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Fox among the roosters

2 June 2010 1,472 views No Comment

LIKE many journalists of his generation, Alan Reid ached to write a novel. He wasn’t thinking of something twee and literary, something that might be praised for its light touches and teasing ambiguities. He envisioned a roman a clef about contemporary political life, blunt and boisterous, the whiff of the abattoir strong in the nostrils, something that would get people talking and cash registers tinkling, as Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory had done a few years earlier. It would be loaded with conspiracies. It had to be. Reid loved a conspiracy the way Graham Greene loved a sinner.

It was the late 1950s and Reid, by then the most influential figure in the Canberra press gallery, had already twice failed at fiction. He had written a 100,000-word novel about the crucifixion of Christ. It was a tale of politics, not religion, and publishers in London rejected it as too controversial.

Then Reid read The Man from Laramie in The Saturday Evening Post and decided to write an “Australian western” set in the Snowy Mountains, one of his favourite bush places. He wrote 50,000 words in a fortnight and sent them to the Post. Rejected again: unfamiliar setting, strange idiom, too Australian.

So here was Reid, three years after the Labor split, hunched over a typewriter, a roll-your-own dangling from his lips, a cup of black tea within reach, tapping out a novel in which H. V. Evatt, the Labor opposition leader, and B. A. Santamaria, the Catholic activist and anti-communist, appear as Kaye Seborjar (a play on Cesare Borgia) and Carr Domenico respectively. Seborjar is cranky, untrustworthy and ambitious to the point of megalomania. Domenico hides fascist sympathies behind “the surface mildness of an oriental sage”. Just about everyone in the novel is unlovely. Politics, Reid is saying, is grubby and ignoble and idealists are mugs.

But, for our purposes, the most interesting character in the manuscript is a 40-year-old political insider called Macker Kalley (a play on Machiavelli). He enjoys reading and going bush. He is drawn to plots and intrigues and likes to think he influences the course of events. He sees politics with a pitiless eye:

In the final analysis, energy, tenacity, ambition and, above all, luck were more rewarding political attributes than integrity, ability or originality of mind . . . All politicians are bastards, but some are bigger bastards than others.

Kalley tries to quarantine his wife and daughter from this world. The calling is, by definition, degenerate.

This novel didn’t get published either (it got to final proofs before fears of defamation actions arose) and maybe this was just as well. Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt, the authors of this biography of Reid, have read the manuscript, which is in the National Library of Australia. The characters, they write, are wooden and the dialogue flat. There is not “a robust sense of background or a loving re-creation of detail”, just “a lifeless hothouse air”. But the question that arises is this: is Macker Kalley the alter ego of Alan Reid?

Reid, who died in 1987 after covering 20 federal elections, lives on as one of the grand figures of the Canberra press gallery. Those of us who saw him towards the end of his career remember a small and wiry man in a rumpled suit, his red hair (hence the nickname “the Red Fox”) thinning and thatched with grey. He was invariably sucking on a cigarette and staring out with hard eyes that narrowed under bristling eyebrows and seemed to be taking the measure of everyone around him. He was kind to newcomers to the gallery, free with advice and wisdom, but, for all that, they probably saw him as the past rather than the future.

He was almost a caricature of the blokey reporter before the era of media studies and live crosses. John Gorton (a jaundiced witness, it should be said) wrote that Reid wore an expression of perpetual cynicism and spoke from the corner of his mouth. “One expects momentarily to be nudged in the ribs with a confidential elbow and given a hot tip for the 3.30 at Randwick.”

Few broke more big stories than Reid. He exposed the offstage manoeuvrings of Santamaria that led to the Labor split of 1955, a great festering wound that helped keep Labor out of office for the next 17 years. In 1963, Reid had the wit to summon a photographer to Canberra’s Hotel Kingston to capture Arthur Calwell, the leader of the opposition, and Gough Whitlam, his deputy, waiting under a street lamp late at night while inside the 36 machine men of the national conference, most of them unknown to the electorate, debated the conditions under which Labor might allow an American base to operate in Australia.

