After leaving the public broadcaster’s flagship role, formidable broadcaster Hamish Macdonald is returning to the ABC to host the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras telecast. He speaks to The Sentinel about the struggle to maintain his privacy in such a public-facing career. By editor-at-large Gary Nunn.
To some, Hamish Macdonald may seem an unlikely Mardi Gras host.
The notoriously private journalist and broadcaster is particularly cagey about his personal life, and that has – until recently – included his sexual orientation and his partner.
Whilst he has said his relationship with Jacob Fitzroy was never secret, it’s widely acknowledged that a picture capturing a moment he grabbed Jacob’s hand lovingly at the 2019 GQ Gentlemen’s Ball ended speculation and acted as a de facto public coming out.
To others, Macdonald will be the perfect pick to join the likes of Courtney Act, Casey Donovan and Jeremy Fernandez as hosts for the first time since Mardi Gras has returned to the ABC from SBS.
He has been one of the ABC’s strongest talents, formerly anchoring its flagship current affairs show Q+A, as a Foreign Correspondent reporter and a regular host of the agenda-setting RN Breakfast.
“I prefer asking the questions – this isn’t my favourite thing!”
Depending on your view of how journalists should approach their role, there’s an irony to Macdonald asking tough questions and expecting straight answers in his direct (bordering on brusque) style, yet withholding himself.
Does being interviewed by other journalists make him uncomfortable?
“It’s not my favourite thing!” he says, laughing.
“But the reason I do what I do is because I’m very curious, and I really enjoy trying to understand people – especially those who hold views I don’t understand.”
Trying to understand him is a little harder, but that may be his extensive career in journalism; he has swallowed whole the golden rule of solid, impartial, robust journalism: get out of the way of the story – and never become it.
I mention it’s a lesson his co-host on The Project, Peter van Onselen, may’ve been reflecting on recently, but on this Macdonald displays the cool-headed diplomatic aversion techniques of the very politicians he calls out for doing the same.
“I certainly prefer asking the questions than answering them,” is all he’ll confess here.
Nonetheless, his tact doesn’t detract from his warmth; he’s a considerate interviewee, devoid of any gossipy streak.
The irony of being this guarded is slightly compounded by the fact he’s fronting an event founded on the very premise of people being open and uninhibited.
It is, perhaps, unfair for us to expect him to give so much of himself; he stresses he came into the industry to tell other people’s stories, not his own. And he specialises in hard news, rather than the profile/features writing which requires pieces like this to persuade their subjects – yes, even other journalists – to bear their soul, or at least collude with some confessions.
Even the gold standard of features and profiles, Good Weekend, struggled here, noting he was “cautious in agreeing to this profile, and reluctant to discuss his personal life”. One of the juiciest confessions they were able to extract was that “he orders avocado toast and a piccolo latte in a KeepCup”.
One of the reasons is he’s – understandably – protective of loved ones who haven’t chosen a career in the public domain.
“It’s a really big thing to throw someone into that. My partner has a career that comes with its own pressures; I want his life to be as free as possible.”
To many, this simply makes Macdonald a consummate professional; a stoic vessel who allows the stories he covers oxygen without distraction. Immediately before this interview, he was reporting on floods in South Western Sydney with his usual thoroughness and flair.
“I find talking about myself pretty boring,” he tells The Sentinel.
Like any credible journalist, he wants to tell those stories with rigour, requiring him to be fair, unbiased and dispassionate.
Was he concerned coming out may affect people’s perception of his objectivity?
“Certainly,” he says. “I’ve always wanted my journalism to stand on its own. And I’ve always tried when covering any story, whether it be global conflict or domestic politics, to interrogate in the same robust and balanced fashion.”
That includes Australia’s same-sex marriage debate.
“I’m well trained in my profession and I’m very capable of removing my own views from subjects,” he says, which is why he didn’t find it personally challenging reporting on the postal ballot.
The seasoned reporter has come to understand the helpfulness of a thick skin.
“At Al Jazeera, an Arab news network, I was largely working in the Middle East or Southeast Asia – I was living in Muslim parts of the world where homosexuality was illegal,” he says.
This is when that well-guarded privacy and discretion served him well.
“I was often working with teams or people who were nationals of those countries and you had a whole range of obligations and responsibilities. You certainly never wanted to put anyone in any danger by virtue of who you are.”
Today, it feels like the Mardi Gras hosting gig could be somewhat of a turning point for Macdonald.
