Graduation adddress given by Dr Phillip Knightley AM

Dr Phillip Knightley AM gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 8 June 2007.

Dr Knightley is an author and journalist, and recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Letters.

Occasional address

Deputy Chancellor, members of the Senate, recipients of degrees, ladies and gentlemen:

It is a special honour to be here today because back in 1945 I failed my university entrance examination. I can only plead that the war ended in my final year at high school, and I found journalism and girls at the same time. Not that girls were easy to find in those days. A group of us from Canterbury Boys’ High tried to arrange a victory celebration dance at St. George Girls’ High School. The girls sought permission from their friendly headmistress. “Certainly,” she said. “As long as you wear your school uniform, finish by eight o’clock and don’t invite any boys.”

Once my parents realised that I was not going to university, I was packed off to work. They had survived the Great Depression and were worried that it might come back. They wanted me to take a steady job, boring though it might be. Instead I found a tremendously exciting one. I was a copy boy at the Daily Telegraph, a glorified editorial messenger boy. The reporters’ room was dotted with famous war correspondents just back from the front, incredibly romantic figures. One was Sam White who wore the first pair of suede desert boots seen in Sydney. But not for long. Walking down Park Street to work one night, White was stopped by the legendary Vice Squad detective, Sergeant Bumper Farrell who warned White that he’d better watch it - “only poofters wear suede” and he’d be wise to keep his filthy foreign habits out of Sydney.

But before White left for Europe - never to return - he opened my eyes to the fact that there was a whole wonderful world out there waiting to be explored, one where people actually spoke French instead of just learning to translate Victor Hugo with a dictionary. A bit of experience of journalism and I’d be off.

I went to work for the Northern Star newspaper in Lismore and learnt the concept of public service journalism: it was the newspaper’s duty to inform its readers what was going on in their town, their district, their state, their country and then the world, in that order. The paper was part of the community and so was I. I learnt that I could make a difference. If the residents of Zadoc Street were unhappy about a hole in the road, then I would write about it and the next day the council would fix it. I thought “Wow, if public service journalism works in a small town, why shouldn’t it work out there in the big world?”

But I confess that I also realised that everything you read in a newspaper is not necessarily true. When I was ordered to write the astrology column, “What Your Stars Hold for Today”, I complained that I knew nothing about astrology. “Don’t worry,” said my boss. Get out the old newspaper files, copy out the stars from ten or fifteen years ago and just jig it around a bit. But don’t give anybody bad luck two days running or they’ll complain.” OK, a fake stars column. Not really a big deal and only a taster of the ethical problems of journalism still to come.

I saved my money and took off for that Mecca of journalism, Fleet Street, and became London correspondent for the Sydney Daily Mirror. It quickly became clear to me that my editors in Sydney hadn’t the faintest idea of what went on in Britain or how the place functioned.

In those pre-email days my orders came by teleprinter, and because of the time difference, in the middle of the English night. They were on the lines of “Ring up Buckingham Palace and ask the Queen why she won’t allow Princess Margaret to marry Group Captain Townsend. Lacking the nerve to do so, I was forced to make increasingly feeble excuses to explain why I had failed my assignment. Then I noticed that the British press carried lots of stories about the Queen without having interviewed her either - all her views were attributed to “the Queen’s friends”, or “Buckingham Palace sources”. It was obvious that these were other names for the journalists themselves. Little changes. When you see in your newspaper today stories where statements or opinions are attributed to anonymous sources you can safely bet that these sources are the reporters themselves, so treat them with scepticism.

The job was still fun. I wrote a few paragraphs how, in Harrods doing my Christmas shopping, I came across a little shivering kangaroo in a cage in the pets’ department.

