Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Book reviews


Published onApr 07, 2024
Book reviews

Crossing the line: The inside story of murder, lies and a fallen hero
Nick McKenzie
Hachette Australia, 2023 pp 463
ISBN: 9780733650437

Two books – two big books – on the same story published within one week of each other, by two of Australia’s most talented and awarded journalists. One towards the end of his career; one mid-career. The story is touted as the ‘defamation trial of the century’ (Masters back cover); ‘one of the greatest military scandals in Australian history’ (McKenzie back cover).

The evidence took years to compile. Masters approached McKenzie in 2017, handing him a file that led to a collaboration ending in an explosive ruling in the 2023 defamation trial. It involved Ben Roberts- Smith, often described as the embodiment of ANZAC mythology; the country’s most decorated war ‘hero’ (Medal for Gallantry in 2006; the Victoria Cross in 2011 and a Commendation for Distinguished Service in 2012). It is a story of intrigue and deception, domestic violence and witness tampering; of murder and war crimes. It is a story of entitlement and narcissism, of multi-billionaire backing and the clash of publishing and broadcast houses. Of abject horror and tragedy. And the all too overdue clean-out of Australia’s elite military squad, the SAS.

This is investigative journalism at its very best for all the right reasons, by two of the country’s most experienced journalists. Chris Masters is a multi-Walkley Award winner. After spending many years embedded with Australian forces in Afghanistan, his military knowledge is profound. The younger Nick McKenzie, named Australian Journalist of the Year four times and winner of the Walkley, Australia’s highest journalism award, fourteen times: a record. McKenzie self-effacingly claims that, as a university student studying journalism, ‘Masters was my hero, a near mythical figure who had revealed some of the most consequential stories in Australian history’ (103). They had worked together some 15 years earlier, when McKenzie was assigned as his researcher.

Both books forensically document the defamation trial – Roberts-Smith taking them and their publishing/broadcast houses, Fairfax and Channel 9, to court. It’s interesting reading both texts, each performing as an echo chamber of the other in terms of facts presented and decisions made. Both texts are thorough and balanced, but there is a calm unfolding in the Masters’ text whereas McKenzie writes fulsomely of his emotions like a roller coaster throughout. Neither style deflects from either engagement or understanding, and both read like a Grisham court/trial thriller. The real horror is what unfolded throughout the trial – a litany of war crimes and inhumanity in the name of the Australian people against some of the most vulnerable peoples in the world at the time – Afghani civilians.

Their first co-written stories appeared in the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times on the weekend of 9-10 June 2018. Headlined in all three papers as ‘SAS day of shame’, Masters writes the story was one that ‘many readers did not want to know’ (98). None of the papers named Roberts-Smith but in finite detail claimed that, in the spring of 2012, an Afghani farmer and father (of six children, his wife pregnant with their seventh at the time) named Ali Jan was handcuffed and kicked from a small cliff by a tall Australian soldier, before being dragged to a tree and executed. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) issued a press release stating that the current accusations had originated in reports ordered by itself – rumours were swirling for years about transgressive and fatal behaviours within the SAS on tour in Afghanistan. Throughout the weekend, further stories summed up initiation rituals or ‘blooding’ (younger soldiers ordered to kill detained Afghanis) and something called The Throw Down – when civilians were killed, dropping a radio or gun beside the body as ‘proof’ of Taliban insurgency allegiance. A radio was placed beside the man executed after being kicked off the cliff.

Competing publishing houses then began a campaign of belittling the stories and upholding the SAS for its bravery and service to the Australian people.

Although Roberts-Smith was not named, he claimed he was identifiable and sued for defamation. His belief in his own legend, the wealth and power of his backers (Kerry Stokes, chairperson of Seven West Media paid all legal expenses, including other SAS witnesses for Roberts- Smith) and his own closely honed arrogance saw him in court three years later. Defamation cases are usually plaintiff-friendly, and perhaps this also bolstered his confidence, but the irony of this boldness is that if he had let the stories go and not sued, in most Australians’ minds, the whole tragic unfolding mostly would have faded away.

