A talk with Antony Funnell

Antony Funnell


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Matt Smith:

Welcome to an Upstart podcast. I would be your host, Matt Smith and this would be a working journalist profile of Antony Funnell.

Antony is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and broadcaster who has worked at the ABC for two decades. He currently produces and presents the program "Future Tense" on ABC Radio National. Journalism seems to be a natural career for some people and this definitely applies to Antony.

Antony Funnell:

I was studying at university. I was studying philosophy and history, and I got almost to the end of my degree and realised I didn't know what I wanted to do for a job, to be honest. But I was quite good at talking and at performing, so I was kind of interested in journalism. I was also very interested in the world.

Unlike most of my contemporaries at university I actually did read newspapers and listen to the radio, which made me a bit different from most of them, including the ones that I ended up with in my media class, I have to say.

So, I enrolled in a journalism course and I was immediately interested in long-form journalism and current affairs. I saw that it was great potential there for actually spending more time covering issues that I felt were more important, and also would offer me the opportunity to story tell, basically.

And radios still offers the greatest chance to actually be experimental and to cover issues much more broadly because there isn't as much setup and you can get people from all over the world over the phone and do interviews very quickly and easily.

Matt Smith:

As someone who is interested in future technology and trends, what kind of technology did you work with back then when you were making radio and are you surprised by how far its come?

Antony Funnell:

I'm surprised by how far it's come in the period of time that it's moved, how quickly it changed. A lot of people forget, or probably didn't know, that the ABC wasn't computerized until the late 80s, early 90s. I worked in radio current affairs and it was considered prestigious then, working for AM, PM, The World Today in 1989-1990. We were one of the last departments in the ABC to get computerized and we weren't computerized until the end of 1990.

So, right up until 1990 we was still bashing away on our Remington typewriters with carbon copy and sending intros between the states via a telex machine, which now sounds incredibly old fashioned. We also used reel-to-reel recorders right up until 1995. They were terrific recorders, wonderful sound; far better than cassette recorders at the time, which is what news was using. So we were still cutting on reel-to-reel with a razor blade and a pencil up until 1995.

And when you consider that, it was only a couple of years later that I was using digital technology to do all of my stories. The change between that period of time was just incredible and I can still remember, I was a graduate cadet in 1986 and the Pope came to visit Australia. I was sent out with a senior reporter to cover the event.

The chief of staff took me to his desk and very proudly gave me responsibility for the mobile phone, which was the size of a suitcase. It was literally a suitcase with a satellite dish. It was actually a satellite phone, really.

I remember having to set it up in a square and it took me about 10 minutes to set this thing up and then another 10 minutes to actually align the little satellite dish so I could use this phone to send my report back from the Pope's visit.

I remember at that time thinking how incredible that was, that I didn't need a landline phone. Now, I had this little suitcase that I could send my report and broadcast live, if we needed to.

Matt Smith:

You travel quite extensively while reporting and I assume this is mostly to do with AM, PM and news of the world broadcast. What sort of aspect do you get from travelling overseas when you're doing that sort of news reporting that you wouldn't get from doing it at home?

Antony Funnell:

You're picking up things firsthand. A lot of the reporting that, even now I tend to do that's focused on overseas issues, you are still very reliant on secondhand experience. You get better and better, I guess, at working out what's real and what's not.

When you're on the ground in the country, you're exposed to a lot more of it yourself. I think it's much easier to make judgments about trends and about these sorts of issues that you're covering when you're there.

I think one of the problems with journalism in the last decade or so is that there has been a shrinking of the foreign bureaus. That meant that a lot of the focus of the journalists who are left overseas is on servicing the daily feed, the daily need for stories, which in a lot of cases takes them away from the exploratory wit that they used to do or could do.

So, they end up stuck in a studio, basically, in London or in Jakarta reporting from overseas, but really in the sense they're reporting from studio and I think that's a great pity.

Matt Smith:

You were in Mongolia, weren't you?

Antony Funnell:

Yes, I was in Mongolia in 1996. I did a couple of stories from there.

