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Mungo MacCallum is standing by the claim, in the latest issue of The Monthly, that Sir Robert Menzies had an affair with Lady Betty Fairfax which caused the Sydney Morning Herald to turn against the PM in 1961. In Friday’s Crikey he wrote:

The affair was beyond gossip in Canberra in late sixties, when I joined the press gallery; it was simply accepted as part of history… The story was told by politicians, staffers, journalists (notably Ian Fitchett and Alan Reid, the gallery’s doyens) and commonwealth car drivers. I never heard it denied or even questioned by any of the above.

Maybe. But for the affair to be “beyond gossip” at least one figure from the period would need to attest to its truth — and none has. In fact, it turns out that Ian Fitchett actually denied the affair. In 1999 Gideon Haigh interviewed Menzies’s biographer Allan Martin for The Eye:

Martin, in fact, did have some inside dope on the story, courtesy of Ian Fitchett, a pucka Press Gallery veteran with a taste for gossip… “He was a real character,” Martin recalls. “He said in his rather pompous voice: ‘Of course, you know about Betty Fairfax don’t you? Haw-haw-haw. Very funny. I often think of Bob in his double-breasted suits sitting down at Palm Beach talking to Betty Fairfax. Haw-haw-haw. Of course it upset Dame Patti tremendously. Mind you, nothing caaarnal in it! Haw-haw-haw.’ I’m sure he was right. Menzies wasn’t that kind of man.

Mungo is right about one thing – the rumour was running hot in Sydney in 1960-61 when the SMH turned against Menzies. According to Herald journalist David Marr: “If you lived in Sydney a few things happened every day. The sun came up; the Herald attacked Labor. Suddenly in 1960 there was this turnaround.”

But Marr, who researched the period in the course of writing a biography of Sir Garfield Barwick, has a better explanation for the volte-face than a 20-year-old affair: Sir Warwick may have been reacting to Menzies’s carve up of TV licences, which he considered unfavourable.

Vic Carroll, finance editor of the Sun-Herald in the early 1960s (who went on to edit the Herald) says Sir Warwick had been a Menzies critic in the past — in a column the Fairfax proprietor penned in the Herald in the 1940s.

And, argues Carroll, the 1960-61 reaction against the Menzies Government was justified on policy grounds:

In the 1950s there were import restrictions, recurring balance of payments problems and a stop/go economy for which there appeared to be no solution. In 1959-60 the government lifted the import restrictions and suddenly we were confronted with shiploads of foreign cars. It appeared that the economy was running riot. Harold Holt suddenly got into a blue funk about the whole thing and introduced all these measures in November 1960. It took them months to abandon them or find some way to make them work. During this period the Government looked worse and worse and the Fairfax papers became great critics – that included the Financial Review and also The Sydney Morning Herald, which in 1961 made the case for voting Labor for the first time.

None of that had anything to do with the first Mrs Fairfax. The alleged affair was 20 years old by then. The suggestion that the alleged affair with Mrs Fairfax caused the Herald to back Labor in ’61 is b-llshit. The timeline doesn’t match and it doesn’t match the people.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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