Castlereagh Probus Club, Monday 5 June 2006
THERE IS of course no money in journalism, except for people like Rupert Murdoch, but it is, or should be, one of the last of the fun industries: every day a new page, and amazing scenes about to happen before your very eyes.
The great thing about journalism is that anyone can play, the only qualification required is curiosity, and soon everyone will be playing, on the Internet. The basic tool is the telephone: you ring around until someone tells you something.
But there is a little more to it than that. Sol Chandler was a Fleet Street genius who knew more about the techniques of journalism than anyone I ever met. He said: ‘First and last, we must interest the customers.’ There is, or should be, no room for the worthy but dull. Here are some techniques.
Insignificant details. The historian of the Press, Lord Francis Williams, said journalism is the study of mankind and in that study no detail is too trivial to be unimportant. Sol understood the importance of the insignificant detail, but sadly that may be all anyone remembers. For years after I said you need to wear hip boots in Woollahra, people said: ‘You’re the guy who wrote about the dogshit in Woollahra.’
The narrative. If the material can be put into a narrative, you can use the techniques of the novel: scene-by-scene construction and lots of details and dialogue.
Disclosure journalism. Sol said: ‘The oldest rule of journalism, and the most forgotten, is to tell the customers what is really going on.’ You do that by disclosing a new fact or a new pattern, or both. The pattern emerges when you put a lot of old facts into a strict chronology. A couple of history units at university pointed me towards pattern stuff. When Mary Gaudron rang up to bitch about something, I said: ‘Why are you complaining to me? I’m just a harmless drudge scrabbling among the yellowing files.’ She said: ‘I don’t know about drudge, but you’re not harmless.’ I found that quite encouraging.
Inquiries. I am supposed to have invented a new technique of reporting inquiries at the Wran Royal Commission, but it was really just an extension of Sol’s demand for insignificant details, plus a bit of analysis and a few jokes.
You have to be lucky; you have to be on the right paper at the right time. I mostly was. Amazingly, the right paper was Melbourne Truth in the second half of the 60s. Murdoch was starving and Truth was dead in the water. Rupert sent Sol Chandler to Melbourne in 1965 to revive the organ and get some cash flow. Sol gave me a job in January 1966, although my experience was 21 months on a bush paper in Queensland.
Sol’s formula for Truth would probably work anywhere: a hard spine of fact, all the insignificant details he could get, and an outer wrapping of sex. From July 1966 to May 1967, he doubled Truth’s circulation to 400,000. Gerald Lyons asked him on TV: ‘Aren’t you ashamed of the sex?’ Sol replied: ‘I understand it’s here to stay.’
Run it on sex only
Two years later, Truth’s profits enabled Murdoch to buy The News of the World. Later owners, Mark Day and Owie Thompson, tried to run it on sex only. It didn’t work and Truth closed.
Sol invented the page 3 topless girl, but the censor, Deputy Premier Sir Arthur Rylah was a sodden and sinister hypocrite, and the Truth artist, J. Fred Kinnear, had to paint strips over the girls’ nipples. J. Fred called them Rylah Bars.
Sol invented an agony column, Heart Balm. He told Bill Murray, the sub-editor who handled the letters: ‘I don’t care what the letters say, but your answers must sound like an Archbishop.’ There seemed to be a lot of weird people in Melbourne; I blamed the weather and the football. Bill’s answers often began: ‘You must tell your mother at once …’
Noela did more to change the law than I ever did. She once had a gossip column on the paper in our Queensland home town, Murgon (pop 1500), and eventually wrote for The New York Times. Meanwhile, she was working on Murdoch’s FashionWeek. When she wrote a piece in Truth on the gutter crawlers who infested Melbourne, the sodden and sinister had to make gutter crawling a criminal offence.
My job was mainly insignificant details and hard facts: where to get a cheap fridge, what it’s like to live on the pension, what happens at a hanging; how the Prime Minister’s mistress saw his gallant attempt to swim to China, and corruption in the Homicide Squad.
The last man hanged in Australia was Ronald Ryan. I was an official witness, but had only about 15 seconds to register the details for Sol. I thought the hangman was a bit hurried and jerky. The account of the hanging in my 1987 book, Amazing Scenes, starts with a nod to Graham Greene’s Le Troisieme Homme: ‘One Friday in February 1967 I got a letter from the man I had seen hanged a week before; a week later, the hangman sent a carping letter.’ The serial killer said he’d been hanging people for 38 years and no one else had criticised his technique. Especially his victims.