But, when the subject is him, he’s slightly bemused by discussions of coming out, or personal journeys.
“It wasn’t something that I really tried to particularly hide. But it also wasn’t something I ever really felt an obligation to talk about.”
Closer connection to the LGBTQI community?
Hosting Mardi Gras is a big gig, one covered previously by big-name queer journalists like Patrick Abboud, when it was broadcast by SBS.
Does this herald closer ties with the LGBTQI community for Macdonald?
“I’ll approach this the same way I do every broadcast, by giving people’s stories space and time to elevate them. It’s about creating a big space for as much of the community as possible,” he says.
“Every single person that’s marching or behind the scenes or making a costume there has a story; each individual has had their journey.”
He sees Mardi Gras as an event rooted in protest, which is now a “huge community public celebration of diversity and inclusion”.
It’s something he looks forward to yearly. “I can’t wait to see all my friends and have a dance,” he says.
It’s also a chance, he stresses, to reflect.
“A lot has changed in my lifetime – but that doesn’t mean all rights are equal or the struggle is over. This year is a case in point.”
Hosting Q+A through a time slot change, a pandemic and abuse
One word comes to mind when looking at how much the relatively young Macdonald has achieved in his journalism career: ubiquitous.
In addition to simultaneously hosting ABC shows and The Project, a rare and extraordinary public/commercial media cross-over, the broadcaster has worked on Sunrise, Channel 4 News in the UK and on America’s ABC as International Affairs Correspondent.
Having such an extensive CV even before he turned 40 must leave Macdonald asking the question: what next?
Do any unfulfilled ambitions remain in his career wish list?
“I’ve never been a person with five year plans,” he says. “I’ve always just tried to make the most of opportunities that come my way, especially if they present a challenge or push me to develop my skills.”
The reason Macdonald reluctantly agreed to the Good Weekend profile was because he’d just nabbed the biggest and toughest job in current affairs TV: Q+A host. But, in his 18 months in the role, he faced a battle largely out of his control.
First, the ABC moved it from its much-loved Monday night slot to Thursday night. Viewers did not follow. Ratings plummeted to their lowest levels in the show’s history.
This was compounded by Covid robbing the show of one of its most engaging and essential assets: its live studio audience, whose reactions and questions were every bit as important as its panellists. With social distancing and prohibitive capacity limits, the studio felt stark, and the show’s spark dimmed considerably.
None of this was Macdonald’s doing. But bigger battles faced him.
He didn’t go into the show naively; he knew there’d be critique, backlash and maybe even abuse. Occasionally, it was homophobic.
“When I was at Q+A, my approach had always been to just try to ignore it, or not amplify it,” he says.
But this strategy had its limits – especially, as he has said publicly, people who work in such roles are largely left alone to navigate the trolling and abuse that comes with it. “It was a very intense job. There was enormous scrutiny,” he says.
“I really believe in the mission of that show. But there was a lot about my time there that wasn’t great. The way the abuse jumped quickly from social media into the domain of real life was pretty overwhelming.”
Consequently, Macdonald left social media, deleting his Twitter account.
This is what makes his return to the ABC, after 18 months in that flagship role, newsworthy.
“I’m slightly less patient or forgiving of that kind of abuse now,” he says. “And when it’s homophobic, I do feel a responsibility to call it out.”
Focus and diligence
One thing we agree on; our profession comes under attack a lot.
Notwithstanding the abuse last time he was at the ABC, Macdonald falls back on the two things that have guided his entire journalism career: his titanium hide, and allowing stories to speak for themselves.
“You don’t become a journalist to be popular, and the times that we’re living through right now prove that more than ever,” he says.
Over the course of his career, he says he has been “accused of every possible bias you can imagine”.
He tells me he has been called Murdoch scum, an ABC lefty, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, an anti-lockdowner and a Covid panic merchant.
Ultimately these accusations have the cumulative effect of emphasising Macdonald’s forensic balance – and versatility.
“You obviously learn not to let that affect you too much – but it does make you approach every interview with the same level of robustness.”
And that concludes – probably to the intense relief of Macdonald – this robust interview.
“All those criticisms that get thrown at me, possibly perversely, have the same effect,” he says.
“They ultimately make me more focused, more diligent. And more true to the profession of journalism.”
The 2022 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade will be held from 6pm Saturday, 5 March. It will screen on ABC iview and third-party streaming platforms from 6.30pm and ABC TV from 7.30pm.
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