Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Vale Lockyer

Sometimes those who contribute most to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us aren't the biggest names or the most highly renumerated in the profession.

The Canberra Times printed this under the apposite heading: FROM BANGKOK TO THE BUSH, A REPORTER WITH INTEGRITY . . .


By the time I arrived in Bangkok the ABC house had moved. When Paul Lockyer was based there it was tucked away in a beautiful villa in Soi Sala Daeng, a pretty street behind the Dusit Thani hotel. Two correspondents later my predecessor in the Indochina job was taking me to lunch at a casual little restaurant nearby. He stopped for a second, pointing to a block of flats near the house.

“You see that building", he said. “That was where the notorious mass-murderer Charles Sobhraj lived. Sobhraj was a charismatic man who attracted foreign tourists and drugged them before killing them and disposing of their bodies. No matter how good you are", he muttered, “It just goes to prove that you can't see through walls or understand what's going on behind closed doors."

I nodded, heeding the warning. Lockyer hadn’t needed it. It seemed he was living a charmed life. After Bangkok he'd reported from Washington, then returned to Channel 9. Although - it seemed obvious - interviewing people for Ray Martin's Midday programme couldn't be nearly as interesting as reporting details of the ongoing civil war in Cambodia, in those days ABC journalists could only dream of getting the sort of money the commercial networks were throwing around.

There was something special about Lockyer’s work elevating him above the crowd. What had made a Lockyer's journalism shine was exactly that he clearly understood those professional limitations. So instead he looked, really looked, around him and saw what was happening. Then he reported it, clearly and in detail. Just what was going on. No agenda. No requirement to compress events into some overarching ideological framework labeling what was happening as “good" or “bad". And finally, importantly, Lockyer saw no need to “beat-up" a story. He didn't need to rush to find a sensational angle and use it as part of some desperate attempt to heighten the drama. He was happy to allow events to speak for themselves.

It occurred to me later, after I'd been doing the job for a while, that this was the real key to deciphering what had made his reports from Bangkok so successful. In his reports Lockyer treated what was occurring all around him like a huge diamond. He knew it would be impossible to reveal the full dimensions of everything. The mass of events is so shiny, so massive; we can never hope to understand its real meaning. The only alternative was to display, as accurately as possible, the individual facets of the gem in the hope of getting close to the truth.

This was what Lockyer did so well. He could explain both why some South Vietnamese were so desperate to leave their country they'd hop on a tiny boat and head out to sea, despite the pirates and the knowledge that they'd spend years in a refugee camp, yet still put together a sympathetic story about how the government was attempting to restore some normalcy to this country that had been divided by war for decades.

His desire for accuracy meant that his reports on the horrors wreaked by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia revealed much that had previously been hidden. One particular Australian academic failed to comprehend the extent of the killing fields. Information from others was suspect because of their association with the anti-Communists. Lockyer's reports established the fine detail allowing the eventual reinterpretation of our overarching framework as the full horror of those years was revealed.

This accuracy and balance was occasionally frustrating, particularly most recently. What did (I wanted to know) Lockyer really think about climate change? Did he really have no opinion about the future of the bush and it's environment. If he did, it never colored his reports. Instead he concentrated on showing us what was really occurring; the fine grain of a picture; reporting on what he knew and could see, rather than what he thought or assumed might be the case.

Perhaps this explains, in part, why the sudden death of Lockyer, cameraman John Bean and pilot Gary Ticehurst in a helicopter crash has affected so many people. After reporting politics, being a foreign correspondent and then returning to the absurdities of the Midday show, Lockyer's journalism finally returned to the most enduring facet of life – the relationship of humans to the land that surrounds us. Together with Bean's extraordinarily evocative film and the ability of Ticehurst to put the others in just the right spot at just the right time, the team revealed to many Australians aspects of our land that we normally don't think about. The country is simply taken for granted. The weight of our population tips us towards the sea; what happens inland appears irrelevant to our lives. It's dismissed, and we think it can be ignored with impunity. Together their reports showed us the other side of our country.

But this alone doesn't explain the sense of loss yet let's face it: from the point of view of “importance", Lockyer's journalistic career had supposedly peaked when he was posted to Washington after Bangkok. After all, that was the big story; the main game. It should be easy to dismiss his oeuvre since then as trivial and unimportant. Rural Reporter, I mean, really! So how to make sense of the loss? The answer can be summed up in a single word – integrity.

Lockyer didn't need to find success in the reflected views of others. His reports offered an accurate portrayal of what was happening and the emotions of those experiencing it. This made it powerful, wise and beautiful. It was news in the best sense. He did not sketch an ideal world or demonstrate how ours needs to be reformed so as to make it better. It was up to the audience to draw the appropriate conclusions. If Lockyer did have an agenda, it was to inform and not to bludgeon people into agreement, nor talk down to the audience as simpletons. His journalism was imbued with integrity: his legacy is a lesson that all of us would do well to heed.

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