Speakers: Stuart Baines (S), Colin Steele (C), Jennifer Cockburn (J)

Audience: (A)

Date: 2/6/22

S: When Stewart Cockburn talked about Menzies, Churchill, Birdman, Hitchcock or the Queen he did so because he was both an observer and part of their story. Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the National Library of Australia and to this very special event with author Jennifer Cockburn in conversation with Colin Steele. My name is Stuart Baines and I’m the Director of Community Engagement here at the National Library of Australia.

As we begin I would like to acknowledge Australia’s First Nations people as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respect to their elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

We are thrilled to have you all here tonight and thank you for braving this freezing Canberra evening. It was minus 2 this morning or minus 4, okay, I live in a warmer part of Canberra. Welcome to those of you joining the stream on Facebook or on YouTube from wherever you are, much warmer than us. Tonight’s conversation is about crusading journalist, Stewart Cockburn. As a journalist Cockburn was described as instinctive and fearless. The 16-year-old copyboy who started at The Adelaide Advertiser in 1938 had a career in writing, radio and television that spanned for more than 45 years.

Restless ambition took him to post-war London with Reuters, to Melbourne with The Herald and Canberra as Press Secretary to Prime Minister Robert Menzies and to Washington DC as Press Attaché to the Australian Embassy.

On returning to Adelaide and the Advertiser Cockburn’s feature writing won him a Walkley Award and his opinion columns were ever informative and influential. In 1978 he challenged Premier Don Dunstan’s political charged sacking of Police Commissioner Harold Salisbury. His tenacious journalism also promoted to the 1983 Royal Commission into the problematic murder conviction of Eddie Splatt. His books included The Salisbury Affair and a very fine biography of South Australia’s long-serving Premier, Sir Thomas Playford, and with David Ellyard did the eminent nuclear scientist Sir Mark Oliphant.

In writing his biography Jennifer drew on his many letters and journals, bringing to life the father she knew and the changing times he so closely observed. Jennifer grew up in Australia and moved to the United States after she graduated from the Australian National University with a BA in Political Silence - Science and an honours degree – political silence, that’d be a good idea. After earning her masters of laws in Georgetown University she pursued a nearly 30-year legal career in Washington DC, first in private practice and then at the International Finance Corporation. She retired in 2008 with the idea of writing a biography of her father and here it is, this is the result.

Colin Steele is an Emeritus Fellow of the ANU. He is an author and editor of seven books on history, libraries and scholarly communication as well as many articles and reviews. In 2001 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities and in 2002 received the Australian Centenary Medal for Scholarly Communication Services. He’s been a judge for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction from 2010 to 2012 and also for History in 2012. Colin is current Canberra Writers’ Festival Board member and the Convenor of the ANU Meet the Author events.

That is more than enough from me so can you please join me and welcome Jennifer and Colin to discuss Writing for His Life: Stewart Cockburn, Crusading Journalist.


C: Thank you. Stewart Cockburn began his talk to the South Australian Historical Society in September 1992 with the words of American politician, Adlai Stevenson, who said that the ideal audience for an after dinner speech was to be intelligent, well educated and a little drunk. I’m sure the first two only apply for tonight’s audience despite you having been in Book Plate.

Jennifer’s written a most considered book. This is no [unclear] 4:11 graphic biography of her father, rather a judicious and fair description of her father’s fascinating life in journalism, politics and the media. It’s entirely appropriate we’re meeting in the National Library where in 2002 Stewart recorded an extensive interview of his life with John Farquharson in the Library’s Oral History program which is available as an audio online.

Jennifer, in the biography you begin with the words, people and what made them tick fascinated my father but he never wrote his autobiography. What was it that made you decide to write the biography and can you tell us something of the research process?

J: Thank you, Colin. I think - the idea came to me I think in the late 1990s and it was actually something that my father said about one of his biography subjects, Sir Mark Oliphant, he said that Oliphant was brimming over with character and that he was a perfect subject for a biography. That got me thinking and I thought well you know what? I think Dad fits that characterisation as well, he was a fascinating personality, he was a tenacious and driven journalist, he was a man of contrasts. Many people called him gentlemanly but he could also be quite rude. He could be compassionate but he could also be insensitive, he really was brimming over with character. He loved writing about people himself hence the two biographies in particular but I thought people would be interested in reading about him too. So that was a big thing.