It is hard to compile in a short space the ugliness of the campaign Roberts-Smith waged against the journalists, the publishing houses, his own wife and his fellow SAS veterans in the ensuing years after the publication of these stories, running up to the defamation case. There were threatening anonymous letters, burner phones, buried evidence (in his back yard) and false allegations leading to raids by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) on a fellow veteran’s home and workplace. Roberts- Smith was paranoid and he was desperate, compounded by frantic lie upon lie, by himself and his witnesses.

On the other side of the court room, the stress and pressure on the
two journalists to prove the ‘truth’ of their allegations, evidence-based
and irrefutable, was enormous. As journalists, we often know what
we report is the truth, having covered a story from every side and
spoken to as many as we can; proving that in a court of law depends
on your sources taking the witness box and repeating their stories. No
SAS willingly wanted to go against Roberts-Smith; known as a violent
bully, with the ubiquitous ‘don’t rat on your mates’ as counterpoint
to the truth. Only subpoenas saw SAS witnesses take the stand. But
their testimony was powerful and blew holes in Roberts-Smith and his
witnesses’ lies.

But for me, the testimony through an interpreter of four Afghani witnesses from the village of Darwan where Ali Jan was kicked from a cliff before execution on the orders of Roberts-Smith, given remotely via video link to the courts, was haunting. Ali Jan’s nephew Mohammed Hanifa, who was detained with Ali Jan the day he died, was riveting. Hanifa described one man in particular – a ‘big soldier’ with ‘bluish eyes’. He told the court: ‘Ali Jan was kicked ... The soldier kicked him, not with the soles of his feet but with the, the toes.’ He described how Ali Jan rolled down to the river below. ‘Hanifa recalled his terror as he glimpsed two soldiers drag his wounded uncle across the dry creek bed into a clump of vegetation. He then heard gunfire’ (McKenzie 378- 379). After cross-examination by the Roberts-Smith side, Hanifa had more to say. He told the court: ‘... I am a witness, I am not afraid of anybody, even if I die I will tell the truth. This is the Pashto customs. It is the tradition. And this is the law. If you witness something like a crime, you have to testify about it’ (McKenzie 380). His pride and dignity was on display, simply and passionately.

On 1 June 2023, Judge Anthony Besanko delivered his judgement. After 110 days of hearing evidence and counter evidence, he found that Ben Roberts-Smith ‘was a serial war criminal, a compulsive liar and a vicious bully’ (McKenzie 447). In the penultimate chapter titled ‘Truth wins’, taken from the front-page headline of the Sydney Morning Herald the morning after the result, Masters writes: ‘It was an emphatic victory’ (533).

After the judgement was handed down, McKenzie and Masters addressed their fellow journalists on the steps of the Federal Courthouse in Sydney. Both journalists praised the strength of the SAS veterans who finally did come forward and broke the festering code of silence hiding injustice and criminal acts. Masters spoke first: ‘I don’t want people to think of this as a bad day for Australian soldiers. I think of those soldiers who not only had physical courage, but also moral courage.’ McKenzie followed: ‘Today is a day of justice. It’s a day of justice for those brave men of the SAS who stood up and told the truth about who Ben Roberts-Smith is: a war criminal, a bully and a liar’ (448).

In his final chapter, Masters writes: ‘This is an awful story. But like many an awful story, it is also useful, and it allows a reset on all things Anzac ... adding flesh to the bones of a century-old debate about Australian identity ... a story meant to be inspirational became a case study of failure. The hubris, the chest-beating, the rank romanticism that elevated a counterfeit exemplar did nobody, including Ben Roberts- Smith, any favours’ (539-540). McKenzie finishes his text simply, with the words: ‘It was the truth’ (449).

