In 2007, when Hamish Macdonald was 26, he was posted to Afghanistan with the Al Jazeera English network. He was young, handsome and blue-eyed, with straw-blond hair and the look of a youth who might appear in a Weet-Bix commercial. Before he arrived, his bosses told him to blend in more – unlike the big American networks, their news crews travelled without a security detail and its journos needed to be able to pass as locals.
“They said, ‘You know, just grow a beard … we can kind of put a headscarf on you and you’ll get through checkpoints and whatever without too much trouble.’ ”
But Macdonald couldn’t grow a beard. So he did the next best thing and got rid of his blond hair by giving himself a buzz cut. “[My colleagues] were furious with me when I arrived … I turned up and they were like, ‘You f…ing idiot. You look like an American soldier,’ ” Macdonald recalls. “ ‘You look like a marine, and we have to travel around the country with you for the next three months.’ ”
He laughs as he recounts the story, sitting at the dining table in his tree-tops flat in Sydney’s east, facing an expanse of ocean. “So I sort of learnt a valuable lesson.”
The lesson was one of camouflage, something he’d been honing since adolescence, when he was badly bullied at a Sydney boarding school and developed skills of detachment and social observation to cope. Survival skills at the time, they later became professional ones, a kind of lemons-into-lemonade trick that is very Hamish, according to those who know him.
“If he ever went down in a sinking ship he would bob up like a cork, he’s got such a positive outlook,” says Harry Dillon, his former journalism lecturer at Charles Sturt University.
Friend and veteran journalist Hugh Riminton describes Macdonald as ‘‘a thoroughly pleasant person and he knows he’s going to get criticised but he’s not afraid of being criticised”. The two worked together in 2011 on Channel Ten’s short-lived current affairs program 6.30 with George Negus.
“My job is to always navigate a pretty even path,” Macdonald says with the even-handedness he cultivated at school, and which will come in handy when he becomes host of ABC’s Q&A program next month. It is one of the most contentious and scrutinised jobs in Australian journalism, with its critics poised to leap upon any hint of bias. The show’s media coverage is considered more brutal than for any other program, and that’s before you look at the Twitter feed devoted to it.
Q&A is “probably the most difficult job on TV. It’s a finely balanced high-wire act for the host.”
Catherine Lumby, Macquarie University professor of media
In June 2015, Q&A audience member Zaky Mallah – previously convicted of threatening Commonwealth officials – accused panellist Steven Ciobo, the then Liberal parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister, of “giving Australian Muslims an incentive to go to Syria to join Islamic State”. Host Tony Jones labelled the remarks “totally out of order” and ABC management later admitted it erred in letting Mallah ask a question.
This wasn’t enough for then prime minister Tony Abbott, who ordered his ministers to boycott Q&A until the ABC shifted the “lefty lynch mob” program from its television division to its news department, where it would be subject to stricter editorial guidelines.
Two months later, the broadcaster consented to the move but producers are yet to convince current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who last appeared on Q&A in 2012, to return.
Macdonald was hired to replace Q&A host and award-winning journalist Tony Jones, who’s moving to China with wife Sarah Ferguson, who will head the ABC’s China bureau. Macdonald says he was approached last November by Erin Vincent, Q&A’s executive producer, and ABC news director Gaven Morris about the role, and his appointment was announced within a few days of those discussions.
“[Macdonald] is a journalist first and foremost,” says Morris. “That’s what we need in these roles, more journalism, more even-handed questions and questioning.”
Catharine Lumby, Macquarie University professor of media, says Q&A is “probably the most difficult job on TV”: “It’s a finely balanced high-wire act for the host … you’re dealing with contentious and complex issues, but at the same time you’ve got to [have] a listening persona, an audience-friendly persona – you can’t come across as impatient or abrupt,” she says.
“Part of your job, which Tony Jones did so well, is to have a certain charisma and warmth, but at the same time your brain has got to be on high alert because you’re listening for defamation, you’re listening for outbursts which could be offensive … you’re also juggling the social media context.”
In other words, hosting Q&A requires you to be all things, while also being yourself – but you must never become the focus. This is something Macdonald can do, because although he loves researching, reporting and investigating stories, he doesn’t want to be the story. This is one of the things you learn when writing a story about him.
