reasons. “Repeatedly, through debates about IVF and the Medical Treatment Act, there were politicians who dissociated themselves from Peter Singer’s views. He helped show them where that extreme view went.”

More light might be thrown on the man behind the ideas when Singer’s next book comes out in February. Pushing Time Away is the story of his maternal grandfather, who died in a concentration camp. The title comes from a sentence in a letter his grandfather wrote to his wife: “What binds us pushes time away.”

Yes, he admits reluctantly (he hates questions about his private self), writing this book changed him. “I know a lot more about my family. I’ve become a lot more interested in connections; I see quite distant relatives in New York, for example, who I probably wouldn’t have bothered with before.”

Will this change in his life have an impact on his ideas? In How Are We to Live? Singer wrote about a real case of the altruism of strangers towards his own family. In 1938, his parents needed a sponsor abroad if they were to escape the Nazis. An uncle in America refused their request. In desperation, Singer’s mother turned to an Australian acquaintance, a man she had met only once. He agreed to sponsor the family. There’s a real chance that Singer is alive today only because of that generosity. Little wonder he values altruism towards strangers so highly.

Midway through our interview, life gave me a lesson in how to see it his way. Trying to grab a taxi to ferry us to his next appointment, I dashed into the middle of a busy road and found myself caught between lanes of traffic. “We’re going to get killed here,” I called out nervously.

“No we won’t,” he said confidently (as well he might, given his position of safety on the footpath). “And anyway, I’d rescue you.” — One World: The Ethics of Globalisation (Text, $28) is out now.

First published in The Age.

King of the kids: John Marsden

John Marsden likes to write about the gritty side of teenage life: sex, suicide and mental illness have all featured in his books.

John Marsden is struggling like a comedian at a grog-free gig. He tries to charge up his young audience, hitting them with one story after another like a doctor with cardiac paddles. He tells them about the boy who swallowed the goldfish and the child who called pins and needles “lemonade legs”. They sit still and silent.

He’s talking to the Islamic students of Ilim College in Broadmeadows about writing: voice, character, plot. He gives them Tom Clancy’s recipe: What if? What next?
Towards the end of the hour-long talk comes the part that makes them realise he’s on their side: the role of status in story-telling. “Low-status people apologise all the time. They get run over by a truck and apologise to the driver,” he says.

“I apologise for everything. I was buying a jacket at the January sales. I turned around and realised I hit someone behind me. Then I realised I’d hit a mirror and was apologising to my own image.” They giggle.

By the time he’s mimicking a pontificating principal – sending up the way high-status people speak slowly because they know they won’t be interrupted – they’re laughing out loud. John Marsden, king of the kids.

He’s an unpretentious monarch. He arrived this day in baggy pants and a windcheater, his face bearing a faint five o’clock shadow. He’d been digging up worms for an injured magpie just before he left home, he says later, glancing at his hands as if to check for lingering traces of excavation.

His fellow travellers on the train to Broadie would never have picked him for a millionaire. They would be unlikely even to know his name, unless they were teenagers or English teachers or plugged-in parents.

But Marsden, 52, is one of Australia’s most successful authors. His 31 books have sold three million copies worldwide and been translated into 15 languages, including French, German, Japanese and Korean. A poll by Angus and Robertson on Australia’s favourite books found Marsden’s best-loved novel for teenagers, Tomorrow, When the War Began, came in fourth, ahead of the Bible at number five.

Those who admire his work talk of his gift for taking on the adolescent voice and the way he believes in their ability to navigate a challenging world. His critics wish he would show the same faith in adults; they claim his teenage characters often inhabit bleak worlds bereft of adult strength or kindness, and that he exposes kids too early to adult themes such as sex and suicide.

“Why can’t we let kids be kids, and let them enjoy their innocence and freedom from these worries?” says Bill Muehlenberg, vice-president of the Australian Family Association and recipient of complaints from outraged parents. He concedes he’s had no reports of kids being upset.

