Australian Biography

Elizabeth Riddell - full interview transcript

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They've been two important parts to your work in your life. One of them has been journalism and the other has been poetry. I wonder if you could tell me why you were so committed to journalism. What it was about journalism as a practice that attracted you so much, why you felt it was so important?

Well, I had to have a job and in New Zealand I would have had ... I would have become a secretary, joined the typing pool, whatever you had. And this was a chance to write. I don't think people of my age were in the sort of frame of mind that they thought writing and journalism were different. Which they've turned out to be different. But that's the influence of television, isn't it? That's turned that out. So I was just working. And what I really wanted to do, what I took seriously, was writing poetry but journalism was a way to earn a living, and it got gradually better. I had better jobs and better times. And I enjoyed it.

What did you like most about journalism?

The excitement. Going somewhere. Doing something. I was always nervous of interviews. I think interviewing is terrifying and if it doesn't terrify the person who's doing the interview, it's not going to be any good. You can't go in there with all guns blazing and inform the person you are interviewing what he or she is thinking. So I have always been nervous of interviewing and if I started again tomorrow I would still be nervous of it, to get it right. I think its very hard to get it right. But that became a great staple of my journalistic career. I have an ingratiating manner, which may have helped me too. And I got a certain slickness which helped me. There's a slickness and a theatrical thing in me, that has always helped as a journalist. A show-off thing. It always helped me. I didn't make friends. People always say, 'You meet such interesting people'. You are interested in them, but they are never interested in you again after you've interviewed them.

When it came to actually writing the papers, the style that was used in those days and the ways in which you went about writing up a story, was that something you paid a lot of attention to?

Yes. And you were made to pay a lot of attention to it. There was a man on the Telegraph called ... the editor of the Telegraph, a man named Brian Penton and he insisted on the active voice. That is, you did not say, 'It seems that so and so ...', you said, 'So and so dropped dead this morning'. is what you wrote. And he made a great difference to Australian reporting. Not to journalism perhaps, not to feature writing, but he made a great difference. The active tense [voice?] is what he liked and he wouldn't have anything else. And I wrote the way it was expected of me but I was always able to. I was very lucky with editors. They always used to let me also have my own style. Not opinions, of course, because I didn't have any opinions in those days, but my own style. As they say, 'They gave me a go'.

When you say you didn't have any opinions in those days, do you mean that they weren't overt in your work or that you didn't have any?

I think I had a few but they were very ... my own sort of opinions for dinner table talk. But in your work you didn't have opinions. You simply wrote the story. You didn't have opinions. You got the names, date ... and dates right and you didn't have opinions. You reported. You reported and you were supposed to have great typing skills and you were supposed to do this number of short hand words - words in short hand. And I must say that the newspapers made you go to those schools, whatever they were called, and I never learned. I never learned to type and I never learned short hand, but I learnt to write very fast. And now they put their tapes on the table and you get it right.

What do you think of the changes that have occurred in the style of newspapers over the period that you've been working?

Well it's good and bad. But the opinion part, of course, I think is a bit overdone. But there are stars. I don't see why the person who writes the story is more important than the story. The celebrity cult is the thing I don't like in newspaper reporting. Now you sweated blood to get a by-line once. Now the by-line comes automatically. It's a straight story: so and so did something or other, and it's signed by somebody. Well you'd never get your name on that. You fought for your by-line. And I think if by-lines are so prevalent, what's the good of having a by-line now?

What about the ethics of journalism? When you were doing your stories, where you went and ... the human interest stories, where you went and ...

The gangster's moll.

That's right. Did you think a lot about questions of intrusion and privacy?

Yes. I thought about them a lot but as a rule, people want you to come. They're longing to tell you about something. I've been invited into places, with the corpse on the bed. It's given me quite a turn, but it didn't seem to worry the relatives at all. That's frequently when somebody has been in a dreadful accident, like a cave-in at a mine or something. The dead ... the body will be taken to the cottage, the miner's cottage, and it will be laid out on the bed and the relatives will be eating corn beef and salad in the next room and you find yourself taken in to look at the body. Well they're often very nice people, dead or not. But it's ... it's not my favourite thing. And never was. But I've done it often enough. I don't know why I should think of my life as covering accidents, but accidents are so much a part of television and journalism, you know. Aren't they?

Hmm. And what about in relation to the whole area of commenting on public life that is supposed to be job of the fourth estate in a democracy? Do you feel that that has been taken as seriously now as it was then? What changes ...

It was always taken very seriously. It was taken in leaders and editorials. The run of the mill journalist didn't have opinions about public life. You took down a politician's speech as well as you could and that was it. But the opinion of the newspapers, and supposed to be very influential on the community, was in the editorials. And now it's right through the paper and I never ... my lot never had opinions about ... We didn't write opinions into stories.

You said that you were a better journalist than Blue.

I was a different kind of journalist.

What kind?

Well I was as I said, I think, I was a sob sister. I think I was a better journalist than Blue. I don't know. I think I was.

