We post this with great trepidation: it may be interpreted as an attack on someone who’s become a bit of an icon. It’s not intended as such. It’s intended as a criticism of the culture of the media. That it involves an “icon” is incidental.
We watched Malcolm Brown on Australian Story. They’re right: Malcolm is a remarkable, memorable individual and an excellent reporter. And as media organisations shed their older hands at a rate of knots, their corporate knowledge with them, he’s well employed as the emblem of this exodus, as an augur of its consequences. Malcolm is not one of your old time reporters. For goodness sake, he’s been with Fairfax only since 1972. Still a kid in our minds. And Fairfax, like News Ltd, like the ABC, like ConPress in the old days, has had many outstanding reporters who have made enormous and worthy contributions over the years. Old time Herald reporters were people such as Keith Martin, Fred Wells, Shaun McIlraith, John O’Hara, Tom Fitzgerald, Lenore Nicklin, Margaret Jones, Guy Morrison, Ian Fitchett… all well ahead of Malcolm Brown. Malcolm was latter day. Even 1972 wasn’t like “the old days”. When I started at the Herald in 1972, old time reporters got their stories through shoe leather and bars, not telephones and inquests.
Indeed, Malcolm Brown has been an icon. But he was one amongst a few. I rank others up there, particularly Richard “Gonzo” Macey, the best reporter I have ever seen, including Malcolm Brown. Unlike Brown, Macey was a quiet, diminutive character, passing under the radar usually. Malcolm’s personality was such that, whilst he never intended it, he occupied a large space in the newsroom and was, in effect, in the newsroom’s face. Macey was there, but no-one noticed. That can be a good thing for a reporter. While Malcolm sometimes interjected into stories, Macey was always in the background.
I recall well Macey’s relentless pursuit of the Skylab story: the descent of the original US space station back to earth in 1979. It was a saga over weeks or months, with speculation daily, for example, about where it would fall to earth. The Herald’s coverage daily was fed by Macey from Canberra, and pulled together by Ben Sandilands in Sydney. Sandilands, always an intense individual and reporter, got the kudos, but there was no doubt in the Canberra bureau where the engine room of the story was. Macey was so on top of the Skylab story that he ran a sweep, pinned on the Press Gallery noticeboard, in which passing reporters could pick their location for where they reckoned Skylab would crash to earth (the nor’-west of Western Australia, as it turned out). Each evening, he had the Press Gallery out on the front steps of Parliament House – the old Parliament House – to watch Skylab fly over, if indeed its flightpath took it over us. Canberra was a good place from where to watch that. Macey knew exactly when it would pass and where it would be.
Macey was a left sympathiser from Sydney’s North Shore who, when he returned to Sydney from Canberra later in ‘79, lobbied to open the Herald’s first bureau in western Sydney. He lived there, too. Still does, 30 years later. He wanted “to live where the real people live”, which wasn’t Sydney’s North Shore, where he came from, Macey figured.
Macey retired a couple of years back, after repeatedly but unsuccessfully petitioning Fairfax for redundancy at the Herald, and despairing of ever getting it. So many times did he ask, and was refused, that he referred to himself as “Fairfax prisoner 172865”, or some such number. Perhaps he’d been there so long, he would be too expensive a redundancy.
In his later years, the Herald had Macey as their Night assistant chief of staff, a dogsbody’s role and a vast waste, an under-appreciation of his talent and his skills.
There are others like Macey and Brown, too. Hamish McDonald, a senior reporter when we joined the Herald as cadets and who was a bit of a mentor to us when we went to Canberra for the Herald in 1974, who rose to become one of the foremost journalistic authorities on Asia and international issues generally, a wonderfully understated and articulate writer and dry wit, also passed largely without notice when he left the Herald amongst the recent wave of redundancies. Watching Australian Story, we caught a glimpse of the mug shots on the poster that the Herald did marking the last day of many of these reporters, including Malcolm. I caught a glimpse on the poster of Janet Hawley, one of the most outstanding feature writers of Australian journalism of the last 50 years. I’ve seen no other mention of Hawley in this context, unfortunately. Hadn’t seen her stuff for a while, until this weekend’s Good Weekend. She truly is a loss, too, and, like Brown, Macey and McDonald, it’s hard to under-estimate her loss to journalism.
Malcolm Brown never passed under the radar. I remember the day in 1972 when Malcolm started at the Herald. He was 25, or thereabouts, so he wasn’t taken on in the same way as us cadets, as my generation was at the time. On his first day, Malcolm was given a story to do which involved consulting an ordnance map. He spent his first day with his head buried in that map. For hours, it seemed, all we saw was the back of his head. I never did find out what that story was, or whether Malcolm got it in on time, or whether it ran. Certainly, the experience set the tone for the next 40 years.
There are plenty of stories that could be told about Malcolm Brown and his persistence and eccentricity, evidenced by his pursuit of the Azaria Chamberlain story. Such as his reporting on illegal casinos in Sydney. You’d have seen Malcolm on Australian Story, his coat pocket crammed with pens. What you didn’t see was his back pocket stuffed with a notebook. To research Sydney’s illegal casinos in the ‘70s, Malcolm took a young female reporter from the Herald with him to the casinos, where they posed as husband and wife, his jacket crammed with pens and his back pocket with his notebook sticking out from under his jacket. Undercover, indeed. Mind you, we did not actually witness this. It was the talk of the Herald office, of course, so it must have been true.