These books are thoroughly and ethically researched and written. There is a transparency of practice throughout both texts – they reverberate with each other, speaking truth to power sorely needed. Both have pages of Notes and Endnotes explaining where material was sourced and how. Their rigour, as only good investigative journalism can produce, is on display. The chapters in both are short and pithy, laden with facts and figures. Masters’ text has a display of photos in its middle. As exemplars of investigative journalism, these texts both are worthy of journalism educators’ reading lists, wherever in the world. I urge anyone with an interest in what journalism practice at its best and shiniest looks like, to read and study these books.

Sue Joseph, Associate Professor, University of South Australia, Adelaide

Reporting royalty: Analysing the media and the monarchy
John Mair and Andrew Beck with Richard Lance Keeble (eds)
Mair Golden Moments, 2023, pp 160
ISBN: 9798395796523

There are two dimensions to the British monarchy. First, we have to recognise that they are ‘the Firm’, a super rich family who have managed to maintain a place for themselves in Britain’s peculiar pseudo-democratic constitutional arrangements that both protects and, indeed, continually increases their fabulous wealth and at the same time provides them with a degree of popular deference that the likes of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson can only dream of.

Their ruthless determination to protect this privileged position should never be underestimated. But they also play a more generalised role in British society, legitimising inequality and privilege, actually embodying the idea that some people are born better than others and deserve to lord it over everyone else. In this way, they are of some use to the rest of the super rich whose increasing power and wealth is the determinant factor in contemporary politics, not just in Britain, but globally. Of course, today the royals have to pretend to be concerned about the plight of the poor and the homeless, but this should not really be taken too seriously. The spectacle of William Windsor, the next in line for the position of King, expressing sympathy for the homeless, while living in a palace with 574 rooms is, of course, positively obscene, but the fact is that for many people the trick works, they are taken in, are actually grateful for this royal concern, indeed profess love for their royal masters. The people at the top really, really care or so we are expected to believe. What part have the media played in sustaining this remarkable state of affairs?

Reporting royalty brings together twenty-four chapters by a wide variety of authors together with a Foreword by Anthony Seldon, Introductions by John Mair and Andrew Beck and an Afterword by John Curtice. It is worth noting here that both Seldon and Curtice together with one other contributor, Trevor Phillips, have received knighthoods and that this particular feudal remnant actually requires that the grateful recipient gets on his knees before a member of the Windsor family whose only real achievement in life was being born. It is difficult to think of anything more degrading, but apparently people queue up for it! Phil Butland’s chapter in the book is particularly good for the way it details all the royal wealth and extravagance that goes with all this. Anyway, what of the book more generally?

Mair characterises it a ‘hackademic’ work and this seems wholly appropriate. It brings together journalists and academics, writing brief contributions from a wide range of perspectives. While personally I found much to annoy me in the book, it was, as always, also useful to confront opinions and attitudes with which one disagrees, and I also learned a lot from it. The book would, I think, be ideal for discussion by a university student seminar, bound to provoke argument and leaving all the participants better informed.

There is some useful history in the volume and while the revelations regarding Edward VIII’s pro-Nazi sympathies were something I was already familiar with, I shall never forget Norman Baker’s incredible account of how George V’s death was brought forward by fatal doses of morphine and cocaine in order to ensure that his demise made the morning papers! One particular episode that is missing from the historical content of the book is worth noticing here: there is no discussion of the Cleveland Street scandal of 1889 that saw royal machinations actually result in Ernest Parke, the editor of the radical North London Press, being imprisoned.

What is particularly interesting, however, is the discussion running through a number of contributions of how media coverage of the royals has changed over the years. Martin Bell writes of how ‘absurdly obsequious to the monarchy’ the media was in the 1960s. This began to change in the 1970s and 1980s and he gives much of the credit to the ITN royal correspondent, Anthony Carthew. Unfortunately, he ends his contribution with a ringing endorsement of the Windors: ‘the monarchy is central to who we were, and now to who we are. ... We will do well to support it, loyally and steadfastly, long to reign over us’. Give that man a knighthood!

