Reading a biography of the controversial and legendary Australian journalist Alan Reid, it’s hard not to be nostalgic for the days when journos chain-smoked at their desks, wore hats, and got their best tips over the poker table.

Reid, who died in 1987 after covering 20 federal elections, is worthy of a book as he combined some of the best and worst aspects of political journalism. Not only was he a superb chronicler of the news, he was also a player, using his contacts to shape the events themselves.

At the beginning of his career, Reid was close to Labor prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley, but changed sides after the Labor split of the 1950s. This is a must-read for any student of Australian politics, because it provides a well-researched, readable history of the events that ripped open the ALP and kept it out of office for 17 years. By the time Reid started working for Sir Frank Packer in 1954, he had moved to the Right, crafting his coverage to suit his boss and boost the prospects of Robert Menzies and Billy MacMahon.

The book was launched in Sydney last night by Bob Carr, who said that although Reid was a superb journalist, he was occasionally wrong: “for instance he was the last journalist to stop calling Bob Hawke a left-winger”.

“He asked some fundamentally big questions. Was the ALP fit to govern, who should rule and where should power lie? He saw that in the 1950s; Australian Labor was in a pretty wretched state.”

Reid thought people with communist backgrounds were trying to manipulate Labor leaders Doc Evatt and Arthur Calwell, Carr said — “it was a pretty ramshackle and dishevelled ALP”.

The news veteran broke many stories, but he is best remembered for his 1963 piece about Labor’s “36 Faceless Men”, a phrase that has now entered the lexicon. What gave it such impact was the photographs Reid commissioned of Calwell and his deputy, Gough Whitlam, waiting for instructions under a street lamp outside Canberra’s Hotel Kingston late at night. Inside, the machine men of Labor’s national conference were deciding a key policy issue.

“That will be history in the making, my friend,” he told the photographer, Vladimir Paral.

In his story, Reid said that the photographs indicated a “sad commentary of the decline in status of Labor’s parliamentary leadership”. The article created a furore by presenting Calwell and Whitlam as wholly dependent on decisions made by invisible forces in the party machine. It damaged Labor badly in the next two elections, before Whitlam finally succeeded in reforming the party’s structure.

The book also relates a prescient conversation between Reid and Evatt, the then leader of the opposition, in 1955. They were discussing the consequences of  the ALP split, which led to the formation of the Catholic-dominated DLP.

Evatt: “I’ll tell you something, Alan, for every Catholic vote I’ll lose I will get two Protestant votes.”

Reid: “You are out of your cotton-picking mind, Doc. The Church of England mob belong with the Protestant party which is the Menzies party; they will applaud you but they won’t shift. You have all the non-conformists that Labor ever is liable to pick up, so all that is going to happen is that you’re going to lose the Catholic vote.”

Press gallery doyen Laurie Oakes, in the foreword to the book, says “it is not possible to write the political history of Australia without including a section on Alan Reid”:

“Nor is it possible to discuss the evolution of political journalism in this country sensibly without an examination of Reid’s methods, motives and influence.”

Later in the book, the authors relate an exchange between Reid and a group of young reporters on the day of Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975.

“What do you think of this?”, they asked the 61-year-old newsman. “It’s a great story,” he replied.

“You wouldn’t have said that if it happened to Menzies,” one tearfully retorted. Reid said: “I’d say it if it happened to my own mother — it’s a great story.”

As is this book.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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