A decade that changed Australian journalism

Rodney Tiffen, The University of Sydney

Ben Hills Breaking News: The Golden Age of Graham Perkin, Melbourne, Scribe, 2010 (544 pp). ISBN 9-78192164-037-7 (hard cover) RRP $59.95.

The great American journalist and media critic Ben Bagdikian said that trying to be a good journalist on the average American newspaper was like trying to play Bach’s St Matthew Passion on a ukulele. According to Ben Hills, Graham Perkin, the editor of The Age, made it possible to be a good journalist in Australia. Hills, who became one of Australia’s leading investigative reporters on Perkin’s Age, is clearly an admirer of his subject, and he has done his old boss proud in this valuable and readable biography.

Perkin’s death made it easy for his life to become the stuff of legend. Having become editor of The Age in 1966, he raised it to become the most influential and important newspaper in Australia, then died suddenly of a heart attack in October 1975, aged only 45, at the height of one of the country’s greatest political crises which culminated in Sir John Kerr’s dismissal of the Whitlam Government.

The Age, founded in 1854, under its publisher/editor David Syme, was the most important newspaper in 19th century Australia. But after Syme’s death in 1908, aged 80, it entered a period of managerial stagnation and editorial decline. Its circulation peaked at 152,000 in World War I, but by 1957, when the third Melbourne morning paper, The Argus, closed, it had dropped to 96,000. Syme wanted the paper to become a civic institution run through a family trust by his heirs and descendants. Instead they were more interested in their regular dividend cheques than in the paper’s development or its social role.

It was, says Hills, the paper that time forgot. Perkin joined this moribund institution in 1949, a baker’s boy from Beulah in Victoria’s Mallee region. He quickly rose through its ranks because of his energy and initiative. Among many interesting reporting feats were his witnessing of Australia’s first hole in the heart operation in 1959 and his undergoing North Korean torture techniques for three days, under the supervision of the Australian military, to report on the experience. By far his most important was a series of articles titled ‘Blood on the bitumen’, about the road toll and especially the role of alcohol. In the 1950s there was a strong indifference to road safety as the death toll steadily mounted. The liquor industry argued that alcohol was a minor contributing factor, but Dr John Birrell did research which found it was important in almost half the fatal accidents. Perkin’s stories were central in changing the politics of the issue, and the reduction of the road toll over subsequent decades became a public policy success.

Perkin’s early death made it easy for his life to become the stuff of legend.

In 1964, Ranald Macdonald, a 26-year-old member of the Syme family, with a degree from Cambridge, became managing director of the company. His step father, the Colonel Neill, was chairman of the Board. In 1966, Macdonald dismissed the long serving, stodgy editor, Keith Sinclair (despite an intervention from Prime Minister Menzies to save him). And in October 1966, Perkin was promoted from being Associate News Editor to Editor.

With a mandate from Macdonald, and help from kindred spirits on the staff, who had spent many long and frustrating hours discussing how the paper could be revived, Perkin set about his task with characteristic energy. Within weeks he redesigned the appearance of the paper, changing its masthead and typeface. His first three priorities were to hire cartoonist Les Tanner (and pointed editorial cartoons have been a feature of the paper ever since); to hire Phillip Adams as the paper’s first columnist to write on whatever topic took his fantasy from Egyptology to atheism to advertising to politics, and to buy the comic strip ‘The Wizard of Id’, far funnier, with more adult humour than the paper’s existing comics.

Perkin was always interested in commercial success, and knew that everything else depended on this. He was determined to lift circulation, which he did through improved marketing as well as improved editorial contents. However he was just as interested in achieving excellence in ways that had no commercial pay-off and even went against the company’s commercial interests.

So he also broadened the paper’s coverage by, for example, becoming the first Australian newspaper to hire an Italian-born reporter, Vince Basile, and appoint him as ‘ethnic affairs’ roundsman. Similarly he expanded and improved The Age’s arts coverage, most particularly giving a platform to Patrick McCaughey, who went on to a celebrated career as an internationally renowned critic, academic and museum director.

