Pacific Media Watch

25 July 2015

FIJI: 'Wild' coups frightening but exciting time as journo, says Gardner

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Rex Gardner after being deported in 2009 ...lived through Fiji's four coups. Image: Ben Rushton/Sydney Morning Herald

SUVA (Hobart Mercury/Pacific Media Watch): From getting thrown out of the newsroom of a daily newspaper at gunpoint in Fiji, reporting during the apartheid era in South Africa and leading several News Corp Australia mastheads – Rex Gardner has experienced a lot in his 46-year media career.

The Hobart Mercury chief executive retired yesterday and during his last week at News, intranet reporter Sarah Spencer spoke to him about his time at the business.

“I can’t pinpoint just one highlight over the years because I’ve loved it all,” Gardner said.

“Everything from being a copy boy to being a reporter on The Sun, a chief-of-staff and working in Fiji through military coups.”

Gardner describes the coups as being completely “wild” and somewhat frightening, but admits it was rather exciting for a journalist because it was a huge news story and he was in the midst of it.

He was working as the Fiji Times general manager at the time. He was able to get the paper up and running after five days during the first coup, but the second coup came three months later and was a little more challenging, taking five weeks to end – including two weeks of a “no news newspaper” where 99 per cent of content was advertising.

The Fiji Times was the authoritative newspaper so the military had to get to us quickly. They came into the office with machine guns and pulled our reporters out of their chairs,” Gardner said.

Reporters manhandled
“Unfortunately the first coup didn’t work and the country pushed back. The second coup was really quite nasty and that’s when they came into the newsroom and manhandled the reporters, particularly the girls. I remember one of the ladies getting dragged out of her chair by the hair, dragged to the ground.

“We all got bundled out onto the street at gunpoint. That was extraordinarily unnerving for the staff because Fiji is such a peaceful nation.”
Gardner marks one of his other challenges as working as a journalist in South Africa during the apartheid era in the 1970s.

“Nelson Mandela was in jail when I was there because he was pushing the movement to get equality for blacks,” Gardner said.

“It was in the era where blacks were downtrodden and they weren’t allowed to sit on certain seats and ride on carriages. I was there reporting during that time and it was quite interesting for a young bloke.”

Although times have changed and the media industry is vastly different compared to what it looked like four decades ago, Gardner said the art of journalism remained the same.

Privileged role
“We, as journalists, are in such an honoured position because we have the right to be at the forefront of things that are happening, we have the privilege of gathering the information and presenting it to the public and enlightening them – and what a sensational job that is,” he said.

“It is still just as vitally important as it was back then and it’s the best job in the world by a longshot.

“We work for a great company and the future is a huge challenge but we have to work together and be creative and find answers to some of the digital challenges.”

Gardner said it felt a little surreal that he was finishing up at News, but he would always cherish the memories and experiences he had gained.

“The whole journey has been absolutely marvellous, I wouldn’t change one second of it, so I guess that means I enjoyed it,” he laughs.

“It’s the energy of the media, it’s just so rewarding and exhilarating and energising. I still count myself lucky this day to be part of it, it’s a fantastic industry.”
Following Gardner's retirement from Davies Brothers, publishers of fhe Mercury, Herald Sun editorial business manager Tom Salom will takeover on a temporary basis as executive general manager. A permanent appointment will be made later in the year.

Rex Gardner signs off as managing director of the Mercury

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