Just what brings that distinctive smile to Media Watch host Paul Barry’s face? 

By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Watching Paul Barry, the man who watches the media

The most distinctive thing about The Watchman is his face. When he smiles, the skin around his eyes and mouth wrinkle into rippling contours, circling each other like the lines of a weather map. His eyes droop downward at the outer corners, as if preparing to slide down his face. This has the unnerving effect of making The Watchman seem simultaneously amused and sympathetic, no matter his emotion. The Watchman has the kind of earnest face that wouldn’t be out of place in a Quentin Blake illustration.

He wears dark brown everyman pants with light-coloured stitching, and a collared shirt in the most unremarkable shade of cornflower blue. In person, Paul Barry is just as tall, lithe and willowy as he appears on screen on ABC TV’s Media Watch. Sitting in a plastic chair on the centre of the stage, at the State Library of Western Australia’s inaugural Festival of Ideas, he folds his fingers over his stomach, leans casually back in a nonchalant stretch. His left leg is crossed over his right, allowing his red and white Where’s-Wally-striped socks to glare out of the gap between his black leather lace-ups, and his dark brown trouser hem.

Paul Barry has a thirst for information. Finding out things delights him. Barry’s witty on-air quips, the way he leans forward conspiratorially into your lounge room on a Monday evening, exposing some alarming media transgression or other with a knowing half-smirk: this can all make him seem like an enthusiastic oversized schoolboy. The kind who sits in the front row with his socks pulled up to his knees, hand shooting up every few minutes to ask or answer another question. The sort of swottish boy who, despite his bookishness, the cool kids can’t quite bring themselves to wedgie at snack time because, well, he’s just so delightfully nice and likeable.

There are other times when Barry’s proper English annunciation, gentle manner, lack of pretention, and calm, measured analysis render him slightly Dumbledoresque. Not that he’s at all a man for smoke and mirrors or wizardry: it is the truth that concerns him. “Journalism is Not Terrorism”, the boldly printed title of the panel is lit up on the enormous screen above Barry’s head. On stage, he is flanked by journalist and editor Sophie Black and human rights law professor Sarah Joseph. Lawyer Jennifer Robinson, perhaps best known for being Julian Assange’s legal representative, is suddenly beamed bleary-eyed onto the screen, from some ungodly London hour.

Barry’s an attentive listener. He leans back with head bowed and hands clasped, nodding at gems of wisdom from his fellow panellists. With the fluidity of a seasoned presenter, he alternates between considered insight and wry amusement as the four panellists dissect Australia’s new terrorism laws. “How will journalists know whether or not the publication of a particular thing is going to breach the laws or not?” a co-panellist asks. “They’re supposed to call the ASIO hotline and find out. At which point they’re told, ‘Stay where you are, we’re coming round.’ ” Barry softly chuckles.

“One of the things journalists should be doing is embarrassing governments.” The audience laughs along with Barry. He has a conversational plain-English knack of distilling complex ideas, of capturing the attention of the disillusioned and uninterested: no mean feat, in these times of mass political disengagement.

“I don’t have the faintest idea how to protect my sources,” he later confesses, throwing up his hands. “I look at these laws and I think, ‘Nah, this has gone way too far.’ ” He tilts his head to the right and squints into the distance, as if measuring the boundary between reasonable governmental concern and legislative overkill.

I greet Paul Barry as he exits the stage, tell him I’m writing a portrait of him. He takes a step back, in genuine bafflement. “Where are you based?” he asks. “Did they fly you here just to profile me?” He guffaws in disbelief, broad smile rippling deep laughter lines.

Twenty minutes later I’m sitting in Barry’s chair, flanked by journalist David Marr, Senator Scott Ludlam and Michael Mori, perhaps best known for being David Hicks’ military lawyer at Guantanamo Bay. The bold writing projected onto the screen above us reads “Dangerous Speech”.

The room is packed for the last session of the festival: there has to be at least 150 people here. Yet somehow, without my glasses on, without even trying, I see him: sitting toward the back in dark brown everyman pants with light-coloured stitching, and a collared shirt in the most unremarkable shade of cornflower blue. The Watchman leans forward in his chair, fixes his piercing eyes on the stage, and watches.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 15, 2014 as "Watching the Watchman".

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Maxine Beneba Clarke is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil. She is a winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry.

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