Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival: Hacked Off!, with Nick Davies

Hacked Off! Saturday 9 May, 6.30 – 7.30pm

DWRF imageThis fascinating and lively discussion between Carol Hirschfeld (former TV3 newsreader and currently Head of Content at Radio New Zealand) and Nick Davies (journalist at The Guardian) kicked off with a question about the very recent UK election (with a result that Davies called “fantastically depressing”). Hirschfeld noted that Davies had tweeted “Maybe Rupert has won it again” – the first and by no means last reference to media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Davies  is the investigative journalist who broke the phone hacking scandal in Britain, a story that eventually brought down the newspaper News of the World, led to the trial of Rebekah Brooks, and triggered the Leveson Inquiry – so good job to the organizers of the Festival for getting such a big fish to Dunedin! Rupert Murdoch was in many ways the common theme throughout this evening.

pp_nick_daviesDavies (right) described him as “the bully in the playground” who ruled through fear and exerted an unprecedented control over not only the British media but also over politics. During the later Q&A session, Davies was asked what had shocked him the most during his work on the phone-hacking scandal, and for him (and for me) one of those things was coming to understand “what goes on in the corridors of power” – as Davies put it, “Rupert Murdoch’s fingerprint [is] all over our democracy”. As the session continued, the extent of Murdoch’s (mis)use of power continued to amaze and disgust me, and I think the rest of the audience was equally fascinated and repelled. The discussion of the Milly Dowler case, and the power and willingness of Murdoch’s people to force politicians into doing what they wanted, drew sounds of shock and horror from the audience.

cv_hack_attackNick Davies himself is a fascinating man – energetic, enthusiastic, animated, and an incredibly good storyteller with plenty of opinions expressed in eminently quotable ways. In other words, he had the audience utterly in the palm of his hand within three minutes of walking on stage. His ability to pepper his stories with precise details to give context meant it was a real pleasure to just sit back and listen to him talk (which is what Carol Hirschfeld did, thankfully, refraining from attempting to interrupt or steer the conversation in artificial ways). Moreover, Davies’s nose for BS and his insistence on fairness was well evidenced during the session. Interestingly, when talking about the Rebekah Brooks case, he lamented the shocking disparity in funding between Brooks’s/Murdoch’s lawyers and the woefully underfunded lawyers for the State, but went to some lengths to emphasise that this did not mean he thought the legal system had acquitted Brooks wrongly or that she was acquitted just because Murdoch threw his money behind saving her.

Despite all he’s seen, Davies doesn’t seem to have lost his belief in fairness and justice, even in the institutionalized form of the legal system, and, again, despite all the travesties he saw take place in the media, he clearly hasn’t wearied of his love for journalism and the values it’s supposed to uphold. Fittingly, he received very warm applause from the audience at the close of this captivating session.

Reviewed by Febriani Idrus

Nick Davies will be appearing at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season, and at the Auckland Writers Festival. 

New Zealand Listener Gala Opening Night: True Stories Told Live – Truth and Lies

True Stories Told Live: Truth and LiesAWF_2014_Get-The-Full-Story

There was a great buzz at the Aotea Centre on Thursday night for the gala festival event,
in which eight writers were invited to speak on the theme of truth and lies for seven minutes, with neither scripts nor props.

Auckland Writers Festival director Anne O’Brien introduced the evening with the rather startling assertion that artists have 229% more sex than average (truth? or damned lies and statistics?), before Carol Hirschfeld (left) stepped in with her newscaster’s air of unflappable calm to MC the evening.

pp_inua_ellamsFirst up was Nigerian British poet and performer Inua Ellams (left). Obviously supremely confident in front of an audience, he took to centre stage (rather than hiding behind the podium) to tell us a story of a long-ago breakup. “If all breakups were this beautiful”, he said, “I’d break up every day.” He painted a vivid picture of a Cambridge dorm room, a beautiful girl, and the sun coming out to illuminate a tear on her cheek. He helped heal the pain of heartbreak with poetry: “poetry helps me rediscover who I am”.

