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Seventy Years in Journalism
An interview with OhmyNews citizen reporter Eric Shackle
Claire George (aeogae)     Print Article 
Published 2006-07-24 14:29 (KST)   
Veteran Sydney journalist Eric Shackle has been writing for OhmyNews International since June 2006. Claire George, an OhmyNews editor, interviewed him on July 23.  <Editor's Note>
You migrated to Australia from England in 1929 at the age of 10. That must have been a dramatic change. Why did your parents decide to migrate, what were your first impressions of your new home, and how soon did you stop feeling homesick?

Eric Shackle
©2006 Eric Shackle
Born 1919, migrated 1929. My father, wounded by shrapnel on the Western Front in World War I, was convinced Britain would be involved in a second European war, and wanted his family to escape its horrors. The voyage to Australia took six weeks. When our ship arrived in Sydney, we passed between the unjoined ends of the Harbor Bridge. A tram depot occupied the site of the Opera House. The family moved on to New Zealand in 1931. I left home to seek fame and fortune in Australia in 1937, but never achieved either goal. Served with the Australian Army in New Guinea in WWII. Lived in or near Sydney ever since.

Many people still want to migrate to Australia today, although obviously it's much harder to do it because the visa regulations are so tight. What advice would you give to anyone who does make the transition? How can they overcome the homesickness and settle in?

As a 10-year-old, I seldom thought about the past, being fully occupied exploring the strange new country, learning about its history and geography, and making new friends at primary school. Grown-up migrants miss their former surroundings much more than kids. My mother was homesick for the rest of her life.

My advice to new migrants from everywhere is to mix with Australians as much as possible, instead of spending all your time with your own expats. And learn to speak Strine.

What do you mean by Strine?

That's how many newly-arrived migrants imagine we pronounce the word "Australian." Alastair Morrison, who called himself Afferbeck Lauder (that's Strine for "alphabetical order") wrote a very funny book, Let Stalk Strine, in 1965.

You began your career in journalism as a copyboy for a New Zealand newspaper in 1935. What on earth is a copyboy?

A copyboy stood on the lowest rung of the journalistic ladder. He was the office-boy, messenger, cigarettes and sandwich buyer, and at The Press in Christchurch, relief telephone switchboard operator, and collector of the day's sunshine and rainfall records from the newspaper's rooftop at midnight. Many of the world's most famous editors began their careers as copyboys. There's an old gag, "Be kind to your copyboy. You never know when he will become your editor."

What were the Australian and New Zealand media like in the 1930s compared to later on?

Well, looking back on them, I must admit the newspapers were pretty dull. The front pages displayed nothing but small ads -- no news at all. In New Zealand, at any rate, we made lavish use of scissors and paste, clipping stories from overseas newspapers and pasting them up without permission or any regard for copyright. The radio stations depended on the newspapers for most of their news, just as talkback hosts still do today. And of course, there was no television.

One of your earliest stories was published for a newspaper when you were 18. What kind of journalist were you when you first started out?

A very bad one. I was thrown in at the deep end of the pool. I was rarely shown the ropes, and received no formal training in New Zealand. I did spend a valuable year or so as a copyholder in the reading-room, where the galley proofs were checked for grammar and typos. That taught me a lot about type faces, and I could see how the sub-editors had amended the reporters' raw copy.

My first writing job was as offsider to Hans Martin, the Agriculture Editor of The Press. I had to scramble through the usually muddy livestock pens and over the post-and-rail fences at the saleyards to record the names of the farmers selling their sheep and cattle by auction, and the prices achieved for each lot.

What kind of stories did you cover?

In 20 years as a knockabout Sydney journo, I was at various times police roundsman, State political roundsman, Federal parliamentary reporter (in Canberra), feature writer and columnist.

Did you (as journalists have a reputation for being a bit unethical) ever write anything that you now regret?

Yes.

What was your most exciting "scoop"?

Well, when I was writing a front-page column in the Daily Mirror as a stand-in for Sidney Mann while he was on holidays, I was first to reveal that a well-known male radio and TV personality had become engaged to an equally famous female singer. That part was correct. Unfortunately, I named the wrong girl. It's often said that if a scoop is still a scoop the next day, you should start to worry. Fortunately, all three performers I'd named were highly amused by my error, and didn't sue. They knew that any publicity is good publicity, and they had all made the front-page twice: the erroneous item one day, followed next day by an abject apology.

Did you ever meet anyone famous? Have you got any gossip for us?

While I was a political writer, I attended press conferences or reported speeches by several serving or previous Australian Prime Ministers, including Billy Hughes (when he was 90, and still an MP), Earle Page, John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Bob Menzies and Arty Fadden. I've just realised that I've seen, heard or spoken to 16 of the 25 Prime Ministers appointed since Federation of the Australian states in 1901.

In 1955, with a wife and four young sons, I decided I needed greater job security, so quit newspapers to become New South Wales public relations officer for British Petroleum (BP), a post I held for 20 years. Since BP sponsored several national TV shows, I met several big names in the sporting and entertainment fields, including Stirling Moss, Donald Campbell, and Bob Crosby (Bing's brother).

When did you get into food writing?

That happened by chance, just after I bought my first computer, when I was 79. I'd written a story about food, and decided to offer it to a British foodie magazine that no longer exists (its owner migrated to Australia). He liked the story, and asked me to write one a month for him, which I did. Ironically, I know nothing about cooking. Which reminds me that once long ago, knowing nothing about opera, I was appointed opera critic by the editor of a Melbourne magazine, who happened to have been a friend and colleague on the Sydney Daily Telegraph.

You didn't enjoy the years immediately after your retirement but at aged 80 you discovered the internet. Someone reading this might be planning to retire soon. Have you got any advice that will help them get through the transition? What mistakes should they avoid?

Just because you've retired, don't admit you're getting old. Remain active, both physically and mentally, as long as you can. Enjoy some form of exercise every day, such as golf or lawn bowls, or even an hour's brisk walk. Then search the internet, and read some of the 500 stories in Life Begins at 80... on the Internet.

Do you read blogs and have you ever thought of setting one up?

Only if I stumble across one by chance, when researching a story. There are thousands (perhaps millions) of blogs, and many of them offer great entertainment. Perhaps one of these days someone will publish a Reader's Digest of Best Blogs... and e-Books.

How much time do you spend online?

Far too much, my wife used to say. Four to six hours a day.

What has the internet taught you about human behavior?

Nothing I didn't know already.

When did you first learn about OhmyNews? What do you think about citizen journalism and its quest to give a voice to people excluded from mainstream journalism?

I first heard about OhMyNews only a few weeks ago, and was so impressed by the concept that I immediately registered as a citizen reporter. I think the idea of reader participation is the path the world's media will follow in the next few years. Thankfully, trained and competent journalists will still be needed to lick the amateur contributions into shape and check their accuracy.

I'm nearly 30 and I've noticed that my attitudes and thoughts have changed a lot since I was 20. I think I'm typical in the way I've changed. I'm curious to know whether I'll keep changing. Looking back at your life do you see yourself as someone who's constantly changed as a person?

To quote the words used by the famous American writer H.L. Mencken when he replied to his numerous critics (without even reading their letters): Dear Sir (or Madame): You may be right.

Who are your favourite OhmyNews writers?

Claire George and Eric Shackle, of course.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Claire George

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