It’s 7am in early December and Macdonald is in the Radio National studio at the ABC’s headquarters in Ultimo, Sydney. Since August, he’s been filling in for RN Breakfast anchor Fran Kelly, who was tapped to host ABC TV’s Sunday morning political program Insiders until new presenter David Speers takes over in February. Though Kelly is returning to RN Breakfast, Macdonald – in addition to his Q&A role – will anchor the program on Fridays. He will also report for Foreign Correspondent and occasionally appear on Channel Ten’s The Project and Sunday Project.
Only a handful of his peers, including Negus and Waleed Aly, have been permitted to work for a public broadcaster and a commercial network simultaneously. “Hamish is quite popular on The Project,” says Marc C-Scott, a Victoria University senior lecturer in screen media. “There’s the potential for him to bring that younger Channel Ten demographic to Q&A.”
When I visit him in the studio, Macdonald – who grew up in Jindabyne in south-east NSW – is wearing scuffed Blundstones, blue jeans and a faded T-shirt. He has a close-cropped blond beard (at 38 he’s finally able to grow one) and the physique of a man who loves the outdoors and spends a lot of time in it. Macdonald, together with his partner Jake Fitzroy, enjoys hiking, running and “jumping in the water”. He also does CrossFit several times a week.
Standing at the studio desk, he’s doing a phone interview with Mick Keelty, the former top cop who is now interim inspector-general of Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources. Macdonald is quizzing Keelty on the state of the Murray-Darling agreement, over which consensus is fraying as drought tightens its grip.
“I’m genuinely a deeply private person. I think even probably friends would tell you that.”
“You’ve had a good look under the bonnet of managing water,” Macdonald says. “It is fair to say it’s a bit of a mess?” It’s a typically straight question from a man whose interview style is a mixture of polite, forensic and blunt verging on brutal. Macdonald tells me later he thinks about his interview technique “a lot”, trying to war game in advance what responses he might get from politicians, and how he will come back at them, like a sort of intellectual Pick-a-Path.
“Australians are pretty alert to the talking-point culture of our politics, and as a very base point my job is to get beyond that,” says Macdonald. “I always try to be respectful, but if they are repeating the same thing over and over again, I’ll just point that out. You can do that in a way that is polite but takes the audience with you. You can lose the audience really easily if you’re too aggressive.”
After Macdonald is finished with Keelty, they have a warm exchange off-air. “Good luck with the new program, I love your work,” says Keelty. Then Macdonald strides into the control room, where I’ve been watching him, to greet me. Macdonald has been cautious in agreeing to this profile, and I was told he was reluctant to discuss his personal ife.
Unlike many contemporary broadcast journalists, particularly those on panel-style shows like The Project (where Macdonald is one of several rotating co-hosts), he does not share many details on air about his private life.
Sometimes, others have peeled back the layers of privacy for him – such as when Macdonald interviewed Qantas CEO Alan Joyce on Radio National in November and congratulated him on his recent same-sex marriage. Joyce surprised Macdonald by saying he hoped Macdonald was “not too far behind me in terms of marriage”.
“I’m genuinely a deeply private person,” he tells me later. “I think even probably friends would tell you that.”
He doesn’t know what the definition of too much work is. And he does not treat anything lightly.
Lisa Miller, ABC journalist
They do. ABC News Breakfast co-host Lisa Millar, who does the Tan walk with Macdonald when he’s in Melbourne, says he’s “not someone who has a bottle of wine and spills every thought”. “He likes to have deep conversations … but I still think he’s pretty private,” she says.
Riminton, who raves about Macdonald’s qualities as a man and a journalist, calls him “quite private”.
But none of this reticence is evident when Macdonald greets me warmly with a hug, and suggests we walk out for a coffee. He has 12 minutes to spare as a pre-record is played, and doesn’t waste any of them. He sets a cracking pace to the cafe where, I regret to inform the ABC’s critics, he orders avocado toast and a piccolo latte in a KeepCup.
