As the world turns

As the world turns

Amid political upheaval in Thailand, our columnist reflects on a career in journalism, and on a cherished colleague

Greetings from Sydney, capital city of New South Wales, and centre of the world if your world happens to be halfway down the Australian east coast.

Today it feels more like in the vicinity of Antarctica. One of the pitfalls of living in Bangkok is that we get used to living in temperatures suitable for an oven. Bangkok has an average daily temperature of 33C, and for the past month or two that has felt more like 40. Then you hop on a plane to a destination where the arrival temperature is 12. You should hear my voice, dear reader. I am husky and hoarse and sound quite attractive in an antipodean way.

More importantly, I leave Thailand and everything upends in an instant. Prayut is the prime minister again, Abhisit quits, and the Democrats form an unholy alliance. Then there is the allocation of spoils between the coalition parties. I'm sorry, did I just use "spoils"? I meant cabinet posts. It is good to know that, despite a five-year hiccup of military rule, Thai politicians have taken up almost exactly, to the letter, where they left off. One wonders why we even bothered with the coup in the first place.

Oh but I digress. Here I am in Sydney, bustling international city, a quick 48-hour stopover on the way back to Bangkok.

Every year Australia dispenses its Order of Australia awards, presented to Aussies who excel in their chosen fields.

We've been doing it since 1975; they replaced the British honours. Australia doesn't do knighthoods and such, though in 2014-2015 one of our more rabid right-leaning prime ministers (one of the seven who have assumed the position in the last decade) restored knighthoods. Then he went and presented the very first knighthood to Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth's husband, proving that indeed, we Australians (or more specifically, Tony Abbot) can be truly clueless.

These days Order of Australia medals are announced twice a year. The first is on Australia Day on Jan 26, while the second batch is announced on the QE II's birthday. That holiday fell last Monday -- and one of them went to one of my very dearest friends, Lisa Sweeney, hence my quick trip to Sydney, to congratulate her on her success.

Lisa's story is an interesting one. She began her journalism cadetship around the time I did, more than 35 years ago, when one had to apply to a newspaper, rather than attend university, if one wanted to be a reporter. After finishing high school she applied to The Sydney Telegraph to be a cadet journalist, and when she called the chief of staff to follow it up she was told that she couldn't be a cadet.

"Why not?" Lisa asked.

"Because you're a woman," the chief of staff replied.

It is difficult to believe that just a little over three decades ago, that was the prevailing belief in the journalism world. So outraged was newly graduated Lisa that she wrote a letter to Ita Buttrose, editor of the hugely-popular magazine Women's Weekly, complaining about it. To her surprise she received a reply from the editor, sympathising with her, and wishing her well on her quest to become a journalist.

Six weeks later a journalist unexpectedly quit at Women's Weekly. Imagine Lisa's surprise when she got a call from Ita Buttrose herself, asking if she wanted a job. Clearly Lisa's letter had struck a chord in the famous editor.

And so Lisa's career began, and what a wonderful career it was as well, championing women's rights in journalism, as well as forging an admirable career in radio in Australia, hence her Order of Australia.

Her entry into journalism was a little like my own -- accidental, unintended and unorthodox.

While Lisa was pitting herself against the wall of chauvinism in the Sydney media world, I was in Queensland in my second year studying journalism at the Queensland Institute of Technology (now Queensland University of Technology). While studying, I landed the assistant-editor position at the university student newspaper, a fortnightly publication called The Planet.

Two of us put out that 32-page newspaper. Our deadline was 12 noon every second Tuesday, and it was a race against time to get the thing to the printers. The editor and I would start assembling the paper at 12 noon Monday and have it finished by 12 noon on Tuesday.

That's right: we went all through the night, 24 hours, to get the paper finished. It was such a relief to get the thing sent off that, once gone, the adrenalin would go too, and more often than not I would end up falling asleep at 12.01pm, sometimes even while standing up.

I had a lecture at 1pm every Tuesday, and the lecturer was the editor of Queensland's morning newspaper. The subject was newspaper journalism. This was my very favourite subject, but 15 minutes into the lecture and I was snoring. This was incredibly embarrassing for me. More often than not I skipped the lecture to go home and sleep out of sheer exhaustion.

I felt so bad about this -- missing class and snoring when I did attend -- that I finally got the nerve to go and see the editor 10 minutes before class. I apologised for missing so many classes and falling asleep. I explained why. I told him I knew it was no excuse, and study came before doing the newspaper. He nodded and thanked me for letting him know.

Two weeks later after a class, he called me aside.

"There are jobs going for cadet journalists at the newspaper," he said. "I think you should apply."

A month later, I had a full-time job as a cadet journalist.

It would be a year before that editor explained the truth that despite my bad attendance and snoring, he was impressed by a student who was willing to work non-stop for 24 hours to meet a deadline to put out a newspaper. That was enthusiasm and dedication. I had no inkling my humble apology would end up being the one characteristic that separated me from everybody else.

In Lisa's case, she chose not to take the victim role and instead moved forward in her life. Her action ultimately led to her first employment opportunity. Imagine if she had accepted that old chief of staff's comment, and, in a fit of pique, chose instead to pursue a career as a fruit and vegetable vendor in Coles' supermarket. Life is forever throwing up challenges, such as that phone call she made to the chief of staff all those years ago, but she chose not to be defeated. She did not wallow on a bed of outrage and victimhood. Instead, she took the bull by its horns.

Last Monday Lisa was recognised for her life's work. So, too, coincidentally, did Ita Buttrose, that editor of Women's Weekly from all those years ago who was impressed by the teenager who expressed her desire to work in a predominantly male field.

I was so proud to be there when Lisa was honoured for her outstanding work in radio. The thought occurred to me that both Lisa and I have been rewarded for our lengthy careers. This week she received an Order of Australia. And my reward? Well, I live and work in the best place on Earth, don't I?

Andrew Biggs

Regular Freelance Writer

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