Matt Smith:

What took you over there?

Antony Funnell:

Actually, I had some friends who were living over there. So, I went over there for about a month, I think it was. It was actually very hard to get into it that stage. I don't know what it's like at the moment.

At that stage, I was the senior producer for Australia Television News, which was the satellite television news service that the ABC ran as part of Australia Television which is now the Australian Network. So, I took a handy cam with me and did a couple of stories when I was over there.

So, I was basically there for my own benefit but then also I thought, "Well this is a part of the world that never gets any coverage," particularly in a place like Australia. It was going through those momentous changes and so I thought, "I'll take some recording equipment and see what I come up with."

Matt Smith:

When you're in a place like that and you've got the opportunity to do something that has a difference beyond it or you're really at the ground of where something is happening. Do you ever take a holiday where you're not looking at what stories that you could be doing while you're there? Are you always on the job in that aspect?

Antony Funnell:

Yes, which is kind of a bit frustrating for my family, sometimes. Actually, the last time I went overseas, I took a microphone with me and I'd already lined up a couple of people before I left. I didn't tell my partner Bronwyn that I'd done that. It caused a little bit of tension, I have to say; she wasn't very keen on me interrupting our holiday to run off and interview some people.

But I'm a naturally inquisitive person and I'd to see the opportunity, I guess. I love doing that and I like talking to people, and I like finding out about things. So, it just seems to me like often too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Matt Smith:

I find a large part of radio national's different programs is that they're all there to educate on different topics. During your career in ABC Radio, you've worked in Background Briefing, Earth Report, the Law Report, Radio National Breakfast, Media Report, Future Tense. I'm sure I'm missing some there.

What is your favourite sort of program and do they have a lot in common?

Antony Funnell:

My program at the moment, Future Tense, is good in the sense that it has such a broad brief and that's the real strength. It's similar in lots of ways to other programs I've worked on, but being able to touch on such a wide variety of issues and areas for me is a real plus. And that's one of the things that I really enjoy about my current program. Will it last? I don't have any indication that it's going anywhere.

Background Briefing, I found really enjoyable but very difficult. It's a 58-minute documentary program and it's an enormous amount of work to put together a Background Briefing piece.

A lot of my career has been spent doing five/six/seven-minute packages and then when I started with Radio National doing up to half an hour, the difference between a half-hour program and what is essentially an hour-program is just a million miles.

The people who do Background Briefing, they do one every six weeks. For me, I'm always sort of sloppy and all because I know from my experience how difficult it is to maintain that output for several years, I think is quite incredible.

But the beauty of the program is that you do get the opportunity, and the airtime, to actually really get into issues; the challenge then is not just filling the large amount of time, but also having a material that's worthy of filling that amount of time, and also is going to hold the audience for that whole 58 minutes. So in terms of the programs I've worked for, I guess the greatest challenge has been that.

When I used to work for radio current affairs back in the early to mid90s, so AM, PM and The World Today, it was probably a much more robust, combative and competitive department than it is today. You really were competing against other reporters within the unit, and with other reporters out there from other units when you ruffed up the press conferences.

The stress of that and the competitive side of that I really liked. It was bit like a drug; you'd come and get used to it and working to really tight deadlines, but it was quite wearing. I think I did about six years of doing that and by the time I got to the sixth year, I was ready to stop.

Matt Smith:

That point in the late 90s when you seemed to have reached a point where you've had enough of the hecticness, is that why you went to CARE and worked in external relations then?

Antony Funnell:

Yes, I did. I was working for Australia Television News and at that stage they looked like they were closing the network down, which they did and it went off to Channel Seven.

So, it was kind of a natural time to change and I really was keen to do something different. Now, I had no burning ambition to get into the aid industry but it did interest me. So I took a job with CARE Australia, which was an interesting experience, and started as their media manager and then ended up as director of external relations.

