Chapter 7. A shovel for a Premier

STEVE HARRIS was president for two years. He did not want to do a third. He said there was a sensitivity at The Age that the Herald & Weekly Times had taken over the Press Club. However, it was ironic that by this time Steve was back at The Age with the title of publisher and editor-in-chief. Better to share it around, so the new president was Mike Richards, number two at The Age, assistant publisher to Steve and also the finance director.

Mike became president on 22 April, 1997. He had the same strong committee, with the addition of Louise Graham, managing editor, pictorial, at the Herald Sun, David Broadbent, Victorian political correspondent at National Nine News and Cliff Peel. The sponsors blossomed as before and Mike Richards, with his role as finance director, was beautifully placed to make sure the regular contribution came from Spencer Street.

The guest speakers were lively. Mike remembers particularly two of them ... Jeff Kennett and Sir Ronald Wilson. He could hardly believe his good luck when he received an acceptance from Kennett. After all, Jeffrey was not in love with the Press and as for The Age, he thought it a scandalous rag dedicated to the left wing. They were not on speaking terms.

On 24 October the club was packed to the rafters. It was the biggest lunch held there. The management cited 190 as the ceiling for a lunch. Somehow, the club managed to jam in 210. Mike had thought long and hard about appropriate gifts for the Premier. It was only a year since Jeff had infuriated photographers and journalists by throwing sand in their faces with a shovel. For a start, they could give Jeff a Mont Blanc pen. Mike had enlisted Mont Blanc as a sponsor and normally they gave every guest speaker one of these high quality pens, worth around $450. The club engraved these pens with the guest’s own signature.

Mike rang the manager of Mont Blanc: “We would like to give Jeff one of your pens.”

“He already has one.”

“What about a ball point?”

“He has one of those, too.”

“Oh dear, can you suggest anything else?”

The manager came up with a new product, a Mont Blanc highlighter pen.

That was fine, but what could they do for journalistic balance, what could they have as a low lighter? Mike had a stainless-steel spade with a nice cherry wood handle made especially. He went to his book of quotations, looked up "sand" and the very first quote he saw seemed perfect. It was from a poem written by William Blake in 1903. So this is the inscription etched on the blade:

"Mock on, mock on, 'tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again."
— from the Melbourne Press Club 24 October, 1997

When Mike handed over the spade the applause from 210 journalists was so deafening you would have thought Collingwood had kicked a goal at a Grand Final.

Yet this Jeff Kennett is a remark­able man. He was delighted. He took the spade back to his office and placed it beside the spade that he had used to throw sand at the Press men.

The Sir Ronald Wilson story was quite different. Sir Ronald, a former Judge of the High Court of Australia, former president of the Uniting Church, conducted the inquiry into the "stolen generation", the forceful removal of a number of Aboriginal children from their parents.

His report described the action as racial "genocide" which some critics considered over-the-top in its language. Unquestionably, it added to John Howard's determination not to say "sorry".

Mike Richards said the lunch was not remarkably well attended, and Sir Ronald's address was a dry account of the inquiry until almost the last moment. In question time someone asked him what he really felt about the "stolen generation".

Mike said it was then that he gave the most profoundly moving address. He said it was impossible to prove how many children had been taken away, but his estimate was one in three. He spoke of the 800 hours of testimony he had heard, how shocked he had been listening to women with tears streaming down their faces. This, he said, had been the most important work of his life. Mike said everybody there was overcome by what he had to say.

People did not realise how much work was involved in running the Press Club. Although Mike was fortunate, much of the task fell to his personal assistant at The Age, Georgina Bennett. Katrina Paone had done the same for Steve Harris.

"There was one entertaining incident," said Mike. "There was a printers' strike at The Age and there was a picket line blocking Spencer Street. I had arranged for the Press Club committee to meet in The Age board room. No chance, our members couldn't get through the front door.

"So I suggested we have the meeting at The Australian Club, but it was all done at such short notice people arrived just as they were. Ian Henderson turned up in jeans and an open-necked shirt. Neville Young, the hall porter, gave him a tie. Ron Walker's son, Campbell, also came without a jacket or tie. Neville did the same for him, then spirited them up the lift to a private room without anyone seeing them. Campbell, of course, was as tall as his father. You should have seen him. The sleeves came half way up his arms. Bob Hart, to my horror, put the story in his column the next day."

The tragedy during Mike Richards' term was the death of Grant Hattam. He was a partner in the legal firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth on retainer for the Herald & Weekly Times. He was one of those key men every editor needs night and day on a direct phone. Steve Harris asked him to come on the Press Club committee in 1995. Mike Richards said: "He was a very assiduous commit­tee man, a young fellow, a mad Swans supporter, a Beatles fan. He got cancer of the liver, but he didn't tell anyone. Grant didn't even tell his partners that he was having chemotherapy.

"We used to hold our committee meetings in the board room at The Age. One day he came, and he looked terrible. Because I didn't know, I said to him: 'Grant, have you been out on the turps? You look as if you have had a really hard night.' He just smiled and didn't say anything.

"He only told his partners on the Friday before he died. He died on the Tuesday. He came in to say goodbye. I think there was one partner who had been sworn to secrecy. Grant didn't want the grief and upset. He was a great bloke. The Herald Sun really depended on him. You build up a very close relationship."

On the Wednesday, Neil Mitchell, talk show host on 3AW, had just finished his shift when he found a large parcel in his office. It was a giant poster in the red and white colors with the Liverpool soccer club anthem in bold letters "You'll Never Walk Alone" signed at the back and accompanied by a personal note.

Mitchell said: "Apparently, Grant had left instructions that these gifts be sent out after his death. He was thinking of others right up to the end. He was very classy." He died on 17 November, 1998. He was 46.

Mike Richards recalled:

"Peter Blunden (editor of the Herald Sun) rang me up after the funeral and said: 'We would like to give an award in Grant's honor.' I said; 'Great idea. You have my support.' He said: 'We will provide the money, if the club will take it on.' So we did and the Grant Hattam Award became part of the Quills. It could be a journo, it could be a lawyer. It could be anyone who had advanced press freedom during the award year."

According to Richards, Grant Hattam had this reputation: When there were cases in court where there was a suppression order the Herald Sun had a standing brief to Grant Hattam to make an appear­ance to waive that suppression.

Grant always took the view — and believed passionately — that the interests of disclosure ought to be asserted, so it was in that context that the award was created.

Peter Livingstone was the first winner. Sander Thoenes, a Dutch journalist killed in East Timor, won it posthumously in the second year and Geoff Wilkinson of the Herald Sun, and Adrian Anderson, a senior associate in Corrs Chambers Westgarth, won it in 2000. Later, the award was modified to honor his name on the Grant Hattam Quill Award for Investigative Journalism.

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 4. A Woman President
Chapter 5. The club in crisis
Chapter 6. Lazarus rises
Chapter 8. The power of Mandela
Chapter 9. The Push for Membership
Chapter 10. A media circus

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