Ten Questions: Nick Cater

By NICK LEYS

Published in the Media section of The Australian, April 15, 2013

In 140 characters or less, what is the book about?

It’s a cultural history of Australia from the 1960s onwards and charts the growing rift between two clans – the insiders and the outsiders.

It is for people who are sick of the snobs who keep telling us what is wrong with Australians and want to know what we do right. Barry McKenzie said Australia was “the greatest living country in the world, no risk”. I find no reason to disagree. It’s certainly been very good to me.

Why is it called The Lucky Culture?

It is a reference to the title of Donald Horne’s landmark 1964 book, aifThe Lucky Countryaif. Horne was right _ this is a lucky country. But our luck does not just fall from the sky as Horne thought then. We make ourselves lucky with hard work and ingenuity, the essence of the national character. The harder we ntsGpracticente practise, the luckier we get.

You were trained as a sociologist. How much of a bearing has this had on your research for the book?

Politics is overrated when it comes to understanding a country. People are bound together by shared tribal assumptions and, if you want to make sense of a place, it’s more helpful to look at its culture than its politics. That is a job for sociologists. Frank Furedi, a former professor of sociology at the University of Kent, has been a loyal intellectual mentor for several years. He rekindled my interest in the discipline, and encouraged me to read widely. The growth of the knowledge class is not unique to Australia, and there is much to be learned from the experience in the US and Europe.

Outsiders often write the most insightful critiques of a country and its culture, but what qualifies you to take on a subject like this?

I’ve been a participant observer in the Australian project for almost 24 years  now and having been mulling over many of the themes of this book for much of that time. The first mistake an English migrant makes is to assume this place is basically the same as Britain but delightfully rough around the edges. It has taken me well over 20 years to understand how very different it is – and why that matters. Things native-born Australians take for granted – like the fair go – are unique and powerful motivating forces. They must be preserved at all costs.

Where would you put yourself on the political spectrum and how has this changed since you came to Australia?

Look, I studied sociology, worked at the BBC and like everyone I knew I read The Guardianaif and disliked Rupert Murdoch. I had a very narrow existence. Moving to Australia and working in a dynamic, private sector company like News Limited has opened my eyes and expanded my horizons. The most important question in politics is this: Is the greatest threat to individual liberty corporations or the state? For me it’s the state. I suppose I’m a 19th century classical liberal at heart, but unfortunately we don’t have a party any more.

You have made radio programs for the BBC and TV docos for commercial TV. You’ve also had a successful career as a newspaper editor. Which medium do you prefer and why?

Newspapers, without a doubt. I was lugging a load of TV gear through Customs at Lisbon Airport with Leigh Hatcher when I worked at Channel Seven and he said: “TV is like working with a 10 tonne pencil.” He was right.

Do reporters get out enough?

No. Increasingly we recruit from the graduate class and journalists live by and large in the inner city and beach suburbs, in a bubble. They wear out the seats of their pants more quickly than they wear out their shoe leather. It’s a tragedy. We have to wake up to ourselves before we lose touch with the rest of Australia altogether.

What are your other criticisms of the Australian media?

We think far too narrowly. It’s not a question about bias to the Left or the Right, it’s about the closure of minds before the evidence has been tested. This retreat from empiricism is not unique to journalism, by the way.

As a BBC journalist you spent several years covering the closure of shipyards in the north of England when Maggie Thatcher was British PM. What was your reaction to her death?

I was a bit shaken, to be honest. She loomed large in life when I was in my 20s. Everyone I knew back then thought she was a monster and that the Tories were wrecking the place. I never met anyone who voted for her, which shows what a closed environment the BBC is. Now, however, it is clear she was on the right side of history on almost everything – economic realism at home, recognising the danger of welfare dependency, the importance of defeating the Soviet Union and standing up to those who challenged sovereignty whether in Brussels or Buenos Aires. Through gritted teeth I now admit she was mostly in the right, but I have enormous sympathy for the decent working people of Britain who found themselves stranded when the industrial tide went out.