Calwell and Whitlam looked like lackeys waiting for their orders, largely because, in this instance, they were. Thus were born the “36 faceless men”, and Robert Menzies, the prime minister, would trot them out with the aplomb of a police inspector staging a line-up.

Reid also broke many of the stories that led to Gorton’s fall as prime minister. There were so many scoops in a career that took in 14 prime ministers. Reid had better contacts than the other Canberra journalists. He had the instincts of a bloodhound, which was right enough because he thought he was covering a blood sport. Other reporters had pencils in their pockets; Reid carried a gambrel as well, and every now and then politicians wandered up and impaled themselves on it. Sometimes he knew more about what was going on than cabinet ministers. Everyone felt they had to talk to him.

Late in this book the authors tell of an exchange on the day John Kerr sacked the Whitlam government in 1975. Reid, still working but no longer the eminence he had once been, ran into a group of younger reporters, some with tears in their eyes.

Reporters: What do you think of this?

Reid: It’s a great story.

Reporters: You wouldn’t have said that if it had happened to Menzies.

Reid: I’d say it if it happened to my own mother — it’s a great story.

It was the perfect answer, a proper journalist’s answer. Get the story. Stay detached. Weep, if you need to, when you get home.

So, if we stop here, the subtitle of this book, Pressman Par Excellence, stands up well. Reid was a supreme example of the energetic newsman, a role model, to use a silly phrase. But we can’t stop here because it is only half the story, the sunny bit, the fluffy stuff of mythology.

Reid was also a political player, much more so than the reporters weeping for Whitlam when they should have been chasing the story. He was a plotter and a schemer who had read too much Machiavelli, a man who not only reported conspiracies but also fired them up like a frenzied stoker on a tramp steamer. He was in love with intrigue and the intrigues he uncovered mostly pleased his boss, Frank Packer, proprietor of The Daily Telegraph and the fledgling Nine Network.

Packer saw the existence of the Labor Party as a threat to the propertied classes, so Reid’s stories on Santamaria and the 36 faceless men came as manna. Packer wanted Billy McMahon as prime minister, probably because he knew he could manipulate him, and Reid helped bring this about. Reid, an intelligent man, must have known that McMahon, a leaker with the leadership qualities of a small insect, was unfit to be prime minister, but he went along with the boss.

Reid wasn’t simply another journalist in the gallery, another seeker of truths. He was also there to look after Packer’s corporate interests which, one is entitled to assume, made him a seeker of favours. Trying to reconcile these two roles is the sort of exercise that gives cynicism a bad name.

Pressman par excellence? One thinks not, good as Reid was at sniffing out a story. Still, it is this dark side that, when set alongside Reid’s front-page triumphs, makes him a hopelessly interesting subject for biography.

And, in fairness to the authors, they never seek to hide or justify Reid’s double life. They are on to it on the opening page with a quotation from Laurie Oakes of the Nine Network at a Walkley ceremony more than a decade ago:

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.

Oakes, as fine a reporter as the gallery has produced, pens a stylish foreword to this book. While he clearly has affection for Reid the man and respect for Reid the news breaker, he acknowledges the dark side as well. Oakes joined the press gallery 40 years ago. “I thought then, and still do, that Reid combined the best and some of the worst aspects of political journalism.” And elsewhere: “While Reid’s growing disapproval of Gorton was genuine enough, his role in the campaign to install McMahon in the Lodge was squarely in line with the Packer agenda and it went well beyond mere journalism.”

Reid’s life makes for good biography because, as they say in Hollywood, there is a dramatic character arc, and the authors have brought this out well. Reid, born in Britain in 1914, grew up in poverty in non-gentrified Paddington. He left school after obtaining his leaving certificate and, shades of Billy Hughes, worked at odd jobs in outback NSW and Queensland before being hired by Robert Clyde Packer (father of Frank) as a copy boy on the Sydney Sun.