As we wait for our order, he whirls me through his current schedule: he wakes at about 4.30am for RN Breakfast, and when the show is finished his day consists of editorial meetings, exercise and a two-hour read-through of backgrounder briefs for the next day’s interviews – he does eight to 10 in a morning.
If he’s filling in on The Project, he will fly to Melbourne after RN Breakfast and go straight to the Channel Ten studios, working a full afternoon and evening before retiring to a hotel room to read his briefs over a takeaway grilled fish dinner.
On Melbourne weeks, he does RN Breakfast from the ABC’s Southbank studio. On Sundays he co-hosts The Sunday Project with colleague (and now friend) Lisa Wilkinson, from Sydney. Macdonald says his Project hosting duties will continue this year but less frequently.
When our 12 minutes are up, we walk back to the ABC and I enter the studio with him. To watch Macdonald work up close is to see how many things he can do at once: listen attentively, interrogate answers, read briefs for upcoming interviews, monitor listeners’ texts on one screen, keep an eye on Twitter on another, and grab mouthfuls of avocado toast by pressing the mute button on his mic while his interviewees talk.
Hamish sees his work as one long learning exercise, not a one-man show.
George Negus, journalist
The ABC’s Lisa Millar says: “He doesn’t know what the definition of too much work is. And he does not treat anything lightly. Everything he takes on, he really throws himself at it.”
When I told people I was writing a profile of Macdonald, the most common reaction, apart from “He seems nice!” was “How is he so … everywhere?” The answer appears prosaically simple: he’s highly organised, highly talented and works very hard. He also has a knack for attracting influential mentors, such as George Negus.
“Some journalists can’t accept that they don’t already know the answers to their own questions,” says Negus, whose reporting for 60 Minutes in the 1980s made him a household name. “But Hamish sees his work as one long learning exercise, not a one-man show. He’s more interested in communicating with the audience than impressing his peers.”
Hugh Riminton has been tracking Macdonald’s career since Hamish was hired by Al Jazeera English “at some ridiculously young age, like 24” and says he was “astonished at the level of authority and confidence and sheer competence” he showed when anchoring on-the-ground coverage of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Lisa Wilkinson praises his “curiosity, professionalism, humility and tendency to always be the first to take the piss out of himself”, while Millar says he has “a twinkle in his eye, this kindness that can rope people in”. His mum Carol says, “He’s always been kind and thoughtful.”
It’s now afternoon, and I’ve come to Macdonald’s Sydney apartment to do a longer, sit-down interview, and see if there is any dark side to the man who elicits such uniformly glowing praise from friends and colleagues. Macdonald suggests we go for a coastal walk first. He does one every afternoon to clear his head, taking the advice of Fran Kelly, who has observed the same routine for years. Ever the multitasker, he sometimes takes the RN Breakfast production meeting call while walking.
We set out briskly and speed up as we go, talking along the way about journalism, family and boarding school. After about an hour, we return, slightly sweaty, to his apartment, which is small with huge picture windows giving 180-degree views out to sea. It is a sunlit oasis, only two rooms, simply furnished and studded with house plants and a few pieces of art.
We sit down at his dining table to talk. The first thing I want to do is iron out his career timeline, which has spanned continents and war zones, and includes stints at major networks in Britain, the Middle East, Asia and the United States.
As noted by Riminton, Macdonald started his foreign correspondent career young. He didn’t go through traditional channels, such as applying for a journalism cadetship in Australia and climbing the ranks. He says that’s because he didn’t think he’d get one, which seems dubious, but whatever the case, he just went out and did it.
“Mum and Dad reckoned I used to make radio programs and interview people when I was a kid.”
He attributes his chutzpah to his upbringing in Jindabyne. His father (now retired) was a pharmacist, his mother a nurse (and still works as one). He is the third of four siblings, the two eldest from his father’s first marriage. All four have worked in journalism and, with their partners and children, form a close, sprawling tribe.
“My childhood was pretty wild in many ways. We didn’t lock doors, we had a huge amount of freedom to roam the area, and in the winter when Mum and Dad were working a lot, we were out on the mountain skiing and having adventures with our friends,” Macdonald says.