The other thing of course was his career and as was just summarised he had a peripatetic career that took him from Adelaide where he grew up and started his career to Melbourne, Canberra, to London with Reuters and so on and then back to Australia where he worked with Menzies as his press secretary. He went to America as the press attaché at the Australian Embassy and then back to Adelaide and so there was an immense amount of interest to write about. But I think the clincher for me was the amount of written material he left behind.

I don’t think I would have tackled this but for that. There was just so much, he was a prolific letter-writer. He lived to write, he had this need to write down his thoughts, his feelings and share them and so there were so many letters starting from his childhood. Personal letters, letters to his bosses, to Sir Keith Murdoch, to Lloyd [Demar] 6:56, papers from his Menzies years and I really got quite excited when I started reading this because I knew a lot about his career but I had never read his diaries when he was living in England and that contemporaneous record just really inspired me to write this.

C: Thanks. Before we get to some of the main points of Stewart’s career and achievements I just wanted on reading the book to reflect on the social settings of the time as reflected in his marriage to Beatrice whom he met in Canberra in 1946. She was working as Private Secretary to the French Ambassador then, having done an Arts majoring in French in University of Tasmania. Stewart commented she had brains as well as nice legs. It was a whirlwind romance, indeed often a courtship by letter. One gets the impression that Beatrice’s relatively well-to-do family in Hobart had to be reassured that Stewart was more than a journalist. Stewart refers to an initial battle of wills with Mrs Ferguson before she gave her approval. Any reflections on the social intercourse then?

J:         Well they were relatively well-to-do but I think what comes through in the letters from his in-laws were how down to earth and really just solid people of integrity and honesty. They were very direct in their letters but also warm. I don’t think they had doubts because he was a journalist but I think what worried them was the speed with which they had pursued their romance and got engaged and they were trying to persuade them to go slowly. So my father did have quite a battle with Mrs Ferguson in writing, not so much about getting engaged but about when it would all happen. They were very much of the opinion that they should go slowly. One thing that impressed me was that my mother was working for the French Ambassador and she had a two-year contact and they said it’s important that Beatrice fulfils her contract. That was one thing that drove them to caution.

C: In fact they turned out to be married quite soon in relative speaking.

J: Yes.

C: So this brings us onto the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee ‘cause there’s some royal links here for Stewart. He observed the wedding procession of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten in 1947 from up a tree with seven others so they have a ladder and they’re up this tree. Then in 1953 he was in London with Robert Menzies, Mrs Menzies and Heather and we’re very pleased that Heather Henderson can be with us tonight. Can you just extrapolate from some of this into your feelings about what the time was for him and his relationship with the royal family?

J: Yes. These are different times. What everyone thinks of the monarchy today it was a very, very exciting time to be in London for the coronation and my father kept a diary throughout his trip. It was nearly two months long and so he really conveyed the excitement, the splendour, the fantastic clothing that royalty wore to receptions and colonial leaders wearing their native dress. But he also conveyed the gravity of it, the seriousness of what was going on. But I do want to tell one little story because Heather is with us tonight and which I love. My father was in the car, the official car with the Menzies going to a reception at the National Gallery one night and they were driving around Trafalgar Square and there were crowds of people and they were very enthusiastically cheering the Menzies and Heather said oh we’ve got to cheer back. She wound down the window and called out hi all of you and my father was always very impressed with Heather with her vitality and her naturalness so that was a wonderful story.

I think the other thing that meant a lot to him and he got very emotional about was attending the BBC broadcast of all of the Commonwealth leaders the night of the coronation and he went along with Menzies. It made a powerful impact on him to see each leader get up to say a few words about the new Queen.

C: We might then touch on Stewart’s involvement with Menzies. He first met Menzies briefly in 1943 but had more contact in England in the late 1940s when Menzies was in opposition. This led to Menzies offering him the position of press secretary when he was Prime Minister. Stewart admits he’d been a Labor voter up to 1949 and it’s revealing that Menzies states in response, it’s not how you vote, my boy, all I want to know is can you do the job and will you be loyal? Stewart became Menzies’ press secretary in late May 1951. Jennifer, you write that nearly everyone thought he performed pretty well as press secretary in the chapter, Atlas and the PM. How would you say he considered his relationship with Menzies and why did you give the chapter that title?

J: Well to answer the second question first, Atlas was actually Menzies’ nickname for my father and he explained that it was because whenever he saw my father walking around the corridors of Parliament House he looked as though he had the weight of the whole government on his shoulders. My father was very serious, very conscientious and wanted to do his job in the best way he could.