That’s because they don’t see his work that way. Says Lauren Kenrick, 14, who attended one of Marsden’s writing workshops: “I love his books, especially the Tomorrow series, because they’re real and everything that they were feeling – I knew exactly how they felt. I would be, like, ‘Mum, get the next one, I need it!”‘

Marsden also knows what makes kids laugh. The Great Gatenby is a comic novel about the wisecracking Erle Gatenby. Erle’s mother erupts into anxious, inane reminders as she drops him off at boarding school (Krapp House) for the first time. He tells her in return, “Don’t go talking to strange men while I’m away. Keep off the hard liquor. Don’t answer the phone unless it’s ringing.”

But some of his work has been seriously controversial. In his guide to life for teenage boys, Secret Men’s Business, Marsden said boys looking for “trophy sex” should use a prostitute rather than exploit a trusting girl – and then told them how to find a brothel and what to expect upon arrival.

The book that caused the most outrage was Dear Miffy. Some booksellers refuse to stock it and schools often keep it off their shelves. The book is written as letters from a youth in prison to his old girlfriend, Miffy. The boy is violent, rage-filled and lacking in moral insight. A failed suicide attempt has left him savagely mutilated, as trapped in his body as he is in his mind. Utterly black, the book ends on a howl of hatred.

So what’s inside the head of this man who’s inside the heads of Australia’s kids?

MONEY might not buy happiness but Marsden’s home shows it can buy beauty. He lives in the country near Romsey, an hour north of Melbourne, on the 400-hectare Tye Estate: manicured gardens and Edwardian buildings surrounded by sweeping stands of eucalypts.

He bought it for just under a million five years ago and has since spent that much again buying the property next door. Together with the improvements, it’s an investment of $2.5 million.

He reels off the numbers politely when asked but it’s clear they don’t excite him. It’s different when he’s asked about the graceful figure in the fountain near his winding driveway: a 1930s statue of a woman with a cloche hat and a flirty swirling skirt. He found her in bits in a box and had her restored, he says, his face lighting up.

It lights again when he’s asked what one man does with 400 hectares: “Keep it as safe as I can for trees and birds and animals.” He is an ardent conservationist. At the last election he handed out how-to-vote cards for the Greens, and in the 1980s he served a week in jail for protesting against the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania. (Ever the recalcitrant, he nicked the list of rules off the wall of his cell and later used them in a novel).

Animals are not the only creatures allowed the run of his place. Marsden, a former English teacher, runs writing camps for kids using log cabins set up as bunkhouses and a classroom. He seems to follow Dolly Levi’s dictum that money, like manure, should be spread around helping young things to grow.

He did try to be an idle sybarite. “I’d made good money from writing and I thought, ‘OK, this is the life.’ I bought the nice house (in Kew) and the nice car and I thought I’d have a coffee in Lygon Street every morning and Brunswick Street every afternoon.

“And after four months I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I should be doing this when I’m 75, not 45.”‘
He shares his home with the arthritic Trevor, a refugee from the lost dogs’ home, and Coco, a shih tzu with a temperament that leans towards the Latin. As we lie talking on the grass she plants herself nose to nose with the interviewer, as if warning that there’s to be no messin’ with her man.

Marsden grew up in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, the third of four children who moved around following the postings of their father, a banker. He is as cagey as the next person when asked about that crucible of tortured creativity, the family.

“I lived a very typical life for the 1950s, very protected, where you didn’t have any awareness of the wider world. Mum was at home ironing the sheets – at least I think she did, she certainly ironed everything else.

“When I was a child my father seemed to dominate every field he was in, which was powerful for me.

“The family was conservative; strong moral standards, we went to church every Sunday. Anglican. Sir Robert Menzies ruled and God was in his heaven and everything was Nice, with a capital N.”

Marsden is more forthcoming about the way his school helped make him the man he is today: an anti-authoritarian who carries a deep anger about the abuse of power and an equally deep empathy for outsiders and underdogs, especially teenagers. He spent his adolescence at The King’s School in Sydney. (“Don’t forget the ‘The’ or the world will stop spinning,” he warns.)

He had a rough time there. “I didn’t like the cruelty that was part of the school’s structure. I got punished in every way. I was ostracised, more by the teachers than the kids. But the prefects were the ones who really hurt.