So here’s where the trepidation comes in… To tell another story involving Malcolm which happened, perhaps appropriately, with what would have been one of his last, if not the last story Malcolm Brown wrote. We say at the start that this story is not told in criticism of Malcolm. It’s not an attempt to undermine his credibility, his stature. At the time this incident happened, Malcolm was about out the door. We had a couple of contacts with him over it, and it seemed that he’d had enough. He was worn out. It all finally had got to him. I don’t think Brown’s hunger for the story was diminished; perhaps he was tired of dealing with an editorial bureaucracy that may have been chip, chip, chipping away at his enthusiasm. We don’t know. We’re not there any more. It’s just a hunch. This story is more a criticism of an attitude in journalism, an attitude that isn’t new but has been and remains a factor in the way journalists go about their work that demands awareness and discussion.
As a hack, we all know the golden rule of journalism. Most think it’s: “If in doubt, leave it out”. More often, really, it’s: “If in doubt, be vague”. We were told that by Chris Snow, our Canberra chief of staff in 1974-5. Otherwise, Snow was a stickler for thoroughness.
On August 22, 2012, the Herald published an obituary, written by Malcolm Brown, of Peter Nolan, who had been secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) when Bob Hawke was its president. Malcolm led the obituary:
Peter Nolan, the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in 1979, was in the running to succeed Bob Hawke as president. But he received an acutely embarrassing and unnerving accolade. After he skilfully negotiated a resolution that pulled the country back from serious industrial disruption, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, said it was a delight to work with him after the abrasiveness of Hawke. Fraser said Nolan would be his choice for the next ACTU president.
Read the full obituary… click here
We never knew Peter Nolan well, although, covering the labour movement for The Australian a bit later, we’d had some contact. We certainly knew plenty of other industrial figures reasonably well, and we knew the difference between Peter Nolan and Cliff Dolan, the ACTU’s senior vice-president under Bob Hawke. Dolan actually was the pea to replace Hawke when Hawke made his switch to Federal Parliament. Outsiders often were confused between Cliff Dolan and Peter Nolan given the similarity of their surnames. But it was our recollection that, when Fraser issued the embarrassing praise to which Brown referred in the lead to Nolan’s obit, he actually was referring to Cliff Dolan, not Peter Nolan. His point was that Dolan, still serving as senior vice-president, much more had the interests of his members at heart than did Hawke, who was at the time setting himself up for preselection for a safe Labor seat. Fraser was being mischievous. He already was treating Hawke as his political adversary. This was a recollection steeled by the fact that we’d covered for the Herald the press conference, in Parliament House in Canberra, at which Fraser made his remarks.
Cliff Dolan did replace Hawke and provided a very different leadership to the union movement to that of his predecessor, who replaced Fraser as Prime Minister in 1983.
When you see an error in a story about which you know something, you should extend that understanding across all stories, and assume that all are as inaccurate in their own way, because generally they are. Few authorities on issues anywhere wouldn’t appreciate this. Another axiom of journalism – this one indisputable – is that if an error is allowed to go unchallenged, then it becomes fact.
We like to challenge such inaccuracies for this very reason. So we emailed Malcolm Brown to query this story. We also wrote a letter to the Herald challenging it. Our letter read:
A well-written obituary is a piece of contemporary history, which is why, when it contains errors, it’s wise to correct them. Malcolm Brown wrote today of the late former ACTU Secretary, Peter Nolan, that Malcolm Fraser had lauded Nolan’s negotiating skills and nominated him as his preferred candidate to replace Bob Hawke as President of the ACTU. Fraser’s endorsement was presented as the death knell for Nolan’s prospects.
But is the Herald certain that it was Nolan to whom Fraser was referring? My recollection — and I was present when Fraser said it — was that he was referring to Cliff Dolan, then Senior Vice-President of the ACTU and regarded widely as the pea to take over when Hawke stepped down, not long after. Fraser was being mischievous, attempting to run interference in Hawke’s rails run through into Parliament.
People outside the union movement often confused Nolan and Dolan. They were two very different characters.
The Herald didn’t run our letter. We received a reply, instead, from Judy Prisk, who was at the time the Herald’s “Readers editor”. Mrs Prisk said:
I agree completely with your assessments of obituaries, which is why we correct them whenever errors are pointed out. But Malcolm Brown assures me he is very sure his source said ”Nolan”. He said it was quite specific.
We also called Malcolm Brown, who told us that it was Peter Nolan’s family who had given him this information. We could understand him, then, accepting it at face value.
But Malcolm’s response niggled at us. We thought, he hadn’t checked this 3rd party information – Nolan’s family were 3rd parties to this, not direct witnesses – and he hasn’t checked it with the cuts. When you have at your disposal the resources of one of the largest media clippings libraries in Australia, the Fairfax library, then you’d be well advised also to check with the cutting of the original story, for it will be there, and it won’t be hard to find.
