SWF 2019 Sunday, Part One

I managed four sessions at the Festival on Sunday. Time is at a premium just now, so I’ll split it into two posts.

At 10 in the morning we went to A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in which, as the Festival web site say, ‘In conversation with ABC’s Sophie McNeill, three uniquely placed foreign writers and journalists share[d] their perspectives on the struggles and costs of reporting the truth and exposing lies under corrupt and oppressive governments.’ The three writers were Mexican Anabel Hernández (author of Narcos, about the far and deep reach of Mexican drug cartels), Iraqi-American Dunya Mikhail and Turkish Ece Temelkuran (author of How to Lose a Country).

I’d seen Dunya Mikhail in a more intimate session where she was wearing her poet hat, and this was the second of three sessions on my schedule featuring Ece Temelkuran. There was some repetition but I didn’t find any of it tedious.

We hear a lot about the noble calling of journalism these days, often from journalists whose work is deeply compromised. But from my seat in the stalls I felt something like awe, thinking that the three women on the stage were heroes of our time, exposing corruption and naming tyranny in the face of threats to their safety and even their lives. ‘Why are you here?’ Ece asked, as if having read my mind. ‘Do you want to see three martyrs? Do you want to learn about the realities of journalism?’

Quite apart from anything they said, the passion of all three women was deeply impressive. Anabel Hernández in particular delivered what was practically an aria on the importance of the truth, and the attempt to find and communicate it. In Mexico, where the institutions of society have pretty much failed, she said, journalists are currently called on to do the work of governments, investigators, prosecutors, even therapists. I think it was she (though it might have been Ece) who said, responding to a question from Sophie about the difficulty of persuading people to speak out, and picking up on the therapist tag, that people want to be heard: it takes two people to remember; if just one person has the memory it comes to feel like fantasy; an important part of the journalist’s job is to listen, even sometimes when you know that you will never be able to publish what you hear.

There was some dark humour. ‘Protect your journalists even if you hate them. We are not nice people.’ ‘Journalism is not a profession. it is a sickness in the head.’

On Julian Assange: He is not a pleasant person, but he has changed history. The impact of social media is huge, changing how we experience ourselves as human beings, and he is part of that much larger story. Social media are controlled by large companies for whom they make huge profits, and democracies are no longer strong enough to leash them.

In question time, someone asked what we could do to support good journalism. Ece gave the expected answer: Buy newspapers. Anabel picked up the baton: ‘Everything is connect,’ she said. When you take drugs in Sydney you become part of the problem for Mexico. Neoliberalism has penetrated deep into our minds to make us believe we are isolated individuals who are primarily consumers, but in reality we are all connected, and our actions have far reaching effects.

This is the first session I attended that had remote attendance. I expect it will turn up on the Festival’s podcast over the coming months. I’ll happily listen to it again.


At half past one, I joined an unexpectedly long queue (seats are allocated, so why queue?) for Simon Shama in conversation with Paul Holdengräber in Belonging: The Story of the Jews. This was the only session I attended that was all men, or even a majority of men, on stage. Simon and Paul gave the impression that they were old friends, though they had never appeared together in public before. I gleaned from the Festival program that Paul does a lot of conversing with famous people in public, and lives in the USA. He seems to be a kind of US Richard Fidler rather than a Kerry O’Brien.

Simon Shama’s recent book is the second in his intended trilogy, The Story of the Jews. This volume, Belonging, spans the period 492–1900 of the Current Era. I have had the first volume, Finding the Words 1000BCE – 492CE, beside my bed for some time, and have cracked it open since Sunday. I expect I’ll blog about it in time.

