Key Moments in History with Ray Martin
Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History, and my guest this week is someone that you will know and have followed for many years. Its award winning journalist Ray Martin and I’m looking forward to catching up with Ray and to hear his stories about covering over the last 50 odd years. Some of the key moments in history. I think it’s going to be a really great conversation and Ray; it’s just a real pleasure to have you here on the podcast.
Ray: Thanks Mat. Good to be here
Mat: Let’s kick off before we get started. A bit of an announcement for people that we’re going on a tour together and we were heading to the Western Front.
Ray: We’ve done it once before.
Mat: We have – we’ve done Gallipoli and so this is a follow up from our trip in 2015. We are going next year in June to the Western Front. We’ll be going together and exploring some of those key Australian battlefields. What does that mean to walk this ground and explore this important chapter of history?
Ray: I studied History at Sydney University and I was going to be a history teacher or lecturer and then jumped the fence and became a journalist. But part of my journalism is in fact related to history, and most books I read are about history.
I’ve become a bit of an expert on early Australian colonial history now, the first 40 or 50 years.
When I went to America for the ABC ’69 to ’78, I had studied American history at university and was pretty familiar with the battlefields and pretty familiar with early American colonial history. To walk the graveyards of New England, to walk the battlefields of the civil war were extraordinary. The hair on the back of my neck is standing up a bit as I talk about it because it was things that I’d read in the dusty library shelves brought to life.
I think I said to you at the time that when I went to Gettysburg I went to some of the great American battlefields, extraordinary battlefields. I was moved, and began to understand what was there, but not as much as when I first went to Gallipoli and went up Shrapnel Gully with you and walked the ground where the Anzacs fought, and became familiarised with these men through the stories you shared.
And I know the Western Front will be the same. I’ve been to some sites on the Western Front, but I haven’t been to parts of Northern France that we’re visiting. So, to go to these places, I’m going to be like a kid in a toy shop.
Mat: Well, wonderfully, you’re a very well respected photographer as well and you’re going to bring your knowledge about photography to the tour as well, aren’t you? With a special workshop and we’re going to be encouraging people to bring their cameras and take photos during the tour. That’s an important part of not just a holiday experience, but also documenting these visits to important sites of history, isn’t it? The ability to take a photo to share that with people, to help convey this story through photography.
Ray: The iPhone has obviously put the camera in everybody’s hands nowadays. But there are better cameras and there are better memories as a result of cameras. You don’t have to buy an expensive camera, but there are cameras that are meant to take photos rather than be used for conversation. But I think I find when I drive somewhere, whether it is Australia or overseas, if I’m driving, I take more notice of where I am. If I take photographs, I take more notice of where I’ve been in that sense. And I think photos are really important as memory triggers if you like. But also it’s hard not to look at a photo and remember the few minutes or even hours around that particular photograph. So I think photos are really important. They’re important in our lives and our family lives.
So often these days’ people tend to leave them on the computer or on the iPhone. Ken Duncan, the greatest trained photographer says that you don’t have a photo until you print it. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to do a big poster sized print. But at least the little postcards that I used to have, our parents used to have and so on. Photos are great memories of experiences.
Mat: Well, we should remember as well that photography was a hugely important aspect of the First World War. This was one of the first Wars, probably the American civil war was the first war where photography was actively used on the battlefields, but by the time of the First World War, the official war photographer had become a thing and this was the first time we saw pictures from battlefields and some of them were actually quite confronting. I’m always astounded when you go back noting the amount of censorship and the way governments tried to depict the First World War for people at home. I’m always astounded at some of the access that photographers were given. People like Frank Hurley, some of the access they were given to those battlefields. It’s just extraordinary.
Ray: And the soldiers themselves, I really think that you’re out there trying to stay alive, and the soldiers and nurses in the hospitals who took cameras back in 1914, ’15, ’16, and ‘17 when the cameras were fairly primitive, but still very good if you knew what you were doing. And some of the soldiers took photographs with them to the front, and they were saved somehow, and now we have found some family photos on the battlefront. But to have done it then when you had all the other risks of the clobbers to carry with you, it was remarkable.
Mat: Well they weren’t allowed to bring cameras either. Amateur photographers were officially banned during the First World War, yet officers in particular would smuggle the box brownie along with them. And thank God they did because some of the most compelling shots we have now of the battlefields were taken as you say by soldiers who were right in the thick of the action.
Ray: And even later, I remember Winston Churchill and Menzies had cameras with them when they went to World War 2 sites. I think Churchill took someone in North Africa and that was his own camera.
Mat: Ray, you mentioned the importance of family and storytelling. You were telling me earlier today about growing up throughout the bush in New South Wales. Just tell us a little bit before we get to the story of Ray Martin, the journalist. Tell us about Ray Martin, the kid growing up in Gunnedah and in the various back blocks of New South Wales.
Ray: My father was a mechanic and come out of WW2. He was in the air force and I was born in Richmond because he was based there. He went bush after the war and managed a couple of properties and was also working on the building of dams around New South Wales. And for some reason they needed mechanics in the early stages, so we were very itinerant. I’ve got three elder sisters and no brothers. We spent a lot of time in trains going from place to place which was about the only transport one had then. And we lived in 13 different towns before I went to high school. I went to high school in Tasmania as it happened. So for me looking back, it was boys out adventuring stuff. I was always somehow being looked after by my mother or my father or my sisters in a train somewhere and getting out at some lonely cold station in Albury, Wagga – other towns, and it’d be two o’clock in the morning and I have vivid memories of railway station coffee even as a small boy, which I think was just chicory. In fact, I think we didn’t really have coffee in those days, it was just chicory.