The role of the Charles vs Diana episode gets attention in various chapters as does the ongoing Harry Windsor- Meghan Markle furore and its various ramifications. And then there is Andrew Windsor! Certainly, on these occasions, the press seem to have slipped their leash. What is missing from the discussion, however, is an adequate consideration of the part played by Rupert Murdoch, no admirer of the royal institution, in facilitating this. Murdoch is, of course, the journalistic equivalent of syphilis, infecting every newspaper to some extent, not just those he owns, lowering journalistic standards of behaviour everywhere.

There is a chapter written by Charles Rae, a former Sun royal correspondent (he was also the paper’s industrial correspondent during the Wapping dispute provoked by Murdoch’s mass sacking of his print workforce – just saying). He sees the Diana vs Charles episode as establishing ‘open season’ as far as royal coverage in the press was concerned, but after her death the tabloids decided to pull back with editors sitting ‘on stories and photographs they would have rushed into print in the mid-1990s’. As far as Rae is concerned, the whole thing is just a glorified ‘soap opera’ anyway and while he seems completely oblivious to the ideological function that the Windsors play in modern Britain, ‘soap opera’ is not a bad analogy. More useful are Robin Aitken’s discussion of the impact of the Bashir scandal on BBC coverage of the royals and even more so Jason Lee’s revealing account of the media’s reluctance to cover Andrew Windsor’s involvement with Jeffrey Epstein. As Lee puts it: ‘the royal family have been good at quashing stories’, but on this occasion at least some of the story got out with more still to come.

The book comes into its own with superb chapters by Julian Petley, who
writes of how the media have been used to ‘brainwash people. They
have created a stalemate society, where they can enrage the public
over the most mundane and petty things to distract from the crucial
issues’; by Phil Butland, as we have already seen; by Paul Connew who
provides a short but handy account of the Windsor’s wealth; by Andrew
Beck on the appalling GB News, and others. But let us leave the last
word to John Mair referencing the 80-plus-year-old David Dimbleby, book criticising the BBC for not reporting the monarchy’s ‘ability to change tax legislation or the fact that the Duchy of Cornwall doesn’t pay capital gains tax’. Dimbleby, we are told, was shocked ‘at the amount of control the monarchy have over broadcasting covering the royal family’. Enough said.

John Newsinger was a Professor of Modern History and is the author of books on George Orwell, Ireland, the USA and the British Empire

Ethical praxis strengthens the knowledge claims of the profession; it is also absolutely necessary if foreign correspondence is to justify its continuance (18).

Borderland is an inter-disciplinary exploration of the origins and persistent repercussions of Western foreign correspondence on colonised war zones. As well, it is a timely call to action for those practitioners in the journalism and reportage fields to critically interrogate the accepted methods of their work and research and to apply a decolonial lens to their words, their audience, their professional relations and ethics. The key thesis of Australian journalist and academic Chrisanthi Giotis is that the profession of foreign correspondence must reframe their encounters in borderlands and crisis zones ‘as being with an interlocutor whose alterity we respect absolutely’ (237) to avoid the thematisation and exploitation still prevalent in reportage today.

Aside from Giotis’s astute and academically rigorous arguments, Borderland is a fascinating read. While writing this review my father picked up the book as I sat beside him, typing. Neither a journalist nor an academic, he was nevertheless captivated by Giotis’s words, particularly by her elucidation of the power foreign correspondents wield in shaping the cultural, political and social dynamics we can still see in these ‘borderlands’ – leftover from the colonial period. The case study used by Giotis is sub-Saharan Africa, specifically Goma, a city in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Borderland, Giotis asks two key questions: what is the role of contemporary foreign correspondence and how does the profession tell stories of conflict to make connections across time, space, politics and people? (back cover).

The term ‘borderland’ is ‘used to interrogate what is meant by borders in our globalized world’ (5). In reporting on the borderland of the DRC, Giotis argues in her introductory chapter that foreign correspondents have historically and to this day continued to rely on ‘tired ideas and stereotypes’ of sub-Saharan Africa that only work to obscure rather than elucidate ‘the major dynamics of our time’ (3). According to Giotis, the DRC ‘continues to be reported on, and understood, in a way that points to the persistent representational life of the extreme racial stereotypes sown in the colonial era’ (4). It is evident from the outset of Giotis’s investigation – which begins back in 2011, at a Sudanese refugee camp in Kosti – that journalistic imperatives, audience and relationships to the people whose lives ultimately become reported stories, are inextricable from politics and history and, as Giotis argues, require urgent and critical decolonial reframing. Working towards a decolonised practice of foreign correspondence, in which specific words, tropes, intentions behind reporting are interrogated and, ultimately, changed – the main aim is to decolonise the profession of journalism and foreign correspondence.

