2015

Champion of human rights, social justice and free speech

June Ramli

Richard Ackland

Richard Ackland’s fascination with the world of news and current affairs started at a very early age.

Richard Ackland’s fascination with the world of news and current affairs started at a very early age.

“I remember as a young person that whenever there was a new newspaper, I would sign up and would always be interested in world and social and economic issues. My siblings and parents were not into journalism, my sister became a teacher and my father, he was a businessman. No one encouraged me into journalism.”

But journalism has been his calling. He has been a journalist for the past 36 years and has written for many media outlets. His writings have been featured in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian and The Saturday Paper. He has also presented the ABC’s Media Watch.

Richard Ackland says his passion for free speech and human rights drove him into journalism. On graduating with economics and law degrees from the University of Sydney and Macquarie University respectively, he began his career at The Daily Telegraph in 1970 when it was owned by Sir Frank Packer. He later joined The Financial Review, reporting for the economics desk, in 1972.

While working there, he was headhunted by another publisher — Maxwell Newton, who had a number of economic and political newspapers and newsletters in Canberra. He hired him to “analyse treasury stuff”.

Mr Ackland worked for Max Newton from 1972 to 1977. But, despite the steady stream of income from jobs in mainstream journalism, at an early stage of his career he started his own publishing business producing law journals under the names Justinian and Gazette of Law and Journalism. Today, his newsletters are known for niche reporting on the Australian legal scene and have more than 8,000 paid subscribers.

An Internet search reveals scores of his articles, mainly opinion pieces online. His Wikipedia page describes his contribution to the journalism industry and shows he has been admitted as a solicitor at the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

Richard Ackland, who grew up in Sydney and attended Cranbrook School, says he has always written about the plight of the refugees.

“I think the treatment of refugees is shameful; this is a black period in Australian history. People with legitimate refugee claims should be allowed in,” he says.

On free speech, he says you can’t have absolute freedom. Journalists must draw the line when it comes to writing on race and religion. Otherwise things can turn ugly. He says this in reference to the recent deadly attacks at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris.

He dodges questions about his private life, saying he prefers it to be private. The only things that he would say was that his wife of 20 years was an editor and that none of his three children were in the writing business. He also said that one of his children is an actor. And so back to journalism.

“I’ve always had this thing that when I start to feel cocky and confident, it means that disaster is about to strike but I’ve got to say that I’ve been a freelancer ever since I left The Financial Review in 1979. To be able to survive this long, I’d say you’ve got to pick the right people to work for. The Herald wasn’t bad and The Guardian is quite good. They pay on time.”

He thinks journalism is under threat but is not dead yet. He believes the cost cutting measures that media companies are undertaking have compromised the quality of today’s journalism.

“The old model has collapsed. The mainstream media is under challenge like never before. The 6pm bulletins that once delivered the great news of the day have become fractured. There is more emphasis on audience clicks. Serious stuff and important issues are pushed to the side.”

He believes future journalism will be modelled on Gawker, a website that pays journalists based on the page views their articles receive.

“If they don’t get as much as one or two hundred thousand page views in a month, they are sacked. But the newspaper business in India, especially the English language papers, are flourishing. Maybe it’s a cycle. I don’t think anyone knows the model anymore. The days when newspapers used to have a strong ads section known as classifieds are gone, too.

“But I hate to discourage people. I started a website to report on matters surrounding Kings Cross, where I live. A lot of students studying journalism have helped me.”

In short, Richard Ackland says the romantic notion that people once had of a career in journalism is floored. The media industry has become so competitive that jobs are hard to come by, too. But he is proud to have survived in the business for this long. And most importantly raised a family while doing it.

He shows no sign of slowing down and has no plans to write a book. He says this with certainty from his office — the former Daily Telegraph building in King Street — which incidentally happens to be the same place where he started his journalism career in the 1970s.

Richard Ackland will deliver the PEN 2015 Free Voices lecture entitled ‘Feeling the Chill’on the impact of counter terrorism laws and surveillance on writers, journalists and freedom of expression on Sunday,May 24 at 4.30pm – 5.30pm, Sydney Dance 1

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