Chapter 4. A Woman President

FREDA IRVING was the club's first woman president. We had no idea of her age, but when she took over in 1978 we discovered she was 75. She had started at The Herald under the patronage of Keith Murdoch in 1926.

There were many things about Freda that were slightly unbeliev­able. For a start, her father, Brigadier, later Honorary Major-General, Godfrey Irving, was 6 foot 5 inches tall, whereas Freda must have been five feet nothing. It was a real military life. She was born at Victoria Barracks in 1903. Her brother, Ronald Godfrey Irving, was also a Brigadier. Her sister, Sybil, was a Colonel, founder and controller of the Australian Women's Army.

Freda inherited all her father's willpower. She was little, wrinkled, grey-haired, and extremely feisty. Freda always said exactly what she thought. She was a chain smoker, and adored the horses. She knew every trainer and jockey in the country. Who did she work for? Who didn't she work for? She was woman's editor of The Argus, and when it folded in 1957 she found jobs for every member of her staff except herself. She was Melbourne editor for Woman's Day and she did the same job for Women's Weekly. She also worked for The Australian.

During the war she was in public relations for the Army, rose to rank of Captain and spent two years in New Guinea. There is a legendary tale about her. She was preparing her piece at Army Headquarters. She was typing five copies for various newspapers. When she completed her page she discov­ered she had put the carbons in upside down. She let loose a stream of classic, Irving language. One of the Army officers tapped her on the shoulder: "Please, Miss Irving, there are gentlemen present."

She had a lovely property at Vinter Avenue, Croydon. When she was president she invited her commit­tee, their spouses, and all their children to a Christmas party.

Claude Forell was president in 1980-81. Claude, a multi-talented journalist, could turn his pen to almost anything. Not only was he a leader writer for The Age, but also the author of a weekly column, and Claude was very gifted at spiking the Melburnian conscience. He was also a gourmet, restaurant critic, and inaugural editor of The Age Good Food Guide.

Claude continued that fruitless search, which became almost like the quest for the Holy Grail, for a permanent home for the club. In 1980, Claude and Freda thought they had found the very place, the Masonic Club of Victoria, a particularly grand old building at 164 Flinders Street.

Claude sent out a memo to all members announcing that the Masonic Club had offered the Press Club full use of its premises at an annual fee of $10 for each member. Journalists would be able to share all facilities, the lounge, the bar and renovated dining room, which would soon offer business lunches for $4. There was also a residential floor with 20 rooms, which recently had been opened to women members. Claude sent out a questionnaire asking members if they were in favor.

It all seemed wonderful, but before members had a chance to make up their minds, Claude found it necessary to send out another memo. He said: -"I am sorry to tell you that our hopes for an arrange­ment with the Masonic Club have been disappointed. We were given to understand, in talks with the club's secretary-manager, that the Masonic Club could offer us full use of its premises for an annual fee of as little as $10 a member.

"However, the club's board of directors has determined that members of the Melbourne Press Club be offered provisional membership of the Masonic Club for three months only at $10 from 1 January. After that, we would qualify for full social membership for which the current fee is $48 a year, plus a levy."

The committee of the Press Club decided unanimously that the answer was, "No." The hunt for a permanent home, said Claude, would continue. Claude had speakers like John Cain, Geoffrey Dutton, Senator John Button and Derryn Hinch, but unquestionably his biggest coup was 2 October 1981, when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was guest of honor at a special post-Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, held jointly by the Melbourne Press Club and the Commonwealth Journalists Association.

Geoff Hook was president in 1982-83. It was good, even politically correct, to move the presidency around among the newspapers. Geoff, a Tasmanian, came to The Sun News-Pictorial from The Mercury in Hobart. A highly skilled black-and-white artist, and a brilliant caricaturist, he was one of the best-known cartoonists in Australia. Just to confuse matters, he signed his cartoons “Jeff”.

He gave extraordinary service to the club. He was on the committee from 1978 to 1994 and his name along with Beau Emerson, inevitably appeared at the bottom of the lunch invitations. “Always they would ring up to tell me they were coming, or they weren't coming, just as I was desperate, trying to think of my gag for the day's cartoon."

Geoff could not find enough praise for Beau as secretary. "She found speakers for me," he said, "and she was indefatigable in tracking them down. She would put out notices asking for an RSVP by Tuesday for the lunch on Thursday or Friday. By Friday, maybe 25 or 30 had replied and, if there was a good speaker, 120 would turn up. "I am terribly sorry, Beau, I got caught up, my mother's in town, didn't have a chance to call you. Can you fit me in?" The Hotel Australia cooks would bang their heads against the kitchen door. Beau would have to placate them while they hunted down another 90 chicken breasts in pepper sauce.

"Beau and Lyle Tucker would always be there working at the door. About one in five was considerate enough to pay beforehand, so they would be there juggling the money, making sure everyone was financial."

He had his moments as president. For example there was Jack Thompson, the actor. Geoff was terribly impressed with Jack Thompson. Here was the actor who had just starred in the movie Breaker Morant. So he was as nervous as a young player on centre court at Wimbledon when he introduced Jack to the large gathering at the Hotel Australia. "I am proud to introduce to you Jack Johnson." This Jack didn't look like Jack Johnson, the one-time heavyweight champion of the world. "Um ... ah ... Jack Thompson," Jack corrected Geoff.

Then there was Don Dunstan, former Premier of South Australia. He had just been appointed chairman of the Victorian Tourist Commission. At 10am on the very day he was due to speak to the Press Club, Geoff received word that Don was unavailable. Geoff spoke to Don's secretary, who said she was sorry, the chairman was playing his piano and was indisposed.

