Mar 7, 2009

Getting "The Joke"

I had the great delight today to indulge my inner journalism geek at a day-long symposium at Brisbane's Powerhouse Theatre.

Yes, that's right. A symposium. Girl Clumsy is moving up in the world.

The invitation came from my old alma mater UQ, and the subject was impossible to resist for anyone who likes to peer deep into the dark side of human nature: Twenty Years After Fitzgerald - Did They Get The Joke?

For those of you not in Australia, you should know that the great state of Queensland was presided over for almost 20 years by a Lutheran peanut farmer from Kingaroy named Johannes Bjelke-Petersen. Sir Joh's likes included power, gerrymandering and false piety. His dislikes included civil protest, condom vending machines in universities, unions and journalists. For commentary so sharp you'll need to wear chain mail, I direct you to this copied version of John Birmingham's obituary for Sir Joh.

Joh resigned in 1987, after it became apparent the wheels had well and truly fallen off the gravy train that was his government. By that time, lawyer Tony Fitzgerald had been appointed to head up a judicial inquiry into systemic corruption and abuse of power within the police force and political sphere. "The Joke", as it was known. The Fitzgerald Inquiry report was tabled in state parliament 20 years ago; and its recommendations implemented "lock, stock and barrel". Queensland - while nowhere near perfect - is a better place because of it.

Today's symposium featured many of the journalists whose reports exposed the corruption and hypocrisy of the era: Phil Dickie, Quentin Dempster and Chris Masters, as well as other news people from the era and academics. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed their stories, and their insights into what the life of an investigative journalist was like at that time. I would have dearly liked to have introduced myself to some of them; but an overwhelming sense of inferiority washed over me.

There were a couple of other highlights: Courier-Mail cartoonist Sean Leahy presented a slide show of some of his caricatures of Joh, Russ Hinze, Terry Lewis and other notorious figures of the day. He even drew a picture of Joh, starting with the peanut-shaped head, adding the banana armband and jackboots, and drawing a halo into Joh's hand, as if he were about to place it over his own head. Then, just as you thought he was finished, he quickly flashed his marker pen, and drew a forked tail protruding from Joh's backside. The Devil is in the Detail, after all.

The greatest surprise though was seeing a bloke named Geoff, a creative writer and voiceover artist at Austereo. I hadn't seen him for years, and we had a catch-up over a Corona at lunch (he bought me a Coke; filthy non-drinker I am). One of the afternoon sessions was with an ABC producer who was responsible for the famous "re-enactments" the 7:30 Report used to do to spice up their Fitzgerald coverage (cameras not being allowed in the courts). He ran through the process, and showed a clip of the day Jack "The Bagman" Herbert appeared. He then moved ahead to Sir Joh's own appearance, and described the actor they found to play the Premier as "the best Joh ever".

The clip rolled. The actor was wearing a white-gray wig and beige suit, but the face was instantly recognisable.

I turned to Geoff sitting next to me.

I turned back to the screen to double check.

I turned back to Geoff, reached out, and slapped him on the arm. "Get out!" I whispered loudly. "I had NO idea!"

He just grinned sheepishly, but the producer's call for him to stand to receive a round of applause for his impersonation confirmed it. I got the story out of him later - he was working for a travel bureau back in '88, and somebody (possibly Sarina Russo) had seen him in some sort of play, and recommended him to the ABC producers looking for acting talent. Bang, there is his, Sir Joh-ing it up! Now it became clear exactly why he was there. What a great coincidence.

So, journalism. A marvellous craft, and the people who practice it important guardians of public interest and open democracy. Seminars like today reinforce the need for investment in good journalism; as it's one of the few checks we can have on those in power. It's not perfect, but damn, it's still worth it.


  1. My strongest memories of the time were of it being normal to have your electricity rationed thanks to Sir Joh. It'd go off like clockwork each night depending where you were in Brisbane. People watched the news for details in the same way we watch the weather.

    It was a bit like being in the blitz.

  2. There was a wonderful play at La Boite a couple of years back, based in Fitzgerald times; "Last Drinks", I think. Did you catch it?

  3. Evolution of a sneering remark:

    There is a misconception in the media and academia that the situation as opposed to the people involved in corruption was originally so named “The Joke”. This is because the dishonest made claim to the expression as their own, before and from the witness box so as to say that what they were doing was a ‘Joke’ upon all others not involved.

    Because of this they caused their listeners to misconceive the meaning and therefore to miss the point of the remark entirely.

    The point being that every instance of a corrupt system of things has members that bear a name by which they become known by. Names and symbols delineate people into groups and in some cases those of the group manufacture signals that they keep secret.