16 September 2004

Phillip Knightley's "Interesting if True"

Granta 53 (1996), entitled News: Scoops, Lies and Videotape offers online an extract of the lead contribution, "Interesting if True" by veteran journalist Phillip Knightley. Here's the tail end of it.
The most glamorous round [= beat] at the [Melbourne] Herald was of course the police one. The chief police roundsman [= beat reporter] was Alan Dower, a tall, distinguished man with a military moustache and bearing, whose act at parties was to borrow a broomstick, pretend he was on the parade ground and carry out drill as ordered by an imaginary sergeant major. His deputy was Lionel Hogg, who could well have been a detective himself had he not opted for journalism. It was Hogg's job to give an occasional lecture to the cadets on the mysteries of reporting. One sticks in my mind. 'A little twist to the most mundane of stories can turn it into a front page lead,' Hogg began. 'Now take what happened to me last week. The police got a call to a restaurant where the chef had just beaten off an armed robber. I interviewed him and asked him how he had done it. He said he chucked a plate of food in the man's face and the guy ran away. That's a pretty boring story. But I noticed that the restaurant was a Hungarian one. So I asked the chef what the plate of food had been. He said that in the excitement he hadn't noticed. So I wrote a lead that said the chef of a Hungarian restaurant had foiled an armed robber by chucking a plate of Hungarian goulash in his face. It made page one.' We thought about it for a second or two; then one of the cadets said, 'But, Lionel, that wasn't true.' Hogg laughed. 'No,' he said, 'but it should have been.'

Hogg arranged for each cadet to accompany a night police patrol car crewed by three detectives so we would get a feel for police work. On my night we crawled around the darkened inner suburbs of Melbourne hoping that the radio would crackle to life with some exciting crime in our area, but the only message we got was an order to check out a man sleeping on a bench in a park near the state parliament building. He did not speak English, and the detectives were losing their patience with him, so I felt justified in intervening and with some schoolboy French discovered he was a crew member of a ship in harbour and had missed the last bus back to the docks. Instead of being grateful, the police became wary of me. Squashed between two of them in the back seat of the squad car, we maintained an uneasy silence until they spotted an old drunk urinating against a tree in St Kilda Road.

'Dirty bastard,' the driver said. 'Teach him a lesson.' The two detectives in the back of the car jumped out. One grabbed the old man's hat and flung it far into park. The other began methodically kicking him in the backside as the old man staggered away mumbling protests and then fell over. The detective gave him one final kick and came back to the car. The exercise must have made them hungry because we headed off to the city centre and stopped at a late-night restaurant. The proprietor, a Greek, came hurrying up. 'Oyster soup and steaks, Tony,' one of the detectives said, 'and put some bloody oysters in the soup.' When we were leaving, I made an effort to pay for my share. 'Put it away,' one of the detectives ordered. 'It's on the house. We look after Tony, he looks after us.'

Did I write any of this? Did I tell the Herald readers that their police were less than perfect? I did not. Hogg had made it clear that we were guests in the squad car and that anything that happened had to remain confidential, otherwise the cosy relationship between the police and the Herald police roundsmen would be endangered.
Thanks to Rainy Day for the lead. I don't believe that the standards of either politics or journalism have declined so much as the public trust in both has plummeted while public demand for transparency has risen.

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