When Harold Holt, 59, swam out to sea in December 1967 and got eaten by sea lice, Noela and I took a run down to Portsea, had a nice lunch of cray and bubbly, and got the details of his last morning from his devastatingly attractive neighbour and mistress, Mrs Marjorie Gillespie, 49. We had to agree that Mrs G could see the copy, in case we hinted that she was an adulterer, so Sol and I took a cab the 80 kilometres to Portsea. He stopped at a seaside pub for a bottle of French champagne. A yokel in shorts and thongs said: ‘What’s the occasion?’ Sol said: ‘The occasion, my good man, is that we are here.’ The piece noted that a rabbit nibbled grass outside Mrs G’s window. Sol said: ‘I don’t care what she takes out; but I must have that rabbit.’ Perhaps he saw it as a metaphor for the late statesman. But Noela knew more than Sol; she saw the key detail was that when Mrs G saw her lover disappear she went home and had a long bath. Mrs G didn’t object to the rabbit, but she did take out the bit about the bath.
Mysterious death of Lady Rylah
Most newspapers never force the authorities to hold a major inquiry. Truth forced two in two years, the second Voyager inquiry, and an inquiry into corruption in the Homicide Squad. In 1969, Dr Bert Wainer asked Rylah to legislatively confirm that abortion can be lawful. That would have been bad for Homicide cops: they had the franchise to extort from aborters, backyard and front. Rylah refused, probably because he owed the Homicide cops a favour for the tactful way they handled the mysterious death of Lady Rylah. Bert decided to demonstrate that bad laws make bad cops. I used the techniques of the novel in Amazing Scenes to record the hilarious events of his winter and summer offensives of 1969.
In July 1969, Dr Wainer announced that he would go to Sydney to tell Police Commissioner Norm Allen about corrupt cops and abortion doctors. That was a joke; Allen and Bob Askin got their share of the 10% of all abortion fees extorted from doctors by Sergeants Ray Kelly, Fred Krahe, and Superintendent Don Fergusson. Bert got a lot of death threats, and he thought a little man with a long gun might clip him at Mascot. He asked me to stand in front of him, so I hired a pal named Bruce Hanford to stand in front of me.
Noela fell in for two jobs. She used her fashion magazine account to hire an ancient Piper Aztec to sneak us up to Sydney, and she had to keep a Truth photographer, John Murie, sober long enough to get pics of the brave aviators when, or if, we got back. That was a lot harder than my job, which was to give the Sydney cops a bit of lip.
Bert refused to go near police headquarters. That was sensible; Superintendent Fergusson was shot dead there, probably by Krahe, seven months later. Norm Allen refused to see Bert anywhere else, but he sent three detectives to interrogate him in the 2GB boardroom. One was Fergusson, and one was — guess who — Roger Rogerson. He was the first to notice, after about 10 minutes, that I had a tape recorder whirring under their noses. Fergusson asked Hanford and me to leave, but Bert wasn’t going to be alone with three Sydney cops. When they left, reporters asked me what happened. I told them the police refused to take evidence from Dr Wainer in front of witnesses.
For his summer offensive, Bert had some heavy artillery: Charlie Wyatt, a former cop who had progressed to illegal bookmaker to backyard aborter, Dr Jim Troup, a front yard aborter, and Peggy Berman, who worked for Dr Troup. They had all paid bribes to Superintendent Jack Matthews and Inspector Jack Ford, and felt betrayed because they had been arrested.
Bert held a conference in his St Kilda flat on the night of Wednesday November the 25th 1969. Present were Bert, Wyatt, Berman, who had been Ford’s mistress, Bert’s girl friend, Judy Small, and me. I called it The Night of the Hearse. Charlie and Bert put the frighteners on Matthews. Charlie claimed there had been a gassing at Matthews’ home, and he and Bert sent there in succession a police car, a fire brigade wagon, an ambulance, and a hearse. Charlie told Matthews: ‘Evan Whitton of the Truth is coming out to 36 Langs Road tomorrow to hear some tapes I’ve got.’ Matthews told Bert: ‘Tell Wyatt and Whitton that I wear a bulletproof vest and they don’t’. Threatened men live long; Matthews fled next morning to his holiday home at Rye. A week later, two doctors and three others swore affidavits that they had paid bribes to Homicide detectives.
The way of the reporter is hard
The Night of the Hearse ends: ‘The way of the reporter is hard. He’s out there, tireless feet crunching in the gravel, and never a kind word from anyone. But once in a blue moon even the worst of us gets the accolade, and I got mine from Inspector Ford when Truth hit the streets the following Tuesday: he rang Mrs Berman; she thoughtfully recorded their chat on tape; and it was later played in court. ‘What does it say?’ Peggy asked innocently. Jack said: WE PAID OFF THE COPS by Evan Whitton, shocking — that’s not the word he used — mongrel bastard!’