“Prefects were allowed to beat you with a sandshoe on the bum. They’d do things like get in the biggest room possible, and they’d bend you over at one end and they’d stand on a window-sill at the other end and launch themselves at you. And these guys were big ¤ 14 stone, 120 kilos. They were powerful, and they’d do it for anything.”

Marsden felt duty bound to give them cause. “We challenged Australia’s commitment to the Vietnam war, and the compulsory militarism at King’s, by skipping corps parades, by dumb insolence.

“In year 8 my mother was told by the housemaster that the teachers were afraid of me because I was so ruthless with them. If a teacher made a mistake, I would ridicule him. But if I was bored and angry, it was probably a by-product of that.”

The most intense experience he had at the school was actually a positive one, at the hands of a new headmaster who arrived towards the end of Marsden’s time. Marsden had charge of a table of small boys whose dinner he had to supervise, “All very English 1890s.” One day none of them ate their meal because they didn’t like the white sauce on their corned beef.

Like Oliver Twist, Marsden braved the housekeeper, a notoriously fearsome woman, and asked if she could put the white sauce in jugs so the children could choose whether to have it. Enraged, she marched him up to the headmaster. “He listened, and he said to her, ‘It sounds like a very sensible suggestion.’”

Marsden was floored: “It was like I had just been struck by lightning.”

It might be one of the reasons he ended up becoming a teacher himself rather than fleeing schools forever. “The main motivation to teach was to prove that you could teach in a different way.”

For all its flaws, the school had provided a structure to Marsden’s life, and without it he crumbled. Half-way through his first year in arts-law at Sydney University he became suicidally depressed and spent two months in a psychiatric hospital. “It was comforting in many ways because I learned a lot. I really started to understand how the mind works, I suppose.

“To me it was a new world. When people are in psych hospitals feelings are laid bare because there’s no point pretending any more; you’ve hit rock bottom. You’re basically there because your life is not working. To admit that was quite a relief, and then you can go on somewhere.”

The experience has informed a lot of his writing. The main character in his award-winning first novel, So much to tell you, is based partly on memories of a silent girl he met in the psych unit. It is the tender, perceptive story of a girl with severe depression who has not spoken for months, her face and her feelings scarred by an acid attack her father had intended for her mother. Her counsellor tells her that she does not speak because she is afraid to face her emotions about her parents and about herself; they will be a mix of love and hate.

She has lost her identity – her face, her voice, her family, her friends – but by the end of the book has built tentative new connections. Only when she begins to talk do we learn her name, Marina. That was like a baptism of the new person, Marsden wrote later: “For many people adolescence is like that; a search for a new identity built on the realisation that one’s identity as a child has started to dissolve.”

Tony, the nihilistic boy in Miffy, also comes from real-life experiences. Miffy followed a time when Marsden had helped look after a state ward “who was leading a life that I thought was unremittingly bleak and horrifying, and I used to wonder why she was like that, and what was going on in her mind”.

He is irritated by complaints of the book’s grimness. He points out that most teen fiction is lighthearted. “Also, the bigger argument is that I don’t think reality is the problem. I think protecting people from reality is the problem. And to keep young people in ignorance is unforgivable. So you have to help them to come to terms with the world, and that includes the awful aspects of the world.”

What critics failed to understand about the book, he says, “is that Tony’s tragedy is that he lacks honesty and insight and because of that he’s trapped.”

Troubled boys led to Marsden writing his guide to manhood. He says about 20 boys he has taught in schools have died, either from suicide or risk-taking. After one funeral he decided to do something about it.

In Secret Men’s Business – Manhood: The Big Gig, he tells boys that to be a man who is mature, independent and wise takes more than birthdays. He lists 12 steps to a boy achieving manhood, including leaving home, earning his own money, recognising his feelings and experiencing success. Top of the list: defeating his father in a field in which the father used to be superior.

