Alan Ramsey
Alan Ramsey (Image: Australian media Hall of Fame)

To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.


Damien Murphy’s obituary for veteran journalist Alan Ramsey, famous for his weekly newspaper column — a must-read for many years — and his fearsome temper, is strikingly raw in places, especially given it ran in The Sydney Morning Herald, the paper that employed him for such a long time:

Ramsey’s personal life suffered hugely due to his commitment to his craft. Perhaps a childhood troubled by family rupture, war and the Depression did not help, but he went on to two failed marriages (the second to journalist Laura Tingle) that produced four alienated children and a number of affairs. By the end, he had turned from most old friends and spent his last years supported by close family members.

Other publications — The Australian for one — were far more uncomplicatedly glowing in their memorials.

Does the maxim “de mortuis nisi nil bonum” — of the dead, nothing but good — apply less and less to obituaries, particularly of people with less than exemplary personal conduct? May we speak ill of the dead?

As obituaries flow in for Diego Maradona, the flawed football genius who famously rose from poverty to stardom, the challenge to paint a portrait of an icon in all their shades is on display. Most publications are dealing with the star’s infamous cocaine habit with a split personality trope: there was one Diego on the field and another off.

It is interesting to contrast the treatment Ramsey gets with that received by actor Sean Connery — lots of publications did straight obits and then dealt with his history of domestic violence (not to mention his god-awful public pronouncements on the subject) in separate pieces.

This may be pronounced by the rush to get a “take” online to capitalise on the attention flooding the way of the deceased and, possibly, because even under Australia’s notoriously litigant-friendly laws the dead cannot be defamed.

When renowned Australian author Colleen McCullough died, The Australian famously ran a pre-prepared obituary — sans byline — which became notorious around the world for referring to McCullough as a woman “plain of feature” and “certainly overweight”, but somehow still capable of wit and warmth. The line was missed, according to sources at the time, in the rush to get the coverage together.

There may also be a sense that publications want to get out in front of the accusation of deifying flawed (or worse) people. Look at, say, the glowing tributes to writer Bob Ellis, which read very differently after allegations of sexual abuseapparently an “open secret” — surfaced two years after his death.

Of course, Crikey has a history of running unflattering obituaries — often, as is Crikey‘s wont, as a corrective to unquestioning praise heaped on the deceased.

After cartoonist Bill Leak’s death elicited a mixture of hero worship and culture warring from his colleagues — “Bill Leak was the most courageous man I knew” — Guy Rundle took a not-ungenerous but clear-eyed look: “His oeuvre will last, but like most of us he’ll be forgotten in five minutes and this Stalinist hagiography he’s been used for will look embarrassing and cynical.”

And after a great deal of “I didn’t always agree, but I respected his principles” talk about senator Brian Harradine, Crikey — having waited until he had been buried — excoriated him for his opposition towards aid money being used for abortion services and the women’s lives it cost in developing countries.