The book is separated into two parts: ‘Words’ (chapters 1 and 2) and
‘Worlds’ (chapters 3 to 6 and Conclusion). In a sense Giotis is separating
theory from her practice: the initial ‘Words’ chapters help to frame her
subsequent auto- and ethnographic research and feature articles. Yet, as
she points out, the delineation between theory and practice is artificial:
‘reality is much messier’ (22). With a focus on autoethnography, Giotis’s
study goes beyond professional journalistic relational ethics hinged
on language semiotics, communicative architecture and newsroom
decisions (18) to the ‘relational ethical praxis’ (18): how the journalist
functions on the ground, in crisis zones and how these actions contribute to the creation of the story. Giotis’s autoethnographic method reveals

‘that professional ethics are grounded in a myriad of small and large decisions, that borderlands are especially ethically fraught places, and that philosophizing the most basic of reporting is a necessity, so as to strengthen the chances of ethical decision-making in the most complex of situations’ (18).

Giotis’s expansive study of the philosophy of journalism is particularly useful, specifically her inclusion of the work of Levinas and the idea of bearing witness, in relation to the work of foreign correspondents. Giotis argues: ‘Levinas’s philosophy helps us understand the deep ethics involved in the praxis of not rushing out of the helicopter looking for themed others, and in that understanding correspondents could find support to fight that temptation when it arises’ (237). For Giotis, Levinas and his philosophy provide ‘a way to work through the survivor guilt of bearing witness – that is, the burden of seeing unfairness and tragedy, and knowing that you have the luck of being able to walk away’ (238). The process of decolonising the words of war ‘encompasses all aspects of our lives as professionals and human beings’ (241-242). Borderland is an expansive study of the history, philosophy and practice of journalism that transcends Giotis’s case study with its global relevance. Decolonising the words of war is a challenging and all-encompassing process for the journalism field, and Borderland should be mandatory reading for all invested in this critical reorientation.

Dr Tess Scholfield-Peters, Lecturer/tutor, University of Technology Sydney

The Routledge companion to freedom of expression and censorship
John Steel and Julian Petley (eds)
Abingdon, Routledge, 2024 pp 408
ISBN: 9780367205348

‘Freedom of expression is one of the foundational human freedoms,’ write the editors in their Introduction to this brilliantly engaging, multi-faceted collection. It is a sentiment redolent of the high priest of debates about free speech, John Stuart Mill, who closely connected freedom of speech with the very act of thinking itself. And if, by a slight contortion through the history of ideas, we go back further still to Descartes’ cogito, then it is not just that I think therefore I am, but I am because I am free to express what I think.

John Steel and Julian Petley, the editors, state that they offer the book as ‘a guide for the perplexed in this extremely complex and rapidly changing area’ (5). And how right they are about the complexity and the speed of change. Much of that complexity and speed has arisen and continues to be stimulated by digital technology and online fora within which ideas can be expressed (and, just as importantly, can be stifled, monitored and abused). The development of technology and its subsequent impact on who can or cannot play gatekeeper – or censor, or critic – is a theme which recurs through a number of chapters.

Freedom of speech is not an absolute right, and the freedom – like many freedoms – is open to abuse. To put it in a Miltonic idiom, free expression is a liberty and not a licence, and with the liberty comes responsibilities, a point arguably in need of ever-greater emphasis in the ultra-networked digital societies of the 21st century. As the editors make clear in their Introduction, there is a need to be vigilant of those with an agenda that consists of not enjoying freedom of expression but rather of being free from the consequences of that expression.

