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Esteemed political journalist awarded honorary doctorate
Dennis Shanahan receives Doctor of Letters for distinguished career.
Three months ago, Dennis Shanahan was sitting in the press gallery of Parliament House in Canberra, as Question Time was about to begin, when he received the text confirmation he had been waiting for. It came as an emoji, from the latest member of the Coalition about to exit politics: Julie Bishop.
Mr Shanahan, the political editor at The Australian, began to file his breaking story, as he had done countless times during his almost five decades in journalism.
But this particular exclusive, that Ms Bishop would not contest the next federal election, represented for Mr Shanahan the vast changes that have taken place in his field since he became a journalist in the early 1970s.
“One of the first lessons I learnt as a cadet was to go out of the office with enough coins in your pockets to make calls from a phone booth, so you could file your story over the phone,” recalled Mr Shanahan, one of Australia’s most respected and renowned political journalists.
“But when I broke the story of Julie Bishop resigning, she confirmed it in a text via emoji, and I wrote the story on my iPad sitting in the Press Gallery. And it was a story for the website, of course.
“It’s an extraordinary development, to see the changes that have taken place during my career.”
Mr Shanahan was yesterday (Tuesday 23 April) awarded a Doctor of Letters from the University of Wollongong, for his distinguished career as a journalist, commentator and editor.
It has been a fascinating career for Mr Shanahan, full of adventures with the world’s luminaries and stories that must make for unique dinner party anecdotes.
But journalism was a field that he came to by accident, because he was “good at English and talked a lot”.
“I really became a journalist by default,” Mr Shanahan said.
“My background was lower socioeconomic, I didn’t have much money. When I left high school, I didn’t want to become a teacher so I started to look around at other jobs.
“I spoke to the Careers Counsellor at my school and I told him I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to know more about the field, but he told me, ‘don’t worry about it, you won’t make it’. That really angered me, so I thought ‘I’m going to prove I’m better than you!’”
He began his career as a copy boy at the (now defunct) Daily Mirror in the early 1970s, before leaving to become a cadet at the Sydney Morning Herald, a prestigious job given to only a handful of budding reporters each year.
It was a different time. Mr Shanahan left the office each day with the aforementioned pocketful of coins, traversing the streets of Sydney to find a story. He wrote for every section of the paper, including the shipping news, and often dictated his stories over the phone, back to the news desk.
Gaining his skills in shorthand at Stott’s Business College, Mr Shanahan was the only male student among a cohort of more than 600 women, who pitched in to help him reach the target of 120 words per minute.
After gaining a Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales, Mr Shanahan decided to increase his education in New York, with a Masters in Journalism at the prestigious Columbia University.
“Fairfax gave me a day a week’s work in New York,” he reflected. “I was keeping my wife and then two children alive with that, but I decided to freelance writing gossip for Women’s Day, writing under my own byline. It didn’t take long before Fairfax rang me up to say they weren’t very happy to see their reporter’s name as a gossip columnist in a women’s magazine.
“When I came back from New York, I didn’t have a particular specialty. It was 1979. I didn’t really know where I was going in journalism.
“I ended up going to Canberra to fill in for the bureau chief in Parliament House. It was for three months, but I stayed for three years.”
Mr Shanahan later spent two years teaching at Charles Sturt University, and eventually relocated back to Sydney where he wrote about state politics and had a brief stint as a political press officer. But he and his wife, teacher turned journalist Angela Shanahan, were compelled to return to Canberra, where they found the lifestyle and cost of living much more suited to raising their nine – yes, nine! – children.
“I came back to Canberra as the new Parliament House opened. I joined The Australian newspaper in 1988, and I’ve been there ever since.”
Across his political beat, Mr Shanahan has covered nine prime ministers, 30 consecutive Budgets, and nine federal election campaigns.
“It grew organically,” he said. “I had a knack for it.”
The role has seen him travel across the world and found him in some interesting, one-in-a-lifetime situations.
He was in Washington DC with then Prime Minister John Howard on September 11, and worked around the clock to provide rolling updates to his colleagues back in Sydney on the terrorist attacks in the US capital and in New York. A day earlier, on September 10, he had attended a BBQ with then US Vice President Dick Cheney.
He has met numerous US presidents, the Queen several times, movie stars, actors, the Pope, former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Journalism suited me,” he said. “You never know where you are going to go, and who you are going to meet.”
The media landscape has changed dramatically since Mr Shanahan’s early days as a copy boy. But he remains as passionate as ever about the importance of journalism to democracy, particularly in an age of fake news and social media.
“I like to think of myself as a journeyman journalist. I try and tell people what’s happening, and I try to do that fairly and responsibly,” he said.
“I don’t believe in all the doomsayers who say journalism is dead. Newspapers are transforming, their role is changing. It used to be that the broadcast media would follow the papers. The evening news would follow what had happened that day. The newspapers would set the agenda.
“By the time I had written about Julie Bishop resigning, I wrote two different versions for the online edition, then I wrote a completely different version for the newspaper the next day. And it was confirmed via emoji!”
Mr Shanahan, with close to 50 years in journalism behind him, said that adaptability and resilience are essential qualities for any young reporter, as well as a degree.
“You really do need a degree to get into journalism. If I was starting out now, I don’t think I would get far today.
“You need to demonstrate through study that you can think critically and you can do well. You need to get experience, and you need to write.”