There was an American writer who came here in the 1800’s and he did a train trip from Melbourne to Sydney, he thought Australian coffee was a mix between sheep dip and samp oil. Now, we know American coffee today is nowhere near as good as ours, but at that time the common coffee was just chicory. But as a kid you’d get it with a lot of condensed milk in the railway canteens. And I was a little boy with dimples and if I smiled at the women behind the counter, I’d get extra condensed milk which I used to love. I have a vivid memory of some lady tweaking me on the cheek and she was in a starch white uniform and she’d given me coffee even though I was only six or seven or eight at that stage just to warm you up with an extra dab of condensed milk.
So my memories of traveling around the bush were really good. We were working class Catholic, working class Irish background. Aboriginal connection we were to learn later in our lives. My great, great grandfather on my mom’s side had two children with a full blooded Aboriginal woman in Northern New South Wales. But we didn’t find out ’till later. I suspect there were a lot of people who grew up in the bush who have an Aboriginal connection, that hasn’t been acknowledged or they don’t know about.
We grew up as I said, moving around, moving to different schools. My sisters suffered much more as teenage girls because when you’re that age, you don’t like to leave friends and change school uniforms and all that sort of stuff. To me, I say my life was just a boys out adventure. I had the most wonderful mother who looked after me and my elder sisters and dad. The bush was fun. Had I been older, or my mother for example, I think It would have been harder. Always moving houses, changing towns 13 times in six or seven years, but that was life.
Mat: How did that upbringing shape your worldview later in life? Do you see yourself as a kid from the bush?
Ray: Yeah. I do. I still see myself as a working class kid in the sense that, my parents split. My father was violent towards my mother when he was drunk. And so part of my career has been shedding a light on domestic violence – and then I’ll get a letter from someone in the bush or in the city and she’d say, good interview on that, that was also my experience – but you can never understand what it was like, she’d say. And I used to write back and say, trust me, I do. I have been poor and I’ve been absolute working class.
One stage when we came to the city, there was no accommodation in the early 50’s in Australia. And two of my oldest sisters stayed with my mother’s brother and sister-in-law in Paddington. And then my dad, my other sister, my mom and I were staying wherever we could stay. And we stayed virtually from a house boat to the Salvation Army residence. For two nights, we slept on the station on Central Station because my mom who used to take my sisters and myself down to the housing commission office every day and we hadn’t registered on the housing mission list. So someone down there said to mom, look, you’ve got to do something extreme. So we slept on the station for two nights. The second night we were picked up by the police and put in the Paddy wagon and taken back to the housing commission place.
And I remember the police saying to my father, what are you doing? We had our suitcases and we were asleep on the station. And dad said we’ve got nowhere to stay. And so we ended up jumping a train and going out to the Housing Commission, Halfway Centre out near Liverpool and then we subsequently got a housing mission house and life moved on. But it was that, I think I remember researching my own story and there’s something like 350,000 people in New South Wales after the war who didn’t have houses. And that’s when the Housing Commission business really started. And we were part of it. And so as I said, it used to be funny when I get letters from people saying, you wouldn’t understand what it’s like to be this and I said trust me. I do.
Mat: How did you go from that remarkable start in life? How did you decide that journalism was what you wanted to do and that was how you’re going to make your career?
Ray: I don’t know whether I ever decided. And having said that about my early life, I never felt like I was poor. I never felt deprived. I never went hungry as I had the most extraordinary mother known to man. And so I just say, there didn’t seem to be the difference between the rich and the poor in Australia in those days. I was just like everybody else, I always had shoes to wear and always had clothes to wear, etc. So that was part of the upbringing. But I was lucky enough to go to a selective high school and then I got a scholarship at the end of that to go to university. There’s no way in the world I could have afforded university without a scholarship.
I received a Commonwealth scholarship to do engineering and I did about three weeks of engineering at Sydney University and thought this is the wrong side of the brain. Engineering isn’t me. So I jumped the fence, but you couldn’t transfer Commonwealth Scholarships in those days. So once you’d chosen a scholarship, you had to stick with it. But I got an Education Department scholarship instead and so I decided to go and teach. And I was in my honors year of history as I said, and I decided I didn’t want to teach. I applied for a job with the ABC as a cadet and they used to give two scholarships a year or two trainee-ships a year. And I got that particular year and that was the start of it. But I had no idea what journalism was.
Mat: When was this? What year was this?
Ray: ’65. I started with the ABC. Myself and a mate at Launceston High School. We ran the school newspaper and the school radio station, mainly because it got us out of assembly, we’d run the microphones and play the records for assembly. We didn’t have to sit in the drafty old hall, but also from the newspaper point of view, I was the News and Sports Editor and my friend did the other things in the newspaper. And so I could really just boast about my sporting prowess and things that I’d done on the sporting field way beyond what I’d really done. But that’s what you can do when you’re a journalist or the correspondent. So that was the only connection we had with journalism, so to speak. And that was done for ulterior motives.
But ABC in those days, we’re talking about 1965. I started as a cadet in Sydney and went to Perth and Canberra and then got the job as New York correspondent in 1969 to ’78. Now, that was the change of my life because America in ’69 was the start of the civil rights revolution, the feminist revolution, the gay revolution.. the late ‘60’s was a revolutionary time in America and in the world. America led the way. Vietnam was happening and Nixon was happening and man on the moon was happening and it seemed like every day there was some new story that you could get your teeth into. So the foundations of my life were really those 10 years in America
Mat: Joining the ABC in the mid ‘60s there probably has not been a more tumultuous decade in recent years. The changes that occurred in the ‘60s and into the ‘70s and especially as you say, through America, throughout the world that must have been an absolutely extraordinary time to be a new journalist covering these new stories.
