If we want writers like Andie Fox..

Andie Fox is a writer I know. She writes heartachingly honestly about women, mothering and where we’ve got to in this sweet old world. We have coffee now and then, very occasionally swim. I have a memoir coming out this year – terrifyingly personal – and Andie, who often writes with herself in the frame, has been my model of how to write courageously about yourself.

A couple of weeks back, the Commonwealth Minister for Human Services released personal information about Andie Fox to freelance journalist Paul Malone, who wrote it up in a column for a newspaper. It followed a piece Fox had written about her experience of dealing with Australia's national social services provider, Centrelink. A week later, after other journalists had found the bigger story – that Human Services Minister Tudge had brazenly released a citizen’s personal information – Malone wrote another column, maintaining what he did was right.

When I was doing a weekly column, one of my pet hates was NAPLAN standardised testing, which in my view is turning school education to mush. What Minister Tudge did, what Malone did, was akin to the Minister for Education releasing my son’s NAPLAN results to a journalist who blithely put them in the paper.

Andie Fox’s original piece was about what it felt like when she interacted with Centrelink over a debt they claimed she had. It drew a line for us from her as a client, a highly educated woman with good networks, to other women who might not have had her opportunities, women who were fleeing violence. Imagine them trying to negotiate this nightmare system, she was saying. It was the kind of writing I like. The writer’s experience is in the frame. It’s thoughtful. There’s a broader point.

I don’t know Paul Malone. His website says he grew up in Ireland and migrated to Australia in the early 1960s, studied economics, completed a cadetship in journalism, worked nationally, left journalism to join the public service in 1990 and then worked for government ministers. Now he’s a freelancer living in Ocean Grove, Victoria. 

I emailed Malone, said I thought he’d muddled news and opinion, that you can’t correct someone’s subjective experience. He said everyone is entitled to her own opinion, but not her own facts. Fox ‘was giving an account of what she said happened to her,’ he said. It was important to establish ‘the facts.’ 

Malone said that if someone is writing a piece of fiction, you can simply enjoy the writing. ‘But in writing non-fiction for a newspaper the facts are important.’ I did feel then that I was back in Journalism 101 with Len Granato, or sitting at the dinner table with my journalist mother and my journalist father, telling a story using the inverted pyramid style.

‘What actually happened?’ Paul Malone asked in his next email. ‘Centrelink says one thing, she says another.’

Since he doesn’t know the facts, Malone is setting out both sides of a story, he’d tell us. She says/ they say. He’s found the conflict, he believes. He’s giving Centrelink a chance to be heard after Fox’s wild claims. He’s shining a big objective spotlight.

But if you read Malone’s piece, it didn't actually dispute anything of moment in what Fox wrote – not the prehistoric hardware, the clunking website, not the wait times, the mindless bureaucracy, the searing hot shame of sharing private lives in a public space that would lead you to any conclusions Fox made. All Malone really did was divulge, on behalf of the government, information about Andie Fox that was irrelevant to her story. He helped them frighten her.  

It’s possible that’s not what he set out to do but by maintaining his righteousness, it’s what he’s now done consciously. When I asked him about Andie Fox’s privacy, he said he agreed ‘there were privacy issues here and before my article was published I drew my Editor’s attention to this.’

In his emails, Malone used a number of qualifiers. He was a ‘professional’ journalist. He also talked about the ‘real’ journalists who’d supported him. I think he was drawing a distinction between people like me and Andie Fox and people like himself.

Malone may be a real journalist but he would have failed his first assignment in my Journalism 101 class. Dr Granato probably wouldn’t have cared a fig for anyone’s privacy, putting a good story before someone’s feelings, but he would have read Malone’s draft and spiked it anyway, telling him you can’t compare apples and oranges, and a graduate of economics should know that.

Andie Fox was writing about how she felt. She touched on what led her to Centrelink but this was marginal in her story and it was not what her conclusions were about.

The only way you could dispute what Andie Fox wrote would be to get inside her head and prove she didn’t feel what she felt. But you can’t do that. So first the Minister and then Malone and then his editor revealed private information about a writer, as if it might convince us she didn’t feel how she felt. They set up a straw man and proceeded to knock it down.

I pressed Malone on the idea of journalists as arbiters of truth, pointing out that sometimes fiction tells more truth than non-fiction and sometimes facts lie. It wasn’t a notion he gave much credence, I’d venture. He said I belonged to the Trump school of journalism.

But  facts do lie. They lie all the time. All non-fiction writers, journalists included, present facts. We pile them one on top of the other, but we include this one and not that one. We look here, not there. We leave things out. We hope we tell the truth responsibly, even as we know we sometimes don’t. These days we have more diversity in the voices we hear from, and that’s good. In my experience, Andie Fox  always offers something I haven’t thought of, in part because she’s in the frame. I want her voice in the world. 

Despite an exchange of mostly dignified emails, I still don’t understand how Paul Malone thinks he did something good here. But my bigger concern is that he may have taken from us the voice that has been Andie Fox, the voice of Bluemilk.

The song Sweet Old World, sung by Emmy-Lou Harris, reminds me of Fox in its honesty but also its underlying sadness, because Andie often touches on the sadness of the world. I read her because she’s open and vulnerable and sometimes a little whimsical. I do hope she’ll be back with us soon.