He always wanted to be a journalist, from childhood, but isn’t entirely sure why. “We definitely had a very heavy diet of ABC programs when I was young. There was a lot of Four Corners and Foreign Correspondent. My older siblings are a fair bit older and they had gone off and become journalists so I’m sure that was an influence,” he says. “Mum and Dad reckoned I used to make radio programs and interview people when I was a kid.”
The childhood idyll ended when Macdonald – there being no high school in Jindabyne at the time – was sent to boarding school in Sydney, which his parents decided was for the best. They were comfortable but not wealthy and nearly “broke themselves”, Macdonald says, raising the tuition.
The schooling experience was unhappy – on which, more later – and when he was 15, his parents split. “It probably brought home some of the realities of life to me,” he says of his parents’ divorce, “but it’s not something I consider as majorly defining.”
On leaving school, Macdonald studied journalism at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, NSW, graduating in 2001, followed by a brief stint reporting for WIN Television in Canberra, covering local politics, before travelling to London, where he knocked on doors until he got a job as an entry-level producer at Britain’s Channel 4 in 2003. The channel’s foreign correspondents would “cycle back through” the London office from Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa, and the young Macdonald would go to lunch with them and hear their stories.
“I was like, ‘Well, that’s the thing I want to do,’ ” he says. “The big international stories seemed to me to be the most interesting bit of the job. I was enthusiastic about seeing the world and going to different places. A lot of people ask about being scared of going to those places, and I’ve never really had that. I’m more interested than I am scared.”
Occasionally, Macdonald sat next to Jon Snow, a revered figure in British broadcasting who has reported on everything from El Salvador’s civil war to London’s Grenfell Tower fire, and who refused an OBE because he didn’t think it was proper to accept honours from the people you report on.
“And, you know, he was more enthusiastic than everyone else,” Macdonald says. “He was the oldest person in the newsroom but he was still chasing the stories harder than anyone.”
Macdonald remembers the day in 2005 when Snow stormed into the newsroom brandishing the leaked attorney-general’s advice to the then UK prime minister Tony Blair on the legality of the 2003 invasion of Iraq – a prized scoop that everyone had been chasing. Snow told the young Macdonald where he’d hidden other copies, in case he was raided.
“He was still breaking news stories. He was still travelling and being a correspondent, as well as being the main anchor. And I just found that incredible; he was this sort of proper working journalist who made this really exciting TV program every night.”
Later in 2005, Al Jazeera was setting up an English-language channel, and Macdonald was hired for a job with them based in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur. He had been studying Bahasa at night school in London when a colleague mentioned Al Jazeera was looking for Asia reporters. He did an intensive Indonesian language course in Yogyakarta before starting. Macdonald also speaks German and “tried but failed” to learn Arabic over a few months at an international college in Yemen in 2010.
The then 24-year-old thought he’d been hired as a producer, but when he arrived to take up the job, found himself thrust into on-air hosting duties. He had what he describes as a “meltdown” because he believed himself unprepared for an on-air role. His bosses knew better and put him in front of
the camera anyway.
He spent five years as a producer, reporter and host for Al Jazeera English in Kuala Lumpur and then London, cutting his teeth on stories including the war in Afghanistan, civil unrest and elections in East Timor, pro-democracy riots in Malaysia (for which he won the 2008 British Royal Television Society’s Young Journalist of the Year award), the Islamic insurgency in southern Thailand, various Indonesian natural disasters, and a rather strange road trip around Java with radical Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.
In 2010, Macdonald returned to Australia to work on 6.30 with George Negus. The ambitious program launched on Channel Ten in 2011 but was cancelled later that year, leaving Macdonald to do bits and pieces for The Project, a gonzo Louis Theroux-style series called The Truth Is, and anchor the network’s late news bulletin.
In the latter half of 2013, a senior news executive from the American ABC network sent Macdonald a message on Twitter, saying he had seen The Truth Is and wanted to meet him. Macdonald was already in the US for a wedding, so they met at Soho House in New York and he was hired almost immediately.
In 2014 he started with ABC as an international affairs correspondent based in London. He covered the Ukraine revolution and war in eastern Ukraine, the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and the Nigerian schoolgirls’ kidnapping.