Ray: It was and I’d work out of Canberra and I’ve been covering politics down there for about two years, and we were very much under a British system, but even tighter than that. We are a conservative people and our journalistic laws were extremely conservative. And the defamation laws and the restrictions on journalism were much tighter than they are today, although there’s an attempt today to try and toughen them up again with present governments. But in those days, you remember going to America and Robert Askins was the New South Wales Premier at the time. And we knew as journalists that he was on the take, from money, from SP, Bookies in SP gambling. In New South Wales, you could never report that even though he was the Premier at the time. It’s since been reported and established as fact. But you had to be careful about what you said about people. I got to America and there’s a guy named Pete Hamill who was a wonderful Irish American writer. Probably the most powerful influence on my writing and my thoughts that I’d come across at that stage. He wrote the first covers for Bob Dylan albums and things like this, he was just the most lively, vibrant, beautiful writer. He wrote a column for the New York post, which is a paper that Rupert Murdoch has subsequently bought. But at that time, it was run by a smaller liberal Jewish woman in New York.
And it had all that liberalism of smaller liberalism of American Jews. And so it was in the paper, the post, and he had a column three days a week. And I subsequently cut the columns out. It was so starkly different from anything I’d seen in Australia. And he wrote a column about a Congressman when I’d just been there a week or two, and he was called Nunn, was the top of the column. Each column had a name and he was Congressman, Lester Nunn, he was from Tennessee and he’d been in the middle he was a Democrat, but he was in the middle of all kinds of skull-duggery and pork barrelism the Americans called it at that time, but he died. And the opening paragraph in this, after my experience of journalism in Australia in Canberra was Pete Hamill’s opening line was ‘they buried Lester Nunn in Tuscaloosa today. And we’re better off without him’. And then he just listed the colonies. He listed all beyond pork barrelling, all the things this guy had done in his life. I couldn’t believe it. For someone coming out of the politics of Canberra where you couldn’t really tell the truth. You had to be careful about it.
And suddenly I was in this land of the free; I was in America where I did tell Richard Nixon that he was a crook. I don’t want to go out there calling people crooks and they’re not, but it was this freedom of the press that I had only heard about. And I think as you said that the revolution was being led in America. A bit of it was in France, of course, with civil rights and other rights in France and certainly some of the youth movement in France and Germany. But America was very revolutionary. You don’t know at the time in this history we talk about that. It’s usually when you step back and look at a timeline, you realize that when things happen. But as I said, the civil rights movement just blew apart in America.
It was the Black Panthers were a violent revolutionary group in America. And I found myself one night in Harlem, one Friday night and Jean Giono the French communist was there talking to Black Panthers. And it was two o’clock in the morning. I was in the deepest, darkest part of Harlem and then the South Bronx, which were very dangerous places in those days. And I was this innocent white kid from Australia, waiting to speak to Jean Giono at two o’clock in the morning with these revolutionary Black Panthers around. And I had no sense of the danger. And it was really serious times probably the FBI and the police forces fought with the Black Panthers and many were killed. A lot of people killed on both sides, but that wasn’t the sophistication of America that we see today. It was when America was bubbling and breaking apart.
Mat: What was that like to be in New York at this time? We were talking the end of the Vietnam War, we’re talking widespread protests. Watergate. I mean these are all stories I assume you were covering.
Ray: Absolutely. And the women’s revolution as well. Suddenly Betty Friedan always the revolutionaries if you like, in the women’s movement in getting some equal rights for women. The gay movement, the gay equal rights movement began in America. Again, it was already alive in places like Holland and others had just accepted it, but rest of the world still rejected and resented the gay revolution if you’re like Americans you decided to fight it. You’re conscious that a phrase, I think that Dylan used of being in the belly of the beast. You’re conscious that the revolution was happening before you in this highly sophisticated center of the earth. It was someone like Jimmy Breslin, the great New York writer. He said, when you leave New York you get Bush, and that was not just in America but for the rest of the world.
Kenton the English writer said New York was like Technicolor where London was black and white and that was the difference in terms of New York leading the world. And there were times when Berlin leads the world, when Paris leads the world, when London does. Well, almost since the end of the war, New York has led the world and you’re conscious that this is where ideas happen and you’re conscious this is where changes happen. And you know that you had John Kennedy telling the world that man was going to be put on the moon by the end of the ‘60s. And it did happen. That appeared for a young boy growing up in Australia and looking at the moon and then for young journalists going to America, thought that there’s no way they’re going to do that but they did. And that’s the sort of thing they did.
Mat: As a journalist, did you feel removed from this revolution that was going on all around you or did you feel caught up in it? Did you feel part of the story or you were moved simply reporting on what you saw?
Ray: I’d love to say I felt part of it, I didn’t all the time. The thing I love about journalism is that when I finished, working full time on channel 9, I can’t tell you the number of letters that I used to get from people saying it’s clear that you’re a card carrying communist and the others would say it’s clear that you’re a right wing liberal. And I thought, well, I’ve done a good job. If people have no idea what my politics are, because my politics are irrelevant to what I report – what I think apart from sexism and racism, which are non-negotiable – then otherwise what I think doesn’t matter, I should just report.
So it was only when I wrote my autobiography, when I’d left 9 about 2008 that I started to put that timeline in of the 10 years, for example, in America apart from other things in my life. And I thought, wow, that’s when the Kent State killings happened. The Kent State University where three students were shot by American troops, in there. And it was a conflagration. It was a riot that was caused by the number two and the CIA.
