Vale Gay Davidson, press gallery pioneer

Experienced Press Gallery reporter Alan Thornhill writes:


New Zealand born journalist Gay Davidson, who became the first woman to head a newspaper bureau in the Canberra press gallery, died early today, in her mid sixties.

A brilliant and highly respected writer, Ms Davidson had covered education issues for The Canberra Times, before joining the Gallery, to report for that paper on the turbulent period of the Whitlam and Fraser governments.

Thousands of tourists who visit old Parliament House, and who are still fascinated by the bleak circumstances of the Whitlam dismissal, now have pictures of Ms Davidson in their homes.

She stood just below Whitlam on the steps of the old Parliament House, on that fateful day, and was captured in the famous photograph of the occasion, taking notes as the dismissed PM denounced Malcolm Fraser as "Kerr's cur."

Her image, prominent among those of the clutch of reporters covering the occasion, was later transferred to the official souvenir teatowel, which has, since then, remained one of the most popular items sold at the visitors' shop in old Parliament House.

The blokey culture of the Canberra Press Gallery never caused Gay Davidson to pause. Indeed, at one point, she sought and obtained permission to use a male toilet, near her office in the press gallery, because the nearest women's toilet, at that stage, was "too far away." Gay explained, as she pressed her case, that there would be "no embarrassment" as most of the men in there would be "facing the wall."

It was this practical, uncomplicated manner she brought effectively to her time spent serving on industry boards, including the AJA and the National Press Club.

A former daughter-in-law of mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, with whom she remained on good terms, Gay later married Age economist Ken Davidson.

One daughter from that marriage, Kiri, died of unexpected complications from measles. Although that slow and painful death took a death heavy toll on Gay's own health, she responded with courage and passion, becoming, undoubtedly, Australia's most recognisable advocate for immunisation, in a series of unforgettable television appearances.

In the later stages of her career Gay worked as a medical writer, a stringer for the world's biggest newsagency, The Associated Press, and a pioneering screen writer on Telstra's Viatel, a precursor to the Internet.

Although her passion, and commitment to accuracy, decency and incisive writing never deserted her, Gay's health progressively did, and her final years were not happy.

Hugo Kelly adds: Gay was a thorough professional and also willing to lend a hand to young journalists. In the late '80s I was sent to Canberra as a cadet for a Melbourne paper and given a range of junior rounds including - improbably - the High Court, which I was expected to cover alongside such experienced Constitutional experts as The Australian's David Solomon.

Gay visited the High Court press room one day to conduct a professional survey for the AJA. Among the questions was: 'what are the major legal areas covered by the Court'. I blustered my way through a range of imagined fields: family law, criminal law and the like, while Gay politely took down my words of ignorance.

"I would have thought," she advised me finally with a smile, "that Constitutional matters would probably rate pretty highly, too." That was Gay's way: friendly, effective and always keen to get the facts right.


Vale Chris George, journalist, raconteur

Crikey's man in the Press Gallery, Hugo Kelly writes:

There have been better journalists in the Victorian Parliamentary Press Gallery, but few more widely liked than radio reporter Chris George, who died last week on a driving tour around South Australia.

A long time and often colourful member of the Gallery, George was instantly recognisable with his shaved head and riding leathers bestriding Parliament's corridors, usually with a cigarette in his mouth.

His funeral is being held in Brighton as you read this edition, and there will be many stories told about his life and times. One certain to be retold is the case of Chris George and the possum.

A former gallery member recalls: "Chris was a huntin', fishin', but especially shootin' kind of guy. Early one morning, working on the old Melbourne Herald, state rounds reporters Brendan Donohoe and
Leonie Lamont found a dead possum in the car park which had fallen out of its tree overnight.

"At the time, debate over gun laws were running hot. The pair stuck the possum in Chris' waste paper bin, its little paws hanging over the edge, face peering out and a cigarette in its mouth.

"George came in, discovered the corpse and immediately recognised a conspiracy by the anti-gun lobby to set him up. Never one to do things by halves, he rang the Wildlife Department, insisting they came and took the possum away for an autopsy to determine how it had died...which they duly did."

We'll have a report of Chris's funeral in tomorrow's sealed section.