Duncan Hughes, AFR senior journalist

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“There’s two ways of getting to work as a journalist overseas. One is to be appointed and have your work pay your fares and set you up, the other is to get on your bike and go there. I got on my bike in most cases.” AFR senior journalist and section editor Duncan Hughes talks to Travis Medhurst about being a career journalist.

What do you consider your most interesting story?

Well you know, over the years you may win an award just because you’ve been around so bloody long (laughs).

In journalism you never know what big stories are going to emerge in what particular area. For example, with my Walkley award that was really a police story about criminal behaviour. When I was on Wall Street writing finance I got the biggest crime story I ever did which was 9/11.

In Hong Kong I wrote a bit about the handover to Mainland China and while I was there they also had the Asian Financial Crisis. When you’re covering markets you often get booms – like how we just had a property boom – and you also get busts. I love writing those.

Sometimes the most interesting story you have can be unrelated to your particular round.

 When did you start your career in journalism?

I always wanted to be a news reporter and so I’m very lucky.

It’s been 47 years since my first article was published and that was when I was a young schoolboy and I’ve been published regularly ever since. When I was an undergraduate I wrote for the student and suburban newspapers and then I got a job part-time at the Melbourne Herald on Saturday afternoons on the sports desk. I did crime reporting, general news and subediting. Then I went to Canberra, then London and Hong Kong. I spent a lot of time in Washington and went across to Mainland China, Thailand and Vietnam. I spent five years working on Wall Street as a Bureau Chief.

Fourteen years ago, because I had young babies, I came back to Australia and got a job at the Age – initially as a banking correspondent – and I transferred over to the Australian Financial Review where I’ve done personal finance, politics and general reporting since.

Why did you travel so much over your career?

There’s two ways of getting to work as a journalist overseas, one is to be appointed and have your work pay your fares and set you up, the other is to get on your bike and go there. I got on my bike in most cases. What do I mean? Well, when I went to the UK I just rolled up. I always wanted to work on Fleet Street – although I never knew where Fleet Street was – and I found out very quickly that my skillset was of no use to the British national newspapers and I didn’t have enough experience as well. So, I had to go and work on regionals – any paper outside of London in the UK is considered a regional and that could be considered the Manchester Guardian, it could be the Scotsman or the Glasgow Herald, but they still call them regionals because London’s where it’s really at.

I did 3 years in Essex and then went down to London to work on trade papers. One was Computer News and the other was Money Marketing. The first was not very successful for me but the second one was.

 You’re a qualified lawyer, with degrees in both Economics and Politics. So, what drew you to journalism?

I think I made the right decision. But I’m one of those guys who went to university in the 1970’s so university was free. I didn’t have to pay and I also got a student grant so I thought this was too good to be true and I found what I thought were the best degrees and did them. All those disciplines are very good for journalism. Law is a wonderful one to have as it helps with what you can and can’t write and helps you tap into information about how the nation’s power structure works. Similarly, with Economics. The older I get the more I believe that the world is run by banks, not politicians.

Have you ever been in trouble legally for something you wrote?

Several times. I’m always in trouble. The law’s used in two ways; it’s both a sword and a shield. As news reporters we’re constantly under threat from people who don’t want to see something in the paper. But that’s almost the definition of news: what someone, somewhere doesn’t want to see printed.

They’ll go to all sorts of lengths to stop you. Melbourne has the highest number of court orders suppressing news. I still think I have an action with the Supreme Court and a compliant to the Press Council outstanding. That’s simply because the property developers I’ve written about are trying to shut me up. The more powerful the vested interests are that you tackle, the more likely you are to end up in court some way.

Are you optimistic about the future of media?

I’m very optimistic. The reason being, when I was a student and I went to work on the train in the morning all the people sat and read newspapers. The machines that made those newspapers are now in museums, the people who wrote those newspapers are now retired or just hanging on like me, but the appetite for news has increased exponentially. The newspaper may no longer be the means but there’s millions of devices from which we can get the news.