James Jesus Angleton, the man whom I spoke to later, he was sacked from the CIA for setting up these agent provocateurs in the universities. Now it was his people who had set that riot up. To make it look as though it was a left wing conspiracy and the National Guard, when they try to calm her down and three students were shot and killed. We now know it was done by the CIA. I don’t believe in conspiracies generally. So I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but that’s just a fact of life. So those things were happening, but that was exposed in a very few places. It would be somehow swept under the carpet, whether it is Saudi Arabia or France or Germany. In America, they expose things like this. So you did get Watergate and you did get the Pentagon papers and you get all these things that are almost like WikiLeaks today.
The Americans expect an inquiry. The Americans expect to be told the truth, not that they are all the time, nobody is. But nevertheless, that’s what I fell into as a journalist. So I was conscious that I was covering these stories day by day and it’s all exhilarating and exciting. And as I said at one stage, I think the ABC, instructed me to take some holidays because we’d gone over 26 weeks of holidays, my wife and I, and you couldn’t go away for a week because you’d miss something, something could be happening as a journalist and so we finally were forced to take a month of our holidays and we ended up going around the American Civil War sites, on holiday, as a result. But it was just so exciting and that period through the ‘70s when it seemed like, if it wasn’t happening in America, it just didn’t happen.
Mat: You mentioned the moon landings. What were the other big stories that you covered during that period? Because as we said, the late ‘60s into the 1970s, there was just so much, there’s something happening every day.
Ray: Certainly even the start of the environmental movement happened in America. And you suddenly became aware that we were messing up this planet of ours. And yet until today, until Europe goes through the heat waves they’re having and the hottest period in the history of Europe, you realise there might be something happening. The barrier reef melting and those sorts of things. We now realise that there is something happening, whether it’s man-made or other. There is climate change, and in the late ’60s, early ’70s they started to ring alarm bells, about the environment, in America. You couldn’t avoid it and yet, because it was so revolutionary and so new, did people really care? Well no. They didn’t care as much as they care today about that. The same as the women’s movement. When you look at the sexism that existed in Australia or in America or in the Western world. Again, it was very hard to beat that drum for too long because, we’ve heard about women we know that even though women are there, even though there was a glass ceiling, even though women were being paid less than men or those sorts of things from a news point of view you can only do things that people are prepared to accept and people want to read and want to listen to.
So you couldn’t beat that feminist drum for too long, before people said oh I’ve heard of that, it was the same with original stories. There was a young journalist in Australia through that period that I was growing up. The editor’s adage was black fellows don’t sell newspapers, but I’m still writing this and therefore unless it happened to be a negative story about indigenous people then we don’t want a story about adage. That fancy word that was used at the time. And so there are these changes and that stage civil rights and if you like black equality was beginning as a serious story. And I think that we tended to write that with some of the riots and some of the demonstrations that indigenous people had in Australia in the ’70”s as well, because that’s what was happening in America.
And that’s why Merrick was important. And that’s where I felt like I was in the belly of the beast. And with the women’s movement in the environmental movement and the civil rights movement, the gay movement and etc. On those things. So, I was always an observer of that. I went to the moratorium, the marches; a million people walking down the, main boulevards in Washington. So you’re aware of all these people who weren’t all long-haired dirty, grubby, hippies that were middle class Americans who suddenly had begun to get the message. And that’s part of it the history, and the moments of history that I now look back on and including the man walking the moon at that time, which I covered almost second by second. And at the time you think, wow, this is pretty important. We don’t think in 50 years’ time as we have now. We’re going to sit back and look at that.
When I interviewed Muhammad Ali, I went to the first fight that Ali had with the Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, I’d been as, again as a working class boy, had been to Sydney Stadium and seen fights with my father who was keen on fights and the fighting game. And I had grown up with that singing in Sydney stadium, which was a band. And then I get to Madison Square Garden and there were 20,000 people there for the biggest sporting event in the history of the world at that stage.
And he was a black man who was fighting even a blacker man, but Frazier being the blacker man was almost the great white hope because Ali had become so controversial. And so here was white America trying to support this very black man named Joe Frazier against this upstarts who changed his name and became a Muslim in Ali. And I remember I sat about 20 rows from ringside in that particular fight and I’m an absolute sports nut. I love sports. That was not only the biggest sporting event in the history of the world and in terms of finances. At that stage a financial pay-out of two men but I just felt like I had gone to heaven. And they’re always sitting. There’s so few seats in that particular fight that Frank Sinatra anyway, he got into the fight as a photographer for Life Magazine, he had a tag around his neck with his black suit and a black tie sitting in 20 rows in front of me. And it said photographer. And of course he wasn’t taking photographs. He just wanted to get into the fight and there were no seats. And the fight went for 15 rounds. It was a draw. It was a win for Frazier rather. And both men ended up with broken jaws and I’m a non-violent person. But it was one of those most extraordinary spectacles, if you like street theater or theater in a stadium that I’d ever seen in my life. And I was there those sorts of things. I think that’s the privilege of being a journalist, but also the privilege of being in America at that time.
Mat: You covered obviously historic events, a lot of political events, but what about the great cultural things that were going on at the same time?
Ray: New York was the centre of the universe, and America was the bigger centre if you like. Things could happen like the Rolling Stones and the big riot at Altamont concert, California – that ended up with a couple of people stabbed, and when it made the New York Times paper it made it real. It it didn’t happen in New York, it didn’t happen if you like. Some of the people like Rod Stewart and others coming out of America, or out of England rather – except for the Beatles – you didn’t really know. I got into Rod Stewart and Joe Cocker sometime later because they weren’t big in New York and they weren’t big in that side of America. Anything that happens off the American coastline doesn’t happen for Americans. And that was it.
