THE last time I was asked to write a character reference for Lindsay Tuffin was in the case of the Crown v Tuffin over the matter of a high alcohol reading. Now that case is well and truly lost, and Mr Tuffin leaves hotels late of a night by pushbike, I can admit how difficult it was to write the truth in that document about Mr Tuffin.

For he is not a man who fits into the easy mould of conformity and respectability, those soul crushing notions of how we ought live, of who we might be.

At any time of the night or day he can appear out of the darkened recesses of a bar or restaurant, oft times clad in an improbable motley of black leather, dark lycra and polished bike chains, looking all the world like a praying mantis off to a S & M club. He is ever full not of opinion, but of enquiry, of wanting to know what others think, seeking to uncover what and why this particular world is the way it is.

He is, one discovers at such times, also possessed of unusual passions. I have met him in pubs in the early hours of the morning seemingly robbed of all powers of speech, and then when the conversation turned to mid 20th century poets, Mr Tuffin, while sliding beneath the table like a floppy piece of licorice, recited from memory several stanzas of Auden. On the matter of poetry he is a partisan of the Roman erotic poet Catullus, who he is also fond of quoting:

I felt another hunger poke,
up through my tunic
And poling my cloak.

It may come as a surprise to some, as it did to me, to learn that Mr Tuffin is the son of a Marrawah soldier-settler, an ex-preacher turned into a heretic, who at some point refused to any longer repeat the weary shibboleths of his time, as had been his job as a journalist. But then he is a west coaster, and that always explains much that is inexplicable. At some point he found his concept of journalism and his work with The Mercury irreconcilable, and so in October 2002 he published the first issue of the Tasmanian Times on the web.

The curious path of big money in Tasmania

It was hoped that this venture would come to pay its own way, however humbly. Nearly four years later I have to report that that not one person has ever made a penny out of it, although it is only fair to add that Mr Tuffin and his long suffering family have lost a great deal more money on it than anyone else.

And yet, in a century’s time, I have no doubt it will be to the electronic archives of Tasmanian Times that historians will turn seeking to discover the truth of these strange times in our island.

Why is this? Because in recent years the Tasmanian Times has been the one consistent, courageous voice raised in determined questioning of the deals, the relationships, the curious path of big money in Tasmania; the only vehicle trying to report not only what is happening in Tasmania, but also seeking to discover why it is happening.

In spite of a complete lack of capital; ongoing abuse — Premier Paul Lennon publicly termed the site “fucking useless”, and recurrent threats — who can forget that memorable occasion when Mr Tuffin was told by a Jim Bacon minder to pull down a translation of a Le Figaro feature on Tasmania’s forest or be sued; Le Figaro, the minion added when asked, was more difficult to check up on — in spite of all this, Mr Tuffin has been instrumental in getting published the stories that formed the basis for major exposes on Tasmanian politics and business in international newspapers such as Le Monde and The Observer, and national newspapers and television current affairs programs such as Four Corners and the Sunday Program.

It was the Tasmanian Times that broke the stories everyone else was too frightened too run. Why, we might ask, did the local media not think it a matter of public import that Federal Hotels was given a 15 year gaming licence estimated to be worth in excess of $120 million dollars to the Tasmanian taxpayer for no charge? Why did they not think that the fact of the Premier’s house being renovated by Gunns not a matter of public interest? And why, when that issue finally drew the Premier’s irritable and childish responses did the local media not follow up and ask the questions that would be asked in any other western democracy, such as these: were there other quotes? If there were, where is the documentary proof of them, and if there is not, why is there not? Why did the local media buy the Premier’s pathetic, petulant and utterly absurd excuse that such matters were an attack on his family, when, with the lack of documented evidence to prove otherwise, they invited the suspicion that they might speak of an attack on our democracy?

A photo of Mrs Gay wearing a fur coat

Why is it that the Launceston Examiner can run on its front page, as it did but a few short weeks ago, an extraordinary story in which the wife of Gunns’ chairman John Gay claims persecution by Green extremists. Accompanying the story was a photo of Mrs Gay wearing a fur coat, showing her to have a slightly improbable face that appeared as if recently steam ironed.

Now it is a matter of record — if not of front page reportage in Tasmania —  that conservationists are bashed, lose jobs, have their cars firebombed and homes burnt, and routinely receive death threats. So where was the evidence to back up the extraordinary claim of the clearfelling contessa?

