The recent raid on journalist Annika Smethurst's home is not the first on a Canberra journalist's home. Fifty years ago, on the morning of 23 May 1969, Inspector Allan Watt, armed with Crimes Act search warrants, led nine Commonwealth Police in a raid on the home of journalist Max Newton at the corner of Kent Street and Strickland Crescent, Deakin. During the next 11 hours they searched not just desks and filing cabinets but toilet cisterns, beds, children's books, telephone directories, cupboards, refrigerator, stove, washing machine, soiled clothing hampers and wastepaper baskets.
The raid was ordered by Federal Cabinet and authorised under two search warrants issued by Justice of the Peace, Henry Tillett, under Section 10 of the Crimes Act. A further search warrant issued on 5 June 1969, extended the search to Newton's bank accounts. The penalty under the Crimes Act for receiving Government information was up to seven years jail.
Max Newton was publisher of subscription newsletters covering politics and economics, trade and tariff policies. An economic journalist, he had been the first editor of the Australian, which began in premises in Mort Street, Canberra on 15 July 1964. Less than a year later, he fell out with the proprietor Rupert Murdoch. Out of a job, Newton began a subscription weekly newsletter, Incentive, soon followed by other economic and political newsletters including Management News, Tariff Week, Parliamentary and Legislative Review and Minerals Week. His newsletters combined aggressive attacks on the protectionist economic policies of the Liberal-Country Party Coalition Government with a constant stream of leaks from government departments. They were widely read by politicians and public servants in Canberra, where Incentive became known as "Invective".
Newton's promotion of free trade enraged John McEwen, the powerful leader of the Country Party, Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister. McEwen was an ardent proponent of existing policies of high tariffs to protect Australian manufacturing industries. He had developed the Department of Trade into a powerful economic department rivalling the power and influence of the Treasury.
During the political crisis following the disappearance of the Prime Minister Harold Holt in December 1967, McEwen linked his refusal to serve under Treasurer Billy McMahon as prime minister to McMahon's association with Newton and his policies. McEwen's escalating attacks on Newton raised him a comparatively obscure publisher of newsletters reaching only a few thousand readers to an increasingly newsworthy, abrasive figure interviewed frequently on TV news and public affairs programs and in the press. There was a surge in interest in his newsletters and his business flourished.
Maxwell Newton Publications operated from two houses at Nos 53 and 55 Kent Street Deakin. The Newton family lived at 53 and Richard Farmer at 55. The front room of No. 55 was the newsroom and the space where the newsletters were typed on golf ball typewriters, often in the evening by typists who had other daytime jobs. The printing press was in the laundry and mailing was done from the sunroom of the Newton home. The trigger for the police raids was the leak of a diplomatic cable from the Australian Embassy in Paris. Newton often gloated of his access to confidential government documents which were dubiously labelled secret to prevent public scrutiny, a strikingly similar situation to what is happening at present.
Immediately after the raid, Newton, his wife and three companies associated with the business applied to the ACT Supreme Court to quash the search warrants. Mr Justice Fox heard the case with Alec Shand appearing for Newton. After sittings on five days in June 1969 Fox granted an interim injunction. In his judgment, on 8 August 1969, Mr Justice Fox upheld the case made for Newton that the search warrants were invalid on a technical point concerning wording. All seized documents were returned.
While the trigger for the raid was the leaked cable, which was relatively unimportant except as a huge embarrassment to the government, the aim of the raid was to uncover the sources of leaked information on economic, trade and tariff policies. At the time of the police raid, I was employed by Max Newton to write and edit Tariff Week, one of the Newton newsletters. I worked in my own home a few streets away in Deakin.
After the raid, Maxwell Newton Publications expanded at an unsustainable rate to include Daily Commercial News and a string of regional newspapers and investment in a large printing press in a factory building in Newcastle Street, Fyshwick. Newton aimed to become an important newspaper proprietor to enable him to reach a far wider audience than he could with small circulation newsletters. Years later he realised that he had "much more influence" when he had newsletters: "The power of ideas is much greater than the power of circulation," he said.
Newton's unstable empire expanded to include a Perth Sunday paper and the weekly Melbourne Observer which closed after Newton became bankrupt following failed attempts to make money running brothels and publishing pornography.
By then, he was suffering from a manic depressive illness fuelled by alcohol and drug-induced psychosis. With a large debt owing to the Tax Office, he moved to the United States.
In the 1980s, Newton re-established his career as right-wing economic journalist in America, with columns syndicated in the Murdoch press. He became a widely read financial commentator and author of a book on the American monetary system.
He died in America on 23 July 1990, aged 61.
- Patricia Clarke is former President of the Canberra & District Historical Society and editor of the Canberra Historical Journal.
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