On Tuesday, Ben Hills’ biography of the late and great editor Graham Perkin was launched at a function described by one who was there as a bit like the old sensationalist trick of getting a caricature artist to draw what someone famous might look like 30 years hence. Lots of old faces. Lots of nostalgia, and lots of cause for reflection on how the grand history of The Age has somehow failed to make it in to the present.

This is not just a matter of symbolism. There seems to be a real sense in which the past has been lost. And it is a tragedy for us all.

As reported in Crikey, Hills makes some claims in his book about being denied access to the Age archives. On the apparent disappearance of those archives, he is supported by other researchers, including former Age journalists John Tidey and Sybil Nolan, both of whom have tried to get access for their own purposes, and have had little success.

But one claim Hills made in his foreword to the Perkin book is disputed by Nolan, and has formed the subject of some less than congenial correspondence. Both parties have agreed to it being published here.

The dispute began when I contacted Nolan to check out some claims Hills had made about the Age archives issue. Nolan told me that while she supported Hills in some respects, he had misrepresented her. Much to her surprise, she then found the substance of that alleged misrepresentation reproduced in the foreword to the Perkin biography.

Hills quotes Nolan on page seven as telling him that she had been refused access to The Age archives, and making the comment that it appeared that freedom of information applied to everyone except Fairfax. Nolan says she never made this comment. She was not refused access, but rather had trouble ascertaining whether any archives existed.

Last week Nolan wrote to the publisher of the book, Scribe’s Henry Rosenbloom, protesting at being  inaccurately quoted when she refused Hills an interview. Nolan copied Hills in to her letter to Rosenbloom. The resulting correspondence follows:

Hills to Nolan, April 29:

“Dear Sybil

I have been a journalist  for more than 50 years now, and I do not get things like this wrong. The quote that freedom of information is something that Fairfax does not believe applies to them  is precisely what you told me that morning. Either your memory is faulty, or you are now chosing to deny you said it, for reasons which I cannot fathom. Incidentally, I have never asked you for an interview — I asked you to let me access your thesis, which you did and which I acknowledged in the book.

You and I are now among four of the people to whom the company has either refused access or falsely denied that historical material even exists. I am disappointed that someone like you is not prepared to make a stand on this. How on earth this could “damage your standing as a researcher” is beyond me. I intend to continue my campaign for Fairfax to make its historical records available for bona fide researchers, and I am surprised and disappointed that you are not.

Regards

Ben Hills”

Nolan to Hills, April 30:

“Dear Ben

I beg to differ.

You definitely asked me for an interview that morning you came to pick up my thesis, and I declined telling you I was on a deadline for an edit. We then spoke for a short time — at the front gate of my house — about possible sources for you, after you asked me the question.

At no stage during this brief discussion, in which I thought I was simply trying to help a former colleague with sources, did you have a notebook out or a tape recorder running in front of me. If so I would have made sure I inquired before your book went to press whether you were planning to quote me, and insisted on knowing what you planned to say.

The fact you didn’t pay me the basic courtesy of letting me know that was exactly what you intended to do speaks for itself.

If you want evidence that your memory is faulty regarding this episode, then let me point out that other details you’ve told Crikey are wrong, such as the quote from your letter to Meg Simons where you said:  ‘Sybil Nolan, a Melbourne media scholar, approached Fairfax a couple of years ago for access to its records in connection with a PhD thesis she was writing. She was refused access and given no reason.’ It was my MA thesis for which I approached them, way back circa 2000. I was awarded my MA in 2002.

My account of what I told you had transpired in relation to my approach to David Syme & Co Ltd is accurately represented in my answer to Crikey. The term ‘refused access’ is yours not mine. I would not characterise it in that way.

Of course I support Fairfax releasing any files they may have. I told Crikey that when they first contacted me after they received your letter in early April. I’m prepared to shout my support for such a development from the rooftops. That’s not the point here. The point is I object to you playing fast and loose with the assistance I gave you at your request. And I am content to let those who know us both come to their own conclusions about this, Ben.

Sybil”

Peter Fray

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