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Why journalists are turning from fact to fiction

Michael Brissenden and Tony Jones in conversation at Sydney Writers' Festival

This piece is from our coverage of Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. To check out the rest, click here.

There are no dragons, no fairies, and no witchcraft in the new novels by Tony Jones and Michael Brissenden, unless you count some of the tricks pulled by the AFP. Jones and Brissenden, two of Australia’s most celebrated journalists, recently made the surprising shift from producing hard news to writing longform fiction. They took to the Seymour Centre stage last Thursday to discuss their latest books in a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel boldly titled Straight from the Headlines.

Hosted by publishing aficionado Louise Adler, the panel quickly turned from chit-chat about fiction as the triumphant liberator of newswriting to a sober discussion of fake news, terrorism, Donald Trump, and the dissolving state of political journalism. There seemed to be a little more at play than the innocent desire to write creatively.

Tony Jones—moon-faced diplomat, former Four Corners reporter and beloved Q&A host—published his first book last year, titled The Twentieth Man. A hybrid of Australian political thriller, crime mystery and Yugoslavian war drama, Jones’ prose reads as smoothly and eloquently as the prose of a seasoned novelist.

Michael Brissenden, who has worked as a political journalist and defence correspondent for over three decades, spoke about his second novel, The List. Also a political thriller, spanning from Canberra to Afghanistan, its brusque sentences and offhanded cursing throw you straight into the shoes of a modern-day polly pissed off with the new top dogs in media.

Creative merit aside, why is it that two highly experienced foreign correspondents with a shelf of Walkley awards between them both turned to fiction at the same time? What does novel-writing offer that news journalism doesn’t?

The answer certainly isn’t money. We can assume that both Jones and Brissenden were receiving more than adequate salaries from the ABC, and it’s indisputable that publishing is no longer a lucrative industry.

The answer isn’t a creative urge for fantasy, either, as both novels are firmly rooted in the real world. Jones provides a very accurate representation of the 1972 bombings in Sydney’s CBD, while Brissenden paints an unsettling portrait of our contemporary political sphere.

I believe the answer is that Jones and Brissenden haven’t switched tactics at all. They haven’t given up on reality; they certainly haven’t abandoned a quest for truth. By writing novels, Jones and Brissenden are simply doing what they have always done through journalism: storytelling.

It is their disillusionment with the current media landscape—shifting power structures, turbulent online spaces, Twitter, new reporters and new rules—that has led them to tell stories in the safe and predictable form of the novel. Discourses of people and power feature just as strongly in these two books as they do in their reporting, so nothing is being ignored or left behind. And in a chaotic post-truth world where anything can pass for news, you can’t blame them for holding on tight to the story.