His relationship with Menzies was very good, he admired Menzies, he admired his integrity, his brilliance, his wit. He was down to earth and Menzies treated him very well, they had a warm relationship. It wasn’t a chummy chummy relationship. My father was only 29, barely 30 when he joined Menzies and Menzies was already in his 50s. My father had a young family and he would rush home at dinnertime to say goodnight to his children when he left and then went back to Parliament House ‘til midnight. So he didn’t hang out having whiskies with Menzies but they had a very good relationship.

I think the hardest thing was that Menzies did not have a high regard for the press and in fact my father was hired because of pressure from the press gallery and the Cabinet and actually a report that was commissioned on the public relations arrangements with the government because Menzies had not yet hired a press secretary and people were insisting that he do that. So that was how my father got that job. He had to corral Menzies and get him to have regular press conferences and make information more readily available to the press. So it was hard but he did the job and I think he did the job well.

C: I think he was the first to have the transcripts of the –

J: Yes, he had a little bit of a run-in with the press gallery because he had noticed when he went to Washington in 1952 with Menzies that at Truman’s press conferences they taped the press conference and my father thought that was a rather good idea because it would mean that he would have the transcript readily available and that journalists could come and check the transcript. Well they had other ideas initially and thought that this was a way to get the editors and the proprietors to be able to check up on the journalists’ work. So there was a meeting in the press gallery and they complained but eventually they agreed to try it and of course they ended up loving the fact that they could go and check the transcript when their notes weren’t quite adequate enough and so on so it all worked out.

C: I remember A L G Macdonald who was the first Librarian of the ANU and he said that he once got a phone call one night from Robert Menzies and he was so excited and he thought he was asking about the library and what he could do to help the ANU library in the 1950s. But Macdonald’s son was Colin Macdonald who was the opening batsman for Australian test cricket team and he just wanted some inside knowledge on how they were going to play in the Ashes of 1956. I think similarly Stewart was once asked by Menzies in the [unclear] 15:55 of the book that – he said what’s the form? He said well you go into – from here you go into there. He said no, I’m asking about the cricket ‘cause he wasn’t a great sports –

J: My father was not, no, that was another way in which he and Menzies weren’t quite compatible in certain ways.

C: You’ve just mentioned about Menzies’ relationship with the press. Stewart when he was England recorded his criticism for the big four media barons at the time which were Lord Camerose, Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Kemsley and Rothermere, very big names. Sir Keith Murdoch once introduced Stewart to the young Rupert Murdoch who was then at Geelong Grammar and Stewart called him quote a nice young fellow. What would he have made of the Rupert Murdoch of Fox News and –

J: He would be appalled, disgusted but perhaps not totally – he would find it not totally surprising. He always regarded media barons as ruthless and mainly concerned about the bottom line. I think Menzies would just think that it confirmed all of his prejudices against the press.

C: Of course Murdoch I think bought the Adelaide Advertiser in 1998, I think it was, wasn’t it? Or it’s Murdoch Press. So what would he have thought, Stewart thought of the state of the Adelaide Advertiser? You're not in Adelaide tonight.

J: I know, I’m not in Adelaide. Well – and I think my father would feel the same way as most of the people I talk to in Adelaide and former journalists who are embarrassed now to say they used to work for The Advertiser which was a very good paper in its day.

C: A last one in reference to Menzies possibly, it would seem from reading the biography that Stewart while often argumentative very rarely indulged in physical aggression but of course there’s the infamous – which is in the book – featured brawl in 1952 at the Adelaide Town Hall in which journalist Ian Fitchett calls Stewart an f’ing Murdoch stooge. Stewart then punched him in the face and a fist fight erupted in front of a thousand people. A police inspector, [Nalon] 18:07 Reid, broke up the scuffle and Stewart remembers an outraged Fitchett declaring he king hit me. Despite it being watched by a large crowd nothing appeared in the media, again a contrast to today when it would have exploded in the social media.

J: Yes, absolutely.

C: Presumably he was - from reading the book this would have been a very rare occasion.

J: Very rare, yes. I mean I think my father said at the time he couldn’t remember any physical interactions of that kind since the playground when he was in primary school so very unusual.