“The part they find the most powerful is the part about defeating your father,” Marsden says. “If I’m talking to a really wild audience ¤ about how, when the moment comes, you’ve got to have the courage and strength to defeat him, suddenly they’re absolutely intent.”
Most of Marsden’s advice on sex would pass muster with any grateful parent: your penis doesn’t rule the world, no one ever died from blue balls, betrayal and casual sex are always bad karma. So what’s with the brothel advice? How can a man who thinks male criminals are damaged children fail to recognise that female prostitutes often have similar histories of child abuse and drug addiction?

“I hadn’t thought that part of it through,” he concedes. “What I was trying to say was at least if you go to a brothel it’s an honest transaction. If you lie to someone to get sex, it’s a dishonest transaction ¤ I’m not saying it’s good to go to a prostitute.”

His book also gives kind, shrewd advice about depression and avoiding drugs and suggests that boys with no father figure find themselves one. But he sees dire problems with the western template for fatherhood.

“You’ve got to read the Bible to understand the fabric of our society,” he says. “There’s a lot of very dark and horrifying episodes in that book. Abraham and his son is just a foul story. And I think there is this pattern; Abraham takes his son off to sacrifice him on the altar, God sends his son to sacrifice him ¤
“Men in Western society have grown up with that as the dominant image of the culture, that fathers send their sons to be killed. That’s with us consciously and unconsciously every day of our lives. It’s a very straightforward message that your father’s gonna nail you to a cross and leave you there to die.

“Why fathers don’t just sacrifice themselves and be done with it is never explained. But I suppose it’s some sort of primeval understanding of the death wish that fathers have for their sons.”
It doesn’t seem quite the moment to ask why he has never had children of his own.

MARSDEN’S classroom on the Tye Estate is an airy log cabin bounded by gum trees and rosellas. On the shelf sits a Pooh poster with the verse, “Pooh’s whole world is the 100-acre wood/ He loves it as much as any bear could.”

Another frame holds a school permission form sent home to parents about one of Marsden’s talks. On it the father of Debbie from 8C scrawled, “I do not give my permission for my daughter to go to listen to an author of a novel. Novel writers are persons with a lawless mind.” An amused Marsden agrees: “All the best novels are subversive.”

The hostility between Marsden and parents is not all one way. When he talks about parents, it’s often with a spurt of irritation at their overprotective or controlling behaviour. He tells the kids about parents who phone about this camp and ask if the staff are trustworthy: “What’s the point of that conversation? Am I going to say ‘Oh no, they’re all paedophiles’ or ‘We specially recruit serial murderers?’ I feel like asking them, “What about your children – are they bullies or drug addicts or thieves?’”

He tells of asking one hairdresser about how parents respond when their kid gets a radical haircut: “The next day the parents are there waving their mobile phones and threatening to get the lawyers.”
For all his talk of revolution, his classes take a conventional form. He sits up the front behind a desk and does most of the talking.

But the content of his teaching is different. He offers the kids freedom. Says Lauren Kenrick, “When I’m at school, my English teacher says you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end, it has to be 1500 words, or you lose marks. John said, ‘Forget all that.’ And that’s how I like to write, from the heart.”

But he also structures their work with practical exercises. He asks them for stories, each student having to say a sentence starting with “I remember”, and then one with “I used to believe”. He comments on each short tale gravely, like a parent admiring the whorls and colours of a child’s treasured seashells. Sometimes he critiques; the penguin story needs more detail to come alive, he tells one girl.

He tells them that people who are unaware of the truth about themselves are funny, like Basil Fawlty, or tragic, like King Lear. He teaches them about voice by making them write a scene in which students answer a teacher’s roll call in ways that illustrate their personalities, and then he responds to each of their characters as if they’re real. The character who blows a raspberry: “He’ll be expelled within a fortnight.” The character who mumbles: “He might be on drugs. I’d be watching his pupils.”

On his desk sits Dr Seuss and Joyce’s Ulysses, for lessons in how to play with words. He had them write a short passage about a storm without using the letter ‘A’, an exercise that frees up the unconscious. Twelve-year-old Michael Biczok wrote, “The storm willed revenge. Every time lightning struck it struck with solid power, with brute force. Clouds frowned down upon the beings below. Fury in solid form.”