“She said,” the article reported, “Mr Gay’s photo was plastered everywhere in Melbourne with the words “rapist” and “murderer” written on it.”

I have friends and family in Melbourne. When I rang them on this matter, none had seen any photos of John Gay, far less ones maligning the misunderstood millionaire monopoly chairman. Of course, Melbourne is a big town — bigger, dare I say it, even than Launceston — and I am not saying it didn’t happen. Only that no one I know knew about any of it. Most people I rang didn’t even know who John Gay was. Yet without one piece of supporting evidence, the Examiner ran this, and several of other of Mrs Gay’s assertions, as a front page story. As the truth.

Even more bizarre has been the Pravda-like grovelling of the Mercury to the Lennon government in recent weeks. Hardly a day seems to pass without another large profile on yet one more gifted, hard working and highly intelligent Tasmanian cabinet minister. One wonders at such riches: not one moustache-bordered jowl waiting for another free dinner to dribble down its puffy declines belongs to other than that of a horny handed son of the people who understands the ordinary Tasmanian; not one dull eyed, guppy mouthed woman on the Labor benches can be described by the Mercury as anything other than ‘a rising star’ and ‘possible future premier’. If the Mercury is to be believed, not since Churchill assembled his war cabinet has such brilliance graced a Westminster parliament.

Then there is the ABC

And all led by a man, who the Mercury repeatedly describes as honest — why, one wonders, do they feel the compulsive need to so constantly tell us this is so? —and a model for leaders around Australia.

Then there is the ABC. They consistently avoid the stories that matter. Why? Why? Why? Is it cowardice? Is it closeness? Is it mates? I don’t know, but it beggars belief that that their leading commentator, Tim Cox, was allowed to deliver rapturous elegies as he MCed Jim Bacon’s funeral, then continue to pronounce on Tasmanian politics as though he was an impartial observer. If Jon Faine in Melbourne had ever been so foolish he would have lost his job as the ABC radio’s leading voice there long ago. Because anywhere else such matters are deemed — as they are — an inescapable conflict of interest.

How is it that when the staunchly pro-Gunns, pro-Bacon Examiner’s editor Rod Scott quit his job to become a highly paid senior minder for Paul Lennon this was seen — not as it would be anywhere else — as a scandal damning both editor and newspaper as guilty of bias and self-interest, but rather, as it was treated by the media here, as the glowing culmination of a successful career?

If public life is debauched in Tasmania, the Tasmanian media must take much of the blame. Only a newspaper as stupid and craven to power as the Mercury could describe Robin Gray as one of Tasmania’s top ten premiers. It is a matter of historical record that Robin Gray brought Tasmania the closest to bankruptcy that it has been in the last century. It is a matter of historical record that he, according to the Carter Royal Commission, and I quote ‘knew of and was involved with Rouse in Rouse’s attempt to bribe [Jim] Cox’, a corruption of democracy from which he would have emerged the winner as the reinstated premier.

How can we expect any serious examination of the abuses of present day power if such a politician of known failings is hailed as one of our great leaders?

But to return to my earlier question: Why? Why is it that our media has become so captive to power and money?

Tyranny last century took the form of big brother, the omnipotent, omniscient totalitarian state. But today a new spectre haunts the world, a spectre that links Halliburton with Gunns, and places George Bush on a continuum at another end of which can be found Paul Lennon, for the flames that engulf Bagdad have their origins in the same suppression of truth by corporate power that leads to the flames that engulf the old growth forests of Tasmania.

Tasmanian media happily plays the part of a Greek chorus

And though our tragedies are smaller, of far less consequence, perhaps we do have a global standing in infamy in this regard if in no other: for here in Tasmania two corporations, the woodchipping monopoly Gunns, and the gaming monopoly, Federal Hotels, have become so powerful that the Tasmanian government now identifies the state’s interest and that of these two corporations as one and happily denounces any who question the activities of big business as traitors to Tasmania. And in all this the Tasmanian media happily plays the part of a Greek chorus: repeating lies, deriding truth, denouncing critics of power.

It is no secret that in a climate of fear and intimidation where the government now seems to exist only as a client and standover man for big business, the Tasmanian media has been both cowed and duchessed to kill some stories and to run puff pieces in their place. But like any beggar at the gate they enjoy their occasional proximity with power and confuse it with shared knowledge and commonality of interest. For the Tasmanian media not only celebrate the powerbrokers but crave intimacy with them and their opinions; they laud rather than question their projects; they join with them in mocking any voice raised in questioning. Their record is beyond pitiful.