C: Yeah but it’s in the book. Canberra’s an ever present in the family history although of course not as much as Adelaide. Stewart first came to Canberra in 1943 as a very young reporter and when Canberra only had 12,000 people. He was unable to undertake war service due to tuberculosis and scars on his lung. He lived in the Civic Hotel and said of Canberra, I can imagine no more sublimely lovely environment for human beings. That’s pretty good. Jennifer, you quote him as saying this was a time when he referred to his self-consciousness through being rejected for military service due to that medical condition and he felt that he was succeeding in a career when all of his peers were away in war. Did he overcome that concern of self-doubt including not attending university although he was very cultured in music and literature? You write he had a constant need to prove himself and protect his reputation.

J: Yes. I think he got over the feeling that he somehow had succeeded at the expense of his colleagues who’d gone off to fight the war. I think he felt that he was treated well when they all came back and there was no grudge against him. But I think for most of his life, certainly well into his career, he did have this insecurity, this need to prove himself because he hadn’t been to university and he didn’t fight in the war and so on. It was just the nature of the man, he was a very emotional person and felt things very deeply.

C: He was the Canberra correspondent for The Adelaide Advertiser from 1955 to ’83 and was in Canberra with [Pringle and Baubin] 20:24 in ’64 when The Canberra Times was restructured and bought by Fairfax to face the competition of Murdoch’s Australian which was started in Canberra. It seemed the only time that he regretted being in Canberra was when he took on a partnership with a colleague between 1968 and ’70, establishing a news agency compilation firm. Your family lived in [Webber Way] 20:51 and Jennifer, you went to Canberra Girls’ Grammar and then on to ANU. What were your views on Canberra then and what would have happened if you kept hold of the [Webber Way] house?

J: I guess we would have made a lot of money. I enjoyed the Canberra years and as you said I stayed on and went to ANU for university. I have fond memories of it. One thing that’s interesting, given how much my father liked the city and he wrote a lot about the natural surroundings here and how much he loved them. Coming back to Canberra many years after finishing at ANU I realised as I flew in what just a gorgeous setting the city has and that I hadn’t fully appreciated it when I lived here. So I had good memories.

C: The selling of [Webber Way] house was only an insight into Stewart’s longstanding concern about financial security although Beatrice did have an inheritance. Stewart obviously recognised that what Beatrice did to support his career and his family but in 1953 Stewart writes a poem from South Africa where he was with Menzies which begins Beatrice at Northbourne Avenue, 84, Beatrice wrestles with every chore, dirty children, dirty grates, dirty washing, dirty plates, [rights] 22:10 rats and mice and slugs and snails, babies’ nappies, baby wails. But never mind, Poppa’s taken a week from home to share the tantrum, to share the toil.

Did your mother ever rail against the family burdens, especially when Stewart was away on these long trips?

J: My mother was a stoic and she had a very different personality from my father, she was very calm, very steady. She was very loyal but she didn’t really enjoy being a housewife and raising four children, it was hard for her. She wasn’t a high-energy person. So when she went back to university in her early 50s and she did a social work degree everybody including my father, my father really supported her and we all saw her come into her own in those last 10 years of her life ‘cause she sadly died of cancer at the age of 62. So she in the end, she was able to be a working woman again and it really showed how much she enjoyed it.

C: Stewart once said his reason for living was to write and indeed he won two Walkley Awards and his crusading journalism exemplified his involvement with the long-running Salisbury affair and the Splatt case in the 1970s. These are very important chapters in the book and in his life and very important for political history, particularly in South Australia. So could you spend some time perhaps reflecting on these two important issues in his life and then the often very strained relationships with Premier Don Dunstan and Dame Roma Mitchell?

J: Well these are two very different episodes in my father’s career. The Salisbury Affair chapter was the hardest one for me to write because I didn’t really agree with the position that my father took on Dunstan’s firing of Salisbury but for those of you who may not remember this occurred in early 1978 when Premier Don Dunstan sacked his Police Commissioner Harold Salisbury on the grounds that Salisbury had misled the government about the contents of files kept by the Special Branch of the police which was the branch that monitored the community for signs of violence or subversion or terrorism. It came to the notice of the government after a report that there were thousands of files on ordinary people who’d done nothing more than attend a Vietnam moratorium or belong to the Australian Civil Liberties Council.

