Down Memory Lane Part 3
By Juergen Corleis [1929-2011]
With the long line of women presidents Joelle Dietrich mentioned in part 2 of Down Memory Lane I was sure that women would be best for the job. Unforgettable how Joelle introduced and welcomed Alexander Downer with her beautiful French accent when he came to speak about the outrageous French atomic tests. And unforgettable it was, too, how Esther Blank managed tricky situations with charm and diplomatic bravado. Ruth Pitchford, who could only serve one term, also was an excellent president. So why shouldn’t we stay with women? There was no willing one around when Ann Oakford, our experienced secretary, persuaded me to stand for the office. I had been treasurer for two years, and if my predecessors had not left us with some reserves the FCA would have gone broke. A promised sponsorship deal did not materialize during my watch, and we were in deep trouble. The problem was that neither the State nor the Federal governments took us really seriously. The International Media Centre in Margaret Street, established under the previous Labor government, was to be shut down – we had been able to delay this until the end of the Olympic Games – and the loss of that facility was imminent. That was the situation in August 2000, when I was elected president with a fabulous board: Joelle as VP, Esther as treasurer, Chris Zinn as secretary and Sid Astbury, Agneta Didriksen, John Shaw and Maggie Scully also on the board.
We decided to write a letter to Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to implore him to keep the International Media Centre (IMC) going. John Shaw wrote the first draft, others had some input too, and Neena Fudala – then director of the International Media Center – gave it the final and diplomatic brush-up. It was sent off on October 29th, 2000. After praising the unqualified success of the Olympic Games and the IMC we had written:
“Just because the flame has gone does not mean there is no continuing role for a central agency to assist the visiting media, and give a focus for the resident correspondents. In the need and scope for professional follow-up, the IMC would seem more relevant now than ever”. And: “The IMC is not a mere lunching spot for members of the FCA. It is an asset to manage in an increasingly connected and all too often confused world and after five years service has already proved its worth for all stakeholders”.
We received an intermediate reply, not from Mr. Downer but from Ian Wilcock, First Assistant Secretary, Public Diplomacy, Consular and Passports Division. On December 11th Wilcock informed us “that the department has decided to restructure the IMC and relocate it from its present premises to the department’s NSW State office in William Street, East Sydney” Wilcock assured us “that the department fully recognises the important role which foreign correspondents can play in projecting internationally an accurate and balanced image of Australia”. The IMC at Margaret Street closed down shortly after. The new office did not have the facilities we had previously enjoyed, like workstations, broadband connections and a tv studio. I joked with Nina Fudala, the IMC director, about the location, which I would call “Wilhelmstrasse”. This happened to be the seat of the German Foreign Office until 1945. Berlin’s foreign correspondents were regularly called there to be assisted in reporting correctly! Being a child of Allied re-education times, when the Germans were taught to take democracy seriously, I grew up with the ideal that nations, in their own interest, should assist media organizations, though with no strings attached, and that the government of the day ought not seek any advantage from taxpayer’s money spent to subsidize them. Exactly this has been established in Germany after the experiences of the past. The Federal Press Conference (it is equivalent to the Parliamentary Press Gallery) and the Foreign Correspondents Association host press conferences and briefings on premises rented with substantial state allocations. They invite whomever they want – a privilege not granted at the Australian “International Media Centre”.
I saw it as my primary task to achieve something on the line of the German example, gain recognition for the FCA and eventually find a home for it. This was the main topic of my first speech as president at the annual general meeting of the FCA in August 2001. During the Olympic Games our membership had risen to more than 200, but I still had to announce an increase in membership fees, due to the lack of sponsorships and our dire financial situation. “We recorded some good achievements, but there were failures as well” I said. “We were unable to get many of the speakers we had targeted for our Newsmaker Luncheons. John Howard, for example, had addressed us twice before he became Prime Minister, but was not available ever since, for the past 6 years. And in a twist of irony Kim Beazley was not available because John Howard was not on our agenda”.
“What does this tell us? Simply that we are not given the attention we deserve. We are an organisation representing some very influential people, but for too long we have taken it for granted that politicians and their bureaucrats would be aware of that. They are not.”
“We, the Foreign Correspondents in Australia, do need an International Media Centre. To meet there, pick up information, gain access to news sources. The lack of such an institution has made many things much harder for us over the past 6 months. What we need is better access to news stories, professional contacts which help us to file news, and facilities from organisations which are interested in media exposure”.
During the Olympics the International Media Centre in Margaret Street was replaced by the Sydney Media Centre at Pyrmont, which offered vast facilities for the international media. It provided information on Australia, supplied photos, organised excursions, gave away theatre tickets. The state government and private enterprise did everything they could to make Sydney 2000 an outstanding success and to please the thousands of journalists who had descended on the city. Even bridgeclimb was for free! I am mentioning this as our members had a really good time.