Ellams finished with that famous quote from Keats: ” ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Ellams was followed by celebrated photographer Marti Friedlander, hailed by Hirschfeld as a national treasure. She started with one minute’s silence for the abducted Nigerian girls − an uncomfortable truth if ever there were one − before lightening the mood by remarking that, in marriage, lies are often preferable. Charmingly, Friedlander confessed “I’ve told some fantastic lies in my time and I’m pleased to have told them.”

Next up was American novelist AM Homes (right), homes_amwho, it turned out, had lied when she agreed to do a scriptless event, instead taking to the podium to read us an extract from her memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter. Nobody minded: she’s a superb storyteller, and gripped us all with a tale of her own beginnings. A lawyer heralded her birth: “your bundle has arrived, and it’s wrapped in pink ribbons.” She compared the discovery of bits of data about her birth parents to being a recovering amnesiac. Homes recalls the strangeness of meeting her birth father and recognising her body on him, “the departments of ass”. She left me with a desire to read her books.

The fourth writer/performer was explorer and historian Huw Lewis-Jones, standing in for Lawrence Hill, who had been prevented by illness from attending. Lewis-Jones strode barefoot onto the stage and structured his talk around his lack of shoes. He invited us to consider their absence: Was it to better appreciate the carpet? To use shoelessness as a prop? To illustrate the way his journeys follow in the footsteps of great explorers? Eventually he hinted he was following the advice of a kuia, who had told him to take off his shoes for his talk in order to better connect to the earth − and so as to not walk mud into the building.

Irvine WelshBritish Lewis-Jones was followed by Scottish Irvine Welsh (left), author of Trainspotting. After commenting on the zombification of jet leg “(just like taking drugs, only without the fun part”), he launched into a rollicking yarn about a devilish cat. This cat, a giant, pit-bull-like tom (who I thought must have been like Greebo from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld), “kidnapped my wife” by trapping her in a bathroom. It then emigrated to Illinois with its owners, where it took on not only the neighbourhood cats but also a coyote! Welsh made us laugh and I was sorry to see him leave the stage.

Next up was Kiwi columnist and novelist Sarah-Kate Lynch (right) , spicing things up in a black pp_sarah-kate-lynchsmltutu. She spoke feelingly about the terror being asked to go scriptless, and the way her seven minutes on stage had taken up hundreds of hours of worrying. Lynch promised to tell us the story of buying pyjamas for her dead father, but instead ended up talking about an anxiety dream she had had before the festival, in which she was delivering her seven-minute talk to us naked, and (in the dream) needed to bend down and pick up her lucky pen. I hope she is able to enjoy the feeling of relief that it’s now all over.

After Lynch we had a complete change of pace with Egyptian writer Yasmine El Rashidi, who somehow managed to come across as very private and shy while also being an excellent public speaker, creating a sense of intimacy in the huge Aotea Centre theatre. She spoke movingly about her absent father, who went away on business for a fortnight and was still gone twelve years later. Rashidi said her friends call her “slippery”, and told the story of slipping out of a writers’ retreat after being aggressively love-bombed by an ultra-successful bright young thing.

bulldozerThe final writer to grace the stage was the inimitable Alexander McCall-Smith, author of one of my favourite series, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He began with the grandiloquent claim to be the only writer present telling the truth, and proceeded to spin a tall tale about a trip Montalcino. He claimed that, in the absence of hire cars available, he instead hired a bulldozer in which to pootle about the Tuscan countryside: “the advantage of which is that you can remove the bits you don’t like”. I think it was the way he collapsed into laughter at this point which was my first clue that his claim to truth was itself a lie. His wonderful good humour was infectious and got the whole audience chuckling.

After Hirschfeld had summed up the writers’ performances, a short memoriam film was shown to mark the passing of many authors over the past twelve months. Then all writers returned to the stage and we were invited to meet them at the book signing table afterwards. One thing’s for certain: the festival’s off to a rollicking great start!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage