Red Fox exposed party’s ‘faceless’ men
THE Canberra press gallery was once prowled by political reporters said to be more influential than many Ministers.
The biggest scoop, by one of the most fearsome in their ranks, Alan Reid, is chronicled in a new book.
In the autumn of 1963 the major national political issue in Australia was the Labor Party’s response to the Menzies government’s new security agreement with the United States, under which a communications station to control Polaris nuclear-armed submarines was to be established at North West Cape (also known as Exmouth Gulf) in Western Australia.
The agreement provoked clamorous opposition. A resolution from Labor’s WA state branch opposed “any base being built in Australia that could be used for the manufacture, firing or control of any nuclear missile or vehicle capable of carrying nuclear missiles”.
Some federal members began to treat the WA resolution as official party policy, but Labor’s federal opposition leader Arthur Calwell and deputy leader Gough Whitlam felt that support for the base was not in conflict with party policy provided the base was subject to joint control.
Veteran Canberra gallery journalist Alan Reid, then of Sydney-based media owner Sir Frank Packer’s The Daily Telegraph, sensed that a great story was in the offing. It was surely a sign of instability and weakness that Calwell, worried about the attitude of NSW federal MP Tom Uren and other leftists, twice sought a favourable ruling on North West Cape from the ALP federal executive.
He could not, Reid reported, “take a trick”; the executive referred the issue to the party’s federal conference, where the left faction, with the support of the West Australian, Victorian and Queensland branches and a couple of Tasmanian delegates, had “a clear-cut majority” of the 36 delegates (six from each state). A special federal conference, the first since Labor prime minister John Curtin’s conscription initiative in 1942, was called for March to determine the issue.
The federal executive, in calling the special conference, directed the relevant conference committee to prepare a policy report on North West Cape. The committee produced a majority report that accepted the American base provided certain conditions were met. A minority report opposed the base under any circumstances.
Relying on an inside source, whom Uren later suggested was NSW MP and former Packer journalist Les Haylen, Reid wrote in The Daily Telegraph that the Left could count on having 17 to 19 votes in the 36-member conference. This was not a clear-cut majority at all.
The conference assembled at Canberra’s Hotel Kingston on Monday, March 17, 1963, and ran through the next couple of days before coming to a head in the wee hours of Thursday morning.
At 8pm on that endless Wednesday night, Reid could see that “delegates were still running around” with no decision, compromise or otherwise, having been reached. Calwell and Whitlam, who had both addressed the conference, were in their offices at Parliament House waiting for a telephone call to tell them of the conference’s decision.
Half an hour later the parliamentary leadership began ringing the Hotel Kingston to see how things were going. The delegates had voted 21 to 15 against a complete ban, and the conference was now deadlocked at 18 votes each as left-wing and right-wing negotiators tried to formulate a resolution that would get up.
The issue was determined at 1.45am by 19 votes to 17 after a Queensland delegate (state opposition leader John “Jack” Duggan) abandoned the Left and voted for a resolution which the delegates from NSW, South Australia and Tasmania supported, under which the conference accepted the US base subject to joint controls.
Uren treated this decision as a historic defeat for the Left. The key paragraph amid a forest of “ifs” was: “A defence radio communication centre capable of communicating with submarines operated by an ally in Australia would not be inconsistent with Labor policy.”
In the lead-up to the final vote Reid and his fellow pressmen were gathered in the foyer of the Hotel Kingston. As things stood, he realised that he did not have a memorable news story on his hands. Labor, he knew, would have plenty of time to recover from this display of disunity and indecision, the next federal election not being due until the end of 1964.
The decision to accept the base would have removed a major point of difference between the Opposition and the Coalition. Labor now had a breathing space to turn the focus of attention back on to the more favourable battleground of domestic issues.
Even at midnight Reid remained unflustered. He knew he still had time to conjure up a good news story given that his journalistic working day could often last until 3am. As Wednesday ticked over into Thursday he asked a colleague (who can tentatively be identified as the seemingly ever-present John Bennetts of The Age) to see what was happening outside in the darkened environs of the Hotel Kingston.
A report came back to the effect that Calwell and Whitlam had just arrived from Parliament House. This piece of information caused Reid to have a brainwave. Experience told him that a picture was worth a thousand words. Were the two loitering Labor leaders, he hoped, doing something that might make an arresting or embarrassing photograph? As luck would have it, they were.
Calwell and Whitlam could be seen outside the Hotel Kingston conferring with West Australian-based powerbroker Joe Chamberlain and other conference identities under a street lamp.
Delegates were ducking out of the hotel to tell them of the latest developments as the final decision was about to be made. An inspired Reid instantly envisaged a graphic take on the scene: “Almost as though they were emphasising their exclusion from the conference, then debating a subject on which it could legitimately be argued Australia’s future could depend in the event of a major war, they stood forlornly under a street lamp. Conference delegates emerged from the hotel to confer with them almost patronisingly.”
