Crikey made it into The New York Times, under no less a by-line than Jayson Blair, with this profile of Col Allan first published back in our launch issue on February 14, 2000.

Col Allan, editor in chief of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Rupert Murdoch’s favourite editor in Australia, has a reputation that precedes him. John Howard, Paul Keating and Bob Carr have been known to eat out of his hand and even some of the most senior executives at News Ltd are afraid to take him on.

The Dubbo boy, former police roundsman, New York correspondent and long time Murdoch journalist is one of the most dominating, strident and ruthless media executives in Australia. Having sat in news conference at the Daily Telegraph for 15 months as business editor and then been his lacklustre chief of staff for three months, I’ve seen enough to know what he is really like. Col is a brilliant newspaperman, but after a long lunch he can be an ill-disciplined tyrant.

The Daily Telegraph is an unusual beast. It sells 430,000 copies a day — 130,000 less than its sister paper the Herald Sun in Melbourne — yet is regarded by many as the most powerful paper in the country. This is because Col, Hearst like, chooses to fully use the power that comes with producing a mass market tabloid in Australia’s premier city. If Col doesn’t like you he’ll really have a go.

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Dishing It To Frank Sartor

Sydney Lord Mayor Frank Sartor is one such target. Late one afternoon in 1998 Col plucked a humorous piece complete with picture about Sartor jaywalking from the Page 13 gossip column and splashed it on the front page. Sartor rang him the next day and told Col he was a “a complete c…”, prompting Col to respond: “coming from you that’s a complement”.

People who associate with Sartor also cop it in neck. When Malcolm Turnbull’s wife Lucy decided to be Sartor’s running mate, Col’s instructions in conference went something like this: “Let’s really let her know what it’s like to be a public figure. Get Mark Skelsey (city reporter) to produce a list of Sartor’s 10 biggest disasters and ask her what her position is on them. Get a picture of their Darling Point waterfront mansion and then find some struggling pensioners in Pyrmont and ask them what they think of her.”

What a newspaperman. It was a brilliant but brutal piece that appeared on page 11 the next day and Lucy Turnbull knew she’d stepped out into the public eye. This is also one of Col’s great strengths – he is afraid of no-one, except Rupert Murdoch.

Australia’s Most Daring And Courageous Editor

I’m convinced he is the only editor in Australia who would have backed the AGM agitating series I did for the Daily Telegraph in October and November 1998. Knowing this was going to be highly controversial, I showed Col a draft letter intended for the 50 chairman of the companies on our list. The response was very Col: “Don’t warn these c…s you’re coming. You’ve bought the shares with your money, just turn up.” In a nation of increasingly timid media executives, this sort of attitude really is a breath of fresh air.

But No-One Speaks Out Against Him

Crikey has spoken to a range of people in Sydney who worked with Col. Any form of witchhunt that follows from this piece would be most unfair as most of his colleagues were generally supportive of Col and I was aware of most of the bad stories anyway. It is rare for anyone to ever speak out against Col or criticise him, although Lachlan’s hand-picked new deputy editor of the Telegraph, workaholic Madonna King, is apparently doing it now. When Col was promoted to Editor-in-chief last year, he and most of the staff wanted Phil McLean to become editor. For some reason, Lachlan opted for Adelaide Advertiser editor Steve Howard who had a miserable first few months as Col bossed him around and was unable to take his hands off the wheel. On many occasions Col would come with stupid or vengeful ideas but rarely did anyone speak out against them in conference. “He is a great talker but a terrible listener,” is how one insider described it. The reverse applied to your own ideas as Col was absolutely savage in dismissing suggestions from others but also savage if you had nothing to say. One of the few occasions in which someone let on that Col was unpopular was at a Christmas drinks when Col went around the room full of men asking them for their highlight and lowlight of the year. Picture editor Julian Zacharus said his highlight was the rumors about Col leaving, whilst the lowlight was when they did not come true. There was laughter all round. This was a Christmas Eve beer afterall and Col had just told the story about being spotted by Lachlan and Sarah in an incredibly expensive jewelery store and lamenting the fact the boy mogul probably thought he was “a multi” getting paid too much.

One Of The Last Legendary Lunchers

Col is a legendary luncher and would miss the 2.45pm afternoon conference about once a week because he was still at lunch. As we all know, alcohol is a depressant and Col’s worst moods usually accompanied a serious hangover. The two times we broke bread at his favourite Sydney eatery Lucios in Paddington, I finished up completely drunk and staggered back from lunch at 4pm and dinner after midnight, ably assisted by the News Ltd driver. Col certainly likes being pampered. He is driven to and from his long lunches by the News Ltd drivers and was the only person on the Daily Telegraph editorial staff who has his own secretary. Copy people were sent out to buy him lunch and cigarettes and would often bear the brunt of his temper tantrums. One copy kid was told he’d never get a cadetship after buying Col the wrong brand of cigarettes and another got the same high-pitched abuse for being too slow in collecting him a plastic fork. Never mind if either of the lads could write.

