Tom Tilley – a voice for young people

Tom Tilley from Triple J's Hack program speaks to journalist Ash Cant_3March2017

I literally fell over when I heard Tom Tilley would be coming in to Macleay College. Although, by now, news of a respected journalist coming to talk to us shouldn’t shock me, it did. But this was different.

Tom Tilley isn’t just any journalist, Tom Tilley is the journalist who gave me a new perspective on journalism.

After hours of writing and rewriting my questions, excessive Google stalking, replaying episodes of Hack and Hack Live, I did not feel remotely prepared to interview someone who has made a career of interviewing other people – let alone in front of my journalism peers.

Tom strolled in looking cool, casual and tall. But no time to dwell on that. I introduced him before taking my seat, I had just two seconds to calm myself. My first question was easy and short; minimal chance I could fuck it up: “So I understand that you’ve wanted to be a journalist your whole life – is that correct?”

Ok, cool, I didn’t fuck up. Or did I? Suddenly my mind went haywire: “Was that the right question? Where do I look? Just stare at Tom, no, that’s creepy. Look at your notes, so you can ask another stupid question, oh wow, that’s blurry, why didn’t I bring my glasses? Yeah, just smile like an idiot, you idiot.”

It was refreshing to hear, later during our chat, that Tom often experienced a similar inner dialogue of irrational thought during interviews: “When I’m on air, I’ve got 17 of my own negative thought tracks going at the same time going, ‘You’re shit, you fucked up. You could’ve gone there. Why didn’t you have the stats ready so you could’ve nailed him on that? This is hopeless, it’s falling apart, that was a long pause, you stumbled.’ So that’s what’s going on; like schizophrenic self-hate, in real time.”

Macleay journalism student Ash Cant interviews Tom Tilley
Macleay journalism student Ashleigh Cant interviews Hack’s Tom Tilley.

Tom had his first taste of journalism in high school, doing work experience at a radio station and a newspaper. Wanting to study journalism at university, his dad said the one line I’m sure every aspiring journalist has heard: “You know it’s really hard to get a job in journalism.”

So Tom opted for a bachelor of commerce at Macquarie University, then went on to work for an investment bank. Can’t see it? Neither could he. Explaining the job wasn’t “socially dynamic enough”, Tom quit, travelled and returned home to work as a labourer, living on the dole and surfing.

Moving towards journalism, and a regular paycheck, saw him gain casual work at the ABC over Christmas 2005, which started as something of a secretarial role but led to reporting on the graveyard shift and then producing talk back radio – which blew his mind.

“I thought about it kind of like a newspaper article,” he explained.

“You’ve got your opening paragraph that sets the scene, and that’s kind of what the radio presenter does, and then you have a personal story that goes one way, then the other. It’s kind of like you’re live in real time, creating this story with people’s voices.”

Eventually a job came up at Triple J and Tom managed to scrape over the line and get that job. Within a month, he was out on the road, reporting from the Northern Territory, going: “This is amazing!”

It was after some five years of hard work that Tom was picked to be the next host of Hack.

From penalty rates to abortion laws and, of course, Donald Trump, there’s a variety of issues Hack covers – nothing is off limits. It is the voice of young people – the people who will one day be running the country, despite probably never owning a house, forever paying off student loans and constantly struggling to get their dream job. I asked Tom what he thinks Hack‘s “War on Young People” really is.

“The War on Young People is a phrase to try and get people excited about talking about housing, jobs and other issues that on their own might not sound that sexy,” he said.

“It’s about looking at these things that are challenging or annoying for young people and questioning whether there’s an intergenerational imbalance… I guess a call to young people, to have a look around, assess what’s going on and what they think should change, so that they have a strong future.”

But getting Australia’s youth engaged in the news can be hard work – I struggle to have conversations with my friends about current affairs; even about the issues that affect them. Hack was the first program that got me thinking about how I could engage my own circle of friends and make them think about things outside that circle – important things that don’t affect them or will never affect them, but important just the same.

For me, that’s where Tom Tilley came in. He was, and still is, leading a dialogue for sensible discussion that young people can relate to. He asks the hard questions but somehow makes it personal and relatable.

But for someone so informed and engaged how does Tom keep his own political views out of his reporting?

“It’s more intellectually challenging to be unbiased than to just follow your own gut reactions… so it’s a joy of the job to actually be challenging yourself to stay down the middle.”

Changing the world

I think the concept of objectivity being a challenge is kind of cool. In a time where opinion is everywhere, we should be able to turn to journalists for information and know their work isn’t tainted by their political persuasion.

I asked Tom if he thinks journalists are able to “change the world” mostly because I wanted to know whether he thinks he is doing this. While he wouldn’t put it so strongly, he said he felt special in being able to open up conversations and speak to young people around Australia on a daily basis.

“It’s not saving the world,” he said. “Sometimes it’s really on an interpersonal level; it’s not like a big structural reform or defending the power of democracy. It’s like, sometimes you’re changing the world by making someone feel understood.”

I think making people feel “understood” is what Hack does best. To me Hack isn’t just, ‘Here’s the story, you need to know this’, it’s more like, ‘Here’s the story, here are the facts, now, here’s the voice of a young Australian and that person is going to make you understand on a more intimate level.’ Understanding is essentially knowledge, and “knowledge is power”.

So why is Tom a good role model for every future journalist sitting in our lecture room? Because he doesn’t just give his audience straight news, he gives them something to contemplate. Hack challenges its audience to think critically about issues that affect them and issues that don’t – and if they don’t, here’s why you should still give a shit.

Although Tom is just one part of the show, he is by all means, the curator. Will he change the world? He could, but that’s not his job, and maybe that’s just another stupid question – so here’s a better one: Can Tom Tilley present a story that will inspire someone to change the world? I think he can. – Story by Ashleigh Cant, video by Lisa Solinareos, pictures by Rebecka Davidsson

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