So the details of this had not been made clear to Dunstan and he hauled Salisbury in front of him and sacked him. There was an uproar in the community and in fact one of the first people to criticise Dunstan for the manner of the sacking was Sir Mark Oliphant who had been Governor and had now retired. He made a statement about Salisbury being a man of integrity and so on and criticising Dunstan. While the newspapers actually supported Dunstan and for good reasons, because he had the legal right to do what he did and had good grounds but my father felt very strongly that the way in which Salisbury had been fired was peremptory, it was evidence of what he believed to be Dunstan’s growing sort of need to entrench his power to eliminate people who didn’t agree with him and so on.

So my father came out fighting in his opinion columns even though his editorial policy of The Advertiser was to support the firing so eventually there was a Royal Commission that Roma Mitchell headed and she determined that the sacking had been lawful although she had some reservations about the way in which it had been done and that perhaps Salisbury should have been given an opportunity to defend himself. But in any event it happened.

Dunstan and Cockburn had quite a stormy relationship during that period and at the end of that year my father took several months off and wrote a book about it called The Salisbury Affair which was very, very successful and sold about 35,000 copies, I think. But my feeling was that in that case, and I think a lot of people shared that view, that my father did let his emotions prevail over good judgement in this situation even though he had honourable reasons for supporting Salisbury but on the other hand he didn’t give a whole lot of attention to the fact that the civil rights of ordinary citizens were being violated with the keeping of these files.

So that was one story. The Splatt case which ended his career in a way, it’s a 180 degree turn where my father showed the power of his journalism and the good that it could do in the public interest. The Splatt case involved a fellow called Edward Splatt who was a petty criminal, not a particularly pleasant guy who was arrested, charged and convicted of a savage murder of an elderly woman in the Adelaide suburbs at the end of 1977. After all the appeals were over and he went to jail he started writing to my father claiming that he was innocent and writing reams about the trial and all of the errors that had been made. By the way he was convicted basically on circumstantial evidence, most of it forensic that involved small particles of paint and feathers and seeds, all sorts of things.

So my father was interested and he tried to interview Splatt in jail and the Chief of Prisons wouldn’t let him so he managed to – a secret meeting with Splatt in the hospital when Splatt had a hernia which he had deliberately triggered so that he could be in hospital and meet my father. My father very surreptitiously came into the hospital with a tape recorder and stuck it under the bedclothes. Anyway he decided that he would investigate and he read thousands of pages of court transcripts, appeals and so on and he thought that Splatt did have something worthwhile pursuing and in particular my father wondered about how the jurors were able to understand all this complicated forensic evidence ‘cause he couldn’t understand it.

So he wrote a series of articles in The Advertiser questioning the basis for the conviction and he was vilified by many people in the law and the judiciary who accused him of undermining the rule of law by saying that there should be jury reform, what a thought. Eventually though the Law – no, it wasn’t the Law Commission, it was the Legislative – the Law Commission that provides free legal advice to criminal defendants who can’t afford counsel, they did a full investigation and eventually there was a Royal Commission and many eminent scientists gave testimony at that Royal Commission and the Royal Commissioner in the end decided that Splatt had been wrongfully convicted and he was released. So this was an example of the good I think that a journalist like my father could do and fight against the establishment for something that he really believed in.

C: Yeah, I think he wrote a book on that, didn’t he –

J: No, he didn’t.

C: Which one did he win the second Walkley for then? Was it –

J: Sorry?

C: When he won the Walkley twice –

J: Yes, the second Walkley he got a commendation for his writing on the Splatt case.

C: Another relationship which veered between the friendly and the prickly but not with the same amount of vitriol that was exemplified in the Dunstan and Roma Mitchell was with Sir Mark Oliphant who of course spent many years at the ANU and became Governor of South Australia. Incidentally which there’s a nice segue here in that after Beatrice died in 1986 I think Stewart married in 1988 Jennifer Cashmore whose daughter, Frances Adamson, former head of DFAT, is now Governor of South Australia and launched the book in Adelaide so there’s quite a nice Governor of South Australia segue.

Can you tell us a little about his relationship with Oliphant and the writing of the biography?

J: Well I think the most fascinating thing is how alike Oliphant and my father were. They did have a very good relationship except for one incident that I’ll mention but I read some early correspondence between the two and when Oliphant of Governor of South Australia and Dad was on the paper. I was struck by the similarities between the two, that they were very respectful and gentlemanly but then they could be thin-skinned and critical. They would write these letters back and forth and Mark Oliphant complaining about something the newspaper had done and so on. So anyway after The Salisbury Affair Dad has spent a lot of time with Oliphant in researching the book and he decided he’d like to write a biography of Oliphant and asked him and Oliphant agreed. There was one slight wrinkle which was that Oliphant had already agreed that a science journalist in Sydney, David Elliott, could write his biography. So then the two writers got together and agreed that they would co-author the biography.