The John Lennon story was funny. I interviewed George Harrison a couple of times on Midday and he was wonderful. He was wonderfully eloquent that sort of dry, Liverpool, Liverpoolian way that he had and loving sense of humor. And I interviewed, Ringo Starr, not Paul McCartney.
I did a series of 30 live shows in more recent times with Sir David Attenborough, 5,000 people in the audience, we’d sell out almost every night with David Attenborough. And on the strength of that first one, my live show entrepreneur said, let’s try and get Paul McCartney and we’ll bring him to Australia. And the idea would be, it was just maybe a guitar number at the start. And we talk about the Beatles days in Liverpool and so on. And then we take an interval and then we have a piano number of the second half, and the rest would just be a conversation with Paul McCartney.
And so they got in touch with Paul McCartney’s management team who were in South America, in Rio at the time playing for a football stadium. We’re talking about probably 2010, 2011. And so they got in touch and said, we’ve done something with Sir David Attenborough. And we’d like to do something with Sir Paul. When they came back and said, look, on the strength of that, we support, spoken to him, he’s very keen to do it. He understands what Sir David’s done. Our fee would be 120 million pound. When you talk about a show in Melbourne and Sydney and probably New York and Washington and Ottawa and London. That was all but 120 million pound. That was the starting base anyway. Never happened. So that was the closest I got to interviewing Paul McCarthy.
But when me and my wife first went to New York it was like 1972, ’73, one afternoon we were coming out of Central Park and it was summertime and like six or seven o’clock at night and the sun was still out. And John Lennon and Yoko lived across the other side of the park where he was subsequently shot and killed outside. So they were heading across if you like, on the Fifth Avenue side of Central Park for those who know America, New York. And he bounced into the park as we were leaving with Eric Clapton. Eric Clapton was in a band with us at the time. John Lennon had a number one hit and he had a band with Yoko and Eric Clapton, a few other wonderful American musicians.
And Richard Nixon was the president and Richard Nixon was trying to kick him out of America. He was anti-Vietnam. John was anti-Vietnam and getting a lot of attention and was outspoken as he always was about civil rights as well. So Nixon tried to get him out and John Lennon and friends fought through the American court system and he was allowed to stay, but he was a very prominent figure and he bounced into the park with a leather pork pie cap on. I remember these aviator glasses and she had the same gear on her, this wonderfully, what looked expensive, flying jacket and a black leather jacket. And she had the same. And Eric Clapton was in a checked shirt, I remember. And they just break hand almost across their path. And I did something I’ve never done before in my life or since, I’m not a stalker of stars.
I said, good day John. And he stopped in the middle of nowhere. I said it quite loudly and he stopped obviously he heard the cockney accent or something different. He had no idea who I was, of course. And he stopped and for a moment smiled this incredible, sparkling smile and a twinkle in the eyes and said, good day and then he went and three of them went off as they were talking.
My wife said, what did you do that for? And I said, it was John Lennon, and she said, you’re an idiot why would you do that? And she walked away. She was offended by me. Saying good day John? And I said, it was John Lennon. I was taught to explain myself it’s something I never do as my brush with fame. But he went again, never to be interviewed by me and never to be seen by me. But if you’re a journalist for long enough, the cycle of life is such that, 10 years later I was on 60 minutes and I went back to when he was shot and killed, outside his apartment that he was heading for that day and I covered that. His murder. And 20 years after that I was there with our daughter Jenna when she left school and she and I, when she finished high school, we had this deal we’re going to do a week just she and I in New York looking at theater because she loves theater.
And that was December again, I didn’t know the anniversary was 20 years to the day after he was shot. I was with Jenna in the Central Park on an afternoon and around that area, which is Strawberry Fields just below where John Lennon lived. And, it’s now dedicated to the Beatles. And they were probably 2000 people there with guitars singing, not just John Lennon songs, but Beatles songs and others were sitting around like us and basically taking in if you feel like basking in the history of and the memory of what was Lennon and what was the Beatles. And I thought that incredible cycle of life that you have that if you live long enough, there one day when you say, good day John and you’re there 10 years later when he’s assassinated and you’re there 20 years later after that with your daughter in another generation saying, well, this amazing thing happened. And she, of course, growing up as people do, even the young people today on the Beatles. And it was that extraordinary privilege again, that you get
Mat: Big moments like that when John Lennon was killed. I mean everyone remembers where they were when they see these huge moments in history occurred. How does that work as a journalist, you have said to me, you were a massive John Lennon fan.
Ray: Absolutely. I think what you do is you bring something like that or something that moves you emotionally. Hopefully you write better and you tell the story better.
On that same trip with Jenna we were walking down 57th street and we were stopped by a black car and a red carpet that went into The Russian Tea room on 57th street, which is a fantastic restaurant. And we stopped to see what was happening. And there was a nurse with this shuffling, African American man and it was Ali. Ali in the last year or so of his life. And once again, I was there with my daughter and I was able to say when he was the prettiest, as he called himself the most handsome, best known man in the world, Muhammad Ali. And here he was now this sort of shuffling, wreck, of a man from what he’d been. And once again, that’s the cycle of life that happens in some ways, to all of us. I could tell a better story about seeing Ali there because I’d seen him in that fight and because I thought he was close to the greatest athlete I ever saw in my life.
