This is an edited version of a speech delivered by the Judith Neilson Institute’s Executive Director, Mark Ryan, at the official opening of the Institute’s new building in May 2021.
A few weeks ago the New York Times published a story about the trend for billionaires in the United States to invest in journalism.
It was headlined: ‘Why buy a yacht when you can buy a newspaper?’
As far as I know Judith is not into boats.
But in creating this Institute she has done something more useful in the long run than buying a newspaper.
After all, it’s not as though we’re short of news, or new media platforms.
But the pressures of running newsrooms on lean bottom lines means media organisations are often short of time, money, up-to-date skills and sometimes even ideas.
That is where this Institute can make a difference. Not just now, but for decades to come.
As a small, nimble and responsive organisation, JNI can move with developments in technology and the market, collaborate with all kinds of media, and provide journalists with the resources they need to produce great journalism.
Instead of investing in one newspaper, Judith’s vision has enabled us to invest in multiple newspapers — and in radio, documentaries, films, podcasts and more.
A place for big ideas
This beautiful building is a further gift from Judith to the journalism community — in addition to her initial pledge of $100 million.
Judith is well known for her passion for architecture and design. But this building does not just reflect her passion but also her singular vision and style and her amazing attention to detail.
She did not want it to be just a home for us. She wanted it to be a place where journalists can work, learn and collaborate; where big ideas can be debated and great journalism can be celebrated.
Just one tangible expression of this will be our Journalist-in-Residence Program, which we will launch next month.
It will involve the best journalists from Australia and around the world spending time here working on important projects.
They will be renowned journalists as well as younger, emerging storytellers from print, film, podcasts and other disciplines.
The program will have two streams — an Australian and international stream.
The Australian stream will be named after Catherine Martin, the inaugural winner of the Gold Walkley in 1978.
She won her Walkley for exposing one of the biggest workplace disasters in Australia — the deadly toll of blue asbestos among workers at the Wittenoom mine.
The first two Australian Journalists-in-Residence will be James Saunders from IndigenousX and award-winning film-maker Yaara Bou Melhem.
The international stream will be named after Alan Moorehead, a world-famous Australian war correspondent and author.
The Washington Post called Moorehead one of the finest writers in the English language.
He witnessed many of the great historical events of the 20th century, debated strategy with Churchill and Gandhi, fished with Hemingway and drank with Graham Greene, Ava Gardner and Truman Capote.
Yet he is largely forgotten.
Moorehead’s biographer Thornton McCamish said: “His enduring legacy lies in those driven by his example to go out into the world in search of astonishing stories.”
Just some of those driven by his example included Robert Hughes, Clive James and Germaine Greer.
Assigning Alan Moorehead’s name to the international stream of our Journalist-in-Residence Program speaks to our ambition to encourage journalists to engage with the wider world.
Already, a stellar cast of the world’s leading journalists has signed up as JNI Moorehead Journalists-in-Residence.
- Mark Thompson, former CEO of the New York Times and Director General of the BBC.
- Bill Grueskin, former deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and currently Academic Dean at the Columbia School of Journalism.
- Adisti Sukma Sawitri, managing editor of the Jakarta Post.
- Tom Rosenstiel, c0-author of the journalists’ bible — The Elements of Journalism.
- James Bennet, former editor of the op-ed pages of the New York Times.
- And the winner of this year’s World Press Freedom Prize, Maria Ressa, from the Philippines.
The radical centre in an era of extremes
JNI supports journalism in three ways.
Through our grants program we provide journalists with the financial resources to produce great journalism.
Through our education program we provide journalists with opportunities to sharpen their skills and deepen their knowledge.
And through our events we connect journalists and society more generally with great ideas and important debates.
In our short life so far, JNI has supported journalism in big cities, small towns and suburbs.
And not just in Australia, but around the world, and especially in Asia and the Pacific.
We do all this as a non-partisan Institute, which is important in today’s febrile environment.
It is not easy being non-partisan these days.
Even when one works hard at it, there’s always some annoying type lying in wait, ready to label you “right-wing”, or “left-wing” or some other thing.
We accept that this goes with the territory, especially in this social media age.
We know that along with all the good things the internet has brought us it has also delivered bad things.
For liberal democracy, the most alarming of these unintended consequences has been the tribalisation of politics: not only politics, but the polity, the democracy, including the media.
Social media has democratised debate, put information within easy reach and connected people across the world.
But it has also become a weapon for extreme, unreasoning, misinformed, malevolent opinion – for anger, hatred, lies and conspiracy theories.
It has hardened and deepened the fault lines of our civic life.
Today, not only is agreement out of the question, so is disagreement, which is just as important.
JNI will not be a partisan on either side our civic fault lines.
The right is not short of powerful advocates for their causes, and needs no help from the likes of us. And while the right likes to single out ‘cancel culture’ as the enemy, they are not always innocent of the practice themselves.
As for the left, undeniably just and urgent as the causes of identity politics generally are, they are much more likely to succeed through persuasive argument and clever politics than denying free speech.
It makes no sense to reject the principles of pluralism and liberal democracy when history shows that liberal democracy is the only practical hope for change, and that a pluralist society is the only one in which all identities can find full expression.
There will be no cancelling at the Judith Neilson Institute.
In an era when extremes are seemingly the norm, the centre becomes the radical position.
That is the position JNI will occupy: not to achieve political balance, but because that is where we can have the most impact.
Whatever other players may be doing on the media battlefield, we will continue to foster first-rate journalists and the kind of journalism that:
- seeks truth;
- informs debate;
- enlivens politics;
- exposes failure;
- binds communities;
- defends culture;
- and enables social progress.
In other words, quality journalism which is accurate, independent and objective, but also original, revealing and consequential.
We seek allies of good will in this cause to work with us, and to argue with us, to help us fulfil our mission.
Allies in this venture from the outset deserve mention:
Present at the creation of JNI were: Jonathan Teperson, Robin Speed and Anthony Bubalo.
I extend my personal thanks to each of them for their support, and wise counsel.
I also acknowledge the role of our board and International Advisory Council.
But most of all — thank you Judith for your pledge to create the Institute, for the bold imagination it took to launch it, and for the additional gift of this beautiful building.
Morry Schwartz said it best, and most succinctly, when he wrote: “Judith Neilson’s contribution to the wellbeing of the media in this country is a grand act of public spirited generosity.”
And so it is Judith.
This generation of journalists, and the many to come, and more importantly, their audience, will be all the richer and better informed thanks to your ‘grand act.’
Mark Ryan undertook the initial study that resulted in the establishment of the Judith Neilson Institute and serves as its Executive Director. He is a former journalist and was senior political adviser to Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating. He played a key role in the establishment of the Lowy Institute and has served on its board since 2002. For 25 years he was a senior executive at Westfield Corporation. He is an Ambassador of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and a member of the National Selection Panel which assesses post graduate candidates for the Sir John Monash Scholarship awards. He consults to the Judith Neilson Family Office, the Lowy Family Group and major public companies.