As someone who worked in Canberra with him, John Lyons is a rare duck indeed. He observed his latest victim Paul Keating close at hand as a young gallery journo in 1985 – before bravely waiting 20 years to go in for the kill.

When he joined The Australian’s
bureau in Canberra, Lyons fell over himself to do the bidding of the
right wing editor, Les Hollings, who was conducting his own private
“neoconic” war against the Hawke government. When Les said jump –
particularly in industrial relations where he was to the right of John
Howard – Lyons leapt like a politician signing up for an overseas
junket.

Lyons also became feared around the gallery (some say a
good thing, some bad) for never really accepting that anything was off
the record. He did a classic hatchet job on Barrie Cassidy after a
night’s drinking with Hawke’s then press secretary at the ALP
conference in Hobart in the 80s. Cassidy thought that it was just a
private chat with a journo over many drinks – but Lyons reported every
exchange, including one that almost led to the resignation of Hawke’s
then speech writer, Stephen Mills.

Yes, you can argue that
journos should never accept that anything is off the record, but Lyons
went way beyond this and seemed to be driven by the twin demons of
insecurity and ambition. It’s known that Lyons drove Randall Markey mad
by calling him obsessively asking him to use the “Keating called me a
f*ckwit” anecdote. It would be interesting to know if Markey agreed.
Maybe not, judging how Lyons misspelled Randall’s name (it’s not
“Markie”, John!).

And if he was doing his job comprehensively,
why didn’t Lyons report one of the biggest sprays Keating gave to a
journo; to Bruce Jones, then of the Sun Herald in 1991, which
Jones taped and published in his column. It was a doozey. Here’s just
one evil Keating line: “I am a simple fellow. You have hurt me and I
will hurt you. You can count on it.”

Keating was a media bully
but wilted if people stood up to him and gave as good as they got.
Witness how Tony Wright turned the tables on him by out-swearing him.
Lyons could also have reported that prior to his falling out with
Lyneham, Keating had tried assiduously to cultivate him and a number of
other senior gallery journalists to get them aboard the tumbril he was
riding in search of Bob Hawke’s head.

To his credit, Lyneham
was appalled at Keating’s attempted seduction and probably turned from
a neutral to an anti-Keating because of that. Witness the 60 Minutes piggery savaging he later delivered.

Peter Fray

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