News kid on the block

Anchorman … Late News’s Hamish Macdonald.WHEN the Ten Network’s senior foreign correspondent, Hamish Macdonald, won the British Royal Television Society’s young journalist of the year award in 2008, the jury noted his ”confidence, style and spirit”. Then a presenter on the English-language Al Jazeera news channel, the 27-year-old Macdonald had, the jury said, ”real star quality”. Certainly for his age he was accomplished. He spoke three languages and had reported from the world’s hot spots, including Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.
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This year, at 31, he added a curious string to his bow, a Logie nomination for the Graham Kennedy Award for outstanding new talent. He admits, a little glibly perhaps, he’s ”more terrified” being photographed on a red carpet than covering a revolution or disaster: ”I find that still very unfamiliar and kind of disconcerting.”

On the set of Ten’s Late News, he cuts a handsome figure. On the opening night of the show, his red pants seemed to dominate Twitter debate. Coupled with comparisons to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, you get the impression that even the audience has cottoned on to what the Royal Television Society saw. He’s a star.

Celebrity seems to perplex Macdonald and comparisons with Cooper particularly so. But it could be said both have the same rare quality – the ability to frame serious world news for a younger demographic that has, historically, been slow to engage with it.

”If people want to draw comparisons, fine; [Cooper] is obviously hugely successful and does a great job,” Macdonald says. ”If we can have half that success, my bosses will be very happy, but ultimately I want to define a very different product in terms of what we do.”

Macdonald was hired by Ten almost two years ago in the midst of a very different news strategy for Australia’s youngest, and young-skewing, commercial network. Then, the emphasis was on providing a highbrow alternative to Nine and Seven’s early evening news offerings, spearheaded by George Negus’s current affairs show, which featured Macdonald as senior foreign correspondent. It was a ”brave new world,” Macdonald says, ”and I guess that’s never changed, though the dynamics of that new world have changed.”

The strategy failed, despite Ten backing it for the best part of a year, and Negus’s show was axed in October last year. ”From my point of view, I am sad the show didn’t work, not just for me but for everyone involved,” Macdonald says. ”It was ambitious. The reality is, it didn’t find the traction that we wanted it to, but it certainly wasn’t from lack of effort or enthusiasm.”

Its replacement, a repackaged, one-hour edition of The Project, Ten’s news-light entertainment panel show, seems to sit a little better with Ten’s younger audience. And Macdonald seems a little more at home in that framework.

Broadly speaking, he says, ”I’m doing the same kind of reportage, but framed in a different product. So my greatest fear, that doing serious journalism or foreign journalism has no home on Ten or on commercial television, has not been realised.”

Last month Ten launched Late News with Macdonald as presenter. Ten hopes to draw an audience to a blend of serious journalism, breaking news and, Macdonald says, ”some texture, something to bring balance to that. [Ten is] very clear about where they want to go, and the audience we’re going after. That makes the objective sit more clearly on the horizon.”

At first glance, Macdonald’s confidence is easily mistaken for ambition. The former he has in spades; regarding the latter, he’s not so certain. ”I’m definitely driven, I don’t know if I’m necessarily ambitious. I’m more interested in making sure I’m doing stuff that I’m engaged with, that is stimulating and engaging and makes a difference. It’s a difficult set of planets you want to try and align.”

Reporting from a battlefield, he agrees, requires many things of a journalist, not least of which is a little bit of madness. ”A lot of people talk about adrenalin and addiction, and I think in a way that’s not the right analysis of it,” he says. As a journalist, he says, the fundamentals in terms of storytelling are extremes of human behaviour. ”People involved in pure evil and people conducting themselves with a boundless sense of humanity, and war zones are places where you see both of those extremes,” he says. ”That is a very rare thing to observe.”

He does not come from a media family, though all three of his siblings are working in the media in various capacities. The attraction to journalism, Macdonald says, is that it gives you permission to be in places where ”history is unfolding”.

That is a ”a phenomenal privilege”, he says. ”You’re on the streets of Cairo when Mubarak is being overthrown or in the middle of Libya while the rebels are fighting Gaddafi or looking through the doors of Westminster Abbey while William and Kate are getting married. They are monumental moments. What could be better?”

MacDonald acknowledges the theatre of war has changed, particularly for journalists. Asked if he is afraid of dying, he pauses. It is the first question he has not answered immediately. ”I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about dying,” he eventually says. ”You think about minimising risk, you think about the fact that you’re in a team, and as a correspondent you have huge responsibility for everybody in that team. I don’t spend my time thinking am I going to die, I spend my time thinking, ‘I can’t put these people in situations where they might die.’ If you spend too much time thinking about that, you wouldn’t do it.”

The story so far …

– Hamish Macdonald graduated from Charles Sturt University in 2002 and has worked mainly overseas, for Britain’s Channel 4, ITV and the English-language Al Jazeera news channel.

– He has reported from many of the world’s danger zones, notably Malaysia during pro-democracy demonstrations in 2007.

– He was hired by Al Jazeera as a producer but was quickly made an anchor. He spent most of his time there trying to get back into the field. ”I’d never even done a live cross, I didn’t want to be an anchor on an international news network,” he says.

– He recently filled in on the ABC 702 Drive shift.

Late NewsTen, Monday-Thursday, 10.30pm

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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