The centrepiece of Skin in the Game is an account of an interview with Helen Garner almost 40 years ago. Sonya Voumard, then an 18-year-old cadet journalist, chose Garner as her subject for a university assignment. The interview was convivial and frank – so frank that Garner was shocked when she read the finished piece. “It is always traumatic to see the way another person has perceived you,” she wrote to Voumard, “especially when you feel you have talked a little too freely …” If Garner “learnt a lesson” from the experience, so did her interviewer – although it would take more than 30 years and a second interview with Garner, reappraising the first, to grasp fully the ways in which the disjunct between journalist and subject can leave the latter “slightly pulled askew” (and not just on the page).
Here, that original encounter forms the kernel of a long, layered essay on the ethics of the journalistic interview and, more broadly, of telling other people’s stories. Needless to say, Voumard invokes the living deity, Janet Malcolm, but there are insights, too, from respected Australian journalists such as Gideon Haigh and Michael Gawenda. Mostly, though, the insights are Voumard’s own.
Readers familiar with her work will discern a direct line of continuity from her previous book, The Media and the Massacre, in which she examined the media’s handling of the Port Arthur mass shooting and its ongoing aftermath. Voumard writes from the position of a journalist who, for two decades or more, has worked outside the fence, as a corporate writer, academic and freelancer. But, in Skin in the Game, the critical view she casts on her profession often takes a backwards slant at her own best and worst practice as a working journalist during the 1980s and ’90s.
Voumard digs further back and wider, too, to give us stories from her personal life, of stints in the corporate suite, teenage rebellion (which made her the subject of an ill-judged newspaper interview), a charismatic journalist father, and her mother, a refugee from postwar Estonia.
As an Age correspondent in Canberra, and in Brisbane during the dying days of the Bjelke-Petersen regime, Voumard got to see, close up, the workings of political power. And not just political power: making headway in newspaper journalism called for its own powerplay. Even so, her reflections are permeated by nostalgia, for the rough-and-tumble of daily reporting, “journo mates”, and the thrill of a scoop. FL
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 3, 2018 as "Sonya Voumard, Skin in the Game ".
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