At break time the younger ones clamour around him in front of the big photograph of Crosscut Saw, a long ridge of rock in the Australian Alps that he used for the setting of his Tomorrow series. The books are about teenagers who hide out in the bush and become guerilla fighters after Australia is invaded; Enid Blyton meets Alistair MacLean, on one level.

But they are also stories about kids wrestling with growing up – do they keep themselves safe, as their parents would have wished, or do they risk going into town to see if their families are alive? They decide they have to live their own lives now.

His friend and fellow children’s author, Paul Jennings, says of Marsden, “Something really lovely about him is that he doesn’t just write for teenagers but he genuinely has an affection for them and their problems.” He cites the way Marsden got him to run a joint writing workshop at a school in Port Arthur on the first anniversary of the massacre: “It was his idea; nobody paid.”

At day’s end Marsden is tired but cheerful, talking about how teaching kids always energises him: “Makes me feel like I’m doing something valuable.”

The kids have taken off to be fed by his female lieutenants, three young women who cook and care for the visitors. He lounges at his desk in the empty classroom, Coco luxuriating tummy-up on his lap as he runs his fingers through her coat, plucking out burrs.

He’s had a difficult year. There was a heart attack early on – he’s had to give up the chocolates he used to chomp as he wrote – and another health scare more recently; nothing with a nasty prognosis but enough to focus the mind on mortality.”I find it frightening,” he says.

Does he regret that he has no children? “Yeah, I really do. I haven’t given up completely but I think it’s unlikely to happen.” Families are special, he says a bit wistfully.

“This kid told me … he used to go and stay with his grandfather every holidays and he used to hate it, because his grandfather was grumpy and uncommunicative.” The grandfather attacked the boy for reading the first Tomorrow book, saying war was terrible. The boy dared him to read it.

“His grandfather became besotted with the stories and it’s transformed the whole relationship. My eyes were filling when he was telling me.”

What happened that Marsden didn’t settle down and have his own kids? He looks away and leans back. “Most recently I fell in love with someone who didn’t love me, so that’s pretty simple¤

“I’ve had two major relationships. One would have been six years, the other four years. They both sort of fizzled out.” Suddenly he’s impatient. “Oh, I don’t know. How do these things happen?”

But the little boy whose teacher wrote that he would do very well once he got over his daydreaming has achieved a lot. “He’s made a tremendous contribution,” says Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, manager of the Australian Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria.

She sees the Tomorrow series as modern classics: “All the responsibility and action is put back on to young people and he shows how intrepid and responsible and imaginative they can be. It’s a hallmark of his whole world view.”

She concedes, though, that “In some ways he doesn’t always give adults the opportunity to prove themselves; I think perhaps there are more good adults in the world than he makes it appear.”
Jennings takes a milder view. “People say his work’s subversive but I don’t think that’s the word. He has a dark sense of humour, but I don’t think he’s so much against adults as he is on the side of the kids. Someone’s gotta be.”

Maybe the benefits flow both ways. Marsden has a new book out, a fairy tale commissioned by Australia Post to provide pictures for a series of fantasy stamps. In his story, an old man needs healing water from deep in a forest, and it is kids who set out to find it for him.

Do they get it? “If anyone’s going to write a fairy story where they don’t find what they’re looking for and return empty-handed, it’s me,” he chuckles. “But no. They find it.”

Is he cured? “That’s left unresolved.”

First published in The Age.

Meet Virginia, the woman some love to loathe

A newsreader’s mid-life craving for motherhood has struck a raw nerve. Karen Kissane reports.

When Virginia Haussegger wrote about her grief at having missed out on motherhood in her race to a career, she did not expect a flood of responses.

Strangers in the street have said they felt sad for her (“Tears welled up in my eyes and I had to walk away”). She has had more than 70 letters and e-mails, a mixture of the savage and the sympathetic (“Even a few saying I’m praying for you”).

Many confirmed that she was not alone. “I had one woman who I’d worked with over 10 years ago almost in tears over the phone, saying I had no idea how much her story mirrored mine.”