Similarly with John Lennon. Writing about John Lennon or writing about the tsunami in Asia where 200,000 people killed is something that moves anybody emotionally. I think that you probably write better and probably a choice of adjectives and your choice of the way you described are probably stronger and more powerful than if you don’t care. But at the end of the day, if you’re writing a news story, you should write just a news story. But if you’re writing a color story, if you’re doing something for 60 minutes or for Four Corners, you’ve got a chance to put your own feelings and your own emotions in there. And I think you’re expected to, and you probably do a better job.
Mat: There’s a criticism that’s leveled against journalism in general today, that it’s overwhelmingly negative. If it bleeds, it leads. Do you agree with that? Have you seen journalism change in the way those stories are told?
Ray: I think it was except now we’ve got 24 hour news and so you can’t get away from it. I go away nowadays overseas, for time and I don’t read the Australian papers for a couple of weeks and I come back and apart from let’s say, Bob Hawke’s death or something, really prominent like that, nothing’s changed. And so you can survive without the daily news. You can’t survive without information. You need information, but you can survive without the daily news. And I used to, when I was fronting a current affair, when I was also working on 60 minutes and the Midday show, the most common refrain is why is it always bad news? Why do we always focus on ugly people or people who are negative or people who do bad things.
I live in a neighborhood in which people don’t do bad things. The kids go to school and they cuddle the kids and the kids play football or netball. And life goes on and people care about the local dogs. And that’s true. Thankfully for our society in Australia, most people do care and they look after each other. And I think that’s an understandable refrain from everybody, why can’t we cover stories of good people? Why we always cover stories of rat-bags or of bad people. And I think when I was doing all those programs, I used to believe that we should go and do some stories on people who do good works. And the Australian awards that are given out a couple of times a year, we usually so often forget the prominent people who get them and probably shouldn’t.
It’s the scoutmaster or the lady who looks after the meals on wheels or somebody who looks after the local gardens off their own bat. We do give awards for people who do these fantastic things. And you and I’ve talked about them and we all talk about them over dinner if there’s something in the news about someone unknown who’s remarkable, who’s done remarkable things. So there should be more of that. And that’s not being Pollyannaish.
News has to be about things that get your attention. And so often there are about things that almost like warnings, if you like, or things that are, exceptional and out of the ordinary. And crime is out of the ordinary in Australia and violence is out of the ordinary. So it gets covered but I do think we forget some of the extraordinary people who aren’t famous and even some of the Famous. The Dick Smiths of this world who give a couple of million dollars to charity every year. He and Mrs Smith give money every year. It should be lauded we should pat people on the back who do that. They don’t have to do it. And lots of rich people don’t. But people like Dick do. And so I think that as a journalist, I find myself all the time looking for the extraordinary, which doesn’t have to be a star. It’s often the extraordinary done by people who are very ordinary.
Mat: Of all these wonderful people that you’ve had the privilege of interviewing from Presidents to Prime Ministers to rock stars. Was there ever the one that got away?
Ray: Oh, the one I doubt that I would ever had a chance, but the Queen would be the one missing link, the one that I’d love to talk to. The Pope at the time as well because of the power the influence that they have and because they’re usually remarkable people. The Queen especially, I’m a Republican. So I think the sooner we get rid of the Queen of Australia and she remains, the Queen of England or the King of England will suit me and I want the English flag off our flag. But nevertheless, I think the Queen is a remarkable woman and a remarkable person. And given what she’s seen, what she’s done over those years, I’d love to talk to her.
The change of government recently with Boris Johnson I’d love to hear what she thinks of Boris Johnson. But you’d hope that you can actually talk to her without any filters, without any censorship. And if she gave the inside story of the things she’s seen in her period of reign it would be comparable if not more than what Queen Victoria had there. I’d love to ask the queen what she has in her handbag. What does she carry in that handbag? She doesn’t have the car keys, there’s no credit card and there’s no purse. She might have some rouge but she’s got a lady in waiting to touch up the lipstick. I suspect that her handbag is like something from Fortnum & Mason’s that’s just got a rolled up paper in there. And, it’s really just there to keep the shape of the bag. There’s really nothing in there because there’s someone alongside her who will give her what she needs every time. And so I’d love to know what the Queen has in her handbag,
Mat: That’s something I’ve always admired about your interview style is you’re able to find those angles, that common element that finds a new way to tell the story, like asking the Queen what she’s got in her handbag. How do you do that?
Ray: You do your homework. I’m an absolute stickler for getting information if I interviewed you, I would want to know more about you than you know yourself. And when you tell me things that should surprise me, I’ll act surprised. But I really want to know in advance how many children you have and what ‘s your wife’s name is and that sort of stuff. I’m amazed sometimes journalists will talk to me and my wife’s name is spelled D-I-A-N-N-E and they won’t even know that there’s a journalist who research and spells her name differently to what it is and has no idea. So those sorts of things. I just think they’re not journalism. You need to know. So, to find something that you know Rod Stewart or John Lennon’s been asked the same questions a thousand times.
How do you get something different? I thought when I did the great debates with them, John Howard with Paul Keating for Channel 9 the first of those, it just seemed to me, given the money that was being thrown around by both sides of politics at that stage, it seemed to me worthwhile to ask them how much a loaf bread was because they deal in terms of $120 million was spent on the same sex vote, postal vote. We knew what the results were and yet it was thrown away like spare change on that particular vote. And I think generally that even working class, people like Paul Keating or John Howard for that matter they forget what it’s like in the real world and they don’t go and buy a loaf of bread or they don’t buy a litre of milk.