Back from Sydney came an order from the editor himself. “Our readers have contributed a hundred pounds for us to buy the Harrods kangaroo and find it a good home. Do so as soon as possible and send story and photographs.” Buying the kangaroo was easy - “Do you want it delivered, sir, or will you take it now?” But where to find it a good home? A colleague suggested that the Duke of Bedford who ran a zoo in his castle might be happy to accept a kangaroo as a gift from the Sydney Daily Mirror. He was indeed. So a few days before Christmas I turned up at the Duke’s castle with the kangaroo in a Harrods packing case and a photographer to record the hand-over. The plan was for the Duke’s gamekeeper to prise open the packing case, entice the kangaroo out and for the Duke, the Duchess and several little Dukes and Duchesses to give it a pat or two while the cameraman snapped away. It didn’t work out like that. The gamekeeper opened the case, there was a blur of grey fur and the kangaroo shot past the Duke’s head, cleared the stable wall in one bound and disappeared into the afternoon mist. “Shit,” said the Duke. “The bastard’s bolted.” What to do? Tell the whole truth and disappoint the Mirror readers who had been moved by the kangaroo’s plight? I bent the truth. I wrote that the kangaroo was enjoying Christmas, free to roam the Duke’s vast estates, happy to have left behind the prison cage of the Harrods pet department. A fudge but on balance a justified one.

Of course there were chances over the years to write articles and run campaigns that did make a difference - the old public service journalism that I had first learnt in Lismore. But I did seem to spend a lot of my time in Britain defending Australia and Australians from the stereotyped impression many English held. For instance, a leading London columnist wrote, “Australia is grossly over-rated. It is a vast desert populated by killer crocodiles, man-eating sharks, deadly spiders and men in shorts.” I was due in Australia for a book tour, so I decided this was the right moment to refute such ignorant allegations one by one. But the very day I arrived in Sydney, a crocodile killed a woman in Queensland, a shark took a man in South Australia, there was an invasion of funnel-web spiders on Sydney’s North Shore, and, of course, lots of men in shorts. So I gave up.

Sometimes I think that the trouble is that we and the British share a language and that this creates the illusion that we understand each other. I once had a colleague called Rex Lopez. He was born in Gibraltar but brought up in London and had worked with Australians for years. Then he married an Australian and moved to Sydney. On his first day at work on the Daily Mirror the chief of staff asked him if he thought he could handle the news tips telephone. This is where readers phone with news tips in return for a modest payment. Lopez replied that of course he could. He’d worked with Australians for years. Understood them perfectly.

So he went into the news tips office. The phone rang. Lopez picked it up and an excited man shouted into his ear: “Willi Willi at Woy Woy.” And hung up.”

Those decades of defending Australia have convinced me that, sport apart, we are too modest about our impact on the world. Mark Newson, leading designer; John Williams, world-class classical guitarist, Peter Porter, Queen’s gold medal poet; Patricia Hewitt, House of Commons, Baroness Gardner of Parkes, House of Lords; Sir Alec Broers, vice chancellor of Cambridge University. And in the business world, at one time recently the bosses of Coca Cola, Ford and British Airways were all Australians. We invented the Xerox photocopying process, anthrax vaccine, the black box flight recorder, the inflatable escape chute for aircraft, the bionic ear and in vitro fertilisation, Not to mention Vegemite, Minties and iced-vovos.

So my challenge to all of you about to embark on life’s great adventure, is to get out there and show the world what Australians can do. Commit yourselves to the pursuit of excellence no matter what your job is. Be like Professor James Gabriel, a Scottish doctor who devoted a lifetime to curing diseases of the rectum - not the most inspiring of jobs you might think. But Gabriel achieved such excellence in his career that he was known to generations of grateful patients as “the Arse Angel Gabriel.”

Remember as you go along the most important lesson you will have learnt at school and at this fine institution - education is about more than passing exams. It is acquiring a thirst for learning that will last all your life. And that applies as well to all those proud parents here today. You’re never too old to take a course yourselves and learn something new.

And finally, don’t forget fun at work. A Russian poet got it spot on.

Let’s eat and love
And laugh and dance
Let’s make our life a game
Sad millions toil without romance
But we won’t do the same.