Hatch reporter Tom Livingstone profiles the industry professionals teaching at Macleay College, for a new series – #FlashbackFridays
Macleay College is paving the way for future journalists with innovative, practical and, most importantly, fun teaching methods. The staff are exceptional, giving students the best education and sculpting them into elite professional communicators.
What shapes these amazing people and what journey have they been on to get to where they are today?
This week, #FlashbackFridays brings you the story of Neil McMahon, a multi-subject lecturer and newsroom editor at Macleay’s Melbourne campus. A published author, Neil has graced the pages of many international newspapers and currently shares his talents as a freelancer. His career has spanned over three decades and his love of journalism is something that’s proudly shared with his students. It’s a strong passion… clear to everyone he meets.
(Above: Foreign Correspondent Neil McMahon, chilling on an African beach, circa 1997. Image: Supplied)
1) What job did you first start out with in the industry?
I got a cadetship at The Sun News-Pictorial in 1985, aged 17 – straight from high school. The Sun was the Melbourne morning paper in the heydays of print. At its peak it sold close to 700,000 copies a day. The Herald was the afternoon broadsheet, which sold several hundred thousand copies too. They have since merged into the Herald-Sun, which sells about 300,000. In the year of my cadet intake they hired 25 cadets. 25! If you want a clear sign of how the world of journalism has changed, there it is right there.
2) What did you love about those early days?
Learning on the job was the great joy, working with great journalists on a hugely successful paper – it was incredibly exciting. It’s like watching an old movie looking back – there were still typewriters and carbon paper in the newsroom, ashtrays overflowing with cigarettes, the noise of the printing presses rattling to life downstairs to print those million-plus papers every day … sounds a romantic time now.
3) What did you hate about them?
Nothing at all. I loved everything about it. I knew very quickly this was my place and these were my people. Still feel that way.
4) What is a career highlight you have (or are there a few)?
Lots of things stand out. By coincidence, I was just reading today that this week marks the 30th anniversary of the Queen Street massacre in Melbourne on December 8, 1987. That was one of the stories I covered as a very young, green police rounds reporter.
I can still remember standing on the street corner in the city at two in the morning, hours after the massacre, watching the police and ambulance and fire officers going in and out of the building – where there were nine bodies inside.
In 1989, I was sent to work from Brisbane for a year in the aftermath of the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption and the election of the first Labor government in 32 years. Unforgettable.
In 1990 I quit and took off for Africa, intending to stay for a couple of years – I ended up staying for nearly nine years and covered the rise of Nelson Mandela to power after his release from prison. Being with Mandela when he voted for the first time in his life was a career moment like no other. I also covered the famine and civil war in Somalia in 1992; those horrifying sights and sounds are imprinted on my brain.
When I came back to Australia, I worked at the Sydney Morning Herald for eight years and covered amazing moments like the Schapelle Corby and Bali Nine trials and the Boxing Day tsunami. The tsunami was something no one who covered it will ever forget.
In 2007 I wrote a book, Say It Out Loud, that had quite an impact at the time. It was a coming-out story – the real-life story of my mate Adam Sutton, a gay man from the bush, a cowboy.
It started as a newspaper story, then became an episode of Australian Story on the ABC, and then we wrote the book, which came out in 2007.
At the time, it was the kind of story that was rarely heard and the response was pretty remarkable. Looking at the events of this week, with marriage equality finally becoming law, it’s almost hard to believe how far we’ve come in those 10 years.
The next year I walked the Great Wall of China for a month with Olivia Newton-John and a bunch of other celebrities to raise funds for her cancer hospital – that was also unforgettable.
All of this is a way of noting that the great privilege of journalism is that it gives you this pinch-me-now front-row seat to history. You get to meet amazing people, witness amazing things, travel to incredible places – and then share them with the world.
I don’t know why you’d do anything else.
5) What do you enjoy about teaching at Macleay?
I love the fact that all the teachers are real, working journos, which gives it the feeling of working in a newsroom rather than just an academic facility.
And I love the students and watching them learn, find their passion or the pathway, and sometimes you see the light go on in a student’s head …. it’s magic when that happens.
6) Something quirky, most people don’t know about you.
Once in a karaoke bar in Miami, I had just come off the stage after singing Sweet Caroline and this bloke came up to me with a business card. He said he was the Entertainment Director for a Caribbean cruise company and he wanted me to come in to audition for their Legends show because they needed a Neil Diamond alongside the Elvis and Tina Turner impersonators. I laughed and said no, though given what happened to the newspaper business in the years since then, I sometimes wonder if I made the right call. At least I have a fall-back career.
7) What would you be doing if you weren’t a journalism superstar?
Probably singing in a Neil Diamond tribute show on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.
8) A quote or belief that personally motivates you each day.
“Oh shit, is that really the time?”– Tom Livingstone