by John Mebberson
“I’m just a columnist for a newspaper,” says Richard Ackland, dangling a pair of tortoiseshell glasses from his hand. The accomplished journalist and lawyer may appear casual, assured and self-deprecating but throughout his career, he has worked to expose injustices within law and social policy.
Richard Ackland (pictured) received the prestigious Gold Walkley Award for Journalism in 1999 for investigating the now infamous cash-for-comment affair, concerning paid advertising in radio that was presented to sound like editorial commentary. His column in The Sydney Morning Herald continues to canvass important social issues. “I’ve tried to write on human rights issues and a lot of these things are quite dense,” he says. “Sooner or later people switch off if you keep on about refugees, rates of imprisonment or youth suicide. The Herald has been pretty good at allowing me to have that beat.”
Richard Ackland has been awarded the 2013 PEN/Keneally Award, announced at a special event marking The Day of the Imprisoned Writer on November 15. The award recognises achievement in promoting freedom of expression, international understanding and access to literature as expressed in the Charter of International PEN.
Growing up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, he attended Cranbrook School before studying economics at the University of Sydney. “There were girls, coffee at Manning, all this stuff was just too much for a young beginner,” says Richard. “My girlfriend had been stolen from me by a journalist so I thought this journalism thing must have some pulling power.”
After a stint in the Naval Reserve to avoid getting his “arse shot off in Vietnam”, Richard began work at The Daily Telegraph, then owned by Frank Packer. Then, under Maxwell Newton, founding editor of The Australian, he gained further experience and soon moved to Canberra to cover the Whitlam administration.
“It was a fascinating time for journalism. You could be drunk on the floor and they were feeding the stories into you like a Strasbourg goose,” he says. “I was having lunch with a few journalists in the lobby,” he says, remembering the occasion in 1975, when “Laurie Oakes got a phone call and suddenly announced ‘Kerr’s sacked Whitlam!’ The place was in uproar.”
He was unhappy with the sordid affair that became known as the Dismissal. “That intensified my sense of legal injustice. It was a sneaky, underhand play by a few centrally located and incredibly in-the-know and powerful figures.”
Establishing the Law Press of Australia in 1986, now run from his office in Kent Street, Richard produces The Justinian, The Gazette of Law and Journalism and local news outlet, Postcode 2011. “The Justinian covers the interstices of the law, the dirty linen of the law a bit more closely,” he says, invoking the role of a journalist as the consummate outsider. “It only could be done by someone knocking on the door or pressing nose to the glass and trying to work out what’s going on.”
He began his radio and television broadcasting career with announcing roles at ABC Radio National’s current affairs programs Late Night Live, Daybreak and his first foray, The Law Report. “I had no skills at all doing radio,” he says. “I stitched together a program and did a few interviews. It was simple stuff.”
A memento of the Gold Walkley he won with Media Watch colleagues Deborah Richards and Ann Connolly for their expose on cash-for-comment affair is a framed newspaper front page hanging above the bookshelf in his office.
“That was our golden moment,” he says, recalling the time when a contract was discovered between radio host John Laws and the Australian banking lobby. “Most journalism doesn’t make a difference, but sometimes it does. It was an examination of something that was underhand and corrupt.“
The investigation resulted in far-reaching changes to the law and a greater awareness of the media ethics. “It was a bit of a wake-up call. It was rife. All the underpinning was floating on payola and plugola.”
Richard screws up his face when asked about the state of media today.
“It has changed. Because of the reduction of journalists for economic reasons, the pressure is on to produce more with less, and to feed the beast more rapidly.”
“There’s a processing role that is fine and important,” he says, referring to how news is reported. “Then there’s the next step up that is a more specialised, focused and analytical function. There are people with precise rounds that they’ve honed, with wonderful contacts, and they bring a richness that a daily reporter doesn’t necessarily bring.”
The father of three says he is still learning the craft and, with age and experience, has come confidence. “Max Newton had always said try and be your own boss. Don’t always work for the man. Try and create something.
“I like being independent. I like being outside it all a bit. I’ll just keep on developing the skills and I don’t think you ever stop that. It’s basically silly little me sitting in a corner.” Not silly at all.
The biennial PEN/Keneally Award was established in 2004 in honour of author Thomas Keneally AO for his lifetime commitment to the values of PEN. The Award is made possible through the generosity of Mr Keneally and Random House Australia.