PORT MORESBY, 1966 – Late in 1966, I received a pleasant surprise when Papua New Guinea’s 30-something director of education, Ken McKinnon, recently returned from Harvard with a PhD, transferred me from my highlands hideaway at Gagl Primary T School to Port Moresby as editor of the School Paper.
For this unexpected elevation I had to give thanks to the trifecta of Kundiawa News, scriptwriting for the ABC, and freelance journalism for Pacific Islands Monthly and the South Pacific Post.
McKinnon, these days a great supporter of PNG Attitude and long retired to Sydney, had a distinguished career both in PNG and thereafter: as inaugural head of the Australian Schools Commission; first vice-chancellor of the University of Wollongong; and chairman of the Australian Press Council.
In PNG he had modernised a clapped out school system, professionalised the administration of education and pioneered the first national curriculum. He trod on a few toes in the process but proved to be a good man for any climate.
After my three years in the highlands, Port Moresby – even the Snake Pit bar at the Bottom Pub - felt like high sophistication, although, after the freedom of living in the bush, I did feel hemmed in by the confines of Ranuguri Hostel, where single public servants were quartered and at the nearby Konedobu Hotel well watered.
My great compensation, of course, was the new job, just a short walk down Spring Garden Road to the decrepit World War II hut that housed the educational publications unit.
Each day was a joy. I was writing professionally for the first time and, under the tutelage of illustrator Hal Holman, who a few years hence would design independent PNG’s coat of arms, I was learning the intricacies of layout, printing and Port Moresby’s night life.
As I edited the School Paper, introduced a new school broadcasts magazine and produced other publications, the ABC continued to contract me as a writer, actor and then producer in their school broadcasts department.
For a short time I also wrote under a pseudonym for a new satirical magazine, Black & White, published by sacked Post-Courier journalist Henry Lachajczyk until his craziness and increasingly overt racism drove me away.
I was now beginning to draw lines of responsibility around my writing as consciousness grew that it was not merely fun. It carried with serious obligations to the subject and the reader.
My freelance work for the ABC flourished and I was increasingly employed after hours by its small education unit of Brian Halesworth and Lester Goodman. My first fully fledged production was John Warnock’s weekly 'Current Events'.
Eventually, with the proviso that I survive an interview by the ABC’s Territory manager Malcolm Naylor, Halesworth offered me a permanent job as a producer.
Naylor was a pompous, old school ABC type who had been a cricket commentator in Tasmania during the island state’s wasted years before it was admitted into the Sheffield Shield.
He referred to managers and cleaners – at opposite ends of his social scale – by their first names, called supervisors by their surname and gave junior staff like me the appellation ‘Mister’: “Mr Jackson, tell Henao to deliver this memo to Halesworth?”
The only time Naylor perked up in the interview was when I mentioned I'd been to college. He perked down again when he learned it was teachers' college and not an elite learning institution. But I got the the job.
Then as now, the ABC’s state and territory branches were organised as a hierarchy with Sydney in command. Head office was in Elizabeth Street opposite Hyde Park, just a well shod executive stroll a block up from the menswear department of David Jones.
On the next level of status was Melbourne, the pivot of drama and entertainment but relegated to be a disgruntled second fiddle to the shiny bums of Sydney.
On the third step down were the BAPH states – Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart. And on the fourth tier, Darwin.
Languishing in the cellar was Port Moresby. You could look up the management ladder from there to Darwin.
Despite this low standing, however, the ABC in the Territory had acquired all the hubris of its southern superiors.
When a listener pointed out a factual error in one of my productions, I drafted a letter of apology for Naylor’s signature saying we would correct the program before rebroadcast.
“Not good enough, Mr Jackson,” said Naylor when I handed him the draft. “The ABC does not apologise.”
But such vanities aside, Auntie made sure I learned my trade including sending me on a four-week production course to the Kings Cross training studios in Sydney where, amongst other things, I learned to say over the intercom: “Cart, cart! Ai sai cawst, ken we taek thet from lain nain puleez? Thenkew!” Translated: ‘Cut, cut! I say cast, can we take that from line nine please? Thank you!’
During this period, I also enrolled for an economics degree at the recently established University of Papua New Guinea, became athletics correspondent for the PNG Post-Courier (ex South Pacific Post) and helped to set up an advocacy group called COST – the Consumers Organisation for Saner Trading.
Its mission was to try to stop the big trading entities – Burns Philp, Steamship, Carpenters – charging more in their ‘native stores’ than they did in department stores catering mainly to whites.
And, glorious day, I married my first wife, Sue Flatt, in a little wooden church where the Grand Papua Hotel now stands, with our first child, Simon, born later that year at Taurama Base Hospital.
I played cricket and tennis and squash and lived adjacent to the ABC studios in a fine house on a hill above Boroko.
By any measure these were full and fruitful years for a guy in his mid-twenties.
But despite all this, I was growing increasingly dissatisfied. I didn’t realise it then, but youth can be so ungrateful. I’d joined the ABC full of delight and pride, and now felt both emotions being squeezed out of me by Auntie’s infamous and ponderous bureaucracy.
Twenty years on, my then boss, ABC managing director David Hill, joked to me that half the organisation was trying to put programs to air while the other half was trying to stop them.
And over lunch one day, Mike Carlton related how, as a young broadcaster, he went to the ABC’s technical desk to borrow a tape recorder. There’s just one left and he couldn’t have it, he was told. Why not? he asked. Because someone might want it, the clerk explained.
It was only some years later, when I was a well established manager myself, that I realised I hadn’t been so much attracted to management by its glow as driven to it by ineffectual leadership. I enjoyed being a creative but, if couldn’t beat them, I’d just have to join them.
And, as I matured in management, I found that it was also extraordinarily creative. And I could still write.
So, after six years in Papua New Guinea and three years with the ABC, I was ready to move on. I didn’t want to leave PNG, I had loved the place from first sight. Nor did I feel comfortable that I’d established a durable career in broadcasting. Indeed, I was in something of a quandary.
And it was then, in late 1969, that I saw the newspaper advertisement.
The second in an occasional series of autobiographical vignettes