Now that’s not a silly question. It’s a question of how much in touch with the real world are you because someone buys the loaf of bread for them or buys the milk. So I think that question is valid. Often it gets a lovely response. An introduction for Julian Lennon. He was on Midday and John Lennon’s son and he came on and he had Salt Water, the song at the time.
A song which was an international hit. And I wrote the introduction. I was doing Midday and I wrote the introduction. I never mentioned John Lennon. I just said this young guy from California and he’s written a song with taking the world and its environmental song and then he’s got an album out that’s so and so. And it was fairly a fulsome introduction and I never mentioned John. He came out just kicking, just laughing so much. My God, he said, that’s the first time in my life someone didn’t mention that I was John Lennon’s son. And the end result he gave a great interview and it was just at a time I thought, what else do we do that’s different without trying to be different in a silly way, but I just thought, how will he respond if I didn’t mention John Lennon because he’s a man in his own right. And that was the response. So often I think it’s that question like the loaf of bread question or the others that we’ll get a different response.
Jack Lemon, I interviewed him once and he had been in an American movie and he had 58 interviews about that movie at the time. And we were pre-recording the interview and we were the last one and they gave us half an hour with him and most of the others were eight minutes and nine minutes just for local news programs around the world. And I got to the end of it and about to do the interview with him and Jack Lemmon said, Ray I’d never been in a museum in Hollywood when I was here. And he said this is the 58th interview I’ve done today and yesterday. He said, would you mind if I had a cup of tea? And I said of course, Jack and please am my guest. I knew we’d get half an hour anyway, so he had the cup of tea and he calm down a bit. We were just chatting about nothing. And then we started the interview and the clock, began with our half hour and I asked him something, which was not like the price of eggs or the price of a loaf of bread. But I asked him something about the movie and about acting and I know in 58 interviews, he must’ve been asked that question at least 20 times, if not more. He said, Ray. That’s a damn good question. I don’t know let me think about that. It was just because he was such great talent and the end result, it puffs up your image, that’s a good question. If you say to the person doing the interviews. I thought of the song, ‘How good are you‘ because that was the right answer. And he ended up giving me an answer. And as I said, it wasn’t a left field or right field question. It was something that I’m sure he’d been asked as well. That’s a good question. Let me think how I answer that in a way you want. So that’s the cleverness of someone who knows the media.
Mat: Who was the biggest disappointment that you spoke to. Who didn’t live up to their stature when you actually sat down and spoke to them?
Ray: Michael Johnson, the American 400 meters champion, probably the greatest 400 meter runner in the world or distance runner in the world. African American won the same night that Cathy Freeman won the gold for 400 meters. He won for the 400 metres in the men. And then won the four by 400 relay. We were asked 60 minutes to do a story a day in the life of Michael. And he was six foot five, fellow from Texas. And it was his last Olympic games in Sydney and he was about to become the Goodwill ambassador for Brisbane and they were paying, I think that state government with Peter Beattie at that stage was paying $100,000 as a Goodwill ambassador.
He was going to come back, not run, but come back and promote the games in Brisbane. And so they said, could you do a day in the life of? And I’d read that he was difficult and so I remember saying to Peter Beattie’s people, does he want to do it? Or we’re going to have a Trump? No, no he wants to do it. He didn’t, he didn’t want to do it. And I when he got through, he did the early morning FM radio with Agro up there on in Brisbane. We filmed that at about 5:30 in the morning and they wrote in the diary, impossible never to be interviewed again. He was so difficult he was just monosyllabic. Had his sunglasses on in the studio and it was pitch black and he had his sunglass.
The way he walked out of the big Limo that we took around and we were in South, I won’t get through the rest of it, but we were across the river in Brisbane. Just wanting to get the shot of him, sort of wandered around where the people were. A woman came across with a baby. She was swimming there a bit of a beach they have on the South Bank. And she said, Michael, Michael can I get a photograph for the baby? And he said, no photographs. And the woman looked at me and I was embarrassed. I had raised my hand and said, look, I don’t know why. Anyway, no photographs. And a couple of young blacks came out of an office building nearby with their iPhones and said, Michael can we get autograph? And he said no autographs, no autographs, and the same thing. And I said, why? No Autographs. I knew it was going to be difficult day. And I said to him, as we stood by the river, look, I’m going to make this as painless as I possibly can for you. We’re just doing a day in the life of. So I said, we just really like to hear what you’ve got to say about the Sydney Olympics. What you think of Cathy Freeman and what you think of yourself in terms of what you’ve done? So generally that’s the area we’re going to go. And he said, I want to use the language, but he said oh, I don’t give what’s your name about Sydney. I couldn’t give a what’s your name about Cathy Freeman and I’m sick of what’s the name talking about myself and I said, well, it’s going to be good interview for sure. Now it wasn’t, it got worse. And I asked about drugs. I’d be telling not to, but drugs were the big issue with the Americans at the Sydney Olympics when five were sent home.
We had to ask about drugs, which I left at the end and he stood up in the interview and we had three cameras on it. And I thought he was going to hit me. He was so angry saying I told you I’m not going to talk about drugs, and I’m not involved in drugs. And I’m not suggesting that he was but the American team had been. At the time I thought, please hit me because we had three cameras, but I would have done if he had hit me hard because if you hit me hard you had to get to knock me in the next week. And the end he didn’t, he went out saying, well, when I come back from the Goodwill games there’s someone, I’m not going to be talking to and that’s you. And I said, well, effectively we tell somebody who cares at that stage of being so difficult, always through it.
