Cooroy is a quiet town in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast of Australia, about one hour’s drive north of Brisbane. Its name is based on a local Aboriginal word for “possums,” many of which still bother residents, stealing fruit from their gardens and waking them in the night with scratching and grunting. I worked from a small home office on the outskirts of town and, from there, I conspired for the demise of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe by pushing a conspiracy.
Or so they said.
Since early in 2008, I had been working as an international media advisor to the Movement for Democratic Change, the opposition party in Zimbabwe, on a freelance, pro-bono basis. I first made contact with the MDC camp through an NGO, and then through a political activist outside of Zimbabwe.
Some years earlier, I had set up a company called Random Ax Media, which was designed to help worthy causes get media exposure. My tagline was “PR 4 Good.” I had worked with the US-based Burmese democracy movement, then in exile, and the Western Saharan independence movement, as well as with figures such as former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel.
I had concluded that mass news media was becoming dominated by the PR output of those who had the budget to pay for it. The rise of PR and its place as an increasingly attractive career choice for those coming out of journalism schools and flaming out on the freelance ideal skewed the frame in which mainstream news media operated.
At the time (as now) news organizations were rapidly decreasing in size and resources. As a freelance journalist, I knew from personal experience, and also from the anecdotes of fellow writers, that journos were being pushed ever harder to produce more copy, to fill more platforms in a 24/7 news cycle. As a result, most were obliged to rely heavily on PR output, with readymade copy, existing quotes, and workable news angles.
I was trying to fill a gap I felt the media was refusing to fill. I felt, and still feel, that the media consumer is vastly unaware of how much copy is promoted, pushed, or otherwise sold by PR operators on behalf of their clients, and, therefore, how much news actually functions in a permanent imbalance favoring those with deep pockets.
My specialty was writing and getting comment pieces or op-eds published in major global newspapers, in the name of my clients. I had done this for Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC-T.
Because I was generally at some remove from my clients, I had to get up to speed on events related to them quickly. It was also vitally important to establish my clients’ voice. Ghostwriters need to be able to set a client in the debate; where should they inject themselves into a given argument or issue? What should they emphasize and what should they downplay?
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