I was going to ask you what you meant by that?

Yes. What do I mean by that? Well, I was a better writer. I was a better writer. That' s all. He was a very good journalist, with very good credentials and then he became a very good PR and he was a good ... he was a good news editor. He was very good, I thought. He took a sort of an interest in sport, which gave him an extra thing that I didn't have as I've never been the slightest interested. I've covered sport. There's even a book out now, called I think The Great Game. It's a book of short pieces about cricket and I'm in that, but I'll tell you what it was. Why I was in it was because it was a women's cricket team. They used to come from England. Maybe they still do. It was an oddity - that's why I reported it. I would only be reporting oddities in sport, whereas he could report a great event.

Later in your life [coughs] ... Later in your life your opinions became more important because you were doing a lot of reviewing of books and so on. Did you find that aspect of journalism more interesting than the straight reporting, when you had to evaluate other people's work?

I just got pushed into doing it. I just got pushed into doing the book ... Book reviews are regarding as simply something you put in the paper because it's expected of newspapers to run book reviews and publishers don't advertise and frequently proprietors get quite annoyed at the space that is given to book reviews, because: why do we give all this to books, we say. The publishers don't advertise. You see travel advertises, that's different. There's a lot of travel space now because tourist agencies are great advertisers. But the book thing was also rather peculiar. You would take a book that was in the news and you would gut it. And you might give it two pages without paying the publisher or the author. I was a great book gutter. That was a thing I was told to do. And I never thought about that - how mean it was to the writer.

You also had a period where you were very well known on radio. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

It was very funny. It was the great radio shows with Jack Davey and the other man - Dyer. It was a great period for radio programmes, of course, for soaps and for panel games. And I first went on a Jack Davey quiz called, I think Any Questions or something, where four of us answered questions. And a guest. The guest could get a free trip on a ship to England. We were paid a small amount. And at the same time they were starting a thing called Leave it to the Girls, which was a sort of Dorothy Dix of radio and it was done to real letters. We might have started the first programme with letters that the producer would have said, 'Write a letter. I want it to go on the air and the girls have got to answer it'. There were these four girls and we answered it and it was absolutely genuine. And we had ... we had a presenter, who tried to change our minds about things. A man who used to sit and say, 'Oh, I wouldn't do that. Why doesn't say so and so', and we were adamant and we really stuck to it and we really answered them truthfully. And that ran for a long time. That was a great success.

Did you have a particular role to play on the panel?

I was the cynic. I was the cynic. There was the great Joan O'Neil who used to say, 'Why don't you sit down. Why doesn't the family sit down together, around the table and talk this out', and I would say, 'Oh, Joan nobody sits down round the table and talk something out. You talk about in the car, leaving the party. That's when you would have your real discussions'. She believed in the family. You see, I don't believe in the family.

Why not?

Oh well I think the family, can be okay but it can be very intrusive. The family leans on you. And I don't always trust the family. They want you to do what they want you to do. I'm not a great family believer.

Your own family haven't really provided you with a perfect model, have they?

No. If there is such a thing. But ... You made it.

So you were also known and very much cultivated as part of groups of people who met and talked about ideas and interesting things. I hesitate to call it intelligentsia but people who were interested in ideas have always valued your company and your wit and possibly your cynicism. Tell me a little bit about some of the friendships you've had and about what it's meant to you to be part of a connection that talks to each other around Sydney?

At Greek restaurants. It's not serious on my part. It's just we used to meet and talk and once we met and talked and did pick a subject and we asked Robin Williams along to explain something to us. It was a great night. But in most of these things, we're talking and eating and drinking and for years and years I never went public on anything. I don't know why. You know people who are always giving opinions? We won't name them, but they're the people who always get asked ... Now I've never been on a Parkinson. Parkinson has made two visits to Sydney, I think. And the same people have appeared in his programmes. I've never been on those things. I was never a talk person. Never.

Well you were on radio, but that was to specific points. Why do you think you haven't been part of the public talk?

Because I don't want to be and never did want to be. I don't really. It's not a part of life I care for. I'm inclined to say to somebody when I'm going past - the radio was talking and somebody terribly ... a celebrity, a local celebrity is giving his opinion - and I'm trying to say to it, 'Oh, shut up'. I don't want to hear the human voice all the time telling me what to do and I don't want my voice to be always telling people what to do. People want opinions about something.

But in private you felt differently?

Oh we all shout at each other in private. [Laughs]

And you've had some great friendships?

I've had some wonderful friendships. Marvellous friendships. Adrian Deamer, who was my editor on The Australian, who was a great friend of mine. He was extremely good editor. Jim Hall then became the editor. I've had some great editors - people to talk to and people who would occasionally ask you to do things - tell you to do things that you didn't want to do. I remember doing an education series and I begged Adrian not ... I said, 'All right. Don't make me do this'. He said, 'Yes', and I went and did it.

[end of tape]

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