WISENET Journal No. 27, November 1991, pp. 8-16
The most terrifying thing as a journalist is to confront the profession you most often report on. To this day I really feel quite ignorant about science even though it has been a predominant part of my life for the past decade. So tonight I'd like to emphasise the informality; I'm perfectly happy for any of you to interrupt, disagree, interject or even walk out.
The reason why I feel slightly threatened is that as a child I felt inhibited by science. My science education was inadequate - a few nuns attempting biology rather badly, and doing their level hardest to move their girl students as far away from the sciences as they possibly could except for pursuit of the ecclesiastical version of the creation of the universe. And they were fairly successful, because to this day not one of the thousands of students who have gone through this particular Catholic girls school in the mid north of South Australia has taken up science as a career, or even gone on to tertiary study: The school's principal objective, like many other Australian country schools, was to direct female students into supporting roles, mostly into what I can best describe as more sophisticated versions of the BHP typing pool. This was the most honourable profession that girls were then encouraged to aspire to.
So when the ABC first approached me about a decade ago to join the team of reporters on Towards 2000, it filled me with an extraordinary amount of fear and loathing. I was going to be following a woman who was very confident and fairly forthright in her presentation of science. I could bring to the task at hand absolutely nothing in terms of knowledge of science, although I did have a personal confidence in my own ability as a journalist. I was consoled at the time by a colleague on the program who said "look, don't worry, if it's green and wiggles it's biology, if it stinks it's chemistry, and if it doesn't work it's physics".
He assured me that was all anyone on the program actually knew about science, which I subsequently learnt was indeed true. But I also discovered that it didn't really matter, because more than anything else what we all had in common was a great respect for the people who had chosen it as their career, although we couldn't really understand why because it seemed like the most thankless task one could ever engage in. Ten years ago it was a very invisible task as well.
Over the last decade I have seen science coming out of the closet. It's changed because it had to, in recognition that the buck is increasingly more difficult to pursue, that the research dollar is becoming even more elusive in Australia, and that somehow science has got to develop a political face in order for research dollars to be allocated to the non-sexy areas of science.
The first 12 months at the ABC were filled with fear. I will never forget my approach to stories - always on the basis of how much time would I have to spend communicating with the scientist, and how little time could I take to do the story before I exposed my complete ignorance: But almost the very first story I did made me realise I couldn't bluff my way through the job.
This story was with the professor of quantum optics at the Max Planck Institute, who was sending lasers up into the upper atmosphere and calculating the kinds of pollutant particles that the light was intercepting. This sounded incredible to me, but the thing I could grasp was that he was trying to somehow identify the ingredients of the chemical soup that we were spewing up into the atmosphere, and would be able to give the lay audience some interesting insights. This was quite a few years ago, before the general public was talking about global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer.
So it was very interesting to have an opportunity to pursue this, but I calculated that in the journey from his laboratory to the top of a particular mountain in Germany, I would have to spend about seven hours alone with this man. I had no idea what I was going to talk to him about, but I was hoping and praying that it wouldn't be quantum optics. However, I read absolutely everything I possibly could on his particular area, and arrived in Germany feelinig moderately confident of being able to converse with him for about 30 minutes.
I entered his laboratory breaking out into a cold sweat, and to this day remember the moment when my hand reached out for his and our two hands were bonded together by our mutual Level of perspiration. He was as nervous about television as I was about my confrontation with real scienoe.
The very early stages of our conversation were extremely practical - how was he going to make good television for me, and how was I going to make his science palatable to an ABC television audience. We talked frankly and openly about these mutual problems, and then spent about three days together during the filming. They were three extremely pleasurable days where the fun of science was exposed to me in a very enjoyable way, because what none of us in the film crew had calculated was that these bloody lasers would be invisible. I don't know what I had in mind - pink light perhaps, something that would go round in circles and do wonderful things, and we would just point the camera.
It was the middle of February and phenomenally cold outside when the best opportunity for seeing anything occurred. So this esteemed academic and I had to go out in front of the camera at midnight at -25o and throw snow up through the beam, totally screwing up his experiment but causing some backscatter of light that our camera could capture. But then we mucked up his instrumentation and he lost his laser. It was somewhere out there in the black hole of the universe but we didn't know whether it was pointing left, right or centre, so we just threw snow up for about three hours until we found it again.
It was very messy but also fabulous because all his defences suddenly came down and my desire to illustrate this complex story became reduced to almost the level of absurdity. Funnily enough, however, we managed together to produce about seven or eight minutes of television, It was the first story I'd ever done on science and when it went to air it had an honesty about it and a scientific integrity, and perhaps more than anything else I think it conveyed to our audience that there is a reason why science might do things that we more lay people often don't understand; that the motivation is often extremely honourable, extremely selfless and certainly in the instance of this man would probably cause very little benefit in his immediate lifetime but would add to a body of knowledge that would allow as to make more rational decisions about what we do to planet earth.