Diane Sawyer, a doyenne of American broadcasting and ABC anchor, noticed him and liked him, although she unilaterally changed his name to “Mac” when throwing to him for live crosses, because she believed “Hamish” didn’t work for American audiences.
The attempted name change was not the only thing that didn’t sit well with Macdonald about that job. After two years there he found himself burnt out, “completely fried” from relentless foreign deployments for nearly a decade for Al Jazeera English and ABC.
“I was getting sick a lot, constantly run down and unwell,” he says. “I would dread the phone calls sending me on the next assignment, and when you’re dreading it, putting yourself into situations of high risk is not wise. I worried I was losing my focus.”
He thought his future would probably lie in a different career, perhaps diplomacy, academia or even business.
Macdonald also says he “wasn’t proud of the quality of the stories” he was producing at the time. He worried he might have post-traumatic stress disorder, but a counsellor told him that he was just exhausted, and needed a break.
In 2014, Steven Sotloff, an American journalist Macdonald knew from Arabic classes in Yemen, was beheaded by Islamic State in the Syrian desert. The murder was videoed and posted online. “It wasn’t like he was a close mate but he was a friend, and when you see something like that happen to someone you know, it makes you reevaluate the dangers of what you do,” he says.
Disillusioned, Macdonald applied for and won a Nieman Fellowship – a Harvard University fellowship for working journalists – and spent 2015-16 studying foreign policy, Chinese history, global geopolitics and digital transformation.
He thought his future would probably lie in a different career, perhaps diplomacy, academia or even business, but in the end, he circled back to journalism. “I made a promise to myself … that going forward I would only do things that I really love doing, and I would only take on the projects I find really challenging.”
For a while Macdonald bounced between London and Australia, filing freelance for Foreign Correspondent and The Project, and occasionally filling in as a host on the latter. In 2018, he was asked to co-host The Sunday Project. A natural, warm host, he often plays the straight man to the others on the panel.
“With that live studio audience, I initially found that terrifying and now I love it,” he says. “I’ve learnt from the comedians how to enjoy that, how to make the most out of that. How to use that energy in a really productive way for creating a great environment in the studio.”
Macdonald will need all those skills for Q&A. He will need his sense of humour, too.
Q&A is the only subject ever known to unite News Corp columnist Miranda Devine (who called it “Jerry Springer for the faux intellectual set”) with commentator Helen Razer (“Its great crime is one of stupidity”) and former prime minister Paul Keating (“I wouldn’t be caught dead on it”).
Critics say its live Twitter feed has turned the show into a facile point-scoring exercise, priming viewers to tweet pithy insults rather than actually listen to the exchange of views between panellists, and its ratings have been dwindling for years.
In its debut season of 2008, Q&A averaged 730,000 broadcast viewers nationally, exceeding 1 million at its peak in 2015. Last year, it dipped below 650,000, a decline similar in scale to that of other long-running programs, in small part offset by catch-up TV. (MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules have shed more than half their viewers during the past decade.)
“Audiences are fragmenting across the board and Q&A is no exception,” says David Knox, editor of television industry website TV Tonight. Not helping matters is the series’ 9.35pm time slot on Mondays; even those accustomed to watching television at 7.30pm, Knox says, frequently switch to video streaming services when those programs end. (Producer Erin Vincent says Q&A will keep its time slot in 2020.)
But the very things that make Q&A vulnerable to scandal – a panel of ideological opponents arguing on live TV; the increasingly vitriolic tone of Twitter – are intrinsic to its nobler aspirations.
“At its core, it’s a two-way conversation that’s good not only for television but the public,” says Marc C-Scott. “You’ll always have issues when you involve an audience but that doesn’t mean it should change.” Knox also cautions against messing with a format that allows citizens “town hall access” to decision makers. “What’s the alternative?” he asks. “A breakfast TV debate or Karl Stefanovic hosting [failed Q&A imitation] The Verdict?”
The show has an unusually large impact beyond its live broadcasts, generating a lot of coverage in other outlets, and short clips from its episodes often go viral on social media. As outgoing host Tony Jones says, “There is a multiplier effect that means it’s impossible to know the actual reach of the program.”
