When I first walked through the doors of AAP’s old head office beside Sydney’s Wynyard station in July 1972, the first thing that struck me was the noise.
In a spartan room with low ceiling, more than 100 teleprinters were going hammer and tong, receiving news from across the world, and sending foreign and domestic news across Australia, including to Antarctic bases, and even ships at sea.
Each of them was driven by precisely-rolled coils of perforated paper tape – the fabled ticker tape once showered on parades in Wall Street.
A few dozen men – there were no female journalists – sat at desks adding to the din by banging at typewriters and shouting into telephones.
Others were editing reports on the war in Vietnam or the break-in at the Watergate building a few weeks earlier. AAP drew from the world’s news agencies, and at times had correspondents in London, New York, Jakarta, Port Moresby, Singapore, Suva, Saigon, Wellington, Los Angeles, Beijing. Plus every state and territory in Australia.
Completed stories were propelled on a conveyor belt to teleprinter operators who converted them to tape and then it was on to newspapers via individual transmission
In a dark corner of the office, generally in the dead of night, operators sent the Antarctic and “Shippress” bulletins by Morse code.
I was 20 years old, fresh out of a cadetship at the Brisbane Telegraph, an afternoon newspaper long since gone the way it seems AAP is now to follow.
That scene in Wynyard House sent a surge of excitement through me that I have never forgotten.
Nor have I forgotten the words that Editor Lyall Rowe said that day. “Remember this, son: speed is essential, but accuracy is more important.”
Those eight words were the mantra by which we all worked. And within them was the unspoken notion of integrity and independence.
AAP’s foundation document stated that it was “devoted to the objective of supplying the Australian public with the most accurate and most searching information of all world activities without any tendency towards or opportunity for the exercise of political partisanship or bias”.
While AAP is now owned by just four media groups – with Nine-Fairfax and News Corp each having 47.4 percent – no one shareholder has ever been allowed a majority.
It is, and has always remained editorially independent. I worked there for 45 years – longer than any other journalist in its history – and throughout that time, including four years as a news editor and eight years as editor, I never once saw or knew of a journalist asked to write or withhold a story for commercial or political reasons.
As I wrote in the book On The Wire to mark AAP’S 75th anniversary in 2010: “It is the purest form of journalism. We have no political axe to grind, nor advertisers to please. News value is paramount.”
Until this week, the deep values of AAP have remained intact. Apparently they are now to be torn up, as are the work contracts of some of the finest journalists you have doubtless read, but never heard of.
AAP journalists remain virtually anonymous; satisfaction comes from getting the job done, quietly, efficiently, reliably, speedily.
News stories continue to be issued on the wire, 24 hours a day as they have been continuously for 85 years. They have often been plundered without attribution or appropriated in their entirety under someone else’s name.
AAP reporters remain awake for all-night sittings of parliament, stay the distance in royal commissions, monitor dreary committee meetings for the nuggets that become major stories.
Sports reporters toil away in long-deserted press boxes. They are there for every Sheffield Shield match, on every senior Australian cricket tour, at the Commonwealth Games badminton no-one else bothers to cover.
AAP photographers cover multiple assignments in a day and produce Walkley Award-winning images. Subeditors volunteer to come in on days off when a really big story breaks because they know how busy it is.
Newsrooms and journalists around the country rely on these people.They know AAP’s value, even if the bean-counters apparently do not.
Nor, by and large, do the public. They don’t realise AAP’s hidden value, or how much of what they read or hear on the news is either wholly or partly AAP content, or informed by it.
Many big names in Australian journalism cut at least some of their teeth at AAP. Names like Harry Gordon, Kerry O’Brien, Sally Neighbour, even Eddie McGuire, who as a teenager covered football matches as a stringer. Sydney Morning Herald editor Lisa Davies was an AAP cadet, as was News Corp columnist and TV wit Joe Hildebrand.
How Australia is reported to the world is substantially shaped by the AAP service that provides the backbone for international news organisations based in this country.
They don’t know that AAP’s London staff stayed doggedly at their posts as bombs fell around them during the Blitz.
How can it possibly be that it has fallen prey to a public too apathetic to pay for news from reputable organisations? To a generation who get their news from Facebook or Google, apparently without wondering or caring who produced it in the first place, or indeed how reliable it is.
AAP is one of the pitifully dwindling handful of national news agencies anywhere in the world not funded by or beholden to government.
In his foreword to On The Wire, Rupert Murdoch wrote: “As an organisation that sits to one side in a fiercely competitive industry, AAP has a vital role in ensuring an accurate, independent and comprehensive coverage of daily news events across the country, providing a wide choice of content for the media, no matter where they are or what their market.”
Soon that will cease to exist. If I can be permitted to stray from a lifetime habit of straight news reporting, our nation will be very much the poorer for it.