There were of course more pleasurable and somewhat easier introductions to the world of science. The ABC program Towards 2000 set a course of discovery not just about pure science but also about the spin-off technology. This is probably where the program was most fun because technology is applied in some interesting and very commercial areas, one such being the Porsche 959, a Group B racing car of which only 200 have ever been made by Porsche, ostensibly as a research vehicle.
Soon after I left the Max Planck Institute I went to Porsche motorworks and was introduced to the $7 million prototype and given the keys to it for two or three days. This car doesn't actually slip into second gear until you're going at about 180 kilometres an hour and the one restriction was that I could only drive it on the Stuttgart test track where most of the track isn't on a horizontal plane but operates at a camber where you can only get around if you are moving at about 280km/h.
I had never driven that fast before, let alone in a S7 million prototype, but I didn't want to refuse the offer. I also recognised that the person who had the most difficult job was my cameraman, who would have to shoot this with a camera that weighs 20 kg stripped down to its barest minimum, not to mention the G forces that would be operating as I was driving at 300 km/h around the test track with no idea what was going to happen around the next bend. However, Hans was prepared to place his life in my hands so off we went.
My most poignant memory of that day is when the gearstick came out in my hands at about 300 km/h - I think I was upside down at the time as this thing was spinning around, and I knew I had to keep my foot on the accelerator because otherwise I would just come unstuck but somehow I wanted to indicate that the gearstick had come out. I don't know how, but I managed to wind the window down and wave the gearstick at the Porsche representative; I just remember seeing him run away. Eventually we hit a horizontal plane and I stall-stopped the car, seizing the engine and setting the R&D program back about eight months.
Again we made a very interesting television story, although I'm still not sure what was the point of it all. Perhaps to introduce viewers to the possibilities of motor racing technology and to say something exciting about the application of very good technology; to say something interesting about speed and motor vehicle design in the days when we didn't need to have much of a conscience about those things; to say that speed of itself doesn't kill but probably bad roads, bad design and bad driving are what kills. But also just to have a bit of fun because the philosophy behind Towards 2000 - and an enormous amount of credit is due to the ABC for having the guts to develop for prime time a program that was mainstream science and technology - was that above all the program should be entertaining, without sacrificing what was fundamentally the story of science and technology. The program that resulted from this clever marriage of pure science - often very difficult to understand and difficult to illustrate - with very sexy technology and a lot of good fun is now about 12 years old.
After some years of this, the ABC perhaps ran out of courage and decided to get rid of the program, whereupon some colleagues and myself - feeling confident of our own working relationships and extremely confident of the program's raw material - formed our own company and sold the program to the Channel 7 network where it's sat very successfully for the last seven years.
The philosophy behind the program has changed and matured over the last few years as our audience has changed and matured, and indeed as scientists have come to accept the need to have a public face, to be accountable, and to maintain a very public debate about their work. Perhaps the survival instinct has come to the fore and they've recognised that a bit of television probably doesn't do their research any injustice nor is exposure in any sense bad for them.
This situation has spawned an area of concern that I share and that was probably the principal motivation behind science previously having been a little more discreet, a little more considered than the representation of it that we now see on the media. The public is now confronted with an extraordinary array of scientific information and information purporting to be scientific, much of which is extremely contradictory within the health sciences in particular and possibly also the environmental sciences, and it is becoming increasingly more difficult for the public to understand where the truth actually lies. Maybe science itself has doubts about these subjects, but because of the almost embracing attitude in some areas of 'let's publish and be damned', the general public is almost awash with information.
There are many areas where I perceive this but perhaps nowhere is it more important at the moment than in the area of the environment. I think it was two or three years ago when this extraordinary almost Damascian conversion started to occur around the developed world, when an awareness of some of the big environmental issues and of how critical they actually were began to hit the airwaves.
The media of course grabbed hold of this with both hands because it enabled them to use the sensational terminology typical of media headline-grabbing ways of selling stories which were being reported in the mainstream media for probably the first time. It's interesting now reflecting back on that time because I was as guilty of that as anybody else. It's interesting to see the impact that this has had because here in 1991 when fundamentally no significant program of environmental reform has actually been initiated - certainly not in Australia - we are confronted with a public becoming increasingly bored at the reportage of environmental issues.
We're also confronting political interest groups who have milked the environment for all it is worth and are now, I believe, presenting an extraordinarily cynical face on some of the big environmental issues. Breakthrough decisions have been hailed and celebrated; and yet there is very little real implerrientation of those societal and industrial and economic changes that need to take place for environmental reform. Structurally speaking, industry and other areas within Australia have not substantially changed despite an enormous amount of public lip service being paid to the major environmental issues.