I had a great time; I did a lot of the overseas negotiations for CARE Australia in terms of marketing and their external relations. It added to my understanding of the world and my perspective on different issues. One of the pluses of it, I think was, that by the time I went to work for CARE Australia and then I did some work for AusAID after that. I got to the stage where I wasn't sure whether I still wanted to be a journalist anymore. That period was a real thing for me. What I really liked to do was to tell stories and that journalism was a really good way of doing it.

Matt Smith:

In regards to telling stories and radio documentaries, what do they have that news or interviews can't convey?

Antony Funnell:

It's the latitude I suppose that you have to explore an issue. A problem with news, and even short-form current affairs in one way, is that you are very much limited by time and so you have to make compromises to account for that time.

With the sort of longer-form current affairs, you are freer to explore and to search out new ideas and approaches. The problem is there aren't many avenues. I was asked recently why most of my career had been in the ABC, that way in broadcasting.

Matt Smith:

You're jumping ahead.

Antony Funnell:

It's coming ahead. And the answer to that is that the ABC has really been the only organization that's offered that opportunity, sadly, in Australia. For somebody like myself who's interested in serious journalism and then interested in long-form journalism in the broadcast perspective, there are limited opportunities in the commercial sector.

So, my choice to be with the ABC for my career hasn't been because of a burning love for the ABC. It's more a reality that that is where the discussion is happening. I mean, I think that the discussion is opening up a lot more because of online and digital media.

That's changed things a lot, and things like podcasting. So you're actually getting smaller production companies producing some really interesting podcast that by and large, the only organization in Australia that still, as an institution, does regular long-form journalism is the ABC.

Matt Smith:

In 2006, you won a Walkley award for your Background Briefing documentary, "The Financial Abuse of the Elderly". In your opinion, what is it about this program that deserved a Walkley?

Antony Funnell:

Awards are really interesting. There are a lot of journalism awards in the country which aren't worth a cracker and I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with awards. They're very useful once you win one, but people often win awards not for their best work and I suppose that's probably the same with all types of awards.

I particularly liked that particular program, but I wouldn't like to think that that's the best piece of journalism that I've ever done. It was an interesting documentary because it was about abuse of the elderly within our society and it looked at the abuse perpetuated on elderly people by people within their own families. Some of it, abuse that people hadn't realized was abuse.

So, it was an issue that haven't had a lot of coverage in Australia, at least, until that point and I ended up getting more personal stories than I needed. The personal stories, I think, helped illuminate the strength of the program. I ended up not using as much as I possibly could have, because I felt there was a danger that it might overpower the story itself; that in a sense, it was a story about rights. Winning the Walkley for it was a right boost to my career in a sense and that you are seeing in a slightly different way by your contemporaries. That can be a good thing, but then it also means that you've got more to live up to, I guess. But by and large, I think in Australia we hand out too many awards for journalism.

Even with the Walkley, there're probably too many categories each year. They're starting to lose their impact a bit. We're in a bit of crosses period with Australian journalism and we're not sure where we want to go.

So I think, there's a danger that we're using awards and award ceremonies to make ourselves feel good and to make ourselves feel as if we're still relevant and we're still forward moving when in fact, we're uncertain about future for a lot of media organizations.

Matt Smith:

Did you find that your Walkley award made a different in your career?

Antony Funnell:

It did and it didn't. It does to people outside of the ABC, and it certainly does to people outside of Radio National. Within Radio National, not a great deal to be honest.

Radio National tends to be an organization that's made up of high achievers and people who've won lots of awards and done lots of really terrific, groundbreaking documentaries or just really important work all the time. Not as impressive in that sphere because you're dealing with people that just think, "Well, so what," you know?

I'd be lying to say it doesn't help in terms of the ways perceived by the wider community and by other people within journalism.

Matt Smith:

One program that you did work on a couple of years ago was Media Report and that sometimes put you in the interesting position of reporting on the activities of fellow ABC reporters. Did you ever hesitate when telling such stories or did the fact that they were fellow ABC journalists make you want to pursue it a bit harder?