Q&A finished 2019 with yet another scandal when Fran Kelly hosted an episode in partnership with Broadside, a Melbourne feminist festival. Asked about violence as a means of achieving political ends, Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy asked “how many rapists must we kill before men stop raping us?” When viewers complained, Eltahawy urged them to direct their anger towards real instances of violence and not the “rhetorical” scenario she raised on air.
Kelly later conceded she ought to have done more to challenge the original assertion. “The biggest problem was a lack of balance in the panelists,” says Knox of that episode. He believes producers normally do a good job of securing a politically diverse mix of guests. “Questions need to be asked about whether it was an accident waiting to happen.”
Why would anyone want to take on such a job, which is so often used as a spear point for culture wars, and exasperates viewers with its reliance on partisan politicians?
“This is one of the best jobs in Australia journalism,” Macdonald says. “The experience of having worked overseas has made me appreciate what I really love about doing journalism in Australia, and for an Australian audience. That’s what I feel connected to.’
They plan to take Q&A “out to the suburbs” and the regions to burst the perception it’s a show that caters only to metropolitan “elites”.
Q&A is set to evolve a little with the change of guard. The founding executive producer, Peter McEvoy, departed the show in December along with founding host Tony Jones. McEvoy’s replacement Erin Vincent was the executive producer of Insiders and ABC News Breakfast. Vincent says Macdonald was her first choice for the hosting role, because “he’s so passionate about the importance of conversations, and understanding and listening to opinions other than your own”.
His regional upbringing will be useful. “He’s very engaged in what’s happening outside of capital cities, which is such an important skill to bring to a program like Q&A, where you are held responsible for reflecting the views and the mood of an entire country.” Indeed, Macdonald says
they plan to take Q&A “out to the suburbs” and the regions more frequently to burst the perception it’s a show that caters only to metropolitan “elites”.
Macdonald is even-handed when asked about criticisms of the show. “For all the negativity there is about the times we live in and the rancour of public discourse, I think a program like Q&A can be a force for good,” he says. “It brings everyone into a room together to have a conversation, once a week on the public stage, and sometimes the opinions are challenging and the conversations are difficult.”
Macdonald has filled in as Q&A host several times and is bemused by the way the panellists will be perfectly civil to each other as they sit side by side in the make-up chair, or chat in the green room, only to clash when they assume their on-camera roles. He knows some tension and conflict makes a show interesting, but also believes in showing audiences the quieter moments.
“There’ll always be a robustness when politicians disagree, but I’m not sure that’s the thing everyone is tuning in for,” he says. “People want to see moments of authenticity, that’s from a person in the audience or a person on the panel. You know, a moment of reflection and pause.”
For Macdonald, this is what makes Q&A a gig that is equal parts talent wrangler, interrogator and audience advocate, a satisfying journalism job. “It’s the human story I like … hearing people’s experience and story, and I always have.”
The human story, of course, is what people look for when they read a profile like this one. Macdonald is unwilling to offer parts of himself for public consumption, but it’s my job to persuade him to give some of himself up. It is a testament to his politeness and professionalism that we manage to negotiate this tension peaceably.
What’s made clear is that the bullying was not the usual schoolyard taunts, or the occasional tipping over of a lunchbox.
I was told, for example, that he’s cautious about discussing his partner, Jake Fitzroy, an economist with a consulting firm, although it turns out that while he is sparing with details, Macdonald is more than willing to tell me how much he loves him. The two were friends for a few years before they got together, says Macdonald, but keeps further details, such as how long they have been a couple, private.
In 2019, when Macdonald was photographed holding hands with Jake on the red carpet of the GQ Gentleman’s Ball, it was reported that he had “come out”. The couple were amused. Their relationship had never been a secret.
“There was nothing deliberate about that particular event,” Macdonald says. “You know, we just went to an event where I was working, and they asked to take a picture. I grabbed Jake’s hand just in the moment without much thought.”
When the photo was published, the couple was overwhelmed with lovely messages. “There were literally thousands of people writing messages on various social media platforms with very personal stories,” he says. “And that was so profoundly touching.”
