The most striking scene from the first episode of Hamish Macdonald’s new series The Truth Is? finds the clean-cut, urban-dwelling newsman bonding with a boot-cut-wearing, tobacco-chewing American vet named Jesse.
Macdonald is in Arizona to attend sniper school – at which Jesse, a sniper in Afghanistan and instructor at home, says things like “some people just need to be shot” – and to gain an insight into the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans. It’s pretty standard stuff for this kind of news magazine show – except for where the newsman and his subject do their bonding. The gruff Jessie takes Macdonald to a nail salon for a pedicure. It’s one of the former soldier’s favourite pastimes.
Surprises like this make The Truth Is? one of the most compelling bit of news programming to come to Australian TV in some time. And capturing those surprises was one of Macdonald’s goals from the start. “Your experience as a foreign reporter is a very human one,” says Macdonald, who worked for Al Jazeera English in Malaysia and London before coming to Channel Ten. “It’s often funny and there’s a heart. But I regretted that my experience [reporting] these stories was not really reflected in the final televised product – the format tends to strip away the colour, the texture and the richness, the people and the human experience that you have.”
Shooting between his gig hosting Ten’s late news and stints on The Project, making the series was gruelling, and not everything went according to plan. In the first episode, we get an insight into the frustrations of the journalistic process in Arizona as the production team struggles to track down one vet who’d previously committed to an interview (stay tuned to the end of the story to see what happened to him). It was important that that part of the process made the cut. “There’s a kind of conceit in the way that we tend to make television – it gets pre-packaged and formulaic,” says Macdonald. “And the reality of filming in all of these locations is that it never goes according to plan, it always turns to shit. I think people are media-savvy enough to know that it’s never perfect. So, where it works, where it helps the narrative and where it helps people understand the situation, we decided to leave it in.”
Macdonald knows he opens himself up to criticisms from some corners of the journalism world for putting himself so squarely in the frame as he tells the story – similar criticisms have been levelled at journalists like CNN’s Anderson Cooper in the past, who blur the line between story maker and teller. While as a journalist with a very traditional background he admits he has “reservations”, Macdonald says he also has a responsibility to “engage people and get people interested in these stories with whatever vehicles are at our disposal.” And he’s quick to point out that this approach is nothing new.
“People are always forgetting some of the history of television journalism. You go back and watch Four Corners in the 1970s and 1980s. When Chris Masters broke all those stories about Queensland and corruption and the Joh Bjelke Petersen affair, it’s not so different in style from this. I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel.” And while Macdonald is certainly the story-leader on The Truth Is? – and some ladies will be delighted to know there’s a shot of him in his undies getting ready to suit up when he visits the Chernobyl nuclear reactor – he never puts himself at the story’s centre.
That spot is reserved for people like Jesse, who left an indelible impression on Macdonald. When he met the Arizonan, he wondered what he’d have in common with a former sniper who believed the president was a Muslim. After eight days with him – and a pedicure – they’d formed a tight bond. When we spoke with Macdonald for this story, he was waiting on a DVD of Chopper he’d ordered to send over to the big Mark Reid fan, along with a copy of The Truth Is?’s first episode. And one more thing: “He gave me a lot of shit about wearing skinny jeans, so I sent him a pair in the care package.”
The Truth Is? starts Monday June 3, 8.30pm on Channel 10.