But more than this he put considerable resources and editorial energy into investigative reporting, as a result of which the paper attracted numerous libel suits. Hills himself had 30 actual and threatened defamation suits in a decade, and at one stage the paper was being sued in total for more than $80 million, which would have sunk it, had they succeeded.

Perkin took the paper’s editorial stances very seriously.

In addition, Perkin took the paper’s editorial stances very seriously. Whereas many newspaper editorials seem designed to pass without notice, Perkin wanted The Age to take a stand on the great issues of the day. Many of these were about modernising community attitudes, such as the introduction of fluoridation and homosexual law reform. The paper, through a combination of investigation and advocacy, lobbied strongly for the rights of the intellectually handicapped. Its series ‘The minus children’ was accompanied by a public appeal and (public) political pressure, and produced a huge improvement in the institutions concerned, most especially the Kew Cottages.

One of the strongest campaigns was against capital punishment. At the time of the last hanging in Australia—the Bolte Victorian Government’s execution of Ronald Ryan—The Age wrote no less than nine editorials opposing it. These editorials were not only argued with passion and logic, but often they defied the public opinion of the day. Probably at the time a majority still favoured capital punishment.

According to Perkin, in a 1975 interview, ‘The test, it seems to me, is: are you prepared to run stories which may offend readers, which may lose you readers, because you believe it is in the public interest and you are performing a public service. We are certainly trying to do that.’ (p. 293). In contrast, I once interviewed a News Limited editor, who said he could not imagine his paper running a campaign that ran against majority public opinion.

The Australian later took to calling The Age the ‘Spencer Street Soviet’, but it would be wrong to picture Perkin’s Age as left-wing. The paper only supported Labor editorially once—in 1972. It always supported the Liberals at state level, and also at federal level in 1966, 1969, 1974 (although the 1974 editorial was imposed by the Board against Perkin’s wishes), and (after Perkin’s death) in 1975. The last editorial he wrote, the day before his death, called on the Whitlam Government to resign because of its behaviour in the loans affair and its economic mismanagement. Malcolm Fraser told Hills that he thought that The Age’s strong stand on this scandal fortified those of his senators who had qualms about blocking supply.

The Age—both before and during Perkin’s reign—did not have a proud record in its coverage of the Vietnam War. Indeed in the 1969 election, the paper gave as its main reason for not supporting Labor that party’s stance on foreign policy and defence. Perkin was impressed by the Vietnam Moratorium, when 100,000 protestors marched peacefully through the streets of Melbourne in May 1970. And in the lead up to Whitlam’s 1972 election, Bruce Grant provided good analysis of the many different costs of the war. But while its Southeast Asian correspondents Grant, Creighton Burns and later Michael Richardson all provided good reporting from Vietnam, for a long time both its Canberra and Washington journalists—John Bennetts and Roy MacCartney—gave consistently and one-sidedly hawkish views of the war, with which it seems for most of the period Perkin agreed.

The Australian took to calling The Age the ‘Spencer Street Soviet’.

Several external factors facilitated Perkin’s achievements. The first was his relationship of trust with managing director Macdonald, who not only shared his vision for The Age, and protected him from the Board, but also brought his acumen to some of the paper’s business aspects. Macdonald was on borrowed time however. The Syme company had received a capital injection by selling shares to Fairfax, but Macdonald was forced by his step-father’s actions to allow a Fairfax majority, which meant that once the opportunity arose it was inevitable that it would come under Fairfax control. Macdonald sold his remaining shares in 1983, and exited the company.

Hills makes clear the personal costs, the underside, of Perkin’s achievement. He was very often an absentee father and husband, and while both his children, Stephen and Corrie, pursued successful careers in journalism, they were determined to achieve a better work-life balance than their father, sometimes passing up career advancement in order to maintain physical health and family life.

Most essentially, it makes clear that Perkin was a workaholic, working ever longer hours, addicted to the adrenalin of daily journalism. He normally stayed at the office until the first edition was printed, and began work again first thing in the morning. As he told one of his successors, Greg Taylor, for him journalism was not so much a calling as a disease. For many years he abused his body, smoking three packets of cigarettes a day, eating too much food, and drinking too much alcohol. He put on 25 to 30 kilograms. He was on a treadmill he was emotionally unable to stop. Despite some life-threatening health scares, he did not modify his behaviour. No doctor could save Perkin from himself.

