It’s time to call it — there’s no evidence that Sir Robert Menzies and Betty Fairfax had an affair, or that lingering rancour between Warwick Fairfax and the then PM had anything to do with The Sydney Morning Herald turning against the Menzies government in 1960-61.
Since Mungo MacCallum reported the alleged affair as fact — in the latest edition of The Monthly published last week — the following historians and figures from the period have been shown to dismiss the rumour:
Gavin Souter – Fairfax family biographer
Allan Martin – Menzies biographer (quoted by Gideon Haigh)
Ian Fitchett – former press gallery journalist (quoted by Gideon Haigh)
Vic Carroll – former Sun-Herald finance editor and Herald editor
Gerard Henderson – Author of Menzies’ Child
David Marr – Fairfax journalist and biographer of Sir Garfield Barwick
And today we can add three more:
Judith Brett – Author of Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People
Brian Johns – Former gallery journalist and former ABC managing director
Bridget Griffen-Foley – Historian and author of Party Games: Australian Politicians and the Media from War to Dismissal
On the other side of the ledger, Mungo hasn’t been able to name one person who claims the rumour is fact. He says his sources include a Commonwealth car driver, Gough Whitlam and his speechwriter Graham Freudenberg – all of whom may have been retailing what they heard second hand. Mungo writes:
I have to accept that Ian Fitchett gave a different version of the Menzies-Fairfax relationship from the one he gave to me — certainly he was positive about it being a full-blown affair when we spoke. Others were equally positive, and those still living (unfortunately very few now) can choose whether or not to speak for themselves. I do not intend to breach the code of ethics by naming them for Gerard Henderson’s delectation. He says there is no direct evidence and of course he is right: one would hardly expect either of the protagonists to boast about it and photographs are unlikely to be forthcoming. But, Henderson’s sneers notwithstanding, I still believe that balance of probabilities points to more than a platonic friendship.
Monthly editor Sally Warhaft should now correct the record and retract the claim that the affair is an established fact. The affair is a rumour — a juicy one, but nothing more than an unverifiable rumour.