It’s Malcolm’s failure to do this, we reckon, that gives rise to our belief that we was, by that time, rather worn out; fed up. Brown’s defence that he got the stuff from Nolan’s family was a cop out. And we felt Prisk, the Herald’s “Readers Editor”, was just giving the standard, knee jerk response of someone whose job wasn’t so much representing readers, but defending her employer from readers (we understand Prisk herself also now has gone from the Herald under a retrenchment arrangement. We also remember her, when we first went to Canberra for the Herald, as a junior reporter on The Canberra Times. She drove an old Peugeot, as we recall.)
Dissatisfied with the Herald’s responses, we decided to check with the source. Nolan was gone; we haven’t heard from Cliff for a long time and, in any case, Cliff, if he is still around, also was 3rd party. But Malcolm Fraser is becoming more and more active in public discourse. We looked up his office in the white pages and online. But we could find nothing. So we contacted a Victorian Liberal friend, and we also found an email contact for an academic who looks after Fraser’s collection of papers at Melbourne University. After a day or two, both came good, and we obtained from the separate sources a contact for Malcolm Fraser’s office. So we wrote to Malcolm.
Some days later, we received this reply from Mr Fraser:
… I was indeed referring to Cliff Nolan…. I would have no problem with your recollection in that paragraph. I have no doubt about its accuracy.
Eagle-eyed readers will note the error, which helps to prove our point about confusion between the two: Fraser refers to “Cliff Nolan”.
We felt we knew what Mr Fraser meant, but we also knew that, if we were to make an issue of this, we had to be absolutely rock solid. So we wrote back to Malcolm:
…In your letter… you say “I was indeed referring to Cliff Nolan…” I take it, from the rest of your letter, that you mean “Cliff Dolan”?
The next day, Mr Fraser wrote back:
Yes, sorry I did mean Dolan. Yes I am happy for you to say you have confirmed with me.
So, we were right. There’s a certain pleasure in knowing you were right. It’s not just a matter of personal vindication; it’s also a question of confirming that you’re not yet senile. We used to write lots of letters to the Herald, and we had a reasonable strike rate. (You know you’re past it when you start writing letters to the newspaper. And when they start publishing them, everyone else knows you’re past it.)
After Malcolm Fraser clarified that he was, indeed, talking of Cliff Dolan, not Peter Nolan, we wrote back, in triumph, to Mrs Prisk. She never replied. Had she already departed from the Herald at that point, one would expect to have received some automated response, as indeed we received when we emailed Malcolm Brown with the same good news. We found another email address for Malcolm, however. At least Malcolm (Brown) responded, but the tone of his reply confirmed our earlier view that he was indeed over everything and was no longer interested in anything much at all. Certainly not in continuing a dialogue with an old hack. He told us, basically, what he told us before, that he had received the information from Peter Nolan’s family.
Which is a pity, for Malcolm Brown’s original error remains uncorrected. And the next time a reporter, perhaps an eager, young, bushy-tailed reporter, goes searching the Herald cuts for information on this matter, s/he will find the Malcolm Brown obituary, uncorrected, and will have every expectation that they can repeat it as fact, for it remains uncorrected. It didn’t go unchallenged, but it remains wrong.
The tragedy is twofold: an error remains uncorrected; and the realisation that the attitude of journalists, even experienced journalists, is that near enough is good enough, and if they make an error, let’s just shut up about it and maybe no-one else will notice. If in doubt, be vague.
This is an irony, given that Malcolm Brown made his reputation, justifiably, on a relentless pursuit of fact and accuracy.
But as we said at the outset, this is not a criticism of Malcolm Brown. It’s a criticism of the culture of journalism that pushes the players to hide their defects, their errors in a backroom cupboard rather than ‘fessing up to them, in fear that the slightest error corrected will undermine their reputation, or their employer’s reputation. Tweeting just after the Australian Story piece aired, Malcolm Brown himself wrote:
“… there have been some blemishes on my output and career. It is a matter of balance”.
This error may not affect the course of history, but it is an error all the same, and it’s treatment by the Herald reflects a wider malaise afflicting journalism. Just a this story was wrong, so there is plenty published in the media that is wrong.
There’s a symmetry in Malcolm Brown’s departure. The closing credits of the Australian Story piece said that Malcolm plans in retirement to walk the 500km from Sydney to Dubbo, his home town, writing stories about people and experiences along the way. This sounds suspiciously like a column that ran in the Herald at the time Malcolm was hired by the Herald in 1972. The column, On the beaten track, was a series of stories about people and life in country NSW, written initially by a wonderful reporter and colour writer, Col Allison, who was known for, amongst other things, having one blue eye and one brown eye, and also for poaching deer in the Royal National Park, with a gun. Allison told me a couple of years back that he had talent spotted Malcolm Brown at The Dubbo Daily Liberal, whilst touring for On the beaten track. Col said he had been responsible for “discovering” Malcolm Brown and recommending him to the Herald’s News Editor at the time, David Bowman. Malcolm himself has a slightly different story. Whatever, the rest is history.