Haussegger has also heard from parents with daughters her age who worry that they might never be grandparents because their daughters see motherhood as a second-rate option.

Haussegger, an ABC news presenter in Canberra, has been a TV journalist for 15 years. Two weeks ago she ignited a furore with an article in the opinion pages of The Age that blamed her “feminist foremothers” for the fact that she was childless as she was pushing 40.

Haussegger wrote that the women who had inspired her to believe that a career would be her greatest fulfilment in life had not warned her about her biological clock – the way her fertility would fade after 35 – because “they were all knocked up” by
their 20s.

The result, wrote Haussegger, is that women like herself who finally realise they do want children find that their chances of conceiving are slim.

Haussegger says she and her partner are reluctant to try IVF because the success rate is low. “As my brother said, `If you were a horse, Virginia, would you put money on you? Nah’.”

The response in articles and letters to The Age has been mixed. “They say the first sign of maturity is when you stop blaming everything on your parents. Grow up,” advised one reader tartly. “As for the biological clock – that didn’t suddenly drop out of the sky in 2002.”

Others pointed out that feminists have always written and talked about motherhood, which was devalued long before the women’s revolution. Still others have written Haussegger off as another gen-X whinger given the world on a platter but still bleating about the menu.

Haussegger herself has been fending off overtures from family-values conservatives who assumed she was a voice in their camp. “One radio commentator said I was a victim of Nazi feminism,” she said.

“I said no, I don’t feel I’m a victim. Certainly I’ve been a beneficiary of feminism. The point I was making about women in my generation is that somewhere along the line we have picked up a message that was devaluing of motherhood.”

She says she is now finding baby “hunger” intensely painful, “to the point where I find it very hard to look at babies. I find it very hard to look at happy family situations. I find I often have to turn away”.

Haussegger is shocked by how primal the longing is, so fundamental that it is beyond rationality. “It goes against everything I intellectually believed. I thought (deciding on motherhood) was about choice, but what I have found is that it chooses you.”

Her ache has not been eased by the sometimes bitter responses to her article about how motherhood corrals women. One woman wrote to The Age that motherhood had left her, at close to 50, with no job, no degree and no superannuation.

Another wrote that there were days she wished she had never had her children: “Can children redeem life’s pointlessness? If I can just get a leg up on this pile of laundry, nappies and paracetamol bottles to contemplate that metaphysical horizon, I’ll get back to you.”

Haussegger says she knows how hard it is to raise small children because she has watched sisters and friends do it. But she believes the fact that women still talk this way about motherhood says something about how society treats mothers. “Women have to make choices that are dramatically life-altering,” she says.

“By and large (parenthood) only causes ripples in men’s lives. It causes tidal waves in women’s careers . . . The sheer truth of gender is that women are forced into `either-or’ choices in a way men are not.”
Haussegger says that in her youth she did not absorb information about the biological clock because she was convinced she would never want children. Some of this resistance, she acknowledges, was because she was determined her life would be different to that of her mother. Her grandfather would not let her mother have a career, and she went on to raise six children.

Later, Haussegger learnt that television current affairs had little room for mothers. At one job interview, the prospective boss told her, “You employ all these women and before you know it they want to go off and have babies.” She says that as a result of her article, one family of five sisters, aged 22 to 32, is discussing how they must plan to fit children into their lives.


Some of the e-mails sent to Virginia Haussegger after her article in The Age.

I just wanted to say how much I appreciated the piece and how I heard what you were saying – I heard some of the pain and I thought it would be dreadful to write such a thing and not at least have that acknowledged. These are painful discoveries.

My heart went out to you because you are exactly where I was a little over 11 years ago. Now 11 years later, my daughter playing in the background as I type this, the nameless emptiness has disappeared.

You are in my prayers for a little one.

What a perverse perspective, and how very petulant of you. I would expect as much from my 15-year-old.

Virginia, though the past cannot be undone I believe the future is full of possibility and hope.

Stop acting like a spoiled, immature brat and start aiming your darts where they belong. Show a bit of backbone.

First published in The Age.