I could tell from Ashlea’s urgent ‘hello’ that we had a breakthrough. The publicity campaign for ‘Making News’ had been running for nearly a month and, beneath the din of the election campaign, we’d struggled to make much news ourselves. Nevertheless, we’d baited plenty of hooks, and this time she clearly had a nibble.
‘Can you go on Today Tonight today?’
‘Well — for tonight, but they’d film today.’
I paused long enough to spare a compassionate thought for the promo writers at Seven, who have trod the ‘Today Tonight tonight’ and Today Tonight tomorrow’ minefields for over a decade.
‘Do they want me to talk about the book?’ I asked hopefully, knowing that a Today Tonight turn towards The First Tuesday Book Club would surprise a great many television analysts. Coming up, Mediterranean Magic – all the benefits of a Greek diet in one little pill, but first, is Thomas Pynchon’s ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ the greatest parody of a Jacobean revenge drama ever written, or is it just the poor man’s ‘Lolita’.
‘They want you to talk about the Ben Cousins documentary,’ Ashlea replied.
‘I haven’t seen it,’ I said, a little despondently.
‘Don’t worry about that. I don’t think anyone’s seen it. Just talk about Cousins and scandals generally and try to relate it to Making News. Ashlea had done some time in commercial current affairs and knew how these things work. ‘And have a book on you. If you haven’t got your book, they won’t be able to film you reading it.’
The rain came down in the way that it used to, big soaking sheets that wet through the holes in my helmet, pouring down over my eyes. My jeans were soaked, my thighs aching.
‘Can you be here at the studio within the half hour?’ the Today Tonight producer had asked. ‘We’re going to struggle to get a crew out to you.’
‘I can be there in twenty minutes,’ I’d said, deaf to the claps of thunder outside, hearing only the beautiful, electric pulse of 1.2 million television sets carrying news of my novel. It was only on the sodden ride between Abbotsford and Docklands that I began to fully analyse the forces at play. My novel attempts to lampoon both celebrity self promotion and tabloid obsession with celebrity scandal. Was it right to promote it on tabloid television, while pretending to offer an informed opinion about someone else’s celebrity scandal? Would my ability to self promote be drowned out by all the other promoting going on? Michael Gudinski, Cousins, Channel 7, me — in a four way promote-off, I’d be going in as something of an underdog.
I locked up my bike, and retrieved a wet, swollen copy of ‘Making News’ from my pannier bag. It wasn’t looking good. I had my doubts. I tweeted my doubts: ‘Should author writing book on tabloids and self promotion promote on tabloid television while discussing celebrity promoting own scandal?’
The escalator funnelling me forwards moved so slowly that I couldn’t help having the thought, ‘I bet the escalators move faster at Nine’. Suddenly, as if sensing my treasonous mindset, it accelerated, and delivered me into a circular lobby, which, situated as it was beneath a glassed-off Control Room, had some of the look and feel of the Starship Enterprise. I took a seat, unsure of which of the hundred or so television screens I should be watching. Eventually, my gaze drifted towards the largest one, flashing promotions for Ugly Betty.
‘Still ugly, hey?’ A cameraman setting up on the other side of the room had caught my eyeline. ‘She’s gotta get those fucken braces off eventually.’
I laughed. ‘I had no idea it was still going. Is it still going?’
‘On Seven Two,’ he explained. ‘Everything gets a second life on Seven Two’.
I introduced myself, and the cameraman grinned and said that he was setting up his tripod for me. ‘Goodo. You’re Tony Wilson. I’m Steve. We’ll do the thing here, use the TVs as background. The reporter will be down in a minute.’
I moved to take off my blue Gore Tex rain jacket. ‘Leave the coat on if you want,’ Steve said. ‘It’ll give us some colour.’
‘It’s dripping wet,’ I explained, fumbling for any excuse not to appear before 1.2 million Australians in a blue raincoat. ‘I better take it off. I feel like a drowned rat.’
‘Well fuck off then. We don’t like Water Rats around here. That one belongs to the other mob.’
He laughed good-naturedly, and I joined in with him, partly out of appreciation for a reasonable gag, partly out of relief that he wasn’t actually telling me to fuck off. Within a few minutes, I’d stripped to my shirt, grabbed my book, and both Steve and I were ready to roll.
‘What have the other interviewees been saying about the Cousins doco,’ I asked, attempting to find an angle that would tie into the general thread.
‘Fucked if I know,’ Steve countered. ‘This is the first bit I’ve done on the story. I’ve been out all day in Cranbourne, bailing up some shonky mechanics.’
‘So you’re running that story again,’ I said. ‘That’s a perennial, isn’t it?’
‘Oh fuck yeah. A never ending supply of the bastards.’ Steve shook his head, as if pondering the mysteries of the universe. ‘Hyep. You’d think they’d fucking learn.’
The young woman holding a sheet containing my questions wasn’t the reporter assigned to the story. She could have been anything from a production assistant, to a researcher to the work experience kid.
‘Why do you think there is such public interest in sporting scandals?’ she read.
