David Marr sips a piccolo latte in a favourite café in Camperdown. He has lived in the leafy suburb for 33 years. He’s seen gentrification arrive and conquer, working class families leave and affluent ones arrive.
And like the transformation of an inner city suburb, he has seen the transformation of Australian journalism.
“When we first got computers at The Sydney Morning Herald, I refused to use them. What were these machines that lasted for about three days? The computers we first got, they were terrible. They would crash whenever there was a storm and we would lose everything,” he says.
David Marr has won three Walkley Awards and has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, presented Media Watch and Arts Today for the ABC, now writes for The Guardian Australia and The Saturday Paper and is on the board of the Sydney Writer’s Festival.
He is, therefore, exceptionally qualified to host a panel, or five, at the Festival. Fortunately, he enjoys hosting very much. “There’s a bit of a teacher in me, and there’s a bit of an entertainer. I try and do both those things,” he says.
His eyes light up with enthusiasm about topics as diverse as the politics of the religious right to how fabulous his local café is. “I like shaping these events and having conversations in public, and hoping to get other people to say things that are sometimes fine and sometimes funny.”
David Marr’s books include Barwick (1980), Patrick White: A Life (1991), The High Price of Heaven (2000), Dark Victory (2004) and The Henson Case (2008). His essays for Quarterly Essay are Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd; Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott; and Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power.
On the fractured nature of Australian politics, he blames the destructive nature of conservatism, the political difficulty of raising taxes and the volatility of social media. “Australia has yet to evolve for social media, we’re still struggling,” he says. He is not on social media himself, despite now writing for online publications.
On the future of Australian journalism, he is unsure and not overly optimistic. Quality journalism is not always profitable, and online advertising revenue has not proven to be sustainable.
He remembers when he became editor of The National Times in 1981. “Back then, there was so much money, we could just start a newspaper.
His early career as a journalist for Fairfax seems like a fairy tale. “I was so precious about my words, I would demand days to write a 500 or 600-word story.”
While he officially retired from Fairfax in 2012, he has remained a figure in the Australian media. “I never retired, I just slowed down a bit.”
Actually his retirement only lasted a year before he joined The Guardian Australia, a non-for-profit venture. He says that perhaps the secret to preserving quality journalism lies in forsaking profits. He is extremely fond of his new online publication and the freedom it has as a publication without overbearing business and political relationships.
David Marr has been a loud and consistent voice on Australian politics for a long time. Before this interview, he had interviewed Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. He is working on a second essay on the man, with refreshed and more intrigued eyes than before. “He may turn out to be a great leader yet.”
David Marr is lined up to host panels on current Australian politics, the Whitlam era and Australia’s past and present treatment of asylum seekers at the Festival. All topics that are at the centre of his long career, all topics he could discuss at length without ever sounding stale.
But what can a panel achieve that an article or discussion can’t? What do public conversations achieve? “Talking about books get conversations a lot further than just talking. When we have a text under examination we can take our conversation deeper and further, and it’s a really good way of examining public events, political events. And getting somewhere. I like getting somewhere in conversation.”
And David Marr gets many places in a conversation, his loquaciousness eloquent and restrained by the care he takes with his words. “It can be very fluid, and that’s part of the excitement. You’ve got to go where the conversation goes, and that can be challenging. You’ve got to be agile. I’m not sure how agile I am; I try to be,” he says.
But in this age of crumbling newspapers, widespread redundancies, click-bait articles and tweeted headlines, he has retained his appeal and credibility as both a journalist and as a commentator. And that is a very difficult thing to do.
So how has he maintained his success on his long journey through the media? “I think being good is innovative enough. You don’t have to be fresh and reinvent the wheel everyday. You just have to try to do things well.”
David Marr takes part in the following events:
The Shadow of 1975, Friday May 20, 11.30-12.30, Wharf 2 Theatre. Paul Kelly, Troy Bramston and Jenny Hocking join David Marr to talk about one of the most dramatic years in Australian political history.
Tales of Disaster and Outrageous Fortune, Friday May 20, 2.30-3.30, Pier 2/3 Club Stage. David Marr joins Laura Tingle, Andrew Leigh and Paddy Manning for an insiders’ chat about the strengths and foibles of our elected representatives.
Seeking Asylum, Saturday May 22, 3-4pm, Pier 2/3 Club Stage. David Marr, Robert Manne, Madeline Gleeson and Eva Orner discuss the question of whether Australia can maintain its harsh asylum seeker policies.