JOURNALISTS were never great club people, not in the traditional sense. Instead, they liked their pubs. At the Herald & Weekly Times, great devotion was shown to the Phoenix in Flinders Street and to the Astoria, virtually next door in Exhibition Street. Then there was the elite band who had their own club in the back bar at the Oriental.
At The Age there was the very grand Hotel Australia in Collins Street, Hosies in Elizabeth Street or the Graham in Swanston Street. Yet, late in the day, when one left the typewriter, they were barren and closed. Victoria was in the grip of wowserdom and 6 o’clock closing. If only Melbourne journalists could have a permanent club like Sydney. The first attempt came at the end of World War 2.
On 22 May 1946, journalists held a meeting in the T & G Building in Collins Street and that night established the Press Club of Victoria.
Hume Dow, who was teaching journalism at Melbourne University, was still referred to as “Captain Dow”. After all, the war was not long over. The club sent out 460 invitations to journalists to join, and among those who accepted was Alan Marshall, the celebrated author of I Can Jump Puddles, who was crippled from the age of six by infantile paralysis. Sid Pratt, general secretary of the Australian Journalists Association, was chairman. Among those present was Stuart Brown, who was to become editor of The Herald, Hugh Buggy of The Argus, one of Melbourne’s famous crime reporters, who was highly skilled at chronicling the activities of John Wren; Tom Hoey, chief sub editor on The Argus; Fred Aldridge the features editor of The Herald, and Allan Burbury, who was assistant editor of The Sun. His editor, Jack Waters, sent his apologies.
The new club was obsessed with the idea of getting a liquor licence. But the very mention of liquor was still electoral disaster — no Government wanted any part of it. The club called on the Chief Secretary, Mr Slater. He was noncommittal. The next move was to send a circular to all in the Legislative Assembly.
Initially, the main activity of the club was to run a Press Club Ball – the first at Earls Court, St Kilda, in 1948, and in 1949 at Coconut Grove, St Kilda Road.Finally the club tried the Premier, Tom Hollway. The members thought they had an excellent case. The Olympic Games were coming in 1956. A Press Club was needed to host the vast number of international journalists who would be in town. There was the usual reply for a Government that planned to do nothing: ‘We will look into it’. The club tried to rent space in the Olderfleet Building and then in Blamey House. In each case the lessor refused space if the club proposed bringing liquor on the premises. There was a chance to lease the Cathay Restaurant in Elizabeth Street for three to 15 years. Alas, the Cathay owners wanted too much money.
Sid Pratt, the president, announced his resignation before Christmas in 1949. He was followed by a string of committee resignations and the Press Club of Victoria disappeared.
Of course, there were unofficial clubs. There was the little club of distinguished Herald journalists who met every day for their first drink in the back bar of the Oriental Hotel at 11.30am. This was called the “Morning Tea Club”. The Sun sub editors had their own private well-stacked refrigerator at the back of the subs’ room. They went into action immediately after the first edition. This was the “Midnight Tea Club”.
But nothing serious happened until 1971. Antony Whitlock, better known as Tony, was an elegant New Zealander. He had started as a cadet journalist at 16 and worked for the New Zealand Herald and Taranaki Daily News. He was in the New Zealand Army during World War 2 and retired as a Major at 25. In 1945 he started with The Sydney Morning Herald and so his career went on with senior positions with News Ltd, Isaacson Newspapers and the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers’ Association.
Graham Perkin, editor of The Age, gave his backing. So, on 12 August, there was a successful seminar at Melbourne University attended by 150. Edward Lloyd QC spoke on contempt of court; Tony Staley, MHR, spoke on parliamentary privilege; Don Chipp, future leader of the Democrats, dealt with censorship; John Button, who was to be a senior Minister in the Hawke Government, discussed obscenity, and Neil McPhee handled defamation.In August 1971 he thought there should be a seminar, an event that could raise standards in journalism. “At that stage,” he said, “the training of journalists was pretty primitive. Usually the oldest and tiredest journalist in the place was given the job of cadet counsellor.”