What to do? Geoff went to the chief of staff of The Sun and said: "Is there anybody — anybody, in town?" Gerry said: "No, it's pretty dull. Wait a minute. There's a Labor conference on today. And there's an election on. You might get Simon Crean."

"It worked," said Geoff. "Simon Crean was in the Venetian Court dead on 1pm. He gave the same talk as he was giving all around town on wages, the Arbitration Commission and the cost of living. Almost everybody went to sleep over their bulk claret, but it got me out of a hole."

Geoff handed over to Columb Brennan in February 1984. Col should have been a High Court judge. He had the dignity, the style and all the wisdom. For 27 years he was the chief court reporter forThe Herald and he was a legend not only with newspapers, but also throughout the legal world.

Of course, the Brennans were steeped in the law. His Uncle Frank was Labor's Attorney-General between 1929 and 1932. Frank's brother Tom was a Victorian Senator from 1931-38 and an acting Attorney-General. His aunt Anna was the first female Australian barrister in the 1870s. His brother Keith became Australian ambassador to Ireland and his brother John was a New South Wales District Court judge.

As for Col, he covered all the big stories, including Frank Hardy's trial and the trial of the last man to be hanged in Australia, Ronald Ryan. Col was passionate in his fight against capital punishment. Col started on The Argus and rose to the rank of a major in World War 2.

Among the speakers he invited to the club were Andrew Peacock, Sir Zelman Cowen, Norman Spencer, Zoe Caldwell and John D'Arcy when he became the new chief executive of the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd.

Pat Hayes took over from Col Brennan and he had a record presidential term of more than three years. He was there from March 1986 until 1989. "There was a two-year rule for presidents," said Pat, "but somehow I managed to break it. They couldn't get anyone else to do the job."

Pat was a willing volunteer for jobs that were not always popular. He was a member of the State executive of the AJA from 1986 to 1991 and a member of the federal executive from 1987 to 1991. There is a famous photograph of Pat on the front page of The Journalist. It depicts a couple of burly policemen dragging him away from the front door of The Herald office in Flinders Street. The year was 1989 and he was protesting against staff redundancies.

Pat started work on the Horsham Times. He edited his own motoring magazine and when he became president he was letters editor of The Age.

As letters poured in from all over he discovered that he was in a wonderful position to find out what was going on right throughout the community. He discovered further that journalism was becoming increasingly compartmentalised. You could be in your own little compartment and not really know what was going on anywhere else.

Furthermore, journos were not in the pubs so much any more and they were not communicating with each other. Pat thought it was the job of the Press Club to bridge this gap.

So he made it his aim to change the style of guest speakers. He didn't want speakers who would just entertain or provide a laugh; he wanted them to be relevant and on top of the news.

He brought along Sir John Norris QC who conducted the 1980-81 inquiry into media ownership; Robert Hughes, author and art critic; Jim McClelland, who raged against the secrecy over the atomic test at Maralinga; David Hill, chairman of the ABC; Ian Sinclair of the National Party; Kel Glare, police chief commissioner; Ian McPhee on the future of "wets" in the Liberal Party; Bill Hayden, Governor-General and, particularly fascinating, Michael Gill, 34 year­ old financial journalist.

Gill with amazing courage had launched Business Daily in a head-on clash with the Fairfax daily Financial Review. Gill and 35 of his staff owned 60 per cent of the capital.

The lunch was at the old one-time temperance hotel, The Victoria, in Little Collins Street. Pat remembers the occasion with astonishment.

The club had no inkling of what was about to happen. It was the classic kiss of death as applied to Gough Whitlam, because almost as Gill was speaking Business Daily, an excellent journal, folded never to appear again.

In March 1989 Sally White followed Pat Hayes as president. Sally was the daughter of Osmar White, one of the top journalists in the days of Sir Keith Murdoch. Sally, like Osmar, was and is a strong personality.

She had done almost everything at The Age, from being a good reporter through to feature writer, science editor and arts editor. When she became president, she had just moved to teaching journalism at RMIT.

Sally was a great teacher of students. You could say, a profes­sor of journalism. She arranged for her students to come to club lunches. They made up their own tables, brought their own lunches and did not have to pay. However, they could move around and chat with their future peers.

They were welcome indeed because members were hard to find in the early 1990s. Sally said that previously many a working journalist would come along to lunches and then charge the cost to expenses back at the office.

But, this was a time of staff redundancies, early retirements and economy campaigns both at the Herald & Weekly Times and Fairfax. "They used to pop the lunches on their expense accounts. They couldn't do that any more, so we had a big drop off in members."

However, there were good topics to be had. Melbourne, which once had the perfect sepulchral Sunday, no pubs, no theatres, no news­papers, no football, suddenly had not one but three Sunday news­papers. So Chris de Kretser for The Sunday Sun, Allan Farrelly for The Sunday Herald and Steve Harris for The Sunday Age spoke to the club about this new wicked behavior.

John Halfpenny came from the Trades Hall and was able to field questions on why it is so difficult to trust journalists. Then there was Vic Carroll, former editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald, who was able to tell that amazing story of how 26-year-old Warwick Fairfax managed to borrow $2 billion from the ANZ bank then left the company crippled with debt.

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.


Chapter 1: The search for a well
Chapter 2: Lunch at $5 a head
Chapter 3. A remarkable editor
Chapter 5. The club in crisis
Chapter 6. Lazarus rises
Chapter 7. A shovel for a Premier
Chapter 8. The power of Mandela
Chapter 9. The Push for Membership
Chapter 10. A media circus

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