THE YEAR WAS 1995, and Jim Clarke was worried. The club could not go on the way it was. Everything had been tried — subsidised lunches, tearful appeals on notice boards, wild Christmas parties. However, he did have an idea. Why not get someone in charge who had real clout, someone with a high profile, someone who could steer real resources their way.
Steve Harris, 41, was the man. Former editor of The Sunday Age, he was now editor-in-chief of the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd. He wasn't even a member. Indeed, Noel Tennison had approached Steve years before when he was the education writer for The Age and he had refused to join.
Steve, to Jim Clarke's delight, this time agreed. Steve said: "The basic argument was this: the Herald & Weekly Times had never taken much interest in the Press Club. Now that I had just moved there from The Age, maybe this was their chance. I thought I would give it my best shot. It fitted in because one of my aims at H&WT was to get the quality of journalism up, to get people more interested in standards and professionalism generally."
Jim had also approached Andrew Rule, investigative reporter at The Sunday Age, and the ABC's Ian Henderson, with an invitation to join the club and add strength to the committee.
Steve Harris said it was important that he handpick his own committee, and he did just that. For treasurer, he chose Robert Marshall, chief accountant at the Herald & Weekly Times. Secretary was Andrew Rule. Then there was Michel Lawrence, national creative director at J Walter Thompson, a good choice to give the club entry into the advertising industry, and Ian Henderson, news editor at ABC TV to provide balance from broadcasting.
Bob Hart was also there. Bob was a columnist on the Herald Sun but he had been their marketing director, so he could provide marketing skills. Then, there was Grant Hattam, a partner at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, legal adviser to the Herald Sun, and very useful for free legal advice. Steve also recruited Peter Bartlett to the committee. Peter was a partner at Minter Ellison, legal advisers to The Age. Steve felt that if the Herald Sun’s legal adviser was on the committee, then so should The Age’s. Peter went on to become a vice president and one of the longest-serving committee members in the club’s history, a powerful worker for the club’s interests and a key player in locating the club’s secretariat in Minter Ellison’s flash Rialto Towers building.
Not one was a member when approached, but all signed up immediately and all were duly elected at the club's annual meeting on 14 March 1995. There were special thanks to the outgoing members Bruce King, Robin Harrington, Geoff Hook, Pat Hayes, Peta Munroe and Angie Brown. Then there was the departing secretary, Beau Emerson, who had been with the club almost since its very first days. She had virtually given her life to the club.
Some described it as a coup. It was an event that could have taken place in a Latin American republic. Steve denied this. They were all democratically elected. "There wasn't any real opposition," he said. "The view within the club was this was the last shake of the rattle, and therefore, if he's going to run it, let's give him his head and see what happens."
Immediately Steve Harris set about finding sponsors. The Herald & Weekly Times was easy. They agreed to put in $10,000 for three years. Next he went to The Age and they matched it with $10,000. David Jones, chief executive at Tattersall's, was a friend. Tattersall's became a major sponsor. Bob Hart through his contacts tried Tooheys. Tooheys was keen to get into Victoria, and it agreed to provide free beer. So the club was able to put out an amazing bargain to attract new members. Every new member who joined received a free slab of beer, a slab of their choice: Steinlager, Hahn, Tooheys Blue or Red. Pamphlets went out "Have One On Us — Join the Melbourne Press Club".
There was a succession of good luncheon speakers — Paul Keating, John Cain, Brian Johns, Barry Jones, Terry McCrann, Professor Alan Fels, David Hookes and Ken Baxter. There were special debates. On one good night the controversial lawyers Slater & Gordon were put on trial.
The old dream of finding permanent headquarters was still there. Journalists were different. The booze culture had finished more than 15 years before. At the end of the week they liked to go home and relax. Even if the club put on an evening function it had to be early in the week. Steve Harris, however, had another move in mind. The club already had the Young Journalist of the Year Award. Why not take it all a step further?
Of course, nationally there were the Walkley Awards. "But these were union run," said Steve, "and only union members were eligible to enter. At the Herald & Weekly Times, certainly, we were getting people who didn't want to be in the union. They were on contract.
"The Perkin award was national and print based. In Victoria there were no awards that were open to everybody. We could get TV people and others interested in the Press Club. We could get out of being just a print-only club. We could have awards not only for journalists, but also for radio, TV, graphic artists, and photographers. We could draw them all into the club."
So, rather than spend a lot of money on social activity, why not have one major black tie awards night. Steve said: "The Perkin award was struggling to maintain interest. The Age was not spending big money on it any more. Let's have a super awards night, the Perkin and Quills all combined."
Steve had discussions with Corrie Perkin, Graham's daughter, speaking on behalf of the family, and it was agreed that this way they could help each other.
When the night came, old hands at the Press Club were amazed at the pomp. The award night was at the Grand Hyatt. More than 300 people were there: journalists, corporate heavies, politicians, top lawyers. Ian Henderson was the compere and Jeff Kennett, the Premier, made the presentations. Gerry Connolly provided the entertainment with a brilliant impression of Paul Keating. The stars were Rowan Callick of the Financial Review who won the Graham Perkin Journalist of the Year Award as "Australia's pre-eminent journalist and commentator on the Pacific area." The inaugural Tattersall's Gold Quill went to Terry McCrann of the Herald Sun. As Steve Harris said, the whole show was "quite a buzz".
That night, 29 February 1996, most of us thought the Melbourne Press Club had arrived and at last was secure.
This is an excerpt from Informed Sources, written in 1991 by former Club president and legendary columnist Keith Dunstan.
The online version has been updated by Rick Swinard, a former corporate affairs manager of the Herald & Weekly Times, chief of staff of The Herald in Melbourne and Managing Editor of the Christchurch Star.