A scoop would be plucked, Prospero-like, from the jaws of frustration if the moment could be captured in a photograph. Reid went into full poker-playing mode. Never was the Red Fox, as he was known, more vulpine than on this night. After waiting to ensure that the other pressmen with him did not know what he was up to, he went to a nearby phone and asked for a newspaper photographer to be sent over. Although told that no photojournalist was available, Reid’s run of luck continued, as he later revealed in oral history.
After making his fruitless phone call Reid suddenly discovered, to his great relief, that among the people who had come to the Hotel Kingston to have a squiz at the proceedings was someone who was both a highly skilled photographer and a friend, or at least the friend of a friend, their familiarity springing from the fact they were both enthusiastic anglers who loved to go fishing for trout at the famed Blue Water Hole at the head of the Goodradigbee River.
Reid promptly asked this saviour — since identified as Vladimir Paral, a senior scientific photographer at the John Curtin School of Medical Research — to rush home and get his equipment and take as many photographs of Calwell and Whitlam as he could. Reid told Paral that he need not worry if the shots did not glamorise the subjects.
The more disordered and confused people appeared to be in the photos the better, for Reid’s purposes. In some shots Paral only got the backs of the heads of the party insiders Whitlam or Calwell were talking to. Such was the way in which the photographic images of the “faceless men” who ran the Labor Party were created.
A few hours later the pressman and the photographer met up in King’s Hall, where Paral’s unflattering photographs, which had been developed in a darkroom at the John Curtin School, were handed over and dispatched to Sydney by the first flight out of Canberra.
The midnight photographs accompanied Reid’s final story on the ALP conference in Friday’s edition of The Daily Telegraph and were presented as indicating “a sad commentary of the decline in status of Labor’s parliamentary leadership”. Calwell and Whitlam, the Telegraph’s story lamented, had been forced to wait in the darkness outside the Hotel Kingston as the federal conference delegates — 36 “virtually unknown men” — decided Labor policy on the proposed US communications base. One of the photographs showed Calwell and his speechwriter, Graham Freudenberg, huddled with Labor’s lord mayor Clem Jones of Brisbane, pleading with him (he was a delegate) to oppose the call for a complete ban on the base. Another picture showed Calwell and Whitlam earnestly buttonholing Frank Waters, another Queensland delegate.
In a third photograph Calwell was seen conferring with Joe Chamberlain. The West Australian still believed he had the backing of 18 of the 36 delegates to go for broke and block approval of the base, which would have forced Calwell, in Reid’s view, to “defend the indefensible”.
A worried-looking Duggan provided the denouement in Reid’s version of the Bayeux Tapestry. After being photographed with Whitlam and Calwell, Duggan returned to the conference room where, after some uncertainty, he finally voted with right-wing delegates to get the diluted resolution of support through.
The intention was to provide “an electoral face-saver for himself and for Mr Calwell”, but Reid was not convinced: “[A]fter the vote left wingers say openly in the hotel lounge: ‘You can forget Duggan after this — he’ll be finished as parliamentary leader in Queensland within six months. [Duggan in fact lasted until 1966.]’ In this manner federal Labor leadership was publicly humiliated. The conference has demonstrated that it regards the federal parliamentary Labor leader not as an alternative prime minister, a leader and an adviser but as a lackey.”
The substance of the policy adopted at the Hotel Kingston was no longer the immediate concern; what Reid had succeeded in doing was to present Calwell and Whitlam, whose policy had got up at the conference, as wholly dependent on decisions made by invisible forces in the party machine. The result was, in the opinion of a Whitlam aide, “a publicity disaster”. Reid’s story was directed against Calwell and Whitlam. Demonising the organisational wing of the party was merely a means to this end. Labor’s machine men had been among Reid’s most reliable sources of political information for years.
The focus on Labor’s machine men intensified as Menzies, bent on reversing the Coalition losses of the 1961 election, searched for issues on which he could fight an early election. Initially the alliance with the US was the key point of differentiation, but as 1963 progressed it was Labor’s division on whether to support state aid for Catholic schools that was increasingly mined as an issue.
Here was a domestic issue that could be put to good use. Divisive sectarianism was still alive. Labor’s fear of Catholic political activist Bob Santamaria, unmodified since the party split of the 1950s over communist influence in the ALP, made it wary of supporting state aid. Reid and the Telegraph were caught up in the action as the parties jostled for advantage.
When covering the 1963 NSW ALP conference, Reid had been impressed by a policy document that proposed state aid for libraries and science blocks. It was not adopted, but Reid did not forget it. He mentioned the document to Menzies, who asked for a copy.
