How not to Skype a famous journalist
Paul Barry’s shocked face fills the video screen and I’m afraid he will hang up. I want to crawl under a desk but I can’t because my head is clasped tightly between my hands as I try to purge the last few minutes from my memory.
I’d managed to get this hugely respected journalist to talk to my media students on Skype and it was turning into a disaster.
How had it come to this?
A few weeks earlier, I had stood before my Year 12 Media class and asked them to suggest journalists we could talk with about the Australian media. I was conscious of the cost because I’d once arranged a Skype interview with a controversial Melbourne journalist to discuss the impact of social media. She wanted $120 for a half hour chat but our school, on Tasmania’s North West Coast, is in one of the lowest socio-economic areas in the country and my faculty didn’t have the money. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t negotiate her fee so the interview fell through, much to my students’ disappointment.
I proposed to the class that one of them might have better luck in organising a journalist for a lower cost. We instantly thought of Paul Barry, Media Watch presenter, former Sydney Morning Herald journalist and author. Media Watch is popular with the students, and Barry encourages viewers to contact him on Twitter. A student promptly tweeted him and to our surprise he tweeted back and agreed to be interviewed for no charge.
We were overjoyed. A respected journalist of Barry’s stature is quite a coup.”I’m going to make an ‘I love Paul Barry’ t-shirt and wear it during the interview,” said one over-enthusiastic student.
I asked our school technician about Skype recording software. Our tech guy is generally expressionless but became extremely animated when he discovered I wanted to record the Barry interview. He asked if he could attend the class and watch. “After all,” he said, “Barry is a celebrity, even if it is only one from the ABC.”
The cleaner overheard our conversation and said she also loves Paul Barry and asked if she could sit in on the interview too. I wondered whether my over-enthusiastic student could make more t-shirts.
I was happy for them to attend because my media class only has 11 students and I thought it sad if Barry spoke to a mostly empty room. I prepared the students for the interview by workshopping questions. At the time, Charlotte Dawson had been found dead in her apartment and Twitter trolls were partly blamed for her suicide. I thought a question about the perils of Twitter would be topical and allocated this question to a student who was unsure what she wanted to ask.
Finally, all the students had a question and I listed each one. We were all excited and felt prepared for the interview. Of course, it all went downhill from there.
Firstly, we had our weeks mixed up. I’d mistakenly given Barry the wrong timetable. So we had to reschedule the interview but the only time available was lunchtime.
Also, at short notice a senior college seminar was announced which meant the students had to rush from this to the classroom and skip lunch altogether.
Then, the over-enthusiastic I love Paul Barry t-shirt-wearing student said he had a dental appointment at lunchtime and couldn’t make it back. Another student was ill and a third forgot about it altogether. This left us with eight students, the tech guy, the cleaner and me.
My laptop has a camera so we gathered around as I plugged it into the projector. I dialled Barry’s number and we watched the little green Skype icon jump up and down waiting to be answered.
Suddenly, like magic, Paul Barry was on our video screen. He asked if we could see him — which we could quite clearly — but, unfortunately, his view of us was limited. We exchanged pleasantries and then I explained that the students would ask him a question each.
So that Barry could see them, each student had to kneel in front of my laptop, stare into the camera and introduce themselves. The student who’d originally tweeted Barry was going to ask the first question but she’d forgotten what to say. I handed her the list and pointed to the first question which was to ask him why he’d become a journalist.
She thought I had pointed to the Charlotte Dawson question and asked Barry whether he’d ever wanted to kill himself because of Twitter.
Paul Barry reeled.
I gasped, “Oh no, don’t say it like that.”
One of the students giggled.
To his credit, Barry answered the question — I assumed he’d just hang up.
I hastily pushed another student at the camera.
This student asked what Barry believed was the future of journalism.
Once again, Paul Barry did a double take and said this was a broad question. By this stage I thought he not only believed that Tasmanians were inbred and had two heads but that they were brainless as well.
I didn’t think it could get any worse.
A third student kneeled in front of the laptop and asked him how Media Watch stories are sourced. Barry looked relieved at being asked something sensible and started to answer when our internet connection went down. Paul Barry disappeared. By now I was ready to crawl to the end of the earth but, this being Tasmania, I was already there. Instead, I seriously considered abandoning my class and teaching career altogether.
Meanwhile, the tech guy tried to fix the problem. The students saw their friends having lunch in the quad and disappeared to join them.
After 10 fruitless minutes, Paul Barry tweeted that he was still available to talk with us if we got Skype running again.
By this stage the cleaner had left too and there was only me and the tech guy.
Suddenly, Barry was back on our video screen.
A few students wandered in when they heard that a celebrity was being skyped in the media room. But there were no media students left to ask him any questions. Barry asked me about the school, probably making a mental note to avoid it at all costs and I asked him about the phone hacking scandal in the UK. Soon after this we said goodbye.
I emailed him with a sincere apology about the Twitter question.
He responded immediately and said he understood the student had been nervous and mangled the question.
Unfortunately, I was now deeply despondent about the wasted opportunity to engage with one of Australia’s best journalists.
But my respect for Barry is enormous. What a professional. No doubt he never wants to hear from the North West Coast again, but Paul, if you are ever in the vicinity, please drop into my media class because there is a student who’d like to show you his t-shirt.
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About the author
Sue Bell is an entertainment writer and author of Backpacked: A mostly true story, Beat Street and When Dreamworks came to Stanley.