“Hey- I used to do your job!”
“There’s no way that Linton Besser used to work on the student Publication at Macquarie…”
“It was called Passing Show back then. 2002 maybe. We had to edit it in an office with a graphic designer/Parramatta Eels tragic who insisted on playing Triple M very loud all the working day. It felt like I was a brickie’s labourer.”
Linton Besser has lived out my dreams. In 2014, in a segment for Four Corners appropriately titled ‘Degrees of Deception’ he splashed the Macquarie University logo across multiple scenes and questioned the “high academic standards” they vow to uphold. It was sweet justice for Besser, who, while a student at Macquarie University and an Editor of the Student Publication, blasted the University for an enrolment disaster back in 2002. He reported, “In spite of the confusion concerning the enrolment period, the University has not delivered a coherent explanation”, ultimately forcing the then Registrar and Vice Principal, Brian Spence to ’fess up to his mistakes. “We are very sorry it happened,” Spence conceded.
Besser’s reportage on the technology failure during the 2002 enrolment period could be considered relaxed when compared to his work at the Sydney Morning Herald and Four Corners, particularly his chase of Obeid and the Kazal family – the former resulting in a prison term for Obeid, and the latter in death threats. However, going through Besser’s editions of Passing Show – the Macquarie University Student Publication at the time – has convinced me that a strong journalistic conviction is best nurtured by a hot box office, 20 pages of free space and a really, really unsatisfying University experience à la Macquarie.
“When I asked those who wanted to go into journalism to raise their hands, there were only a few…seems like everyone wants to work in public relations.” Besser has just been re-introduced to the monotony of a Macquarie University media lecture where you’d be hard pressed to find 3-4 students who understand, let alone value the basic precepts of public interest journalism.
After this quick, seemingly depressing throwback, I meet Besser outside of the library and we make our way to Marxine’s, passing Student HQ — the building that now occupies the space where Besser’s office stood 15 years ago. Winding coffee lines leaves no space for additional bodies so we’re pushed out to the courtyard. As we settle, I realise that the unique, sick feeling I typically get when interviewing a journalist doesn’t seem to develop. This is because I’ve convinced myself that Besser and I have a shared understanding of all the unfortunate birthmarks of Macquarie University, some only visible through the eyes of a student journalist.
“The atmosphere was completely apathetic, there was no student politics of any kind that I could see. It was a very moribund magazine when we took it over.” Passing Show, much like its predecessor Arena, suffered from a complete editorial drought after the 90s, post-Sally McManus rage. The 1999 to 2000 editions were crowded with Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) hysteria, while reports were devoid of any sign of a student union liberator, who could act as a powerful voice to the University Executive. Carelessly, the library even failed to archive the 2001 edition of the magazine, and for a university that is manic about its image, this leads me to believe that perhaps, during this time, the editors hardly wrote anything that could remotely feel like a thorn in anyone’s side.
It would seem that Besser and his teammates, Angela Stengel and Hannah Mariner, were the inheritors of an entirely disengaged student population who could hardly look beyond what Besser describes as a very “transactional” higher education experience. “Get this degree, get into this job…I was really unsatisfied that there wasn’t more vibrancy.” The editorial team of 2002 were thus determined to create some kind of intellectual community on campus where students could come together and talk about the things they really cared about. “We would go to lectures, the three of us and we’d just spruce the magazine. We’d say “you should be writing for us.” We’d even have meetings and dinners with writers,” Besser adds. “We especially wanted to cover things on campus obviously.”
The content started light, with Besser profiling Statue Man, a seemingly normal guy as it turns out, who just happens to enjoy standing dead still for hours in the middle of crowds. However issue two for the year marked a different direction. “Waiting for the guards to buzz us through, we could see the wire up close”. Besser and his colleagues travelled to the Villawood Detention Centre in April 2002, during the aftermath of the 2001 Federal Election where callous debates around immigration detention had reached unsurpassed heights. “By the doorway is a poster of Phillip Ruddock, whose headline reads: “ILLEGALS DO NOT GET ASYLUM IN AUSTRALIA”.
The team gathered up chairs and shared around the fruit they’d managed to sneak in, listening to harrowing stories of escape and survival. Besser’s editor’s letter reads, “Remember that Australian media parlay to the conservative voice of country voters and fickle politicians. Just a short conversation with a refugee fleeing because he had no choice, and it breaks your heart to leave”. A risky statement to make given that Maurice Newman was the Chancellor of Macquarie at the time. Newman, a former ABC Chairman, and “closet conservative” who castigated our national broadcaster for its coverage of refugees in 2013, perhaps wasn’t too fond of Passing Show?
Either way, Besser’s ability to frustrate the university climaxed with the arrival of Passing Show’s ‘Sex’ issue. “Having discovered proof-reading for widows, Linton is no longer certain that sex is the ultimate ecstasy” the inside front cover reads. “They made us censor our cover image, which maybe was a bit racy. It was a guy and a girl in briefs, and the girl was…it was a pornographic cover.” A large cardboard sign, with “CENSORED” scribbled in black texta leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Stengel’s editor’s letter suggests that the editorial team were accused of “cashing in”, but rather than surrendering to criticism, the team merely asked that if anyone felt they should be cashing in on their Sex issue, all donations would be kindly accepted.
“Just when we thought we had worked out what you wanted to read, we ended up offending people.” The traditional, treasured function of student media undeniably flourished under Besser’s Editorship of Passing Show. “A highlight was that at the end of the year we had to do a bigger print run because people were picking it up.”
I wanted confirmation that taking on the arduous task of getting Macquarie students angry and involved in matters on campus was more than just a passion project. Luckily, much of what Besser learnt during his time as a student journalist — all the hard work and frustration, has served him well into his career at Four Corners.
“I was writing and writing, just writing what I could and then once I became a daily journalist it became clear to me what I was doing. All those lofty ideals of holding power to account and doing all of that because it became a reality for me. It hooks you in because than you see outrage everywhere, you see injustices everywhere. If you’re not feeling like that than you’re in the wrong job.”
Standing at Marxine’s early in the morning, daydreaming, I noticed that they had a small collection of Passing Shows in their bookshelf. Contrary to the large A4, glossy Passing Show that was symbolic of Besser’s time running the magazine, a far smaller, chaotically designed successor was gathering dust aside a few copies of literary classics like Moby Dick — some easy reading while you wait for your coffee order. The first thing I notice is that it’s packed with more pop culture commentary than campus news. Curious, I make my way to the library and enquire about more editions of the magazine. Disappointingly the librarian tells me that there’s no sign of Passing Show beyond 2003.
Making a university magazine is hard. When I ask Besser what his first real journalism job was he says, “it was this one”, grasping the freshest copy of Grapeshot, “it’s the one you’ve got. It’s a professional job.”
This article first appeared in the ‘Flunked’ issue of Grapeshot.