On October 15 Menzies announced that the nation would go the polls in an early election November 30 to elect a new House of Representatives. This statement was followed by a rare Menzies press conference.
In reporting this event Reid waxed lyrical about the prime minister’s “aplomb and gusto”.
The suggestion of a possible post-election decision to retire or go to the House of Lords, diffidently raised by pressmen, was greeted with “withering cheerful scorn”. [Menzies did retire as PM in the next term, in early 1966.] A gruelling election campaign was being embraced with “the casual off-handedness of a Sydneysider talking about a Manly ferry trip”. It was clear, Reid wrote, that the prime minister had the zest to carry out his demanding job.
But as a result of an “imaginative and appealing” policy speech, Calwell and his colleagues, Reid thought, had for a brief moment “a real chance of becoming the next government of Australia”.
The tide turned once Menzies delivered his policy speech on November 12, 1963. After relating his government’s contribution to economic growth, Menzies asked his television and radio audience the following loaded questions: “In the very heyday of our progress, the Australian Labor Party asks you to dismiss us; to commit the national fortunes to the hands of its members of parliament and the famous outside body, 36 ‘faceless men’, whose qualifications are unknown, who have no elected responsibility to you. Do you feel tempted? Why?”
Reid, powerfully aided by Paral’s back-of-the-head shots of conference delegates, had originally written about the “virtually unknown men” and their role at the 1963 special conference.
He had posited a void, which Menzies had filled up with scary imagery. The Menzies formulation of “36 faceless men” reinforced the idea in the mind of a fearful electorate. The notion was milked for all it was worth.
A Liberal Party election leaflet featured one of Reid’s photographs of Calwell waiting outside the Hotel Kingston. It was a worrying day, the leaflet said, when “national leadership on great affairs is surrendered to unknown outsiders bitterly fighting with one another about action on national survival”.
Labor’s faceless men rejected state aid for Catholic schools, so Menzies pledged pound stg. 5 million for science blocks for private as well as state schools.
As polling day drew nearer Reid made much of a pledge made by Calwell to abolish preferential voting. He suggested that such an action, by preventing the Liberal and Country [now Nationals] parties from pooling their votes, “would mean that a federal Labor government once in power would continue in office almost indefinitely”.
Within a few days the need for scare tactics was obviated, in tragic circumstances. The assassination of president John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, confirmed the electorate’s determination to steer clear of political change at a time of intense insecurity.
On the following weekend, as voters trooped to the polls, media coverage of an Australian election reached a new technological level. Frank Packer, eager to turn the event into the nation’s first televised election night, devoted the manpower and technical resources of TCN9 and its Melbourne associate, GTV9, to an election night telecast covering Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Newcastle and Wollongong.
The linchpin was the advent of an interstate coaxial cable which, in those landline-only days of local TV, linked television coverage in Melbourne and Sydney with the Canberra tally-room, where the Packer team featured psephologist Creighton Burns, who had a state-of-the-art computer at his disposal to process the results.
Election night kicked off at 8pm, when Brian Henderson in Sydney introduced viewers to “the first network election coverage”. Behind the scenes an epic race between man and machine was under way. At 8.10pm the news director at the Telegraph called the master control room to say that “Alan Reid’s got something to say”. There were few results on the tally board and the computer had yet to enlighten anyone about anything when the control room cut to the Telegraph newsroom, prompted by the sight on the monitor of Reid’s worldly wise face wreathed in cigarette smoke. “The government’s back in, and we’re saying so in the edition that’s going out now,” the pressman announced.
At about 9pm Reid reappeared in the telecast, standing in front of a news board that proclaimed “Menzies Wins”. “Menzies is back with a majority of about 13,” he said. It was soon clear that Reid had bested the computer, and Packer ordered the computer to be removed from the presentation after Burns, despite Reid’s correctness by then being in no doubt, continued to announce that Calwell still had a good chance of winning the election.
The 1963 election had proven to be a highly successful referendum directed against Labor’s faceless men. The process of winding back the power of the faceless men gathered pace over the rest of the decade. Labor’s modernising wing marketed the structural reforms, which came into effect in 1967, as “the greatest change in the framework of our party on a national scale” since the formation of the federal executive in 1915. Whitlam, elected Labor leader in 1967, was proud to announce that the party had “now demolished the cry of the 36 faceless men”.
But despite the rhetoric, Labor’s faceless men lived on. They were not extinguished; their position was merely modified.
The parliamentary leadership, state and federal, was rudely grafted on to the federal conference, whose composition otherwise remained exactly the same.
The six state conferences continued to pick six national conference delegates and two delegates to the national executive. The faceless men, while no longer the sole controllers of the party organisation, were still a part of it.
