by Carrie Soderberg
Professor Ken McKinnon, who recently joined the Sydney PEN Management Committee, is an acclaimed academic educator and passionate advocate for free speech and the right of freedom of expression. In the nine years he was Chair of the Australian Press Council, he was a powerful voice for ethics, privacy and independence of the press. Professor McKinnon spoke to Carrie Soderberg.
Encouraging writing and free interpretations of people’s own culture is something Professor Ken McKinnon is passionate about, and as a new member of the Sydney PEN Management Committee, he wants to support more writers to be heard across the Asia Pacific region.
Professor McKinnon says that even though he has not worked with PEN for long, he wants Sydney PEN in its work on behalf of writers in the Asia Pacific region and to help figure out a forward plan that is workable regardless of resources.
“My impression is that PEN internationally is better thought of than most people realise and can be very influential,“ he says.
The former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong and Chair of the Australian Press Council from 2000 to 2009, he grew up in country towns across South Australia, in Auburn, Moonta and Port Pirie. His father was a schoolteacher, but this was not the reason Professor McKinnon pursued a career in education.
“At that time, the only scholarships that were available were teacher education scholarships and because my father had too many children that is what I did – and that set me off on that route and I stayed there.”
After university, he was posted to a teaching position in Central Australia working as both teacher and headmaster. Did he have an affinity for teaching?
“No, I think I felt scared of the difficulty of teaching 30 kids and I worked so very hard because I was scared of failing the kids,” he says. “In those days school inspectors came around once or twice a year and rated and berated and praised you. Fortunately for me I got a very helpful one.”
He says it was a good experience, but he became tired of the bureaucracy in the education system and resigned, saying he might as well be working in Papua New Guinea. Nothing had prepared him for what to expect but he says it was the best thing he ever did.
Apart from a brief break to take up a Harkness Fellowship at Harvard, he stayed in Papua New Guinea for almost 20 years.
“What interested me in Papua New Guinea was the huge amount of work that had very little regulation and no pre-cut answers.”
And it was a big job. During his time there, Professor McKinnon was responsible for a program involving 250,000 students, 13,000 teachers, two universities and 10 teachers’ colleges.
He saw the difficult times of transition from colonial control to independence. He says one of the biggest challenges was “to get to the point where Papua New Guinea could become first self-governing and then independent”.
He was friends with a young Michael Somare, who later went on to become Prime Minister, and was “privy to their plotting” of the future of the country.
“A lot of the governing became possible because we took young school teachers and really poured experience and training into them so that the first heads of government departments were former teachers, and the political side with Michael Somare went ahead on the same basis,“ he says.
Professor McKinnon says Papua New Guinea is still an exciting place. “How can it not be exciting when there are 700 languages and four to five million people, with all kinds of interesting customs and one of the richest cultures I know.”
He returned to Australia in 1973 to take charge of the Australian Schools Commission under the Whitlam Government, followed by 14 years as the Vice-Chancellor of Wollongong University.
In 2001 he became the first non-lawyer Chair of the Australian Press Council. While in the job he says he “speeded it up and took the Press Council in a number of areas from reform of defamation law, to looking at how journalists are at risk if they get leaks.
“The concept of the Press Council is a very good one, involving people in the industry along with others who have a less industry-oriented view,“ he says.
On the issue of free speech, he says, “they say free speech in Australia’s free, but it is not because it is limited by existing laws.” He believes “you cannot cut freedom to speak down too much, defamation already limits it so there is no point saying there is no limit on it”.
Towards the end of his time with the Council, he faced tough budget cuts that he says made it difficult to engage the public and do the work properly.
In his role on the Sydney PEN Management Committee, he is interested in pursuing more corporate sponsorship for the Sydney branch. He gives an example, saying PEN could sponsor a prize supporting Indonesian authors with the help and backing of an Australian company in Indonesia.
“If the company or the person who has done the most to help authors in Indonesia can boast about how it has helped authors through PEN, that creative process will mean everyone gains,“ he says.
He says Sydney PEN could also bring attention to the Crocodile Awards in Papua New Guinea, which were established three years ago to encourage a new generation of writers. This year the awards had almost 600 entries by 135 authors.
“If PEN acts as a communicator for these awards it will bring attention to Papua New Guinea and attract a number of people in Australia who have an interest in this region but don’t know how to help because no one has told them how to.”