This is a big book, both literally and in terms of its intellectual and geographical scope. The companion begins with a series of analytical chapters on the evolution of philosophical thinking around freedom of expression. And if, as Alfred North Whitehead said of philosophy generally that it consisted of nothing but a series of footnotes to Plato, then the specific philosophical debates around freedom of expression arguably consist of footnotes to Mill’s On liberty. Mill and John Milton duly inform much of the early chapters’ sophisticated debate, with other key thinkers on the issue of open (and closed) inquiry, such as Montesquieu, Kant and Plato, also well covered.

But this is not a collection of philosophical rumination detached from urgent contemporary debates. In particular, Part Three of the book, entitled ‘Key controversies’, is a stimulating survey of many of the main issues around freedom of expression, with everything from ‘woke’ and ‘cancel culture’ to the free speech controversies caused by the French state’s policy of laïcité (secularism) receiving stimulating attention.

The chapter by Ezequiel Korin and Jairo Lugo-Ocando focusing on Latin America presents a cogent case for freedom of expression meaning little for those whose voice is never heard and, in concert with a number of other chapters, touches on the importance of the positive liberty of populations/electorates having the right to information from a free press. Relatedly, the book is very strong on the phenomenon of market censorship, as Steel and Petley state eloquently in its opening pages:

A theme running through much of this collection is that insufficiently regulated commercial forces can lead to a form of what has been aptly called market censorship. This is in complete contradistinction to the still fashionable idea in certain quarters that ‘deregulating’ media markets will automatically lead to greater freedom of expression in those markets – the so-called ‘marketplace of ideas’. Britain’s highly concentrated national press market, and its much remarked-upon ideological homogeneity and debased journalistic standards, decisively give the lie to this chimera (9).

It says much about the editors’ commitment to truly global representation in the volume that they admit they would have liked more contributions from the Global South and outside the Anglosphere, including Russia, Hungary and Poland, where free speech is significantly imperilled. But they are perhaps being a little too hard on themselves. This companion is a timely and wide-ranging study of one of the key issues of civilisation and deserves to stimulate further debate across the world.

Tom Bradshaw, Associate Professor, University of Gloucestershire

Literary journalism in colonial Australia
Willa McDonald
Cham, Switzerland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2023 pp 290
ISBN: 9783031317880

Since global literary journalism studies took off in the early 2000s, scholars have been discussing their national traditions and related idiosyncrasies. They have tracked historical sources, outlined patterns of influence and identified networks of interaction, with a view to engaging in a truly international conversation with other cultures. Fascinating projects have resulted from such exchanges and led to compelling initiatives in research and education. Australia is no exception: scholarship in literary journalism studies is now solidly established and thriving. A new collection devoted to the field – called the Palgrave Studies in Literary Journalism series, launched by Australian editors Sue Joseph, Willa McDonald and Matthew Ricketson – showcases volumes produced not only at home, but also abroad, and it is expanding.

Literary journalism in colonial Australia, by McDonald, one of the series editors, is the latest volume. She has already published on Australian reportage from both a historical and a contemporary perspective. A brief history of literary journalism in Australia, co-authored with Jennifer Martin, frames the wider production of literary journalism in Australia and points to important milestones in the field. Also, her chapter featuring Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains, a damning report on Australia’s detention policies towards refugees, is a case in point (2022). In her new monograph, McDonald examines literary journalism in the colonial period and until Federation in 1900. It is essential reading, as it documents the practices, uses and specificities of the Australian tradition.

The text is organised in twelve chronological chapters. Each piece is self- standing and copiously supported with references, a testament to the author’s extensive archival work and elaborate research. Each chapter is tightly connected to the others, taking the reader on a journey of discovery. While I was perusing the book with literary journalistic lenses, it struck me that its content exceeded what met my disciplinary eyes. McDonald’s book charts unexplored territories in Australian literary journalism, but also in literary and journalistic historiography. Indeed, I learnt as much about Australia’s colonial history as about literary journalism through this important book. Not that surprising, as literary journalism aims to grasp the intricacies of a given culture, apprehended from an experiential perspective. Most important to the context was ‘the quest for a representative national character’, and increasingly so as Federation was looming (p. 105).

