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Review: Alan “The Red Fox” Reid

9 July 2010 1,172 views No Comment

“Go for your life, sport.” That was my curt introduction to Alan Reid, the doyen of the Canberra press gallery. As a green young hack in the mid-1960s I’d tip-toed into the Daily Telegraph office in old Parliament House wanting to cadge some telex time to file my copy to Sydney. Reid was perched in his usual corner like a vulture in a rumpled suit, a roll-your-own durrie in his nicotine-stained fingers. It was a Saturday afternoon. All the politicians were back in their electorates, but The Red Fox was still hanging around, just in case. Either that, or he couldn’t stay away.

Reid was already a legend of Australian political reporting. In the 1950s he’d been the first to expose the activities of B.A.Santamaria and his ‘groupers’. In the 60s it was his ‘36 faceless men’ scoop that helped keep Menzies in power but also eventually allowed Whitlam to break the unions’ grip on parliamentary Labor. When I returned to Canberra a decade after my first meeting with Reid (to work for the ABC), he still commanded his favourite lookout spot in King’s Hall, and the same desk in the Telegraph office. More than any other gallery journalist, The Fox embodied both the history and standpoint of political reporting in Australia.

Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt have now written an admirable account of Reid’s journalistic career. He was a notoriously private man who , perhaps wisely , culled many of his personal papers in retirement. But while the domestic details of his life are scant, this survey of his 50-year innings reporting federal politics is impressive. The book uses the great events of national affairs from 1930 to 1985 as its chronological framework, with Reid’s involvement as a reporter the constant sub-plot. What’s remarkable to learn is how often this esteemed journalist was prepared to sprint ahead of history’s footprint in an attempt to change its course.

Reid, like so many gallery tragics, was fascinated by power, not policy. (It’s no surprise that he named the alter-ego character in his unpublished novel about politics “Macker Kalley , Machiavelli.) Almost everything he wrote, or later said on TV programs such as Meet the Press and Federal File, was concerned with leadership, threats to leadership and winning or losing elections. From the earliest days of his Canberra career with The Sun (1937-53), plots and conspiracies , indeed any form of conflict or melodrama , were his perennial themes. He was a tabloid man, through-and-through. Policy development and the legislative work of government rarely interested him, even as a commentator for The Bulletin in the last few years of his working life. For Reid, politics boiled down to who held power and who wanted to grab it from them , the rest was inconsequential fluff.

But despite his legendary status, he didn’t always get it right. Three times he was on the wrong side of major defamation actions prompted by damaging stories he could not substantiate sufficiently. At least twice he attracted the attention of the House Privileges Committee for breaches of parliamentary convention or confidence. And his habit of sometimes drawing an exceptionally long bow on the basis of unsourced quotes or information , and then splashing that speculation across the Telegraph front page , earned him a reputation for poisonous cunning. Paul Hasluck dismissed Reid as “a competent though somewhat venal purveyor of political gossip, while Arthur Calwell called him “the lowest thing to crawl around this House. (Reid was a good hater: he castigated Calwell at every opportunity for the next 20 years.)

At the centre of this book (although not specifically explored in any depth) is the most contentious issue of national affairs journalism: to what extent , if at all , should we tolerate the intrusion of a gallery correspondent’s personal views, or the interests of their proprietors?

Reid, almost every time he sat down at his typewriter, crossed what today would be recognised as the threshold where opinion begins to seep into straight political reporting. Fitzgerald and Holt document scores of occasions on which he not only wrote from a plainly biased standpoint, but actively inserted himself into events with the avowed intention of influencing their outcome.

So addicted was Reid to the processes of political power that for more than 40 years he acted as much as a participant, go-between and adviser , often even conspirator , as he did as a reporter. Yet despite his staunch and lifelong membership of the Australian Journalists’ Association it appears he never recognised the ethical obligation of disclosure in these situations. It was as if he believed the men’s club of Parliament House conferred on him a cloak of mutually-agreed invisibility.

Worse, at least to my mind, were the frequent occasions on which Reid took, and carried out, direct instructions from his Daily Telegraph proprietor, Frank Packer. These went well beyond the customary subtle indications from Head Office as to which policies or politicians might be favoured in tomorrow’s news report or column. Packer expected his man in Canberra to toe the company line unquestioningly, and often to take an active role in precipitating events (for instance, the undermining of Gorton’s prime ministership and ludicrous championing of Billy McMahon in his place).

The patient historical research of Fitzgerald and Holt confirms what any half-aware journalist of his period already knew: Reid pushed plenty of private agendas, but in the end he always did what he was told by Park Street. It’s disheartening that a man whose lifelong socialist sympathies were formed during the Depression (and often called his mates “comrade) could have so comprehensively sold his soul to one of the most unprincipled buccaneers in Australian media history. As Laurie Oakes remarks in his judicious Foreword to this book, Reid “combined the best and some of the worst aspects of political journalism.

Reviewed for The Walkley by David Salter. David Salter has been an independent print and television journalist for more than 40 years. He is currently Editor-in-Chief of THE WEEK magazine.