Staring at the Sun
The day that turns a life upside down usually starts like any other. You open your eyes, swing your body out of bed, eat breakfast, get dressed and leave the house, your mind busy. As you close the front door behind you, rarely is there a tingle of unease that something is off. Later, when the story of what happened next comes to be told, it will start with the day’s deceptive ordinariness, something that will now seem incredible. How could a blindside so momentous have struck on a day that began so unremarkably?
In late 2014, the news media was dominated by two such days, so unimaginable in their endings that they rattled even those of us far removed from the events. On the afternoon of November 25, a sparkling spring day, a young cricketer, Phillip Hughes, was fatally struck by a ball during a game. And on December 15, at morning tea time in a Sydney café, a gunman took eighteen people hostage, two of them – Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson – killed by the siege’s end.
Phillip Hughes had padded up as he’d done since childhood. Katrina Dawson had left her law office and popped downstairs for a hot chocolate. Tori Johnson had gone about his business on a regular day at work. Where was the last sign to exit the freeway, the chance to change course? It feels as if the universe cheated them by not warning that this was a day to stay home. If the universe – or fate, luck, God, happenstance, whatever you want to call it – didn’t give them that courtesy, then it probably won’t offer it to you or me either.
There are choices we all make in the full knowledge that they will alter the course of our lives: whether to marry or have children or change jobs. We expect such decisions to have consequences. The confronting thing about the cricket accident and the Lindt siege is that the choices leading to disaster were so minor they would have been barely worth contemplation. What family could imagine that sending their boy to cricket instead of soccer is a decision about how long he will live? Who could possibly function wondering each day if a decision about sharing a hot drink with a friend was a matter of life or death? We all make similar choices without pause every moment of every day, blessedly oblivious to where they might lead. There’s no way to stop the clandestine forces, marshalled by insignificant decisions, that will clash in a future instant. Some will have been on their trajectories for years, others for minutes. They level the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful, without discrimination. It’s straightforward to grasp this intellectually, but deeply emotionally uncomfortable to be prodded with the sharpness of the reality. The events in the news in late 2014 magnified the deepest truth of being alive, a fact that is both wonderful and terrible all at once – we never know what is coming next.
I have been a journalist for twenty-five years, and watching these kinds of indiscriminate tragedies play out is part of my professional life every day. From the very first newswriting lecture I attended, in February 1991 at the Queensland University of Technology, I knew I had found the right career for me. I loved everything about journalism: talking to people, writing stories, crafting headlines, editing text, and studying all sorts of different subjects under the pressure of a deadline. I would sit in the cafeteria at lunchtime with friends who were enrolled in law and accounting and think to myself with smug glee how dull their courses sounded by comparison. I still feel that way about journalism and I try not to take for granted how fortunate I am to have a job I enjoy so much.
As a young reporter, I was sent on every sort of story imaginable: floods, droughts, court cases, protest marches, police raids, murder trials, environmental messes, lunches for the homeless, colour features about the Royal Brisbane Show, surf accidents, sporting scandals, political downfalls. One thing I quickly learned was that I was not one of those journalists who thrive chasing ambulances or disasters. I did not like coming face to face with tragedy or pain. I remember doing an overnight shift on the chief-of-staff desk at Channel Nine in 1994, and listening to the police scanner when two firefighters died battling a blaze in a Gold Coast home. The cameraman on the scene transmitted his footage back to me in the newsroom. He had captured their bodies being recovered from the house. My job was to make a list of all the key shots for the reporter who’d be assigned the story first thing in the morning: I was pretty certain that this was as close to death as I wanted to get. Over time, I gravitated to politics as much as possible, feeling more at ease dealing with a political tragedy than a genuine one.
I spent the first ten or so years of my career covering various news rounds and, amazingly, mostly managed to avoid firsthand exposure to true horror. I’ve never had to attend a car crash before the victims were cut from the vehicle, almost a rite of passage for many young journalists and police officers. I’ve never been sent to a war zone. I admire enormously my colleagues who do that sort of reporting because I know I do not have the courage or temperament for it.
From late 2001, just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I was the North America correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I didn’t avoid disaster entirely (I was despatched to New Orleans to cover the calamitous Hurricane Katrina), but my stint there was heavily dominated by the politics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the imprisonment of an Australian, David Hicks, at the US military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. I interviewed people who had lost family members in those wars and I visited Guantanamo a few times. For me it was not traumatic, because unlike the people I met and observed, I was able to return to my normal life after a few days.
For the past decade I’ve been largely studio-bound as an anchor, mostly on 7.30, the ABC’s flagship nightly current affairs program. It is journalism of which I’m very proud and I could not have more respect for my colleagues. In my role, I sometimes interview people on the best days of their lives and often on the worst. I do so from the comfort and safety of an air-conditioned studio but it can still be painful, night after night, to immerse myself in the misery of the news. At least a couple of nights a week we run an item that comes close to reducing me to tears.
In one fairly typical news month on 7.30 – March 2016 – we covered child sex abuse by Catholic priests; coal workers dying horrible deaths from black lung; Fijian people devastated by a cyclone; nursing home residents abused by their carers; insurance companies refusing to pay people in dire need, even though they’d faithfully paid their premiums; a dance teacher who sexually abused children; a famous swimmer diagnosed with melanoma; five hundred people suddenly losing their jobs at an oil refinery; a suicide bombing in Turkey; students abducted by a Thai junta; a woman whose face was smashed with a hammer by her partner; a terrorist attack at Brussels airport; and a television star’s degeneration from multiple sclerosis. Of course, there were other, happier stories too but the sad ones seem to make a stronger impact.
Notably, on the day of a terrorist attack, a mass-fatality accident or some other major news story, the number of viewers watching 7.30 will almost certainly be bigger than usual. A public disaster appears to make television ratings spike. People seem perversely but irresistibly attracted to catastrophe when it happens to others, while in our daily lives we do everything possible to shield ourselves from these poison darts of fate. We eat leafy green vegetables, apply sunscreen, wear seatbelts, obey speed limits, quit smoking, walk for half an hour a day, install spongy ground under monkey bars and swings, ban peanut butter sandwiches in schools, limit coffee intake, cut down on saturated fats, don bicycle helmets, submit to wanding, patting, screening and X-raying every time we fly, put non-slip mats in the shower, restrict ourselves to only one glass of red wine each day, and permit doctors to regularly scrape, probe and squeeze our private parts. It’s as if we hope that watching others’ misfortune might somehow teach us what new precautions we can add to our list to avoid the same fate.
I know rationally that the news is not a mirror held up to life. It is highly selective. (As one of my journalism lecturers told my class, ninety-nine helicopters might fly safely on any given day: what makes news is the one that did not.) Even so, reporting awful events for hours every day has made me fearful. In December 2014, I often lay awake at the thought of all the people who had recently found themselves in the news when their lives had been upended. I could scarcely bear to contemplate the questions those tragedies raised. Why them? Why not me? Why not somebody I love? When will it be my turn?
I felt an unshakable sense of dread that the wheel of fate had to be spinning for me too, the ball skipping towards my number.
Something had happened in my own life at the start of 2014 that changed me profoundly and undoubtedly contributed to my fear that my luck was running out.