The seminar might have spawned serious thoughts about the training of journalists, but it had another outcome. R. Dunbar, editor of the Dunn and Bradstreet Gazette and Macarthur Job, editor of a journal for the Aircraft Safety Board, suggested to Tony Whitlock there should be a society in Melbourne for editors. Jim Dickinson, editor of a pharmaceutical journal, pointed out that there was already a society of book editors. Why not a press club? Melbourne didn’t have one.
“There was much talk about this idea for a club,” said Tony. “Then they were all looking at me. I didn’t want to run it. I wasn’t a working journalist at the time.” Even so, Jim Dickinson and Tony sought everyone whom they thought might be interested and organised a dinner at Leon’s Bistro in Prahran on Tuesday, 30 November, 1971.
Those who attended were: Frank Dickinson (accountant), Jim Dickinson (Pharmacy Journal), Chris Griffiths (Stock and Land), Geoff and Nan Hutton, (The Age), Trish Jamieson (Pharmacy Journal), Macarthur Job (Aviation Safety Digest), Stuart Sayers (The Age), Corbett Shaw (3AW), Patrick Tennison (freelance), Lyle Tucker (journalism lecturer RMIT), Brian Zouch (Southern Cross) and Antony Whitlock. Pat Tennison agreed to be chairman for the evening and he was elected first president.
Tony Whitlock had his eye on Pat. The club needed someone who was well known, a good readily recognisable name. Patrick was certainly that. He had been the top feature writer for The Sun News-Pictorial, a newspaper that always demanded plenty of words for money and Pat made it his business to give them a new byline feature almost every day.
He also gave a nightly five-minute news commentary on the Herald & Weekly Times radio station, 3DB. It was forthright and brave. Often Pat did not agree with the etched-in-bronze Liberal Party line that came from the third floor in Flinders Street. Jim Dickinson was elected secretary; Frank Dickinson, treasurer; and Corbett Shaw, Stuart Sayers, Brian Zouch, Lyle Tucker and Tony Whitlock were all elected to the committee. They didn’t dally that night eating and drinking; they actually found time to deliver a constitution.
The aims were lofty. The objectives were to “promote exchanges of professional information” … “to provide a social setting for informal communication between senior creative people in the media” … “to sponsor informative addresses by distinguished speakers” … and to “contribute wherever possible to the uplifting of professional standards.”
There were warnings. The constitution stated that members must pursue these activities without allegiance to public relations firms. Furthermore, no member should exploit membership for personal monetary gain. There was a long discussion as to whether PR people could become members. Brian Zouch said PR firms probably would pay the membership fees for their consultants and if he were a PR man he would make sure he did belong to the club so that he could further his business interests. Jim and Lyle Tucker disagreed. The club should not discriminate in any way. If it did it would be discriminating against other journalists. So the Melbourne Press Club never became a club that “black balled”.
The first notice from the secretary, Jim Dickinson, said: “We agree with Germaine Greer about a lot of things, including having women in the Melbourne Press Club. So far, we have only one – all the rest of our new members are men and it is giving them a chauvinist image. The gals have never forgiven the men-only Sydney Journalists’ Club, so it’s a wonder ours hasn’t been swamped with applications.”
Jim was wrong. Two women, Trish Jamieson and Nan Hutton, were foundation members and Dulcie Foard was there in the first week. Dulcie was member number 12, Miriam Nicholson was member number 17. Greg Shackleton, a TV journalist, who was to die in Timor at the hands of the Indonesians, was member number 20. It cost $5 to join the club and the annual subscription was $5.
A lunch, the first active get-together of the club, was held in the Melbourne Room at the Southern Cross Hotel on 15 February 1972. Tennison invited the editors of the three Melbourne dailies — Harry Gordon, The Sun, Graham Perkin, The Age, and Cec Wallace, The Herald, to address the club on “The Future of the Press”.