Afterwards and without facilities we struggled along. We had fewer newsmaker luncheons now, as with the introduction of GST in 2000 dining prices rose above the 25 Dollars we used to charge (even leaving a small margin for the FCA!). Accor Hotels supported luncheons with Jeff Clark of ATSIC and Macquarie Bank economist Bill Shields. Briefings included the immigration minister, the quarantine service and NSW Tourism. The Blue Mountains City council invited us for a memorable two day stay to mark the area’s world heritage listing. We also travelled to Orange and Bathurst. Plans to visit Tasmania and Victoria were under way. Sponsored “Familiarisation tours” would become a major benefit for our members.
I was re-elected as president in August 2001. Geoffrey Lee Martin became Vice President, Mark Chipperfield honorary secretary, Agneta Didrikson treasurer. Also on the board: Stuart Adamson, Vassili Romantsov, Sumega Agarval and Jackie Woods. To find a home for the FCA remained the main task. Earlier in the year I had talked to Pamela Fayle, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs. She told me that it had been decided to establish a new IMC at Angel Place, near Martin Place. It would finally be opened in January 2002 – but what a disappointment it was! The “Centre” consisted of two tiny rooms with one workstation. We could, however, use the State Offices’ conference room, provided it was not booked for something else. Frustrated, I went public. Quentin Dempster interviewed me for “Stateline” on March 1st, 2002. He asked: “What do you think is the reason why the Federal Government is treating you like this?” and I answered “because foreign correspondents, as a rule, are foreigners and have no vote. Nor have the people they are reporting to”.
The interview was well received. I remember going with Agneta Didrikson to Macquarie bank a few days later, to ask for an extension of their sponsorship. On the way I warned Agneta not to mention our issue with Canberra, as the bank was pretty close to the Liberal party. But they brought it up, agreed with us and promised another 25 000 Dollars over the next two years. The press secretary to Michael Egan (then Finance minister in NSW) offered to try to find room for the FCA in Parliament house. This, however, did not work out, as the president of the Parliamentary Press Gallery objected. But the State Trade and Investment Centre came to our help and provided facilities for briefings.
I will not name them all, just two of them. Philip Ruddock, then Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, had already addressed us a few times, evidently eager to tell the world that Australia had to be tough with “Illegal arrivals” and that it saw asylum seekers as a threat to national security. Many of us were already reporting critically on the detention camps, children behind barbed wire and other human rights abuses, as we saw it. Ruddock appeared unmoved by claims that Australia’s brilliant image of the Olympic days was fading away, Europe was about to follow Australia’s example, he retorted in Interviews. It was time to tell him what most of us thought. I introduced him at a briefing in May 2001 with a few words which I quote unabridged and unchanged:
“Welcome to our members and guests, and a special welcome to our speaker, Philip Ruddock, minister for immigration. It is not necessary to introduce you, Minister. You have given us the honour of speaking to us on various occasions, and we are about to be briefed on Australia’s new immigration rules.
Some of them are surely controversial, as were some aspects of the Minister’s policy over the last years. We do not complain about this, on the contrary. Controversy is always something worth to report about. We owe many stories we filed to the Minister. And we do appreciate that he is happy to talk to us and answer our questions – being aware that his policy has been criticised by the media of many western democracies. We do understand that Australian domestic policies are behind one of the harshest regimes on asylum seekers in the western world. It may attract voters here, but there is growing uneasiness in the international community. We are their ears and eyes. So let us listen to the Minister for immigration. Welcome, Mr. Philip Ruddock!”
Ruddock stormed to the rostrum like a wounded bull. “I reject your introduction in its entirety” he retorted. Departing from his prepared speech, which had already been handed to us, he argued that he was a very caring person. Unfortunately none of us recorded it. Reading my introduction now, 6 years later, I think it was mildly worded and polite. The Ministers rejection gave away what he thought of independent reporting.
The highlight of briefings in the FCA history was to be an event with Desmond Ball, Professor of Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, who would talk to us about a number of defence and security related topics. By sheer coincidence it was scheduled for September 12th, 2001, which of course was still 9/11 in the USA. Ball was just as surprised by the events as we all were. (even though New York’s World Trade Centre had been attacked before and was an obvious target for terrorists). He tried to find some reason why American security agencies had been unable to learn about the plot in time, as so many people were involved in the synchronised attacks. “Perhaps the Americans relied too heavily on technology”, he speculated. “It appears they did not have their agents amongst the terrorists. It is imperative to have men on the ground, electronic surveillance alone is not sufficient”. As our discussion was to be “off the record”, it was not taped. We did not report on it, but had the background knowledge to file stories on the forthcoming Australian alliance with the United States in its “War against Terror”.
Towards the end of my two year term tragedy struck the FCA. Ann Oakford, our indispensable secretary, suddenly died in May 2002. Our affairs were in Chaos, as no one on the board could replace her. We did not know how to operate her database and had to reconstruct it from scratch. But worst was the personal loss. She was the FCA’s “cement”, as Joelle Dietrich put it, “a tireless worker for the FCA” in the words of Geoffrey Lee Martin. “Without you the times ahead will be much tougher” I said at her funeral. In the following months board members had to do the secretary’s work. And then it was time to elect a new board and president. Women were best for the job, I still thought, and we found a willing one in Agneta Didriksen.