The Press v James Hird


May I offer three comments on recent developments in the press about the tragedy of James Hird?  And it is a tragedy – a typical Australian tragedy, of greatness brought low by ashen mediocrity.

First, the pain and suffering of Hird was in my view a foreseeable consequence of the actions of the press against him.  ‘Foreseeable’ is a word used in the law, but I do not intend it to have any legal consequences in what I have just said.  Rather, I refer to what Nathan Buckley, who seems a very decent man, meant when he said that footballers were not bullet-proof against personal attacks.  No one is.  In my view, the severity and venom of the attacks of the press on Hird were such that it was foreseeable that he would be hurt to an extent that could be life-threatening, or at least require treatment in hospital.

Secondly, since about 1975, I have been involved as a lawyer in acting for or against the press in libel and contempt matters.  I have written a book on law for journalists, and I am now retained to advise one publisher before publication.  I have acted both for and against the ABC, Murdoch, and Fairfax, on many occasions, although for more than 20 years I acted for the ABC.  I have a clear and settled view about where the balance of power lies between the press and those who claim to be hurt by it – and it lies with the money and the corporate political clout.  The press had little trouble in getting all state governments to change the laws to suit them.

Thirdly, the organs of the press that helped to put Hird in hospital are now waging a political campaign – in the case of the Murdoch press, an all-out political campaign – to get the federal government to make it lawful for them to insult or offend others on the ground of their race. That is the freedom they seek when they ask for the repeal of section 18 C. They do so under the preposterous mantra of freedom of speech. If these bullies could do the harm they did to James Hird, and get away with it, what might they do to a poor punch drunk blackfella?

The press went out to get Hird, and they succeeded, with the nauseating results that they and we could foresee. Some agents of the attacks are notorious for mocking failure and for kicking people when they’re down. Will we ever get an apology?  Not on your bloody Nellie, Mate.

Two pairs of hands

There is a famous photo of Maria Callas as Violetta, the wronged courtesan of La Traviata (from La dame aux camellias)She is standing weeping like a distressed, wasted waif, wringing her hands.  The caption frequently says that even her hands seemed to weep.  It is a moment of theatre at its highest given by a woman who lit up the whole theatre and changed people’s lives.  Callas used her hands crossed over her chest to remarkable effect when taking bows – or when making an entrance, as at the Garnier before the French President, and upstaging Bridget Bardot, well after her voice had failed.  Callas made even her bows into an art form.

There is another famous photo of Callas in the great Visconti production of La Traviata at La Scala in 1955.  She and Giuseppe di Stefano are taking their bows.  She is what the French call radieuse; he looks handsome and respectful of her priority.  The photo, a copy of which hangs at home, is taken at the side from behind, so that their image is set against rows of boxes near the stage.  Her fulfilled radiance is caught by the full glow of the footlights.  (That loathsome shipper who defiled her life was years away.)  Her right hand holds a bouquet, and di Stefano has her left hand.  This is a portrait of accomplished artistry at what might be called the altar of the temple.

Jonathan Thurston is number 6 for the Cowboys, Queensland (the Maroons), and Australia.  He is a half-back and goal kicker – that is, he is one of the play-directors in his kind of rugby.  When the scouts came back from North Queensland about twenty years ago, they said that they had found a blackfella who could play footy, but they said that this one was too small and could not tackle.  He is now, and has been for some time, widely seen as the most valuable player in his code in the world.  Watching him at work is one of the great moments in Australian sport.  Typically he might be standing there passing the ball between his hands, with twelve of his bruisers behind him, and thirteen of the others facing him.  Each one of them could render him into something like manure, but they seem to be caught in the moment.  He just holds the ball while he holds his eye on them – he is waiting for the first hint of a drop in a shoulder that might suggest a weakness in the line.  If he sees it, he has a split second to move to pass to one of his own players, or to put himself in what he hopes will be a hole in the enemy line.  Because of the off side rule, he has to know what is going on behind him.  He therefore has to have the coolness and the antennae and play-making powers of Diesel Williams (who also had another party trick of a different order).

On the weekend I saw Thurston on TV threading a pass that shocked the commentators.  They said that it was like threading a needle – while human missiles were flying all around him.  After many slow motion replays, we finally caught the moment when that beautiful pair of hands released the pass backwards at the precise moment that allowed it to pierce the fray and to hit its fast moving target.  The other side hardly knew what had happened, and with anyone else we would have said that it was a fluke.

Whether you prefer the grace of the hands of Thurston to those of Callas is a matter of taste, and nothing more than that, but thank God that there is still some magic left in the world to relieve us of the drab misery of the measurers and the fibbers.