All of the correspondence between the two men was actually donated by my father to the Oliphant collection at the Adelaide University Library and it is a marvellous picture of how two very, very different personalities could work together, collaborate and write this book and also of the process of writing. But I think throughout Oliphant was hands off and said here are all my papers, write whatever you feel you need to and they developed a very good relationship that continued until Oliphant’s death.

The one time when they clashed was when the – my father’s book came out, there was a letter that he included in an appendix that Oliphant had written to Don Dunstan cautioning him against appointing Douglas Nicholls who was an Aboriginal pastor and football player as Governor of South Australia and of course this caused an uproar in the media and Oliphant was quite upset that Dad had included the letter. But they patched all of that up and were very close for the rest of their life. I think one thing that my father said about Oliphant, that he had a bull in a china shop disposition, was also quite descriptive of my father and accurate.

C: Yes although Oliphant’s time at ANU where he was very dictatorial as a research school of physical sciences and in the book again, the Oliphant book, when he went to Government House one night and complained to Menzies that the Institute of Earth Studies at ANU was being merged with Canberra University College so he could be very bullish in his own way too.

Stewart’s political convictions. He tells Menzies that he voted Labor up ‘til 1949 and that he – then he subsequently voted Labor in the 1972 election. But some commentators have called him a conservative in later life. Andrew Parkin in his recent view of Angela Woollacott’s book on Don Dunstan writes for conservatives like Cockburn the dismissal effected on the grounds of Salisbury’s refusal to destroy certain surveillance files was an affront. Indeed it was a political assassination. Did he grow more conservative as he grew older? Although he was still very progressive in his reporting against the establishment.

J: Well I think he followed a common trajectory, he was quite left wing as a young man, he was a pacifist for a while. He was very serious, he loved to debate and explore political theory and was very deliberate in the way he went about forming his political views. Yes, he started out as a Labor voter. I think what influenced him eventually was both meeting Sir Robert Menzies in England in 1948 and being just very impressed with the man and also his father-in-law who was relatively conservative but again a man that my father really admired for his integrity and his thoughtfulness. He wasn’t a kneejerk Liberal.

So over time my father did become more conservative but I think people are surprised when they read this book to find that there - my father’s views were much more nuanced and I think – there was one thing I wanted to read by a journalist for The Age who interviewed Dad after the Splatt case and he described my father as fitting no comfortable image, having no particular allegiance and taking on issues on their own merit.

I think that’s quite a good description of my father and that he was very perceptive when it came to politics and economics and when he thought that a government was not doing a good job he would vote to throw them out and if that meant voting Labor or independent well that’s what he did.

C: Perhaps on the conclusion after segues as well ‘cause she says Stewart fulfilled the highest purposes of journalism which is to inform, to contribute to the common good and help maintain the press as a pillar of a democratic society, attributes we certainly need today.

So ladies and gentlemen, just before the Q and A, can you now please thank Jennifer Cockburn?


S: Thank you both very much. Thanks for allowing us at the Library and all of these people here tonight to be part of what is – feels like to me a celebration of Stewart’s life and his work and possibly a celebration of Beatrice and her support of him.

We are going to circulate around some microphones so if you have any questions please put your hand up, we’ll bring the microphone to you. Please wait for the microphones ‘cause we are recording tonight’s event and we want everyone to be able to hear your question. So hands up if you have a question.

C: We’ve got two arms at the back there just going up. From two separate people.

A: Thank you very much, that was absolutely fascinating as someone who grew up in Adelaide and was a neighbour of your father’s at one time. When you were talking about the Splatt case I wasn’t living in Adelaide at that time but I was living at the time of the case of Rupert Max Stuart where another great crusading journalist, Rohan Rivett, supported surprisingly to many people now by Rupert Murdoch in the other paper in Adelaide, playing a similar role to your father in relation to Splatt. I assume that was when your father was not in Adelaide or was he in Adelaide at that time?