So where did it all go wrong? Certainly in 1988 I believe that there was a huge amount of sincerity and good will within the media in its reporting of these issues, but as it is wont to do the media perhaps exhausted some of the larger issues without adequately preparing the ground for the great number of long-term questions and issues to be asked and dealt with. I put some of the blame on science and scientists because the media is so reliant on the experts setting the ground rules for reporting a particular situation and explaining the issues. The media is largely ignorant of the issues, znd uNess these are being conf dently and persuasively portrayed as they really are rather than being subjected to the usual media story-making treatment then I think we do them an injustice.
Now thaI we're confronted in 1991 with having to raise some of these environmental issues in the media for those who've hung in there and who still believe it's the most critical issue we face, we're having to find extremely ingenious and often almost mischievous ways of making the environment a page 3 issue at best, rather than being completely ignored. Most commercial news programs - and they all start at 6 pm - are divided into four segments. The headline-grabbing issues are always in the first segment; the environment is considered a soft issue and generally falls into the last segment. The environment is an area where it is possible to be more contemplative in actually reporting the issue, so perhaps it's not such a bad thing. But on this kind of serious reporting of matters of importance I see that we haven't even begun to establish proper links between science and the media.
And yet I think there's been a wonderful explosion of talent and enthusiasm and focus on science within the media. Late Iast year I attended a meeting of probably 120 science journalists and communicators - people who are involved in these areas and care enormously about them. It's a matter of keeping the doors of communication open and keeping the links extremely frank.
I have been in an extraordinary privileged position for the last few years, but that is not something I take for granted because it only exists for as long as our program, Beyond 2000, is indulged by the commercial networks. It's a very profitable program, now seen in something like 75 countries now around the world, an enormously popular showcase for Australian and international science, and Australia's best popular vehicle for shopwindowing our science and technology. But we are only there for as long as we remain a ratings winner, although we're not too troubled by that.
In the last seven years the program has sat at 8.30 pm Tuesday night, when there are more homes using television than any other night of the week, and Beyond 2000 has consistency been rated the number one program. There are literally millions and millions of Australians who watch Beyond 2000; and I believe they watch it because they have a consistent and extremely loyal interest in science and technology. There is no other "specialist" program on Australian television that consistently draws such a huge audience.
The box seat I've been put in to enjoy the pleasures of science has taken me literally around the world I can't remember how many times but it would be at least a couple of hundred. I've done close to 1500 stories. Obviously it's very hard to remember all of them, but there are certain people who really stand out - often the most recent people I've met. It's also, been a position where I've been able to virtually do whatever I've wanted to do. If I've wanted to go to Latin America or Africa to report on various things there then it's simply a matter of finding enough stories to justify a trip. If I've wanted to catch up on some shopping in Bloomingdales then it's exactly the same thing for America, which is not difFcult because there is so much going on.
About eight years ago someone said to me that this program wouldn't survive because we would run out of story ideas. Nothing could be further from the truth In total we've probably done 7-8000 stories, and there is still no end to the story possibilities. The world would have to stop being creative, to stop coming up with new ideas for science for our program to run out of material.
Sometimes I sit back and wonder what it all means. Where do you go with all the stimulation and thoughts these stories prompt? To my mind Ihere are some issues that remain enduringly important. Perhaps the project that embraces the area I most feel is being inadequately reported and inadequately debated is the Human Genome Project in the USA.
I had the privilege not so long ago of spending time with James Watson at Coldspring Harbour Laboratories; he was totally frazzled when I arrived and completely fed up with the media. I think I was the third person to want an interview with him that day even though I had prepared the ground fairly thoroughly and certainly booked him some time ahead, and I arrived to meet a very cantankerous, bad-tempered, completely overstretched and distracted man. This was initially a huge disappointment to me because I had wanted to meet him for a very long time and had spent the previous three weeks intensively filming various scientists working on the Project across the USA. After moving from west to east, this was the last interview I would have to do and I was actually looking forward to it.
As well as working out how you are going to tell a story dealing with a huge input of information, you are constantly also trying to make good fun - a story that is very commercial, very palatable and very easily understood. An enormous amount of computing and filtering has to go on within your own mind in order to be able to write in a very simple way about what is often extremely complex, and at the same time take into account the personal passions of the scientist with whom you are dealing.
With James Watson I didn't know quite where to begin, but we tried to be as sensitive to the man's schedule as possible. We set up for the interview in a very idyllic environment surrounding his laboratory. Lights were pre-determined, the camera was pre-positioned; the seats were there, I would sit here, and he would just need to be wheeled out and it would all be over in 20 minutes, totally painless to him, and he could then go back to worrying how he was going to get $3 million out of Congress in order to keep going for another three weeks.