This was a remarkably entertaining, free-ranging chat, starting with Paul announcing that Simon had just told him he loved meeting and signing books for men, women, children and dogs, and would do so after the session. The very mild laughter had barely died down when he followed up with a passage from the last pages of Finding the Words, a contemporary Christian monk’s account of the sufferings and courage of Jews fleeing Spain in 1492, and we were away: two hugely intelligent, warm and mutually appreciative Jewish men going where the subject and the moment took them, interrupting each other (especially Paul interrupting Simon), telling little bits of their life stories, swatting a fly and accusing it of being anti-Semitic, telling jokes that were only marginally relevant, but funny. When asked if he was Jewish, Jonathan Miller said, ‘Well, Jew-ish‘. This joke was relevant because Simon Shama was describing himself as more a Jewish historian than a historian of the Jews (or possibly the other way round – I didn’t take notes).

They talked about the Jews who faced the choice between fleeing Spain in 1492, converting to Christianity or pretending to convert – and how neither converting or pretending to convert was any protection from the Inquisition that came soon after. They spoke of Moses Mendelssohn, 18th century intellectual who believed that the Enlightenment promised a degree of safety for the Jewish people, and how his hopes were largely dashed.

Simon said he was dreading writing the third book in the series. Asked why, he said that writing about the Holocaust is a huge challenge. So much written on it, especially fiction, is meretricious. The third volume will have to come right up to the present, given the new wave of anti-semitism sweeping Europe and elsewhere.

I came away determined to read the first volume, which covers 1500 year in 169 pages, and then this one, if the world and I last that long: just 500 years but something like 800 pages. These guys may have seemed a bit chaotic, but they knew how to whet their audience’s appetites.

8 responses to “SWF 2019 Sunday, Part One

  1. You’re right about the perils of journalism. Closer to home, we’re in Wellington NZ today, and there are posters on the street about a journo called Melanie Reid who was locked up in Fiji for asking awkward questions. When I say posters, I don’t mean paper bills slapped up with a bit of paste, they were in solid framed purpose-made glass covered poster holders, like the ones they use to advertise fast food &c. I thought this was interesting because in Australia I don’t remember anything similar when Peter Greste was locked up for all those months. But the Kiwis were determined that no one was going to forget about her. (She was released today, so I guess they’ll take them down).

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  2. Great write up Jonathan. I would love to have attended the first one but I had family commitments in the morning. It sounds a little more intense than my afternoon journalists one – though they were clearly equally passionate about their jobs. But, journalists from a country like Australia don’t face what Turkish and Mexican journalists do. From reading your report, it feels almost like ours were just “playing” with “truth” and “lies” because, after all, no-one’s going to die if we do or don’t know the truth about Barnaby’s baby! Truth and lies can have far can have more serious consequences in their places.

    I actually ended up I think in the last minutes of the Schama one (if it’s the one that ended at 2.30 or so?) but I didn’t really properly hear him as I wasn’t clued into the context. It looked like he was giving a lecture? At least the bit I saw.

    PS I’m impressed at your confidence writing up something without notes! My brain would be mush!

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    • Yes, I only thought to compare the two groups after I’d pressed send on this. It’s almost as if it was programmed to make the Australian team look pale! My Simon Schama session is the one that finished just before 2.30 – interesting that it gave the impression that it was a lecture, as in the hour as a whole it was anything but: at times I felt like calling out to Paul Holdengräber to let him finish a sentence – which would have been not only rude but completely wrong, because the effect was a brilliant conversation. (I remember a Jewish friend saying how odd it was to be around polite Protestants who always let each other finish sentences – it felt as if they mustn’t be interested in what the others were saying.)

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      • Haha, Jonathan, I think I must be a closet Jew then! I’m hopeless at letting others finish fun sentences. I don’t think I mind others breaking in on mine, but I guess you’ll have to ask others that! Oh and I am protestant raised.

        And yes, you did make my session look pale!

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      • Ha ha! The session but not the write up.

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    • Um, I’m not sure it’s confidence so much as laziness. But really, even when I do take notes, I tend to become so engrossed in the moment – the tone of voice, tiny exchanges, mispronunciations as signs of vulnerability/humanness, etc, that my notes end up being horribly scrappy.

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