Comment

Late news: When print ruled

Cancer killed Brian Johns, journalist, on New Year's Day, two months short of his 80th birthday. Eight days ago, his widow, four children by an earlier marriage, and umpteen friends and admirers, celebrated Johns' hugely joyous and busy life of multi-accomplishment and long lunches.

Three months short of two years earlier, in March 2014, cancer killed one of Johns' more memorable colleagues, South-African born Ian Frykberg, 68, another journalist of high achievement, an even greater capacity for life and just as many admirers.

Illustration: Glenn Le Lievre
Illustration: Glenn Le Lievre  

The NZ-born Tom Mockridge, journalist, is not dead. Tom is very much alive and these days is chief executive of the British pay-TV provider, Virgin Media, having headed Rupert Murdoch's Foxtel operation in its early days in Australia and, more recently, if only briefly, was CEO of Murdoch's print empire in Britain.

All this before age 60 (some time this year), having come to Australia from NZ's Taranaki News in 1980 and springboarded himself through the Canberra press gallery on to Paul Keating's staff pretty much on the eve of the Hawke government coming to power in 1983.

A smart move indeed.

You see the point, I'm sure.

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Each of these three journalists had established himself securely enough to warrant appointment to a position of substance in the nation's Federal parliamentary press gallery, on behalf of the Herald, in the days when print journalism still had genuine political clout in the newspapers that mattered.

Johns was sent to Canberra from Sydney as the Herald's chief political correspondent on the eve of the Whitlam Labor government coming to power in December 1972; Frykberg was transferred to Canberra as Johns' deputy from the Herald's NSW state parliamentary bureau; and Mockridge was appointed the Herald's Canberra economics reporter a bit later down the road when Frykberg became his boss.

None of the three ever looked back. Johns was gone from the Herald bureau within three years, lured by the new Whitlam government to become an executive advisor on policy presentation in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet after Labor had been forced to a second election in May 1974 which it won, though its House parliamentary majority was cut from nine to five.

Johns left the paper to Work for Whitlam. It ended his reporting career. Management and the newspaper culture of the time precluded reporters returning if they went to work for governments, oppositions or political parties.

I'm not aware any such a black ball was ever in issue with Ian Frykberg or Tom Mockridge, both of whom became as respected as well as wealthy in their subsequent differing careers in television; careers shaped by those early years of contacts, networks, mateship and who-you-know, as well as ability, that is the lifeblood of much of political journalism.

Frykberg made his mark with Kerry Packer's Channel 9 network out of Sydney, eventually becoming the master international sports rights negotiator handling, from his adopted base in Singapore, literally millions in TV deals across the spectrum of the various football codes in various countries.

Mockridge, the quiet man of the three, did it with pay television and Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd. His CV is heavy with various media appointments in various Murdoch vehicles internationally over the years, including his intermediary role between his new employer, Murdoch, and his former employer Paul Keating, after Keating became prime minister in time for Christmas 1991, in the later birth of Foxtel .

Now, finally, after 25 years, Mockridge has quit the Murdoch mincer to run Virgin Media, an independent Murdoch rival in Britain. The boy from Taranaki all the way to the bank.

Which leaves us only the ABC's Brian Johns/David Hill serial to briefly canvas. Which is near impossible, given it lasted 14 years, from July 1986 until the turn of the century. Historian Ken Inglis does it wonderfully in his 600-page tome Whose ABC?, published 10 years ago. Read it for its style and superb detail. It tells you everything, including Paul Keating's profanity.

For now, just the essentials:

New government elected, March, 1983 (Hawke, Labor); a new corporatised ABC announced, July, 1983; Bob Hawke appoints two new ministerial masters,1983 (John Button and Michael Duffy); a new board of directors, 1983; a new chairman, July, 1983 (Melbourne's Ken Myers); a new managing director, October, 1983 (London-born Geoffrey Whitehead, director-general of Radio NZ); two angry resignations, 1986 (Myer in April, Whitehead in September); another new chairman, July 1986 (Sydney's David Hill); another new managing director (Hill, October, 1986); another new chairman April, 1987 (Sydney businessman Bob Somervaille); a second five-year term approved as managing director, November, 1991 (David Hill); another new chairman appointed, July, 1991 (Melbourne academic Mark Armstrong); David Hill resigns, under political pressure, as managing director, November 3, 1994, two years before the end of his second term; the ABC board of directors appoints Brian Johns to replace Hill, February, 1995.

It had been a long wait. Bob Hawke had interviewed both Johns and David Hill at the Lodge in early 1986. Then it had been to fill the vacancy as ABC chairman created by Ken Myers' abrupt resignation after he'd walked, fuming, out of a tense ABC board meeting.

Johns is gone. Hills spends much of his days writing, completing his ninth book in eight years.