Published on Webdiary - Founded and Inspired by Margo Kingston (/cms)

Waltzing New Matilda Away

By Richard Tonkin
Created 22/06/2010 - 17:11

The nature of so many stories changes depending on who's telling the tale. This is not only due to the nature of the recorder of the yarn, but of the person who observed events unfold - different eyes, ears and minds will look at the same situation and often see a completely different set of events. For example, there's a town up the Murray from Adelaide called Morrook. The tale in the Big Smoke was that this place was one of several communal habitats set up in the early 1890s as incentive for would-be followers of Billy Lane to forgo life in the New Australia iof Paraguay to have another go at life in Old Australia.

The bloke in the front bar of the Morook Community Club whose family had been there since those beginnings had never heard of this before. He told of paddlesteamers bringing people that couldn't find work in the city, dropping twenty families at a time along the riverbank, to live under a single roughly made roof as they grew crops for the cityfolk to eat, and of how many of these battlers were eventually given land of their own. Either way, the community spirit of this place is stronger than in most. As one local lady told me 'If you're in trouble in Morook and you sing out, there's a lot of people behind you."

I'd come to the place (last weekend) amidst a roving pack of around 60 musicians. They're all in a group called the Weekend Warriors, who go up to the one-bar town twice a year to put on music festivals Rockers, Blues(wo)men, the odd Country and Western singer and even,(gasp) the occassional folkie take turns to give their music to the townsfolk, visitors and each other. They hope, apart from sharing the camaraderie of the music, to put a bit of money back into a rural community now struggling (especially now they're forced to lease water from the barons) to afford to grow a vine. It'll be a couple more years, everyone reckons, before the idea truly begins to bear fruit. Everyone's happy to be nurturing the seeds they've planted, confident of the harvest to come. I have no doubt they'll succeed.

Always a keen writer (used to wag school one day a week to write for the Portland newspaper) I'd given up my previous notions of intrepid reporting. In actual fact my "career" ended the first day of one financial year, when I rolled up for work a little "local rag" to find the doors locked, the boss (and my last forntight's pay) long gone. Really, though, I'd lost the taste the day I was rooting around the glovebox of a car in the wreckers' yard to find out who'd had the prang. Looking up from my endeavours I noticed one of the driver's teeth embedded in the steering wheel. I thought to myself "so, this is journalism?" I could hear the voice of my Portland Observer mentor, a lovely lady named Jane Belfield (a former PNG correspondent for the ABC) who muttered about the editor from within the cloud of cigarette smoke around her typewriter, and was kind enough while subbing my slips to give me ideas. Her advice? "If you love to write, don't become a journo" That day in the scrapyard I decided she was right.

I came across Webdiary pretty much by accident, and didn't know that such a world existed. I'd been flailing around the net with a horror of Halliburton in my mind, and a mate who listened to Phillip Adams a lot suggested I contact Margo Kingston. Margo made me feel that I wasn't alone in my thoughts, and coached me into creating a Webdiary piece. Then she pushed me off the deep end into a thread-pool of scary-sounding people that seemed to know each other well, who argued things out and debated amongst themselves. I loved it and stuck around. This was in the last months of Webdiary's residency at the Sydney Morning Herald, and my second piece was published in the first week of the website's independence. I watched Margo try her damnedest to make the place something that would be self-sustaining and financially independent. By the end of that year, in which I believe she would've been able to make a go of things if not for the horrendous ill-health she'd been experiencing, Margo decided to hang up her green eyeshade and give the game away.

That was when Webdiary had just had its fifth birthday. On July the 4th of this year we're turning ten. The site's been run by volunteers dedicated to keeping the doors open to this home of citizen journalism- moderating comments, asking people to contribute threadstarters, scribbling a few paragraphs themselves, doing their best to maintain The House That Margo Built according to the manual found in the attic. I'm proud to now be one of such folk, and consider my endeavours here as a way of passing along the good karma that was so generously given to me and so many others.

Communities can take longer to evolve than many people realise. My family run a music pub in Adelaide, hosting as many different kinds of melody as we can squeeze into the place. My parents' dream had been to create a musical waterhole at which those who came for refreshment could hear each other’s noises and hopefully join in a new sound. 17 years later we're noticing that a sense of community is growing increasingly stronger. It might take a few more years to hear what we're hoping for. That's ok. There are three generations working in the place now, some of the youngest tribe of Tonkins already able to pour quite a decent beer.. and the developers have found out the hard way that we're not going to be driven away by the antics that pave the path of "progress".

