Age legend Graham Perkin, valorised as the greatest newspaper editor of his generation, may have lived another 20 years if his coronary disease had been diagnosed earlier, a controversial new book claims.

Veteran investigative journalist Ben Hills, in his tome Breaking News: the golden age of Graham Perkin, tells how Perkin battled for a year with severe chest pains, repeatedly visiting scores of non-traditional doctors — and his family’s general practitioner — but all failed to find anything amiss.

Perkin, who is credited with transforming The Age into a great newspaper, died on October 16, 1975 at just 45 from a massive heart attack. Had he lived, he looked set to seize the position as chief executive at Fairfax, possibly within months.

Hills says it took The Age‘s staff medical officer, Dr Edwin Knight, to finally point out the problem, after he bowled into his office complaining of chest pain two days before his death.

“It was only a 15- to 20-minute examination, [but] it was fairly clear that he had had angina for 12 months,” Hills quotes Knight as saying.

Knight immediately telephoned Dr Tony Mirams, a leading Melbourne heart specialist, and made an appointment for the Friday. But it was too late — Perkin collapsed in bed early on Thursday morning after penning his last editorial, headed famously “Go Now, Go Decently”, and shooting an interview for This Day Tonight, calling on the Whitlam government to fall on its sword.

Knight says that when he was told of Perkin’s death: “I thought, God, that proves my diagnosis was correct. But what a way to prove it.”

Hills also quotes Perkin’s GP, John Wright-Smith, and suggests he may have “missed” the real reason behind the editor’s persistent chest pains, producing this exchange.

Hills: “You don’t think, given that history, that maybe you missed something?”

Wright-Smith: “Well, when you say miss there’s a difference between not diagnosing something and missing something. So I wouldn’t say I missed something. I would say I didn’t diagnose something … you are really talking fairy-tale stuff if you are saying if this had happened and if that had happened. You can’t really answer those questions but I don’t think there’s any doubt that, if he had been diagnosed as having accessible surgery, he would have lived longer than he did. There’s no doubt about that. But one can’t say for how long, because he was a bad prospect for surgery and for recovery.”

But, according to Hills, Perkin “may have simply worked himself to death”. Overweight, smoking, and firmly on the lunch circuit, he continued to pull 16-hour days and slept just four hours a night as he fretted over the first, second and third editions of the paper.

Perkin was also still recovering from surgery to remove a metre-long bowel cancer, returning to work just two weeks after the operation with the wound still bleeding.

Despite his tender age, Perkin’s heart problems were a long time in the making. The book recounts one incident over Easter 1974 in New York in the days following a Reuters board meeting in London. Perkin had been on a late night drinking binge with Stan Swinton, vice president of the Associated Press wire service and Graeme Warner, a former Age colleague at Bill’s Gay Nineties bar on East 54th Street. Perkin retired to his suite at the Plaza Hotel, when he called Warner to say that he wasn’t well.

“‘I’m sorry to ring you at this hour,’ he said. ‘But I think I’m having a heart attack.'”

After a few days shuffling around in his dressing gown at Swinton’s apartment, Perkin returned to Melbourne, where he was still feeling grim. Hills says Perkin was sent for an ECG and other tests, but Wright-Smith said that everything was “normal”.

“If it wasn’t normal I would have done something,” he said.

Perkin continued to complain about chest pains, and submitted himself to numerous tests, but all failed to pinpoint his rapidly congealing arteries.

His private secretary Kathy Duffy is under no illusions that her old boss’ life was cut short, telling Hills:

“The thing that saddens me to this day, and I just think it’s heart-breaking even now, [is that] none of us could help him. We just didn’t read the signs fast enough, including those doctors. He shouldn’t have died. None of us intervened fast enough or effectively enough, and that’s quite tragic.”

But Duffy also fails to escape from the book unscathed, with Hills revealing that she had in fact moonlighted for ASIS while serving as Perkin’s private secretary at The Age. However, Duffy insists she never spied on her boss or on The Age‘s journos, who at one point were being secretly vetted by ASIO. Instead, she simply acted as a “post-box” for Darrell Dorrington, a fake boyfriend (and now ANU professor), who daubed love letters in invisible ink to relay reports to his minders from Communist China.

And despite the book being enthusiastically excerpted in The Age this week, Hills, who worked for the media giant for 25 years, doesn’t spare Fairfax any favours either, repeatedly referring to the “faceless grey men” who now control the paper.

Hills reveals in the book’s introduction that company secretary Gail Hambly and former Fairfax chairman Ron Walker refused to respond to his requests to access the company’s historic records. One possible explanation is that they were systematically trashed at the hands of disgraced former Fairfax owner Conrad Black as part of a controversial document retention policy.

Black is said to have remarked, when he took control of the company in 1991, that “the history of Fairfax begins with me.” Hambly also refused to respond to Crikey‘s queries this morning.

Perkin’s shadow continued to colour The Age‘s newsroom well into the 1990s. The Sunday Age‘s editor at the time, Bruce Guthrie, who has been making headlines of his own in the last week over his $2.7 million unfair dismissal case against News Limited, recalls that the long-dead editor’s influence was everywhere. “I [felt] this weight on me … some people were calling me the next Graham Perkin … it must be like a singer-songwriter being called the next Bob Dylan … I felt the paper had been living off its reputation for many years.”

But Jennifer Byrne, who cut her teeth on the paper under Perkin, is more circumspect, questioning the continued reverence among current Age staff for the paper’s golden age.

“I think there’s a lot of looking over the shoulder … and I think it’s been quite crippling in lots of ways on people’s emotions,” she said. “For the people who still work for it there’s always this place, there is this Eden that is past, and I think that’s been quite hard [for them]. It’s not Perkin’s fault, but it is part of his legacy.”

Peter Fray

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