A sad day for journalism

A day after posting on the Murdoch infestation at the Nine Newspapers mastheads comes the sad news of the death of one of the journalists who made The Age a great newspaper.

Tim Colebatch could seemingly write on anything. He was a perceptive environmental reporter when such rounds were just being established; covered US politics from Washington; provided sophisticated analysis of election results; and, was that rare thing in journalism – highly numerate.

Perhaps most importantly he was always considered. Approaching stories which some journalists would be happy to cover quickly and superficially he, in contrast, preferred deep and thorough analysis.

The blog knew him on and off for many years from when Tim was covering the environment, and then State politics while the blog was a Labor staffer, to when Tim was in Washington and after.  A visit to his crowded ‘office’ in the US one day was enough to strip away any illusions anyone might have about the lifestyle of international correspondents.

He had an excellent b-s detector based on very practical fact-checking and deep knowledge. During the Hamer Government years there was a minor scandal about the condition of the Hume Highway – a condition that would be considered almost exemplary if compared to today’s pot-holed roads.

The Labor Opposition tried to keep the issue going by pointing to other similar problems including on the Yarra River bike path.  That afternoon Tim rang the Labor media staff and said it was all nonsense because he had cycled it at the weekend and checked.

Perhaps his most important contribution to Australian journalism was his forensic analysis of statistics. Whether it be economic or social data or elections.  Not for Tim analyzing the significance of shifts in opinion polls within the margin of statistical error but rather the deeper significance of the data in many different areas.

Tim wasn’t one of Australian journalism fastest writers. Not because he was a slow but because he was deliberate. Every fact and nuance about a story was carefully explored before the actual writing.

In later years these qualities were exemplified by the long analytical pieces he wrote for Inside Story.

His biography of former Liberal Premier, Dick Hamer, was brilliant. Peter Blazey’s biography of Henry Bolte was a great read partly because it let you feel you could actually hear both Bolte’s and Blazey’s distinctive words. But the Hamer book went far beyond just the words and will probably stand as the best biography of any Victorian Premier for many years to come.

Finally, there is a great anecdote about the young Tim starting out at The Age in the 1970s.  It may be apocryphal, but it has the ring of authenticity to those who knew him.

One evening, soon after he arrived at The Age, he looked at the galley proofs of the editorial for that night – an editorial about India and Mrs Ghandhi

Then he went over to the subs desk and said it was wrong, Mrs Ghandi hadn’t been where they said nor said what they said she had.

Then he walked off.  The then editor looked up and said: “Who the fuck was that?”

The story did the rounds about Tim.  Needless to say, he was right.