I ask a little more about Jake but Macdonald doesn’t want to be “too specific”. “He’s my best friend and I just feel tremendously lucky to share our lives together,” he says. “He’s … ” and here he tears up a little. “I got a bit emotional. He’s really the best person I know. He makes life pretty fun. And yeah … I just,” he says, with a husky voice. “I didn’t know such happiness was possible.”
Their life together is dominated by family, swimming, weekends away and cooking for friends.
In his leisure time, Macdonald reads the London Review of Books, the Financial Times and watches some ABC dramas, as well as trashier fare like The Masked Singer, Survivor and Gogglebox – always on catch-up on his laptop, never on TV, because, unusually for a TV journalist, Macdonald doesn’t own one. “Yeah, no, not really a big TV watcher,” he says.
“I didn’t know such happiness was possible.”
Hamish Macdonald on his partner Jake Fitzroy.
I broach the subject of his being bullied at boarding school, which we had discussed on our walk. It seems to me that such a traumatic, formative experience may have given him the skills of detachment and observation that make him such a good journalist, but also, perhaps, the instinct to hide his true self, even while giving his all professionally.
It is clearly a difficult subject. What’s made clear is that the bullying was not the usual schoolyard taunts, or the occasional tipping over of a lunchbox. It was violent, deeply humiliating, and took place in an atmosphere of constant menace. It went on for years, concentrated in the early years of high school and improving in the later period.
As a boarder far from home, Macdonald wasn’t able to escape it, even on weekends. At home, his unhappiness at boarding school became a real “faultline” in what was becoming a “complicated family life”, he says, causing disharmony between his parents.
The school, he says, had a “nasty culture”; “there was a lot of rancour, there was a lot of racism”. As a successful journalist, he’s been asked to return to give an alumni talk, but has declined. Macdonald is at pains to stress that he’s fine now, and very happy in his life, and that later in high school he found his place in the school community.
What I became was a good observer, and a good listener, and someone who understood the various interests around me.
“Like many people, my memories of school were mixed. I did make good friends and have good times,” he says. But the experience undoubtedly marked him. “It wasn’t obvious to me where I fit in that environment, and I think the way I found a fit was to be sort of in between,” he says.
“What I became was a good observer, and a good listener, and someone who understood the various interests around me, and what people thought, what they needed, what their concerns were.” He pauses. “Ultimately, my sort of best friends became the guys who are probably like the most popular guys, and they are still my friends today. But I think really where I fit was between them and other people … I could just, kind of, you know, exist in between.”
A couple of weeks after our interview, Macdonald fronts his last RN Breakfast for the year and signs off with a typically gracious message on Twitter thanking his listeners. A few days earlier he’d tweeted about the political reaction to the bushfires, unusually strident for him.
“I’ve been hosting @RNBreakfast during a period of extreme drought, extreme fire & extreme weather,” he wrote. “It is hard to ignore how many politicians and senior leaders have told me that asking about climate is either the wrong question, or not the right time. It happened again today.”
I have asked Macdonald if I can speak to someone in his family, and he gives me the number of his cousin, Louise Campbell, who he calls “Goo”. I phone Goo and she tells me about her cousin’s warmth, his capacity for fun, and his deep commitment to his family. I ask her if there are any family stories or anecdotes that really illustrate Hamish. She says yes, there are, but doesn’t want to share them publicly. I’m about to ring off when she hesitates, then says that maybe there is one story she could share.
“He was the person who came and found me when my dad was killed in a bike-riding accident [in 2014],” she says. “He drove across Sydney and came and found me to give me the news. He was the right kind of person to do that. A solid and caring person. He scooped me up into one of his characteristic bear hugs and I can’t remember the words but he was able to tell me, and he was sobbing as well.”
After finishing work for the year in late December, Macdonald returns briefly to the job, reporting from his beach holiday when the NSW South Coast becomes engulfed by bushfires. He also spends a few days in Tasmania, trekking Cradle Mountain with his buddy and Project co-host Tommy Little. Trying to arrange a time to check some facts with him, we text back and forth. I ask how Tasmania is and he sends a picture of himself with his pal, grinning and relaxed, enthusiasm radiating off him. He’s on the top of the mountain.