Profile: John Helmer

31 October 2012

John Helmer currently resides in a small shared office on the second storey of the Old Arts building, a somewhat low key homecoming after so many hears. Helmer, one of the 1964 editors of Farrago, has spent the past 25 years based in Moscow, covering Russian big business: a constantly evolving world of mega-wealthy ‘oligarchs’ against a political and social backdrop of disintegration and corruption, inequality and arbitrary justice. Back to teach investigative journalism at the Centre for Advanced Journalism, Helmer’s life since leaving the uni has been every bit as colourful as his time here in the ’60s. Over a couple of hours our conversation ranges from the driving forces behind a good story, the future of journalism, Western relations with Russia, the ethics of big business, and whether students today care more about sex than politics.

Helmer arrived in Moscow in 1989, drawn to the transformation brought on by the glasnost and perestroika reforms under Gorbachev; he had previously made a career of “working for political losers”, with the Whitlam government, in Jimmy Carter’s administration in the US and during Andreas Papandreou’s first term as Greek Prime Minister. He paints  grim picture of a splintered Russia formerly held together by the Communist Party’s ideology and authority.

He contrasts the instability of the new Russian system to the “very effective limitation of competition for assets” in more established Western markets. This lack of political and economic stability creates an atmosphere where, he asserts, journalism can be much more creative and full of possibilities than in, say, London or Paris. “Nervous powerholders” make for much more willing journalistic subjects, and the incredibly efficient Western corporate public relations machines and lobby groups, coupled with concentrated media ownership, conspire to manufacture consensus, misportraying our world and subverting the truth. Recent reports of a possible meeting between Julia Gillard and Rupert Murdoch before the government’s decision on media regulation lend weight to his argument.

Our talk about journalism bends towards the Masters course he is teaching here. The idea of ‘subversion’ of truth is a strong theme, particularly in the Australian context; Helmer asserts that it is one of the three elements, along with ‘force’ and ‘fraud’, which direct society and provide the hard stuff for investigative journalism. What we lack is a dynamic where we seek to understand how a problem can look from the other side–understanding “the people portrayed as enemies”.

I ask about Australian stereotypes of Russia and how close they are to reality. Despite the Cold War having ended more than 20 years ago, Helmer feels that Russia is still as demonised by Western media as before. He claims that the Pussy Riot affair is a fabrication of Western media and particularly the BBC: the misrepresentation of unimportant internal happenings for a purely international audience, resulting in a test of Russia’s political will and “pseudo-patriotism”. He argues that the exaggerated Western response creates ideological distance between Russia and the world on a domestic level.

Even if this is the case, the defendants’ closing statements in the trial raise troubling questions of corruption and inequality under Putin’s rule–questions that share some sentiment with Helmer’s own description of Russia’s current political and social situation. He highlights a highly unusual process, paralleling his reporting, that has been taking place in recent years: the legal wrangling of Russia’s elite has been playing out in British courts, exposing Russian political and business history in the English language and creating a record of modern Russian power. A record that otherwise would not have existed. The strange nature of this process both acknowledges the arbitrariness of the Russian courts and lays “the foundations for a more transparent and accountable Russia”.

His time spent covering the political and business forces controlling the world that developed out of the USSR made him the longest serving foreign correspondent in Russia. The role is not without its pressures; he mentions an assassination attempt in late 2009, organised by metals oligarch and frequent subject, Oleg Deripaska. I struggle to imagine him in Moscow, wearing another classic herringbone jacket, probably the same glasses, with three hired goons arrested outside his house, metres and minutes away from ending his life. Such incidents serve to reinforce the danger of the truth, for reporter and business tycoon alike; but most of all the importance that it be told.

Helmer’s life was just as eventful during his time on campus in the ’60s: a concerted campaign against Bolte and Menzies, including a series of activist stunts including the first overnight sit-in in Australia, for more tertiary funding; an evening and interview with The Beatles–”even pop music became political then”; and smuggling books into the country in his suitcase to circumvent literary censorship in place at the time. Discussing Farrago in its current manifestation, he notes that we talk a lot more about sex than they used to–we’re less political, too. I don’t have an answer as to why we’re seemingly more interested in a fuck than liberalism, or if this is even the case; he doesn’t know how we’re going to start re-imagining our foreign relations and move past Cold War-era stereotyping and narrow-mindedness. Our conversation drifts to more general malaise around the world; intolerance and democracy now and through history and what we’ve learnt from it all. We can’t solve all these problems in our first meeting; all I know is that it’s time for lunch.

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