Rylah was eventually forced to hold an inquiry; Matthews and Ford went to prison; Rupie didn’t have to apologise to anyone, except mummy, for anything in Truth, and I got another gong. In a bizarre upshot, Truth gave Matthews a job after he got out, but they made him sit at my old cubbyhole.
In 1970, I was sent to Sydney to work on Murdoch’s ill-fated Sunday Australian. After Sol, I found Sydney journalism pretty unsophisticated. I wanted to go Adelaide to look into an old murder case, but they weren’t interested so I took leave and Noela and I drove there.
The case concerned a little girl who had been raped and murdered at Ceduna in 1959. It was near Christmas, the Adelaide Homicide cops grabbed the first innocent black they could find, Rupert Max Stuart, and tortured him into signing a so-called confession in coppers’ English. He was convicted and went within a few hours of hanging. In the first ever interview with Stuart, Noela, ace reporter, asked the questions and I took the notes. But the editor, Bruce Rothwell, told me to forget it and put in the expenses, so Noela wrote the piece and our pal Bruce Hanford published in an underground paper called The Digger in honour of Murdoch. It didn’t have a big sale, but Noela made sure it got where it counted; she arranged for copies to be put on the desk of the news editor at every major paper in Australia, and so lit the fuse train that got Stuart out.
It was time to make a graceful exit from Rupieworld. Rugby opens all doors. I wrote a letter to the great V.J. Carroll, editor-in-chief, of The Financial Review and The National Times, to say he wouldn’t remember me but we’d played Rugby against each other in Brisbane 25 years before, and perhaps it was time for a silver anniversary drink. He gave me a job on The National Times. In a boardroom speech when he retired, Vic said he hadn’t remembered me because he spent most of his Rugby career lying on the ground, but one day he saw me coming out of the surf at Newport and said: “I know those knees.”
The war was worse than silly
There was plenty of space on The National Times for long pattern narratives. My record was 27,000 words over three weeks in 1975 on the decision-making process, if any, that got us into the Vietnam quagmire. Bob Menzies was unfortunately a victim of the gravitational theory of geopolitics: China is on the top of the map; Australia is on the bottom; therefore China would descend on us. He even said we had to get into Vietnam to stop China’s ‘downward thrust’.
My research showed that the war was worse than silly: the Vietnamese had been fighting the Chinese for 2000 years, and were the last people to let them march through Vietnam on their way to Sydney, but the war killed a couple of million Vietnamese, 50,000 Americans and 500 of our lads. That sort of thing was the opposite of everything the Herald had been saying for 10 years, and Sir Warwick Fairfax ordered the dismissals of Carroll, Max Suich, the editor, and me. Luckily, the general manager, Bob Falkingham, “forgot” to carry out his order. Sir Warwick later stood me a lunch at Primo’s to tell me he had no idea Bob Askin was a crook when he accepted a knighthood from him.
Max Walsh noted that Gavin Souter’s history of the Fairfaxes has lots about the finances of The Herald over 150 years, but little about its journalism, probably because there wasn’t much. V.J. Carroll, who became editor in 1980, was probably the first to try to tell the customers what’s really going on. He gave me another job, this time as Chief Reporter.
I note in the Preface to a recent book on the low that it took much too long, 27 years, for me to ask an obvious question: why is the legal system clinically insane? The only reason I finally did was that in the period 1987-91 I had a unique chance to observe at first hand how the European and English systems dealt with the same organised criminal, Sir Terry Lewis, the Queensland Police Commissioner.
At the Fitzgerald inquiry, the European system revealed that Terry had reached stage five, the highest, on the McCoy corruption scale: he franchised organised crime and extorted bribes from the franchisees. But at his trial under the English system the judge had to conceal so much damning evidence that he had to tell the jury there was no reliable evidence left, and that it would be dangerous to convict him. That persuaded me to try to find out where the British adversary system came from, and what is wrong with it, which is much the same thing. As Vic Carroll said: ‘Once you get the chronology right, everything falls into place.’
One result is that I’m still having fun at the expense of judges and lawyers in Richard Ackland’s online legal journal, Justinian (http://www.justinian.com.au)
Another is a longish pattern piece called Serial Liars: How Lawyers Get the Money and Get the Criminals Off (http://www.lulu.com).
Sol said: ‘The oldest rule of journalism, and the most forgotten, is to tell the customers what is really going on.’ You do that by disclosing a new fact or a new pattern, or both. The pattern emerges when you put a lot of old facts into a strict chronology. A couple of history units at university pointed me towards pattern stuff. When Mary Gaudron rang up to bitch about something, I said: ‘Why are you complaining to me? I’m just a harmless drudge scrabbling among the yellowing files.’ She said: ‘I don’t know about drudge, but you’re not harmless.’ I found that quite encouraging.