In consequence, almost every major story about Tasmania is broken not in Tasmania’s mainstream media but either on Tasmanian Times or in the mainland media. How ironic, how shameful it is that you are more likely to read an insightful article about contemporary Tasmanian politics in the New York Times or the London Guardian than in a Tasmanian newspaper.

It is then all the more remarkable that a few journalists continue against the greatest odds to seek to get up stories they believe that matter. One such is Jocelyn Nettlefold with The 7.30 Report. Another is Simon Bevilacqua who has with extraordinary courage and integrity continued to do the hard, difficult stories that go to the heart of the tragedy of much that is happening in Tasmania. Most journalists, particularly those who fight for what they believe,  end up cynics. Not so Simon. There is running through Simon’s stories a quiet steely concern for the truth animated by a great love for the Tasmanian land and people. We are lucky to have him and I hope one day we find a way of honouring his brave, and for me, every Sunday, immensely heartening contribution.

But these are people working in occupied territory. Mr Tuffin, on the other hand, has had the freedom of an outlet unencumbered by the compromises and corrosion of the old media. Too much though is made of the importance of technology in the success of his venture. This is a vehicle that arose out of the failure of existing media on the one hand, and a determined connection with the world as it is on the other hand. It connected neither with ideology or power, but with hope and anguish, with dreams and with nightmares, with the world as we know it and must suffer it and seek to change it.

Freedom of speech matters; truth must be told

The powerful rail against the Tasmanian Times, denounce and dismiss it. But I meet more and more people who see it as the only outlet that explains their world to them. For in the end there is a human hunger for truth as real and as undeniable as our hunger for food. It will seek what it needs and it will take it from where it can get it.

Mr Tuffin’s central and unshaken belief is that freedom of speech matters, that the truth must be told and not suppressed, and that to achieve these goals is journalism’s highest task.

I am often portrayed in the Tasmanian media as a Green or a Wilderness Society member. But I am not. I belong to no party and no organisation. Tasmania’s problems would not end with a Green government or an enlightened Labor or Liberal government. If I once believed in parties and ideas I no longer do. The guarantee of our freedoms, the hope of our tomorrows, does not lie with any organisation nor any ideology. It does not reside in the worship of this or that individual. It reposes rather in the truth, in the truth being allowed to be spoken, in the truth being responded to. It lives in the heart of every unknown citizen willing to stand up and say this or that is wrong. It walks and breathes in our capacity to allow people to express what they think and believe, and to do so in their organisations, in their actions conducted with respect and integrity, in their public speech and published writings.

And this guarantee of our freedoms is under attack by pernicious law suits that redefine democratic activity as criminal conspiracy; it is under attack from legislation that redefines protest as sedition; and it is under attack in our island from a media that has become an accessory to the crimes of corporate Tasmania rather than a check upon its abuses.

Tasmania today can seem a land of liars and cheats, of thieving corporations and bullying money and its standover men, of despair and anguish, an absurd nightmare where black is routinely reported as white.

But it’s our Tasmania too.

It’s our land and its our people, its our lives and our hopes, our stories and our dreams, our work and our future.
And we won’t get it back through any change in parliament nor any change of heart on the part of the powerful. It will only happen when we finally admit how frightened we have been — for our jobs, for our name, for our position — and when we determine that we must no longer be captive to that terrible fear. For the issue at heart is not political, but I believe spiritual. We will get it back by patiently speaking the truth, by showing respect and generosity, by honouring what is good, and having the courage to acknowledge what is wrong.

And we will get our Tasmania back by recognising the power of one human being to change an island for the better of which recent times affords no finer, more remarkable example than that of Lindsay Tuffin and his Tasmanian Times.

He may well be a quixotic outlaw with the curious practice of wearing a bike chain around his neck, but to many here in Tasmania he has become an unlikely hero. There are in Australia far better known and far more celebrated journalists. But I doubt few come braver, and none would better demonstrate in their daily practice how much journalism can still matter in this country.

Thank you.

Launch of Tasmanian Times
Text of a speech made by Richard Flanagan,
Hope & Anchor Hotel
23 April 2006

Links:

Here: Follow the links in the Lennon renovations saga

Here: The original questions asked of Mr Lennon

Here: Pokies, this is a scandal

High alcohol reading:

Confessed here