And, so we ran the story, including a bit of that, but I reckon I’ve got probably a hundred letters and in 80 said, why were you so rude to Michael Johnson? So how do you explain? I expected him because I’m a sports nut as I said, and I expected him to be fantastic as Americans are and he could have easily dealt with the drug question and said, I’m not involved. And moved on. The tag to that story, Mat is that, he retired then the rest of the relay team, the other three members kept running. And about six months later, all three found positive on the juice and they had to give back their Sydney medals and he gave his medal back because he said if they have the three were on drugs, then obviously they cheated and he couldn’t afford to have it. But so that was the tag to the story. I’m not for a moment suggesting he was on drugs, but nevertheless it was, the others were and they paid for it.
Mat: You’ve covered just so many amazing chapters of history. Why do you think it’s important that we remember these things? There is a feeling today that people say, why do you want to live in the past? From your perspective of having covered these world-changing events, why is it important we remember history?
Ray: Well, I confess that I’m a history nut, so that I think it’s important as I’m sure scientists think science is more important than I do even though I love science. Why is history important? You drive through an Australian country town and you see a grand hotel or a grand building that has the date on the top 1914 and you think, wow, what a glorious moment that would have been in this country town’s life for this big emporium or big hotel to open up, but at the very time we were sending men off to the Western Front.
And it’s the same when you talk about 50 years since man stepped on the moon, when you think that the computers used to put men on the moon where almost what you could put it in an iPhone these days. And these incredibly brave men, and those who sent them there who were also incredibly skilled and brave, to take the risk we’re like Captain Cook coming to the East coast of Australia.
History tells us why you drive around Australian roads and about every hour and a half, there’s another town – well, that was the distance when bullocks would’ve been able to travel in a day, and that’s the reason, honestly.
It tells us how Ballarat and Bendigo made Melbourne the second richest city in the British Commonwealth after London for a time there. And why Ballarat and Bendigo have opera houses – Melbourne was immensely wealthy and the goal of the opera houses was fueling Australia’s economy as sheep had done beforehand. It explains why Albany in WA is so important -that was where our soldiers converged before heading off to Egypt and the First World War – it was the last bit of Australia they ever saw.
So I think that if you don’t know, if you don’t know our history, then you don’t know who we are and then you don’t know who you are.
Mat: Alright. It’s been absolutely wonderful. What are you working on now? What’s the next project we’re going to see Ray Martin associated with?
Ray: I’ve become an obsessive photographer so I’ve got an exhibition, in fact the Biennale photo exhibition a couple of months in Ballarat and Bendigo with a friend, I’m doing an exhibition there. I’m doing another exhibition up at Ken Duncan’s gallery. Beyond that I’m still trying to write a book on Fred Hollows. I’ve been writing for some time. I was chairman of the Fred Hollows foundation, and I think my Holy Trinity of people, the 10,000 plus interviews that the most remarkable people I met happened to be men. I’m sorry, but I’ve met some remarkable women as well. But Fred Hollows, Don Bradman, David Attenborough would be my Holy Trinity in terms of the most remarkable men that I’ve met in that period of time.
I knew Fred and he was a friend and his family wanted me to do the book and I’m a third of the way through the book, but I keep doing other things and as a result of I put it on the back burner. I’d seriously like to do that before I’m unable to do it. I’m doing, a lot of travel. And I’m doing some stuff for SPS and I’m doing some stuff for Channel 7 coming up. I’m again for hire if you like. I’m in that enviable position of just doing things that I want to do. If I don’t want to do it, I don’t do it generally. And you can’t do it when you’re a young man and you’re trying to pay the mortgage and you’re trying to get your kids through school. But I’m past that. And so I can just do things that please me. And figuring that I’ve got a limited amount of time and I want to do things that I like. And the trip to the Western Front is one of those things that I’m really looking forward or want to do. And that’s why it’s going to be so enjoyable I think to do it. I write whenever I like if I get asked to write stuff for newspapers and magazines, which I do. I love to do. So it’s just doing things that please me.
Mat: Alright thank you so much for your time. It’s been absolutely wonderful. And as we said at the start of the interview, I’m really looking forward to our tour coming up.
Ray: Me too.
Mat: To hitting the battlefields and to hearing your insights your great insights into the history that went on there. And your knowledge and skill about photography as well. I think it’s going to greatly enhance that experience.
Ray: I think we’ll learn together though. You already know and I love basking in your wisdom and sitting there in that, but I think beyond that, even though I do know, and I’ve read an awful lot about this, I’m still going there. I haven’t been to those areas. So like the rest of the people going on this trip, it’ll be a journey, which we discovered together. What it’s about with the historians and you. And whatever insight, there’ll be people on the trip for sure, who have relatives who served there, even died there for obvious reasons. And they’re going on the trip and it’d be great to hear their stories. It’s great to hear what the perspective of or sees one of these Western Front graveyards that run on as we know, run on for as far as the eyes could see almost, and you get some sense, as I said earlier, even 200,000 people dying in Asia in the tsunami there. When you see that many body bags around an area, you think, my God, I mean, how devastatingly destructive was that tsunami. How devastating destructive was World War 1 and to see, row after row of grave stones and they’re just the ones that we recovered. And so I’m looking forward to it. Yes, knowing a lot about it and having read a lot about it, but I really want to go and see it for myself and feel it and smell it and hear the wisdom of the people with us and if you like,we all discover together. So that’s what I’m looking forward to.
Mat: It’s going to be a great journey of discovery, as you say. And so anyone listening, if you want to come along with us, please do check out our website and enjoy Ray and I on that tour. It’s going to be quite extraordinary. And Ray, It’s just been wonderful to have you on the show. Thank you so much. We’ll have you on again sometime in the future, but thank you so much for joining us.
Ray: Pleasure, man. Terrific.