The remarkable thing about Col is that no-one ever takes him on – although super Cartoonist Warren “Jeep” Brown did hurl his Stanley Award trophy at Col late lats year after being told for the 478th time that his cartoons was useless. They’re not, of course. Even Lachlan Murdoch appears reluctant to take him to task. Col rules the Telegraph with an iron first and does not brook any dissent. He put on one of his more dramatic performances on my first day in conference, prompting this response from one backbencher: “Don’t worry, he always puts on a show whenever there is someone new in conference.”

After another one of his regular bollockings in conference, one regular attendee said: “We are laugh at his jokes but no-one likes Col.” His jokes are very funny and often very brutal – he loved telling the story of how Paul Keating, who gets on well with Col, refers to the Aborigines as “The Abs”. Naturally, this is not a pejorative description, just a harmless shortform, as Col’s wife Sharon is in fact part Aboriginal. Col loves telling the story of how they met on the Brisbane Sun in the early 80s. Col was on the backbench and apparently abused Sharon for a story she had submitted. Her response was to throw a full can of Victoria Bitter at him and, he would joke later, it was love at first throw.

The Col And Piers Show

Daily Telegraph columnist and Col confidante Piers Ackerman were once rivals in the News Ltd stable. Like Col, Ackerman was very unpopular with the staff when he ran the Melbourne Herald Sun in the early 1990s. It is hard to find anyone in Melbourne who speaks fondly of him apart from Jeff Kennett, who thanks him for hammering the final nails into Joan Kirner’s coffin. However, unlike Col, Ackerman was not held in high regard for what he did to the paper. Most of the senior people on the Telegraph don’t like Col but acknowledge he is a brilliant newspaper man. When Piers returned from a short term and controversial posting with Fox Television in the US, Rupert organised a parachute for him into Sydney. At first Col was very unhappy about this and buried his columns on a left hand page back in the paper. Piers was also discouraged from coming to conference. Now they get on fine and love playing off each other in morning conference picking on the younger backbenchers and the news desk. They both love the power which comes with tabloid newspapers and delight in beating up on their favourite adversaries.

Col’s Pillar Of Support – John Hartigan

Col’s long time mate John Hartigan, now group editorial director of News Ltd, has been a pillar of support for Col. They worked in Brisbane together, their wives are friends and both Lachlan and Rupert listens to them more than anyone else when it comes to their Australian papers. One person who has worked closely with them both says: “Harto isn’t half the newspaper man that Col is.” This is not an indictment on Harto, as some senior journalists even refer to Col as one of the most brilliant tabloid editors in the world. In reality, there aren’t that many English tabloid papers to compete with, but the Telegraph is certainly the true tabloid model in Australia because the Herald Sun still thinks it is a broadsheet much of the time. At least that’s what some of the Telegraph backbenchers think.

Harto is in my view a good operator who has a great job – a job that Steve Harris coveted but did not get. Harto is known amongst some staff as The White Camal and The Cigar Lighter – a reference to the fact that he, Col and Piers Ackerman all flew to Melbourne to spend Melbourne Cup night with Lachlan and supermodel Sarah O’Hare after they announced their engagement. They finished up at Fidel’s Cigar Bar at Crown casino blowing rings in the air late into the evening.

Col and Harto go back 20 years and together run News Ltd’s editorial policy with only occasional interventions from Lachlan. It was on their advice that Campbell Reid leapt from being deputy editor of the Telegraph to editor of The Australian – an appointment that raised many eyebrows on The Oz given that Paul Kelly appeared to be getting elbowed sideways. Campbell has subsequently performed well and won over the support of his staff, but remains close to his old Telegraph mates.

When Harto complained to Rupert Murdoch’s former Australian lieutenant Ken Cowley that Ian Macausland was disloyal, he demanded he be sent from Sydney over an ocean. Cowley duly dispatched him to be editor of the Hobart Mercury. Herald Sun editor Peter Blunden has done a good job on the Melbourne tabloid but does not get the credit he deserves from Sydney and has become very anti-Sydney during his four year stint in Melbourne. News Ltd editors outside Sydney resent the ready access that Col and Harto get to Lachlan. None of them have drivers or spend hundreds of dollars a week on long lunches at top restaurants. None of them got taken up to the Whitsundays for a five day cruise with Rupert like Col did as a thank you present for five good years editing the Telegraph.