Already the committee had decided this was a luncheon, not a dining club. Lunch was always two courses, soup and the inevitable chicken. It was $5 a head, $6 if you brought along a guest. There were many guests that first day — just 15 members and 36 guests.
It was all “off the record” so the editors were free to speak as they wished. However, the talk by Cec Wallace did appear two months later in the Australian Journalists’ Association official paper, The Journalist. He said there were several worries. Assaults on the Press were coming from all sides, from the Government, from political lobbyists and from public relations people, all trying to pull strings at the very highest level.
Newspapers could stand up to this but he could see the time coming when there would be bigger and fewer combines. This would have its dangers for working journalists. As they saw the opportunities for changing their employers disappearing, would they write what they really believed or would they write just to please the controllers of those combines?
Cec Wallace was spot on. Two months later Rupert Murdoch acquired the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph in Sydney. Later, he was to acquire the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd and close down The Herald, where his father Sir Keith Murdoch, had made his name as a press baron. At end of his talk Cec Wallace wistfully remarked: “I wish you well in setting up the Press Club. It has been a long time coming. I recall 25 years ago giving Howard Palmer (Sun News-Pictorial columnist) a quid to help found a Press Club in Melbourne. I notice Howard Palmer is still around, but I sometimes wonder what happened to my quid.”
Tony Whitlock thought it might be interesting to try a night get-together. Rather than scurry off home after work they could have a social evening at a fine restaurant. So the next meeting was 6.30pm at the Society restaurant in Bourke Street. It was an incredible deal, three courses including wine, plus sherry as a pre-dinner drink, for $5.
The speaker was the very voluble Eric Risstrom, secretary of the Taxpayers’ Association. “I was embarrassed,” said Tony. “Only 20 people turned up. Journalists didn’t want to scurry off home after work – they wanted to go to the pub. We didn’t try that again.”
The club always wanted publicity, but there was a delicate matter. If you invited people from the newspapers, radio, Channels 2, 7, 9 and 10, did you ask them to pay for their lunch? Journalists never expected to pay if they were invited anywhere else. But wait, this club was impoverished; subscriptions were almost at zero level. As for help from their masters at The Age, The Herald and The Sun, until then they had not offered help with money or even kindly advice.
It was resolved that the committee would contact all the various chiefs of staff and ask that when they sent reporters to the Press Club, they would pay for them. Every journalist on the AJA list received an invitation to join the club. In each organisation, a committee-man was appointed to drum up interest, particularly among young journalists. It was not easy. Inevitably their reaction was: “I get paid every day to go along and hear guest speakers ranging from Parliament through to Templestowe Rotary. Why should I pay to hear people blab on my time off?”
So the club filled quickly with non-journalists. They had the official title “associates”. The constitution allowed for 30 per cent of the club to be associates, but after a year the figure was more like 60 per cent. They were not necessarily PR people. There were diplomats, lawyers, clergymen, accountants and some real characters.
There was Dr W. Glanville Cook, who represented the Rationalists’ Society, and there was Mary Owen who stood for the Women’s Electoral Lobby. It worked into a pattern, where Bill Cook and Mary Owen always asked the first two questions at every meeting. An exasperated committee decided there would be a rule. The first two questions would have to be asked by working journalists. It didn’t work. Maybe the working journalists didn’t want rivals to steal their questions, but there was a long silence, until finally, to everybody’s relief, Bill Cook stood up and asked his inevitable question.
Lyle Tucker offered to stand in. It was a magnificent example of “temporary” activity. Lyle kept the club’s books for more than 15 years. He was good with money. He made sure the lunches provided a profit and invested in good securities. He gave every member a number and it was due to Lyle that during this time the club had real stability.Pat Tennison was president for two years and at the end of his term on 7 February 1973, he was able to announce that the club had 170 members. He reported that Frank Dickinson, the foundation treasurer, had died in July 1972.
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.