Their influence was further sustained by factional ties between them and individual members of Labor’s parliamentary leadership group. Further reform, involving restructuring of various dysfunctional state branches of the party, was required to make the organisation of the ALP truly seem less exclusive and anachronistic.
The faceless men story of 1963 showed that a working journalist could make an impact on national affairs without having to move up the hierarchy to the level of an editor or senior manager.
Reid was a force to be reckoned with, but he was keen to give the impression power had not gone to his head.
Management, he insisted in a rare public address in 1965, determined what journalists did and managers, for the most part, did what the private owners of the Australian press told them to do.
Pressmen such as himself were humble hewers of information. Laborites and unionists who were at the receiving end of Reid’s journalism in Packer-owned publications refused to accept this self-deprecation.
This is an edited extract from Alan “The Red Fox” Reid: Pressman Par Excellence, by Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt, to be published next week by New South, $49.95.
Ross Fitzgerald is a writer, broadcaster, historian and political commentator who writes a regular column for Inquirer. He has published 33 books, most recently My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.
Stephen Holt is a Canberra-based historian and speech-writer. His biography of Manning Clark was published by Allen & Unwin in 1999. As a policy officer, he has drafted speeches and letters for past and present ministers, including Joe Hockey and Julia Gillard.
* * *
Packer ‘stooge’ was the ultimate insider
“ALAN Reid was a famous journalist who worked in Canberra’s parliamentary press gallery, mostly for the then Frank Packer-owned The Daily Telegraph, for 50 years until he retired in the 1980s.”
The author of this summary of Reid’s long career was another famed political journalist, Laurie Oakes, writing in his nationally circulated column in the winter of 2008. A decade earlier, when accepting one of Australian journalism’s Walkley Awards (for journalistic leadership), Oakes fleshed out Reid’s historical significance for the benefit of his peers at the gala ceremony: “If you want to talk about the medium being a participant, when I was first posted to Canberra — about 30 years ago, I suppose — Alan Reid was the king. And Reidy was also the champion of being a participant in politics. He was much more a player than a journalist. He used to spend more time advising politicians than reporting on them.”
Reid died more than 20 years ago, on September 1, 1987, to be precise, but his presence, on the strength of Oakes’s comments, persists in the folk memory of his journalistic successors. Reid is still remembered as well by the politicians whom journalists write about, if we are to judge by a tantalising entry in Mark Latham’s notorious political diary: “[Paul] Keating once told caucus to be cautious with
this bloke [journalist and Inquirer columnist Mike Steketee] — he’s a protege of the Packer stooge and infamous Labor hater Alan Reid.”
For much of Reid’s career it was hard to tell where a straight reporting of events ended and a behind-the-scenes involvement in politics began. The Depression politicised him for life. Mass unemployment led him to support the Australian Labor Party as emboldened by its NSW leader Jack Lang. Reid’s Langite connections eased his entry into the inner ranks of political journalism.
To sustain his career after Lang’s appeal weakened, Reid, in the era of John Curtin and Ben Chifley, made new contacts, notably ALP numbers man Pat Kennelly. He liked being close to power. It was good to know key political players and to be able to directly scrutinise their thoughts and deeds.
He had entree to party leaders and senior figures in both the Labor and non-Labor side of politics. He conversed with Curtin and was close to Chifley. In later years he counselled Robert Menzies and Harold Holt on how to win elections. He sought to boost Bob Hawke’s career in the 1970s by championing him as the nemesis of the Labor Left. Near the end of his career, in the 80s, he inadvertently inspired Malcolm Fraser to set up Frank Costigan’s royal commission into the affairs of the Ships’ Painters and Dockers Union, an inquiry that took on a life of its own, as Fraser and his treasurer John Howard (a keen student of Reid’s writing) found, to their cost.
Reid traded in information as he worked to construct a richer and wider understanding of what was going on. He needed to keep the trust of his sources and he did so by treating the journalistic code of confidentiality as sacrosanct. Politicians from all parties could swap stories with him in the knowledge that they would never be identified. At times Reid’s stories were tweaked to disguise or conceal the identity of the people who provided him with information.
Reid’s standing as an insider was greatly enhanced because he was linked to the Packer media empire. But any empire, if it is to last, needs to attract the support of able and proficient retainers. For such retainers, this need creates scope for autonomy and, in the case of an outstanding journalist such as Reid, freedom of expression. Reid’s professionalism and discretion — qualities evident for years before he joined Packer — were vital in allowing him to maintain his impressive network of contacts.
Through them he had access to the inner workings of the nation’s politics and government.
Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt, The Weekend Australian, May 29-30, 2010
Alan “The Red Fox Reid: Pressman Par Excellence, by By Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt, New South, 384pp, $49.95 (HB)