Michael Cavanagh: beginning the next chapter after ABC redundancy

Journalist Michael Cavanagh is one of many staff leaving the ABC during the latest round of redundancies.

As he walks out the door for the last time, he looks back at his achievements and shares the thinking behind his decision to accept a redundancy.


After a great ride of over 30 years in mainstream media, predominantly with the ABC as well as wire services and commercial radio and television, it is time to begin another chapter in life’s rich tapestry.
I began in Canberra in my early 20’s with the Macquarie network. At the time it was a viable news and current affairs alternative to the ABC and I found myself in a bureau covering the early days of the Hawke/Keating administration which only whetted my appetite for more.
It was the only show in town, and since then it has been fun and challenging and a privilege to be able to observe and report on a myriad or stories and issues from tragedy to the light-hearted, painting a picture for listeners, viewers and readers.
Whether it be reporting on the recession that we had to have, or being involved in the dismissal of a prime minister, although not as dramatic as the one of 1975.
As a member of the Canberra Press Gallery cricket team in the annual cricket match against the PM’s office, I was involved in the downfall of RJL Hawke, catching the PM off the bowling of Barrie Cassidy.
There was much of that with the ABC over the years in various forms.

Being held in a small room under the watchful eye of a member of China’s People’ Service Bureau, I still managed to file to ABC Radio News and Current Affairs. This came about when, as the Beijing-based ABC China Correspondent, I had headed off to a major shopping centre to report on a rare public display of dissent, only to find myself being led away by police and then being accused of sparking a riot.
I still managed to use my mobile phone to file to the then Early PM programme, with host, the late Mark Colvin just rolling tape with very little preamble, knowing that at any time I may be stopped.
I finished with minutes to spare, with the report going to air, which also set in train a series of actions within Foreign Affairs, resulting in myself and my two ABC colleagues Jane Hutcheon and the late Sebastian Phua being released after around four hours of detention, following my signing several documents effectively admitting that I had behaved poorly.

Checking what was then a small camera with ABC cameraman Sebastian Phua on the streets outside the ABC’s Beijing bureau.This at a time when a westerner with a camera quite often attracted unwanted attention from authorities, so unauthorised filming often had to be done quickly.


When my China stint came to an end, I returned to Sydney to set up and produce the News/Caff coverage of the Sydney Olympics, and while it was tremendous to be able to have a front row seat at such things as the opening of the games with Cathy Freeman centre stage, and then later her 400 metre win, it was important not to get swept up in the euphoria.
Avoiding jingoism to me is all important and it brought home to me the importance of not getting too close.
This was never more stark than several years earlier when I was sent to be the field producer of coverage of what is Australia’s worst peace time disaster, the Thredbo Landslide.
Only hours after it occurred I was on my way to the snow fields from Canberra expecting to be there only for a short time, unaware that it would be over a week before I left a village that had been ripped apart by the tragedy.
It also emphasised to me the need to empathise in reporting, but it is not our role to sympathise.

In all of that tragedy there was a stark example of why I enjoyed reporting for the ABC. Walking back one night to my hotel room I passed a petrol station in the village about to close. A notice in the window stated fuel was available to everyone but the media. I stopped and went in and asked about the sign and was given a free in-depth analysis of the media’s behaviour as the rescue attempts continued. I stood there and listened, every now and then explaining what I thought was the ABC’s role.
Shaking hands with the proprietor I left and the following day the sign had been amended stating that fuel was available to the general public, and also the ABC while other media was still excluded.
My experience at Thredbo put me in good stead many years later when covering the bushfires of 2020.
Just as I was about to go to air on the NSW Country Hour, a farmer I knew walked up to me and put her arms over my shoulder and burst into tears. I managed to conduct a Q & A with host Michael Condon, who was totally unaware of what was occurring, while at the same time the distraught farmer was able to let her emotions run with the audience none the wiser.
Again not crossing the line between empathising and sympathising.
There was no need to worry about that when I was researcher/producer for Kerry O’Brien on the Keating/Hewson election debates.
Working with Kerry, intellectually I had to be on my toes, while always aware the political parties and interest groups would be carefully watching.
The bulk of my reporting has been independent of newsrooms. It has been extraordinary to be given the latitude and confidence of some EP’s and certain management to inject a bit of “rat baggery”, into the story and being able to paint a picture and take the reader/audience to the scene always the priority. This was done with the knowledge that some senior figures in the ABC on the different News/Caff programmes would back you, even if at times there some wonderful robust editorial discussions.
It was achieved through an esprit de corps and a determination to get the story out, whether on Radio, Television or Online.
My last stint has been in Rural, an area of the ABC where primary reporting is paramount.

Broadcasting the early morning Rural Report from the field such as a farmers breakfast at Rydal while could at times be a bit nippy, were always fun and helped explain the issues to a wide audience who would often identify with the subject.

I have been fortunate, working in News/Caff in the federal bureau, overseas, Radio Australia and the then international arm of TV, and Rural, with others who valued editorial rigour and a good argument.
While uncertain what road I will next take, which is likely to be out of Australia’s daily mainstream media, one experience demonstrated to me that life outside a media organisation can still be interesting.

There was a 12 month foray out of Australian media which took me to the Solomon Islands where I worked with local media developing messages explaining to the community the measures being implemented as the Pacific nation recovered from its bloody conflict.
I didn’t realise when taking on the job that one day I would find myself trapped in the country’s Parliament house as rioters laid siege to the building. I had gone up there in the morning to observe the law makers at work and I managed to get out unscathed, while for the next few days buildings burned as the simmering tensions once again spilled over.
Very different to my initial experience of covering Australian politics often from the front steps of Old Parliament House where I did not need to duck for cover from rocks being hurled at the legislature.
The media landscape is changing dramatically, with large and small organisations trying to come up with a successful model.

Being offered a redundancy helps focus.

It prompted me to think about where to next and also to reflect on what I have achieved. It made the decision to move on much easier.

I will miss journalism.

It is about recognising a story, the thrill of the chase and talking to the various players and then communicating it in a manner that the audience/reader understands, learns something and at times is moved is exciting.

There are also the times that reporting forces change, which is exhilarating.

I will also miss the people that I worked with to get the story out, and more importantly meeting and talking to the people who are the story. Achieving it all while meeting a deadline is a great rush.

What won’t be missed is waiting for phone calls to be returned. Journalism is probably 90 per cent waiting and ten per cent pulling the story together and getting it out.

Increasingly in journalism there is the paperwork and process, which to some is more important now than editorial rigour and the story.

Probably the most frustrating thing, now that I have left, is talking to someone and realising there is a story, but not having an outlet to publish it on.

Having spent the bulk of my adult life beholden to deadlines, what has surprised me so far is that I now accept not shaping my day around them.

It is all these skills and experiences which now have me thinking of how I can adapt the skills I have, while still enjoying meeting people and listening to them with the resulting rush.

I have no idea what the next chapter will involve, but I am sure it will be as much fun as it has been over the past decades.

Michael Cavanagh
[email protected]

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Michael Cavanagh: beginning the next chapter after ABC redundancy





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