The late 1960s was perhaps the perfect moment to attempt to reinvigorate a newspaper. The growing use of television and radio as the media through which the public first learnt of news was forcing upon newspapers the need to go into the how, the why and the what next. On the other hand newspaper circulations were still high and revenues buoyant. Hills estimates that Perkin increased the number of Age editorial staff from around 80 to 120. The advent in 1964 of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian brought a sense of competition and need for renewal through Australian newspapers. The political moment was also right. The Age, like most Australian newspapers, had been sycophantically loyal to the Liberals. But with the retirement of Menzies, the subsequent governments lost their easy dominance, and their internal divisions made sycophancy increasingly difficult to practise. Australian society, with its greater education and cosmopolitanism, was also ripe for a journalism that took more account of its growing diversity and sophistication.

Perkin’s decade of renewal proved in important ways—and of course through no fault of his—to be a false dawn for Australian newspapers. In the 1970s many thought that the hope for journalism, the locus of virtue in the news hierarchy, lay in strong editors. Internationally, there were such giants as Harold Evans of The Sunday Times and Ben Bradlee, who guided The Washington Post through its reporting of the Watergate scandal. In Australia, apart from Perkin, the Fairfax company had Max Suich, Max Walsh and Vic Carroll, and News Limited had had Adrian Deamer, who was summarily fired by Murdoch as editor of The Australian in 1972.

The late 1960s was perhaps the perfect moment to attempt to reinvigorate a newspaper.

Instead the tenure of editors has become shorter—‘The Age had more editors in the 34 years after Perkin’s death—ten of them—than it did in the 110 years before his appointment’ (p. 480). The position is no longer necessarily the professional pinnacle of their career but one moment in a continuing corporate trajectory. They have become more and more organisation men dedicated to enhancing corporate profitability, increasingly involved in increasing revenue by expanding sections attractive to advertisers as well as containing (journalistic) costs. When one of Perkin’s successors, Bruce Guthrie, was briefing the Board in 1996 about the paper’s achievements, one member, Roger Douglas, former New Zealand Treasurer, asked, that’s all very well, ‘but why can’t you get on with Jeffrey (Kennett)’? (p. 481–4822). Guthrie was gone six months later.

In addition, Perkin thought that columns were one important way of overcoming newspapers’ preoccupation with narrowly reporting the events of the day, and he cultivated the talents of Adams, foreign affairs commentator Grant and political correspondent Allan Barnes. Perkin could not have foreseen the way the role of columnist would evolve in ways that were anathema to his ideas of journalism. Now newspapers are full of columnists—overwhelmingly right-wing—who have no empirical discipline. The rewards are for the consistency and strength of their political ideology rather than for the depth of their knowledge or the penetration of their analysis.

The nine years of Perkin’s editorship probably coincided with the peak in the political importance of the Canberra press gallery. The crude proprietorial interventions of 1975 punctured their independence. Just as importantly, the bypassing of the gallery has been one of the central features of the growth of the spin enterprise in the decades since Perkin’s death. From Fraser on, successive governments were determined to increase their public exposure while reducing the opportunities for interrogation, managing photo opportunities and sound bites, cultivating talk radio and soft news outlets, and generally seeking to circumvent the filter of the journalists.

This scrupulously researched and freshly written book will be most read by those interested in Australian journalism and politics. But I think it would be equally valuable as a text in management. It provides a convincing antidote to the Harvard Business School mantra of generic management skills, that good managers can manage anything. Perkin succeeded because he loved and knew every last detail of newspapers. His editorship offers an exemplary case of how the best managers succeed by bringing out the best of the people they work with. It shows how a strong sense of the moral foundations of an activity can permeate an enterprise to bring pragmatic benefits. It is a tale of how individual achievements can help set up virtuous circles so that further achievements follow. One of his colleagues offered what is perhaps the ultimate Australian accolade, working with Perkin was like batting with Bradman.

Rodney Tiffen is Emeritus Professor of Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney.

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