I started banging on about sporting celebrities, and how I believe they are held to a higher set of moral standards than other celebrities, because they are somehow elevated as role models for our youth. I mentioned Mick Jagger, and how a decent sex or drugs scandal didn’t hurt Mick’s reputation, but rather enhanced it. I defended Cousins, and said that if it was good enough for media outlets to have their say and make money out of his story, it was good enough for him.
‘Will this documentary signal the end of the Ben Cousins story,’ she read, almost forgetting to look up out of her notes as I answered.
‘I doubt it. The whole point about a bankable celebrity scandal is that the media needs new content. The documentary is the chapter for this week, but in another few weeks, we’ll need a new Ben Cousins chapter. And then another, and then another. And as a media and a public, we’ll keep hounding him until we get more.’
From the young woman’s face, I wondered if I sounded slightly accusatory, and so tried to pull things back. ‘And that includes me. I’m in the sports media. I’m partly to blame’.
I’m not, by the way. Either in the sports media, or partly to blame.
Steve sorted me out with respect to shooting the cover of the book. ‘No problems at all mate. Come through to this little studio we’ve set up. We can fire off some shots of the cover, some of you reading the book, maybe doing a bit of writing on the computer ― all that shit. They’ll use it for cutaways.’
The studio was just another office, except it contained a pot plant, a writing desk and a full bookshelf. As Steve attempted to squeeze a tripod and lights into the confined space, I scanned the shelves for titles I recognised. Shane Moloney’s ‘The Brush Off’ was there, meaning that every author visiting Channel Seven now automatically has ‘The Brush Off’ in his or her collection. I looked at my sodden copy of ‘Making News’. At the end of this shoot, it had a date with that bookshelf.
Steve fussed over the pot plant, explaining that the greenery had been in the same spot for the last author and so had to be moved. He suggested I do some mock typing, but I was keener on pulling up my website, and fussing around with a picture of the ‘Making News’ cover. And so filming got underway, Steve hanging over my shoulder, filming me picking up my own book, slowly opening it for maximum cover exposure, a second or two of fake reading, followed by my right hand moving for the mouse in order to scroll down my own website where, surprise, surprise, there’s another picture of my book. I was on fire. Steve congratulated me on my fake reading and then asked if I could fake read while looking a little to the right of the book. I did as I was told. Then I returned gaze to Ten Years Younger Me blinking back from the menu bar of tonywilson.com.au. Would Ten Years Younger Me have approved of this?
Fuck you Ten Years Younger Me, I thought. What would you fucking know.
‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy …’
I was just a metre from the television, my finger poised on the red button of our hard disk recorder, absorbing Matt White’s pre-fight spruik of a population debate between John Singleton and Dick Smith.
‘It’s okay, Polly,’ my wife offered. ‘Daddy will be with you in a minute. He needs to watch Today Tonight, tonight.’
This time I had no time to spare a thought for the promo writers. Within seconds Matt had billed the show as a ‘special edition’ and a drunk or stoned Ben Cousins was in our faces, grinding his hips, doing the sort of things that I too might consider doing if my abs looked that good. Then the voice over:
‘My name’s Ben Cousins and I’m a drug addict, drug addict, drug addict’
‘I’d like to apologise, -pologise, -pologise.’
I was already in trouble. If the producers had to find time for an echo effect on all of Ben’s sentences, it was unlikely there’d be any left for any of mine. Then, just as we learned that Ben had had to learn some of life lesson’s the hard way (hard way, hard way), Aka appeared.
I almost turned off the television then. How could my satirical fiction compete with Aka’s non matching facial hair and dial-a-quote abilities, which on this occasion basically amounted to his fear that sixteen and seventeen year old kids would be tucking into the drugs between the end credits for the documentary and the start of How I Met Your Mother.
Still, I hung in there. Maybe it was Aka for the prosecution, and me for the defence?
No, it was Cousins ‘associate’ (read drug dealer) and Perth ‘underworld identity’ (read drug dealer) John Kizon for the defence. ‘If this will help Ben,’ Kizon opined slowly, allowing each word to settle and alienate viewers to the maximum extent, ‘that’s what matters.’ Then it was back to Aka, back to Kizon, a brief snatch of reasonableness from a medico at Turning Point, some more of Ben’s late night hip gyrations, and then back to Aka to tell us that the message of the documentary is ‘don’t end up like me’, a full one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn on his position a minute and half earlier.
‘You didn’t make the cut?’ my wife Tamsin said, returning to the room.
‘Nup. It was mainly Aka and that Kizon guy.’
‘Never mind. I don’t know why you even went on. Today Tonight – what did you expect?
I almost turned off the television, but Matt White sucked me back in with talk of a ‘new age of instant food’. A few seconds later, I learned about ‘sandwich in a can’ or ‘The Candwich ™’,
My brother texted me. ‘Pretty cool. You were canned for the Candwich™’.
Put that way, it was pretty cool. And anyway, I’m an author. I’m incorruptible. For me, it’s about the act of writing, not whether my books find a huge market. Leave tabloid television to the Candwich™ makers. Because for me, it’s always been about the art.