Sometime you see flashes of what can happen. On the day of writing this my father and I had the pleasure of sitting down to lunch with a couple of blokes from the Guilford Four and Birmingham Six, the local producer of Today Tonight, some fairly maverick local lawyers and a a folksinger friend. The conversation was rolling pleasantly enough, until the Scotsman looking after the boys asked us if we'd heard of a Scots minstrel (and internationally respected activist) named Alistair Hulett. Alistair worte a lot of great songs, and one of his greatest was a song about the forming of the community of Australia

The road’s at your own feet
Travel it lightly and travel it well
And don’t speak of success
Or christen it progress
Til the swaggies can all waltz Matilda as well"

Sadly, Jimmy Dancer waltzed Alistair away from us all last year. The moment of sadness today that passed between those of us that knew him created relationships that I'm sure will last for years. With the same sentiment for a singer and his songs, the travellers knew that they were amongst friends in our house.

Margo Kingston created an online community, turning her site into an interactive "blog" at a time when blogs didn't exist. People came to talk with her, and she helped them to talk to each other. Sometimes these days Webdiary can be a fairly quiet place (even though its readership still consists of many thousands), and then without warning an issue will bring back familiar voices, arguing the contributing factors, debating the merits of outcomes, drawing on both knowledge of the subjects and each other in a way that would never happen anywhere but "at Margo's". Phillip Adams has this to say about her and Webdiary:

"Trad journalism was rarely rad journalism. In these last days we romanticise the old days to a ridiculous extent, smearing the unreliable lens of memory with Vaseline. Most journalists were content to toe the proprietorial line - as rigid as the party line - or simply add to the pages of dross. We remember the heroes of the profession because there were so few of them. The real warriors of the press gallery, the unstoppable investigators of political or corporate naughtiness and the fearless foreign correspondents were the exception, not the rule. Now trad journalism, for good and ill, seems terminal - and hope lies elsewhere...in a new era of truly independent work. Which is when and where Webdiary and Margo Kingston came in, recruiting energetic outsiders - community journalists - to keep the bastards honest. As my generation expires. going down in our sinking ships, it's this new mob who'll have to find new ways - including those elusive 'new business models - to save society from itself. What Kingston showed was there's no shortage of talent."

It's amazing really, how far the words of community journalism can travel. Not long after I latched on to Cheney's corporate antics in Australia (according to the likes of Mr Adams and author Tony Kevin contributing new knowledge). I saw a much bigger picture painted by Jason Leopold's netreporting from the US of some of things Dick said about Iran when on a '97 Down Under Tour de Force. Thanks to Webdiary I'm now proud to call Jason a friend. Degrees of separation aren't necessarily as they appear! This man has worked as the Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires and as a city editor and reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He is a two-time winner of a Project Censored award for his investigative work on Halliburton and Enron.

"Independent journalists," he says, "and the non traditional outfits that showcase their work iare a crucial part of the media landscape and have proven time and again that they can compete with the mainstream publications--and in many cases do a much better job of reporting the news. It was, after all, independent media that first questioned the veracity of intelligence leading up to the invasion of Iraq and to this day continue to hold government officials accountable for what amounted to an illegal war. If not for independent publications like Webdiary, the public would likely be deprived of the truth. I've worked in independent media circles for nearly a decade and I can say confidently that if these platforms did not exist, I would not have had the opportunity to publish my work elsewhere."

Long into the future the past ten years will be regarded as the pioneer era of the internet, and the early innovators compared to the Wright Brothers flying the first airplane. What would Orville and Wilbur have done if they knew how prolific their invention would become? Knowing the size of the harvest, I reckon they would've taken out a really massive seed-loan from the bank, enough to establish a garden and nurture the crop.. and waited for time to work its magic. Maybe a media industry centred around community journalism can't yet get far enough off the ground to fly more than a short distance. Maybe it won't be until commercial media fully embraces cyberspace that non-corporrate e-organs become truly necessary as alternatives to commercial counterparts perused daily on I-Pads? Who knows.. viewed in the longterm, we're still at a beginning.

May all those who've waltzed at New Matilda and Webdiary always dance, knowing that the rhythm in their steps will be heard in future melodies. And if a wandering swagman "on the wallaby" happens to find find the track to "Ours", please feel free to say g'day.., the door's always open, and the fire still burning...

(First published on newmatilda.com during its last week.)

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