I began the interview, the camera was rolling, and all I could think was: "I'm not going to blow this now after waiting so long, I've done interviews worse than this, whatever you do don't let him get up and walk away". And the first question that came out of my lips was: "You don't really like us do you?". He was completely taken aback and looked at me as if to say: "what a remarkable truth", but what he actually said was: 'I'm just a very busy man". I said - and the camera was rolling through all of this - "look, I know you are and with respect so are we, but we've come a very long way to do this and we're trying to be very sensitive, and you're not helping us". He gradually unfolded then and we embarked on a process of therapy where he revealed his complete frustration with ever havng made the decision to leave the lab, to the point of saying: "Crick had it right all along, you know, he never left science, he stayed with DNA and I've gone into politics". But along the way a very wonderful thing happened, and it was why I love doing what I do, because a wonderful truth started to happen between him and me and therefore between him and the camera, and it was an expression of frustration; an expression of how important he believed the Human Genome Project was. As we pursued the subject further it became a delightful attempt at his trying to explain in simple terms a very complex thing. In three minutes give me why you want to map the human DNA, prof, and make it simple with only words of one syllable. He tried all of this and he became a brilliant performer and truly wonderful for TV, and I suspect truly wonderful to himself. He then invited us up to his office and we sat down and had a long drink; we moved out of there all pissed at about 8 o'clock that night. He'd cancelled every other appointment and he described it as the most relaxed contact he'd ever had with the media.
It was the most confusing contact I've ever had with science but it didn't matter because I knew I had something in the can and I thought well I'd work the science out when I got home. To this day I haven't written that script but it's actually scheduled to go to air very soon as a 40 minute project for which I've done about 150 interviews, and for a moment there actually felt I might have been coming to terms with some of the science. I hope what eventually goes to air won't upset too many molecular biologists and genetic engineers, and will have a semblance of truth about it. What I know it will have is a great deal of relevance.
Why did I do the story? Probably because any project as ambitious as the Human Genome Project lends itself to so many commercially promotable lines, such as "the biological equivalent of the landing on the moon" - Channel 7 liked that - and yet it is probably ethically and morally one of the most important subjects that needs to be debated over the next 10 years. One of the most poignant moments within the filming apart from my delightful, as it turned out, hours with James Watson was attending a conference presided over by the heads of a number of US genetics companies - many of whom were Jewish - and not debating the science and discussing the latest breakthroughs but talking about the terrible fear that many of them had about the implications of their discoveries and about humankind's ability to deal with this knowledge in a totally humane way. It was almost an amazing moment for me because this was why I'd done the story. I hadn't really thought that too many scientists would be daring to utter things like the possibility of eugenics, or of the extremely crude and ignorant experimentations that have occurred at other moments in history, and yet most of these people gathered around the table, probably coincidentally, had had first- or second-hand experience of confronting issues raised by the prospect of defining genetic superiority - what genes to get rid of, what genes to hold onto, what value system we apply to the judgement of so-called defective genes within human DNA.
Emotionally one gets caught up in the process of making these stories - it's very hard to distance oneself from the sheer mechanics of going out and getting the raw material, juggling all of that and then getting back and holding on to your own perspective which is probably why you were hired to do the job in the first place. And in your own personal life too, and I believe this is true for every profession, you are trying to juggle a million other things. I think women deal with this better than men do. In fact I'm positive of it because in a sense, and I lay myself completely open to criticsm here, I have observed that the connections women are able to make with the future are so strong that they afford women a very special perspective on the present; and whether it's in fields of science or journalism or social commentary, it's a perspedive that I have found men seem to completely lack, with very few exceptions.
It's why I believe women's roles in environmental advocacy, science advocacy and social policy advocacy are becoming so important. It's why groups like WISENET and others remain so absolutely critically important and should be so hard fought for because this networking, this linking and sharing of ideas and concerns is something that is critical to the survival of our own planet. I'm not the first to express these views, of course, but it was with great plezsure that I sat back not very long ago and listened to David Suzuki talk about things like ecofeminism, which was clearly his recognition of the very special role that women play in an understanding of these issues. One doesn't need to look too far away from our own backyard to find that most of the real leaders in the thinking and ideas on this area are women. In Australia there are obviously some, whose names I won't mention, but internationally people like Gro Harlem Brundtland, Marika Gandhi (the Indian environment minister) and throughout the developing world.
I lived in Kenya for quite a few years and if ever there was a country where the role of women is becoming extraordinary potent, if I may use that word, it would be this country which has the highest population growth rate in the world, where all the work is done by the women and where all the responsibility for the future therefore has to be borne by women.
I don't know how long I've raved on for, probably far too long, but I'd just like to thank you for letting me speak to you this evening and congratulate you for existing and wish you well for the future.