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Sep 18, 2006

Sydney Morning Herald about-face on Mr Sin hagiography

Last year Pan Macmillan published a revisionist biography, The Usual Suspect, by former NSW detective Duncan McNab, in which it was claimed that Saffron was just a lovable, but basically harmless, old rogue. Given Abe's propensity to sue for defamation, this was a difficult thesis to dispute in print.

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Abe Saffron’s final years were devoted to a quixotic attempt to sanitise his reputation. He famously sued the Gold Coast Bulletin for publishing the crossword clue: “Sydney underworld figure, named Mr Sin” (3, 7). Amazingly, when the solution was published the next day, it turned out that the mystery answer was Our Abe.

Last year Pan Macmillan published a revisionist biography, The Usual Suspect, by former NSW detective Duncan McNab, in which it was claimed that Saffron was just a lovable, but basically harmless, old rogue. Given Abe’s propensity to sue for defamation, this was a difficult thesis to dispute in print. Perhaps the Sydney Morning Herald might have been wiser to ignore it (as they do with the vast majority of new books) but instead its then literary editor, Malcolm Knox, chose to hand it to Howard Hilton, a controversial disgraced lawyer who was a self-acclaimed friend of Saffron. Hilton praised the book and did not challenge its underlying thesis.

When the Herald subsequently published an op-ed piece I wrote about this matter, Knox (who these days, as it happens, is a consultant to Pan Macmillan) went incandescent. In a personal communication to me, he made the observation that Hilton had served his prison term and shouldn’t be harassed in this way (my piece did not mention that Hilton had been jailed; he is in fact an entertaining reviewer and it is not my view that he should be banned from the Herald‘s book pages, merely that this was an inappropriate book for him to review).

This Saturday the Herald left all such controversies behind it and headlined the death of Abe Saffron as its lead story in what could be mistaken as a tone of ebullience (in stark contrast to the reverence with which the demises of Steve and Brocky had been solemnly recorded). Officially, the Herald will not have a bar of Duncan McNab’s revisionism.

This episode again reminds us of the chilling effect of our current defamation laws. And how liberating it can be for unexemplary citizens to die!

Let me add a note of self-interest. Former Sydney journalist Tony Reeves a few years ago celebrated the death of “Mr Big” by writing a wonderful book under that title, about the world of Lenny McPherson (published as part of my list for Allen & Unwin). He shared the Ned Kelly True Crime Award that year with Helen Garner. He is planning a companion book on “Mr Sin”. Any Crikey readers who have memories they would like to share can contact Tony via me at rwalsh@allenandunwin.com. It’s really never too late for us to record social history accurately.

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