THEN IN 1972, reported Creighton Burns, he did something remarkable for The Age. He supported Gough Whitlam's Labor Party for the coming election. This brought him in conflict with his board and came to a head when he supported Gough Whitlam in the constitutional crisis with Malcolm Fraser. He believed strongly that his editorial independence should not be denied. But for Ranald Macdonald's support, it is almost certain he would have resigned.
On 14 December, 1976, there was a lunch in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria that was to give new prestige to the Melbourne Press Club. The memory of Graham Perkin was very fresh in all our minds. Perkin, editor-in-chief of The Age, died suddenly of a heart attack on 16 October, 1975. He was 45.
He is best described by another great Age editor, Creighton Burns, in the Australian Dictionary of Biography:"He did not believe that training alone produced good journalists: 'Intuitive ability runs first for me, intellectual capacity second, training third.' ... Perkin turned The Age into a more interventionist and campaigning newspaper. It exposed financial scandals in State governments and corruption in the police force, and attacked federal governments for suppression of information."
Like Graham Perkin, Ranald was young. He was 26 when he became managing director of David Syme & Co. Limited in 1964. It was his idea to start the Graham Perkin Award. He wanted Graham's reputation to be remembered. But he had another aim; more power for the Press Club. He believed that the Melbourne Press Club should be able achieve the status of the Washington Press Club.
Ranald said: "I checked the idea with Peg (Graham's wife) and the family first and then I got the board to fund it. The concept was a simple one: minimum rules, just an award for a very special journalist or a really outstanding journalistic performance. The judges for the award would be an experienced peer group, who would not be influenced by anyone from Syme. Individuals could nominate themselves or others could put them forward." So, the first Graham Perkin Award was in the Great Hall at the Gallery and the winner was Dennis Butler, 52, a journalist at the Newcastle Morning Herald. He won $1000 and a plaque made from zinc plate, which was typical of the technology used in Perkin's day.
Butler was judged Journalist of the Year for a series of seven articles on the legal difficulties that prevented adults who were adopted from tracing their natural parents. The judges were Angus McLachlan, a director of John Fairfax in Sydney; Archer Thomas, former editor-in-chief of the Herald & Weekly Times, and Douglas Brass, former editor-in-chief of News Ltd.
Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times in London, made the inaugural speech. He made it in London at 2am and it was beamed by satellite to be watched simultaneously by the audience at the National Gallery.
Evans was a close friend of Graham Perkin. He said: "We recognise in Graham Perkin someone who gave freedom of the press a moral purpose. Graham Perkin did not just have a belief in this — he had a conviction about it."
The Perkin Award became an institution, and the winners in subsequent years were great names in journalism: Robert Gottliebsen in 1977; Lenore Nicklin in 1978; Peter Rogers 1979; Ron Saw 1980; Norman Aisbett & David Tanner 1981; Peter Smark 1982; Evan Whitton 1983; Creighton Burns 1984; Jack Waterford 1985; Michelle Grattan 1988; Paul Kelly 1990; Les Carlyon 1993; Andrew Rule 1996 and 2001; Laurie Oakes 2010.
Jim Clarke, former club president and treasurer, recalls that The Age was incredibly generous. "Not only did they pay for the venue, but sometimes they would book 10 tables; that's 100 people. We would come out of the lunch with a good profit. What's more, they brought out speakers and paid their expenses."
Indeed, there were speakers like Percy Qoboza, editor of the banned South African newspapers World and Weekend, Max McCrohan, the Australian editor of the Chicago Tribune; Cushrow R. lava, managing director of The Statesman in India and Mochtar Lubis, director general of the Press Foundation of Asia.
Jim said that, sadly, when Fairfax took over The Age and Ranald departed in 1983 the largesse was not so splendid and the speakers were mostly local. However, the Perkin award returned to some of its former power when both News Ltd and Fairfax took more interest in the 1990s.
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.