Antony Funnell:

I probably didn't hesitate enough, which is possibly, why the program no longer exists. One of the interesting things that Jonathan Holmes said when he took over Media Watch on ABC TV was that he was having to take it on because he saw it as a new challenge for himself personally. But also that he was toward the end of his career therefore, he wasn't worried about upsetting too many people within the profession and within his own organization.

I think the problem that the Media Report on the Radio National was that its brief was really like already a national program, to take a critical look at the media. So, just not to highlight the changes that were going on in media, but to analyze and to critique what was going on, and you can't choose to ignore your own organization if that's your brief.

In a country like Australia particularly, where the ABC is such a dominant force within the media landscape, I think it's actually an imperative that that type of program question the ABC and ABC executives in the same way that you would question the head of any other commercial organization, and to not do that would be remiss.

So doing that, is quite a confronting experience then and I think in the last year of the Media Report, I head on the head of the ABC. I also head on the then head of radio in what was a combative interview. I also head on the head of television about significant changes that have happened within the television sphere.

As a journalist, I guess it's quite a daunting thing to be having to be rigorous in your journalism in your interviewing with people who are your superiors and who have, potentially, so much power over your job or over future positions that you will hope to occupy. I mean, you do hesitate, to be honest. You're cautious toward those kinds of interviews, but you do them nonetheless.

When I've interviewed Mark Scott and it was an interview in which I had questions for him about the direction the ABC was going in. My initial thought was, "If he was the head of Fairfax," whom I've interviewed not very long beforehand, "What sort of approach would I have taken to the head of Fairfax," and decided "Well, that's the approach I should take as well."

But it is in the back in your mind as you're doing that, that it's probably a career-shortening thing to do. But I don't think any organization wants to hear internal criticism of itself, even if they have mechanisms and they profess that they do. It's like all of us; it's very difficult to have your motivations questioned and I don't think the ABC, for all of its internal rigor and its openness, is any different in that respect.

Matt Smith:

With your work now in Future Tense, are you where you want to be in the ABC?

Antony Funnell:

Yes, I'm really happy with Future Tense at the moment. It's a program that has quite a unique brief, and I was part of the drawing up of the brief so that kind of helped so I suppose. It is our role to critique, to examine, to take things seriously and to question, and I quite like that. I think, one of the problems with journalism overall, and it's a criticism of ABC as other organizations, is there isn't that sort of questioning role.

More and more we're kind of getting caught, I think, in different ways with the mechanisms of putting out information, rather than helping people to assess and process the information. And I think that's a pity and so, I would like in my future career to be in a situation where I can still critique, I can still question, I can still act as a verifier of information, if you like.

The danger is that we're all becoming just processors of information and distributors of information, and I think that's one of the reasons why we so much journalism is that if you have that approach, then it's very easy than just to see a press release's information. Your role as being one to distribute that, rather than your role being to actually dig out, look for stories and then question the elements of those stories.

Matt Smith:

How would you describe your journalistic style?

Antony Funnell:

I think my journalistic style has changed overtime. I come from a news current affairs background, I spent a long time learning to keep myself out of the product and that my opinions don't matter. I think that's still a sound advice for journalism overall.

The sort of program I do at the moment has a much more personal aspect to it. In any given Future Tense story, there's a bit more of me. The audience kind of like that because it's not a strict news current affairs start program, it is more of an exploration of ideas. When we do, do a program where there is a contentious idea that we want to explore, I take much more straight-down-the-line news current affairs approach.

But even so, even in terms of injecting myself into the program, I'm always very mindful to make sure that while there's a bit of my personality coming across in the writing and the interplay, my opinions don't come across for the simple fact that it's irrelevant. My opinion isn't what you should be worried about; I'm giving your various perspectives and I'm putting it in front of you.

I've had to learn to do that. It goes against my natural sort of grain, coming from a news current affairs background. We've got to make sure within the journalistic community, that we actually understand who should comment and who shouldn't. The two aren't necessarily the same.

There's a role for straight reporting and straight journalism, and there is a role for people's opinions and comments and making sure that the line between the two is kept in place and not blurred.

Matt Smith:

Antony Funnell, thank you for your time today.

Antony Funnell:

Thank you.