Reid did the stock exchange quotes, reported the fish and produce markets and had a stint captioning photographs, as punishment for a drunken episode. He was already a Labor man, having joined the party after leaving school. Sent to Canberra in 1937, he became an admirer of John Curtin and Ben Chifley. Chifley would remain his favourite prime minister.

Reid was a true believer and Chifley at one point suggested he run for parliament. Reid’s best contacts were with Labor, which he saw as the serious player. As he wrote later, Liberals thought of politics as an amateur game for gentlemen, whereas Laborites saw it as “a tough professional fight for existence”. There may still be truth in this observation.

Reid in 1954 moved to Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph. That was the year when the overture to the Labor split set off sectarian hatreds similar to those that marked the conscription debates of 1916 and 1917. Reid was on his way to becoming the great news breaker. He was kicked out of the Labor Party in 1957, but its numbers men kept leaking to him and he kept uncovering feuds and plots. Labor, as the authors say, was fighting for its soul. Reid had grabbed the best seat at ringside. Between rounds he rushed from one corner to the other to rasp out advice and occasionally climbed into the ring himself.

Here was a world now long gone. The class war was alive. Unionists called each other “comrade” and trades hall council meetings were sometimes adjourned to the nearest pub. Capitalists harrumphed in their clubs. Strikes were common and often nasty. Trotskyites, groupers and Maoists skirmished around the edges of the Labor Party.

The Cold War was alive, too: spies and defections and questions of loyalty. Menzies worked this war well and Evatt didn’t. Older reporters, Reid included, wore hats, thumped rickety typewriters and could still get stories into their papers at midnight. There was a pecking order in the Canberra press gallery. The veterans set the agenda and sometimes exchanged carbon copies of stories.

Then Reid’s world began to change. Younger reporters arrived: Oakes, Allan Barnes, Alan Ramsey, Paul Kelly, Michelle Grattan and others. They did things their way. Whitlam and Bob Hawke found new constituencies for Labor among the middle classes. Schoolteachers became as important as shop stewards; doctors’ wives would come later.

Reid thought Whitlam was favouring an “articulate avant garde”. He was bothered, too, by the rise of multiculturalism and the Aboriginal land rights movement. It all seemed a long way from shearers’ strikes and unity tickets.

Packer sold The Daily Telegraph, Reid’s main outlet, in 1972 and died two years later. Reid got on well with Kerry, Frank’s son, but Kerry, whatever his personal beliefs, was a pragmatist. He knew he could make money under a Labor government just as easily as under the Liberals. There was no need to keep attacking Labor, as his father had, simply because it was Labor. Reid, on the other hand, was still seeing tiny fissures in the Labor monolith and thinking they might be cracks.

Fitzgerald and Holt have given us a biography that reads better than most Australian political tracts. Their research is impressive. They strive to be fair and never lapse into hagiography. The book picks up pace nicely after its opening chapters, where the authors seem less sure of their material than later in the narrative and are inclined to generalisations and the odd lazy sentence.

But the best thing about this book is the light it shines on murky places. It tells us much about how the Canberra gallery works, and not just back then, because mischief making did not end with the Reid era. It reminds us that journalism can be as morally hazardous as politics and that journalists can get too close to their sources.

Above all, it shows us what happens when journalists become players.

Not long before Reid died, a local priest called on him offering spiritual consolations. “I’d be a hypocrite if I accepted them,” Reid told him. “But remember this, Father, keep your running shoes on, because you might get an important call and there’ll be a swift deathbed repentance. I’m a great believer in each way betting.”

Tired and shrunken, he could still do the numbers. Reid was a brilliant getter of stories and he was also Svengali. That is the triumph and the tragedy of his journalistic life. In the end, he was out of time and place, but we should not be too judgemental. It will happen to all who play at journalism, especially those of us who look back fondly on smoky newsrooms and still hear the clatter of linotype machines.

By Les Carlyon The Australian Literary Review, June 2, 2010
Alan “The Red Fox” Reid: Pressman Par Excellence, by By Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt, New South, 384pp, $49.95 (HB)