‘A Modest Authority’
Martin McKenzie-Murray didn’t always expect to be a journalist, but one thing he always knew he wanted to be was a writer. From a young age McKenzie-Murray always had a way with words; something that saw him find speech writing jobs in the Labor party and the office of the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police. At 35 and now a fulltime journalist, he calls The Saturday Paper home as their chief correspondent.
He’s written everything from plays to opinion pieces, and after having leaped the barrier between politics and press, I sat down to ask: what makes Martin McKenzie-Murray keep ticking?
How did you begin your career as a journalist?
Career is a funny word for me…I’ve never really planned anything. I don’t say that boastfully though; I wish I was better at having a 12 or 24-month plan.
I guess it goes back to the start. I started university for journalism in ’99, but I was a terrible student. I barely got in. It was a kind of proxy for my real passion which was sport. I played a lot of football, soccer, and cricket before that, so my plan was to become a sports journalist.
It sounds really mawkish or overblown but university changed my life. My first year I looked like a chav, wearing the England football strips with the bleached hair and the hoop earring, but probably by about 2000 I had discovered this latent love for literature, people like Hunter S Thompson, Ginsberg, Kerouac. University changed me for sure…the biggest change for me wasn’t the course work though, but the people that I met.
So what attracted you to The Saturday Paper? A lot of people were sceptical about it when it first started.
I was sceptical as well. I met Erik [Jensen], and we had drinks one night with a mutual friend. I knew about Saturday Paper and that it was coming. I thought it was wild. Erik and I chatted quite late that night and he said we should speak again. The job offer was kind of out of the blue and I just thought ‘I can’t turn this down.’ What I like is that I’m given a fair amount of license and I can also write at length, with these weird oblique leads.
How would you describe your voice as a writer after being influenced by those that you mentioned?
My voice…I’ll leave it to others to describe my voice. I’ll tell you something about influences though. Back in university, I started working for a student magazine called Grok. I was making these really clumsy facsimiles of Hunter S Thompson, and I think that’s inescapable for a young, passionate, burgeoning writer, these crass emulations of your heroes.
I think it’s necessary to go through that phase.
What are some key things that you learned from working in politics as a Labor party speechwriter before going into journalism?
Power. The uses of power. The types of people that occupy political spaces. But also bureaucracy, we rarely tell stories about bureaucracies. The majority of stories we tell about Canberra are political, but never about the departments.
So I started writing Op-Eds and sending them to The Age and they started publishing them! My work as a campaigner as a staffer and speech writer in Perth and Canberra gave me a certain angle with which to write about politics, which was looking at rhetoric; what was behind it, the different methods of communication. It’s fundamental, but I think we’ve seen it decay a lot recently.
Ultimately it gave me a certain perspective on things, a modest authority. So when I came here and left that all behind, The Age wanted to formalise it and I became a regular columnist there. That was about four years ago. And that was the start, really. My way to this position now isn’t really orthodox.
It never really is though, is it?
Yeah, maybe not, no. But I didn’t have the standard; graduate from university, get a cadetship.
I’ve got a mate who I went to journalism school with and he graduated and got a cadetship with The Age, and I…went to Centrelink (laughs).
What are some key skills for a journalist?
I don’t think I’m the right guy to ask but…it depends on what kind of journalism you’re doing. The Nick McKenzies of the world, they’ve got skills that I do not have. Enormous tenacity, extraordinary investigative skills. I think my gifts are simply that I like people, I like meeting them. And I try to be a sympathetic person. It’s important to like people, to be curious about them.