John Gorton biographer Ian Hancock has denied claims by Sydney Institute director Gerard Henderson that he told Henderson there was “no evidence” ASIO spied on the former PM.

In an amusing feud that has spilled over onto the pages of Henderson’s Media Watch Dog column in recent weeks — embroiling Andrew Denton, journalist Geraldine Willesee, documentary maker Peter Butt and Hancock — Henderson also said Hancock had “no interest” in whether or not federal spooks were illegally prying into Gorton’s private life.

In an email to Willesee last week, republished on his website, Henderson said he had talked “to Ian Hancock about this matter recently and he advised me that there was no evidence that ASIO spied on John Gorton. Also Dr. [sic] Hancock does not make this claim in his biography of John Gorton.”

But Hancock confirmed to Crikey that while he had indeed spoken with Henderson after returning from London in September, he did not specifically rule in or out the spying allegations.

“I find it very hard to believe that, even in my jet-lagged state, I would have said there is ‘no evidence’ of ASIO spying on Gorton,” he said. “It would have been very unprofessional to speak in those terms. All I do know, and can say, is that I don’t know of any such evidence — but neither did I go looking for it.”

Hancock says, regrettably, he has no record, and made no notes, of the conversation with Henderson.

The argument over “spying” is relevant because any evidence of the spy agency prying into Gorton’s private life would have been illegal under Australian law. Instead, ASIO regularly made use of ‘agents’ who informed them of their observations.

Henderson told Crikey this morning Hancock’s statement changed nothing and that a recent ASIO file unearthed by Butt for his I, Spry documentary that screened on the ABC last week also failed to turn up proof.

“I rang him [Hancock] up and said, are you aware of any evidence? But he doesn’t have any such evidence. Also, Butt hasn’t produced any, there isn’t any in that ASIO file,” he said.

“I’m an old fashioned empiricist and if someone is making the allegation I would want to know who did it, when did they do it and how it was done … when I interviewed Gorton for Michelle Grattan’s book he never mentioned it to me. If Peter Butt’s got any evidence, I’d like to see it.”

Henderson added that Gorton was a notorious pants man and the fruits of ASIO’s activities were hardly revelatory: “I know you’re [Crikey] of the younger generation, but in the case of Gorton, anyone of mature age in 1968 knew that Gorton was a heavy drinker and womaniser … all of this stuff was in the public domain.”

The 40-year old saga was prodded back to life recently by Butt’s documentary, which raked over the controversial career of ASIO director-general Charles Spry.

Perhaps the key event was ‘The United States Embassy Incident’ on November 1, 1968, in which Willesee — at the time a 19-year-old journalist toiling for wire service Australian United Press — accompanied Gorton to the US compound for drinks at 1am following a media booze-up at the Rex Hotel. Butt’s as-yet unpublished timeline of the night, obtained by Crikey, makes for interesting reading.

Gorton and Willesee, who travelled with Gorton’s press secretary Tony Eggleton, were shadowed by Commonwealth police officers in another vehicle, whose superior, Ray Whitrod, told Spry the next day about the encounter. Crikey understands that a former ASIO official recently confirmed this sequence of events with a retired Canberra journalist.

During the incident, which was also recounted by Willesee in The Sydney Morning Herald on October 22, Gorton told Willesee he wanted Australia’s troops out of Vietnam, a massive scoop which Willesee attempted to file two days later. But ASIO’s file on the events, dug up by Butt, revealed that somebody, whom ASIO described as an ‘agent’, told ASIO the US ambassador William Crook had branded Gorton a “security risk”.

Seven weeks later, Spry confronted Gorton with a six-page document detailing his conversations with the agent, which were produced directly from the audio tapes. But mysteriously, the evidence, which Gorton didn’t appear to be too perturbed about, was later destroyed.

The encounter with Willesee became front-page news six months later when the young journalist revealed more evidence of Gorton’s exploits — evidence that was used by her boss Maxwell Newton to prosecute his private war on the PM.

A Hungry Beast ASIO special in February, and Butt’s documentary, reveal an abiding interest about who said what when in the politically-charged heyday of the baby boomers involved. While the Denton-helmed Beast said that ASIO “spied” on Gorton, I, Spry kept its power dry, claiming only there was “someone in the shadows” that fateful night.

Peter Fray

A lot can happen in 3 months.

3 months is a long time in 2020. Join us to make sense of it all.

Get you first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12