Literary Journalism & Stories that Defined a Decade at SWF

In a contemporary society so deeply imbued in materialism, we cannot help but question the core values driving journalism. Has journalistic writing, or in fact any writing, become merely a commercial pursuit? Will writers go to any extent to attain a good story? Do we now live in world of corruption where the truth is distorted for profit and humanity is lost to greed? In the majestic City Recital Hall, three international journalists spoke to ABC’s Mark Colvin about the value of good journalism, about the challenges posed to this value, and about the moral dilemmas that stem from having to choose between exposing injustice and acting within the constraints of the law.

Foreign correspondent Åsne Seierstad retold her investigations into Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, shedding deep insight into the psychology behind his actions and bringing to the fore a profoundly emotional side of journalism.

Writer Åsne Seierstad... Image Credit: REX for The Guardian.
Writer Åsne Seierstad… Image Credit: REX for The Guardian.

Christina Lamb, an award-winning journalist who has written the bestselling biography The Africa House, Waiting for Allah, The Sewing Circles of Herat and Small Wars Permitting retold her experiences as foreign correspondent in Afghanistan. She highlighted the dichotomy between the soldiers act of fighting and great love for poetry.

Nick Davies, an investigative journalist for The Guardian who has won British Press Awards for Journalist of the Year, Reporter of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year examined the motives and power interplay existing in the journalistic world.

Oscar Wilde once said, “A cynic is a [person] who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” Nick brilliantly outlined the distinction between “price” and “value” in journalism: “price” is finding a story that sells; “value” is uncovering truth and injustice in that story. Yet Christina revealed the challenges riddled in the act of fully elucidating the true value of journalism. For instance, do you forego a ‘valuable’ story for the sake of operating lawfully? Christina gave an example of such a dilemma as she recounted her incapacity to listen to and write about a poor Afghan woman’s story of oppression and injustice simply because it was illegal for her to pay the woman transport money and money for her time. Nick built upon this incident and asked the thought-provoking question, “When do you have a special right to break the law?”

Both Nick and Åsne explored the concept of power: the desire for power and the abuse of it. Journalists, Nick said, are driven by two motives. The conscious motive is to expose that abuse of power; the unconscious motive is to exude an inner demon. In this sense, writing is both a tool to combat evil and an instrument to express something deeply personal. In fact, as Åsne delved into the psychology behind Norway’s most infamous mass murderer Breivik, she brought out an intimate and strangely emotional side to the cold and chilling incident of Breivik’s murder of 77 people, telling the audience how she made the shocking discovery that Breivik had actually lived on her street, that she at one point would have driven past him. It struck her that a tragic news event so distant when viewed behind a television screen is actually very real and of much closer proximity than one may initially expect.

Åsne talked about the attachment theory; what you often find in serious criminals is that they lacked an adult attachment as a child and therefore never had the chance to build empathy, to understand trust and to experience belonging. Breivik, Åsne said, wanted power in place of that empathy, trust and belonging, and thought the only way he could attain such power was by “killing all those people”. Indeed, as Åsne spoke and the entire hall listened in silence and directed to complete attention to the stage, it became obvious that this is what makes a story so engaging and so revolutionary: it compels you to look and to not look away.

Katherine O'Chee

Katherine is a writer and part-time blogger, an avid reader and a collector of inspiring quotes. Having been in love with stories from a very young age, she is always looking to transform daily observations into beautiful, philosophical tales. She is currently studying Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications) at the University of Sydney, and hopes to one day inspire positivity, provoke deep thought and give a voice to the voiceless. You can read more of Katherine's writing here.

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