I could not agree more with Richard Lance Keeble’s assessment of McDonald’s endeavours, as presented in his Foreword to the volume. Commendable are the author’s efforts at pushing the boundaries of what constitutes literary journalism and at challenging well-established criteria to make space for less conventional forms of journalism, such as letters and journals penned by women and convicts who chronicled life at the time of settlement. Focusing on such devalued, albeit truthful, chronicles of real events, provides an invaluable counterpoint to the dominant, colonial narrative. Reading from a European perspective, I was particularly impressed by the pioneering journalism that resulted from the freedom granted to the press and by the subsequent reporting on urban slums, the ‘blackbirding’ trade in the Pacific area and the insights into frontier wars, as well as the Boer War.

In Literary journalism in colonial Australia, McDonald makes the case
for greater inclusivity: an invitation ‘to go back to the beginning’ (p.
6) and scrutinise non-fiction writing at large. Indeed, her investigation reveals a plethora of characters and places, such accounts combining
‘historical value’ and ‘fascinating narrative’ whose appeal still matters
today. The stories of the arrival in Australia of its first printing press in
1788, which nobody could use, and of convict George Hughes who
taught himself how to operate it, as well as the capture of national hero
Ned Kelly, covered by armed journalists in cahoots with the police during
the so-called Glenrowan siege in 1880, are more than anecdotes. They
crucially fill cracks in Australian history.

McDonald, thus, deserves credit for producing a comprehensive study of literary journalism that has tremendous historical value to understand the nature and the stakes of the press in the colonial era and how it maintained a vital connection to Britain while committing itself ‘to building an Australian perspective’ (p. 26). Striking is her meticulously illustrated development of the press through times, bursting with creative content, or paralleling developments in Britain and America, such as with the ‘penny press’, ‘new journalism’ or sensationalist forms akin to ‘stunt journalism’. Journalism in the colonial era was ‘the province of men’, not women, who did write nonfiction, McDonald insists, but in ‘letters, memoirs, and sketches’ (p. 31), which prompts her to scrutinise such forms. As for the Aboriginal populations, they were stigmatised as ‘the problem’ in the colonial press (p. 27).

The primary sources consulted – testimonies, letters, journals, pictures – are impressive. McDonald’s efforts at parsing them both synchronically, in the colonial context, and diachronically, with an awareness of current debates on identity politics, is laudable. Time and again, the author connects her rationale to debates relative to literary journalism as a theoretical field, evidence that she is not examining the Australian tradition in a disciplinary vacuum.

Yet this is where I feel like challenging the author’s unquestioned allegiance to Anglo-American traditions of literary journalism. Of course, no accusation of cringing here; rather, the realisation that McDonald’s book carves an important space for a truly Australian tradition that informs us of its unique past, many original features and innovative enterprises. Why then shoehorn her precious material into ‘a modern theoretical framework’ (p. 9), when her treasure trove exceeds the scope of such a frame. Her corpus is calling for a more imaginative approach to Australian literary journalism. Thus, I am not convinced that comparing Tom Wolfe’s erratic use of punctuation in the 1970s, which has become one of the household features of his New Journalism, to Margaret Cathpole’s ungrammatical writing, is relevant (p. 28). Similarly, equating John Stanley James’s humorous style with gonzo (p. 150) creates some unnecessary dissonance. Such tentative parallels are risky.

As a result, one feels like ditching the Anglo-American yardstick to focus on the invaluable and unique features of Australian literary journalism. McDonald understandably brings to the table many key elements discussed in literary journalism studies, such as the fact-fiction divide or the objectivity-subjectivity debate. But the originality of her primary sources almost nullifies such concerns. What emerges is the documentary nature of such literary journalism. She also makes the case for immersion as a unique conduit to reach ‘the readers’ emotions and intellect’ (p. 4). But while she proves extremely cognisant of the techniques used in literary journalism, ‘including tone, rhythm, language and structure’, she could easily free herself from such considerations and delve deeper into the character of Australian literary journalism.