Col And Crikey

Col’s relationship with me has waxed and waned. Clearly, it is pretty bad at the moment given that the Daily Telegraph refused to report the AGM agitating Walkley award in December and last month said I looked remarkably similar to the psychopath who tried to kill Beatle George Harrison. However, I did leave the Telegraph on reasonable terms, although they were later unimpressed that I said the plan was to play some satellite tennis tournaments in Europe and three months later turned up on the Financial Review. Even so, Col described me as being “very intelligent, bright and likeable” shortly before the Victorian election, but then banned me after two articles I penned in the Bitch column for The Eye. One mentioned that he’d been refused service at the Bellvue Hotel for being too drunk and the other told the story of how the Telegraph pulled a story on Jody Meares’ dad because Lachlan decided he would go to James Packer’s wedding that evening afterall. Hopefully this piece won’t be seen as some sort of “get Col” exercise. He is a wonderfully colorful character and Sydney is a much more lively town for his efforts. In Col’s own words, John Singleton once took him to lunch and spent “four hours telling me I was the biggest c… in Sydney”. This may not be too far from the truth but it is relief to have someone in the Sydney media who makes it his business to pillory politicians, reject puff pieces offered by PR flaks, abuse the advertising department on a regular basis, take a few risks, throw his weight around in the interests of a good story and also have some fun.

Some Famous Col Allan Vignettes

The Bird Seed Present

When John Stanley (it might have been Owen Delaney) was heard repeating something in the Daily Telegraph on 2UE without attribution, Col called in a copy kid and sent him out to buy some bird seed, insisting the packet was labelled: “Parrot seed”. He then dictated the message to be couriered to 2UE out loud in conference. It went something like this: “I heard you on the radio this morning repeating what was in The Daily Telegraph without attribution and offer you this gift. I hope it is your usual brand.”

A Nation Of Bastards

Col had just got back from a long lunch and, as he does so often, picked up a fairly innocuous 10 paragraph story off the wires and decided to turn it into a splash. Col and the Telegraph is generally good at reacting to stories and turning nothing into something but they don’t often break big stories. This was the classic nothing into something when Col decided that a survey showing that the number of children born out of wedlock was on the rise lead to the famous front page headline: “A NATION OF BASTARDS”

Shafting John Lyons

No one has ever seen Col drunker than the day in 1998 when he lured Sydney Morning Herald editor John Lyons out of the Fairfax office as he was negotiating his severance package and got him completely legless over six hours at Wockpool in Darling Harbour in the presence of Lachlan. Col staggered back into the office at 7pm and even took Lyons into his office where he fielded a call from SMH media writer Pilita Clarke. The next day Col could be heard laughing uproariously all morning as various people called him about the story on page three which ran under the double decker headline: “The day the editor of the Herald went for a drink and was sacked”. Col proudly told conference the next day that Bob Carr had called him and laughingly described it as the biggest stitch up he’d ever seen. It was ironic that in March last year, Lyons turned on Carr and reported him slagging the Labor Party in a Bulletin cover story. A rattled Bob Carr rang Col shortly after The Bulletin hit the streets seeking an assurance he would never report private conversations like John Lyons had. Col is a pretty loyal mate of Carr’s, which partly explains the easy run he got during the 1999 NSW election.

No Beards, No Pony Tails

It is funny how people become clones of their masters. Col used to sound just like Lachlan when he used the word “fantarrrstic”. And, just like Rupert, Col dislikes men with beards and pony tails. I can remember proposing sending business reporter Drew Gibson out to One.Tel on the day News Corp and PBL announced they were both injecting $200 million into the fledgling telco. Col instructed me to tell Drew that he would not be allowed to go out and represent News Ltd anywhere until he removed his pony tail. Like 70 per cent of the abuse that Col tells his deputies to dish out to their underlings, it wasn’t passed on because it was so stupid and the editorial managers were concerned it could get Col into legal difficulties.

SOME OF THE FAMOUS HEADLINES

It is hard to go past “A nation of bastards” but “You Vill Pay” goes close. The story related to that German athletics coach who had been signed up by the Australian Institute of Sport despite having a history of steroid abuse. There was a furore over whether he would be paid out and the picture had him pointing at the camera and dressed up in a Prussian war helmet. The Press Council ruled against the Telegraph on this one. Col hates Alan Jones and refers to him scathingly as The Parrot. When he was appointed deputy chairman of the Australian Sports Commission, Col trotted out the headline: “Polly gets a cracker”. The story made no mention of what this meant, a bit like this story and the headline which carries it. Other good ones include “Helly Dolly” when notorious sex offender Dolly Dunn was discovered. It was actually picture editor and old Col mate from New York Julian Zacharus who came up with this one, but Col naturally gets the credit. Another beauty was the page three do up with a big picture of Mal Colston and huge arrow pointing at him under the headline: “This man is a rat and a sook”.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

Liz
North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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