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Adventures of a Girl Reporter, Australia, Hong Kong Deadline, Jack Spackman, Social Media

Shared rite of reporting passage – dealing with the nutjobs

Once upon a time the general public was largely shielded from the wilder shores of the nuttiness which affects each of us in its own degree.

Those who frolic in the deeper end have always been well known to anyone blessed with an opportunity to come into regular contact with the public.

Journalists, politicians and cab drivers, for example, will all have their own nutjob stories.

Sometimes the journalists, politicians and cab drivers are nutjobs too. I’m making no particular point here, except that in the past most of society’s nutjobs have had to struggle for attention.

Once upon a time the wronged and the passionate, having exhausted all other avenues of redress, or sometimes sooner, would turn to their local newspaper.

I expect it’s still a rite of passage for a junior reporter to sift through piles of documents, heavy with mouldering outrage, while their owner, rapidly and incoherently, runs through decades of conspiracy and injustice.

Or do they just get emails now?

Last time I visited my father Jack Spackman in California we sat on his back step with a bottle of Australian red and he recalled a procession of sad, shrunken old men through his career as a newspaperman.

“They were usually carrying smelly old plastic bags full of files which they’d obviously been hawking round for years and no one would listen,” he said.

“Sometimes, just sometimes, you felt there might be something in it but… you just didn’t always have the time to get into something that would probably come to nothing anyway.”

When I started in local newspapers I had my own share in my turn, including a sad, shrunken old man with plastic bags full of files.

He was claiming to be the victim of a conspiracy waged by the council because he had damning evidence of a cover-up over a crooked development. It was complicated. There may have been something in it but…

Most of the time the only whiff you get from the bags of files is mildew and tobacco and most of the time, experience soon tells you, that’s all there is.

Dad told me about one of his regulars – we shall call him Mr Walsh –  back when he was a cub reporter on the Western Star in Roma in the late 1950s.

Mr Walsh first got in touch by letter, about a goanna living under his house. It had killed next door’s cat, he reckoned. But it didn’t take long to smell the mildew.

The goanna, you see, had been put under the house by his brother’s daughters, disguised as nurses, who wanted to kill him.

Then Mr Walsh turned up at the office.

The goanna had killed again, this time taking two old people on his street.

“Now it took a bit of a strange turn,” Dad said.

“He sent me another, longer letter, a very much longer letter actually.

“He explained that these women, who were pretending to be nurses, had created this goanna by drilling a hole in a snake’s egg and adding lizard and dog to it.

“Then they had sealed the egg up and hid it under the house and… well, the resultant killer goanna snake lizard dog crossbreed was now trying to kill him.

“Apparently it had webbed feet, barked like a dog and bit like a snake, leaving you dead within the hour.”

Dad said Mr Walsh had provided a great amount of detail, as well as numerous hand-drawn and carefully labelled illustrations.

“I didn’t mind the letters but he was turning up at the office all the time and I just couldn’t get rid of him.

“Finally John Higgins, the Editor, told me to send him to the Toowoomba Chronicle.

“Tell him it’s too big a story for us.”

Dad nearly fell off the step laughing when I told him I used to send mine to the Evening Argus in Brighton with exactly the same advice.

The rise of the Internet has given people like Mr Walsh a platform they never had a chance to speak from before.

They used to turn out 20-odd pages of cramped, too-close-together, often heavily underlined handwriting which also ran feverishly up and down the margins in afterthought upon afterthought.

Their output is now limited only by their typing skills which are improving rapidly, with all that practice and all.

Not everyone is as harmless as Mr Walsh. The blogosphere and social media provide depressing evidence of that.

But the nutjobs have always been with us and they’ve always been eager to share their unique perspective. There’s just no longer a junior journo standing between us and the wash of craziness, filth and fury out there.

The difficulty for journalists has always been discerning the mad from the merely difficult. Now we can all see why and imagine, for a moment, what horrors must await them every day in their inboxes.

For the rest of us, at least we can still Filter, Block and Ignore.

© Sally Baxter 2012

About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.


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