Indeed, many situations described by McDonald are unique and thus invite questions: the dearth of publishing venues worthy of the name, the focus on localism – local content, local authors – that proved an essential ferment to the field, or the importance of letter writing to communicate with Britain. ‘Epistolary literary journalism’, a term the author borrows from Katrina J. Quinn, appears as a distinctive feature of the tradition, even more so as some letters, penned by women convicts, were published in papers (p. 49). Or the so-called ‘novel with a purpose’, a designation used to describe Arthur James Vogan’s scathing reports on the violence perpetrated against indigenous populations. His graphic descriptions, verging on fiction, aimed ‘to break the silence’ on such atrocities (p. 78) but they were resisted by the public due to their sensationalism. Yet Vogan and Christina Smith, the latter through her sketches, did raise awareness about the plight of First Nations people.

Just as McDonald invites us to look beyond traditional newspapers and publishers to find instances of literary journalism – i.e., letters and journals by convicts and women – a similar distancing could be operated from well-established scholarship – definitive categories, canonical criteria – to better apprehend reportorial and literary material from colonial Australia. The author is well aware that people in Australia – prisoners in the nineteenth century and, later, migrants – wrote and are still writing the country’s narratives. McDonald always approaches the past with a conscience for the present: Boochani’s prison writing (2018) shows genuine literary and journalistic qualities that resonate with texts penned years ago and proves to be a searing indictment of detention policies today.

In conclusion, Literary journalism in colonial Australia is an indispensable
contribution to the field of literary journalism studies. The amount of
meticulous research and deep discussions conducted by McDonald make
it a stimulating addition to the existing scholarship. While brimming
with captivating information on the Australian context, the book could
at times have been more detached from the restrictive constraints of
any ‘modern literary journalism’. Indeed, some analyses grounded
on contemporary theories tend to obliterate some other, enthralling
considerations relative to the figures of Australian literary journalism,
such as the ‘Vagabond’ (p. 151) or even ‘female Vagabond’ (p. 159).
Who knew that Nellie Bly, a worldwide sensation for her undercover
coup in a New York madhouse in 1887, had a precursor in Australia, named Catherine Hay Thomson?

Ultimately, while McDonald’s book reveals how important the field of literary journalism has been ‘to the building of modern Australia’ (p. 267), it also triggers questions about the beliefs it may have consolidated, the myths it may have debunked or possible blind spots. While the author shows genuine concern for unheard voices in the grand narrative of nation-building, one is also intrigued by the existence, albeit short-lived, of an Aboriginal newspaper – The Aboriginal or Flanders Island Chronicle – whose editors did voice some resistance, but that was followed by a century-long silence. All in all, McDonald’s Literary journalism in colonial Australia is an inspirational reading for anyone exploring not just the Australian tradition but also transnational contexts and contacts.


Boochani, Behrouz (2018) No friend but the mountains, London, Picador

Martin, Jennifer and McDonald, Willa (2023) A brief history of literary journalism in Australia, Bak, John S. and Reynolds, Bill (eds) The Routledge companion to world literary journalism, London and New York, Routledge pp 41-58

McDonald, Willa (2022) Communication across borders: Testimonial memoir as literary journalism for mobility justice, Alexander, Robert and McDonald, Willa (eds) Literary journalism and social justice, Cham, Switzerland, Palgrave Macmillan pp 225-242

Rose, Michael (ed.) (2020) For the record: 160 years of Aboriginal print journalism, with a foreword by Marcia Langton, London and New York, Routledge

Note on the contributor

Isabelle Meuret is a senior lecturer at the Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. She teaches English, the cultures of the Anglophone world and narrative journalism. Her research interests are literary reportage and narrative medicine. She recently contributed to the Routledge companion to American literary journalism (2020) and to the Routledge companion to world literary journalism (2023). Her work has also appeared in Literary Journalism Studies and Literature and Medicine.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?