J: He was in Adelaide at that time and in fact did some reporting on the Stuart case. It’s interesting you bring that up. He and Rohan Rivett were quite good friends, they had met when my father was working on The Melbourne Herald after the war and then they both were in London at the same time. Actually when Rohan was chosen by Rupert Murdoch to be his first editor at The News in the early ‘50s and he came back to Adelaide he tried to get my father to join him at The News. So they were good friends but the Stuart case was actually what destroyed the friendship because my father thought that Stuart was guilty and he didn’t agree with Rohan Rivett and as was typical with my father they went to a dinner party at Rohan Rivett’s home during the case and he and Rivett got into a terrible argument and I think Rivett actually threw him out. So that was the end of the friendship.

But there’s a postscript to that which is that my father’s editor in the last 10 years of his career, John Scales, thought that there was something about Rivett’s crusading for Stuart that appealed to Dad, that this was the kind of journalism that he would like to be able to do and that The Advertiser that was pretty stodgy at that point was sort of restraining him from what he really would have loved to do. So it’s a very interesting juxtaposition of the two men and their two stories.

A: Thank you, Jennifer, it was a very interesting talk. Seeing as Colin very kindly mentioned my book I should identify myself, that I'm Angela Woollacott, the author of the Don Dunstan biography Colin mentioned. I’m curious what you think - I assume – I think you’ve – list my book so I think you’ve looked at it. I’m curious what you think about the evidence that in fact your father’s reasons for particularly pursuing Dunstan over the sacking of Salisbury actually had a long history, that in fact your father and Dunstan had had very different positions on the police and police behaviour for many, many years and that your father actually had kept track of Dunstan’s views on police and Dunstan’s legislative and policy positions about trying to curb police behaviour such as bashing of Aboriginal people, bashing of homosexual men, that this had been an issue that Dunstan had made one of his career objectives, to limit police what he saw as abusive behaviour in the infringement of civil rights. So this wasn’t a new thing. I’m wondering what you think about that?

J: Well yeah, I have read what you’ve wrote and don’t fully agree. I don’t – and in particular when I think you wrote that my father had a vendetta against Dunstan and I don’t think that’s correct, they certainly had disagreements. In the case of their first early skirmish you could call it – by the way I remember it vividly because I was at music camp in Adelaide and Andrew Dunstan, Don Dunstan’s son, was also at music camp and he came up to me and he said my father is going to sue your father. But my father in that case was reporting on views of the police about Dunstan’s attitude, I think it concerned laws on loitering and I accept that my father may have had more conservative views on law and order than Dunstan but I think you referred to the fact that my father was somehow tracking Dunstan at the time. In fact the papers that you were referring to there were ones that my father put together as a result of the libel action that Dunstan brought against The Advertiser because of my father’s article.

Now he did drop that action but my father was deputed by his editors to put together material that could be used in defence of that libel case and that was where a lot of that material came from. So – but there was a long period when my father, even though he was not as progressive as Dunstan, he did support a lot of his policies, he did admire his brilliance, he admired his charisma and it was only later that he felt that Dunstan had become corrupted and that it was time for him to leave power. That is essentially the way that I came out on this question. He was very critical of Dunstan at certain times but that did not detract from his admiration for him as a politician and for a lot of his policies.

A: I also grew up in South Australia during the time of the Dunstan years and I’ve read Angela’s book and it’s a great read about Dunstan. Did Dunstan and your father ever reconcile after their interactions?

J: They did, actually and it first – the first time was when – after Dad retired he wrote a biography of Sir Thomas Playford, the long-running Premier of South Australia, and he really wanted to interview Dunstan for the book and for a long time Dunstan refused to meet with my father. Finally my father spoke to one of his former Ministers, it might have been Hugh Hudson, I’m not quite sure, and said look, would you speak to Don and see if he would agree to come and talk to me about Playford and Dunstan finally did and he actually met Dad at my father’s home and Dad interviewed him for several hours. Then later they had several social occasions where they got together at Don’s restaurant and so they reconciled let’s say as much as was possible.

A: Of course Dunstan had a great relationship with Playford.

J: Yes, exactly, exactly. Yes, regarded him as a very good Labor Premier, right? Except he was Liberal.

A: So I was just wondering maybe if you could talk a bit about Oliphant and the interaction. I didn’t realise that they were great friends and obviously – and you mentioned similar personalities. I’m intrigued by that and that here’s an eminent scientist and your father obviously a great literary man having this bond almost between the two of them.

J: Yeah, I think – one interesting thing is my father’s own father died when my father was nearly 11 years old and I think he saw in Oliphant a father figure and he did that with a number of other people including Sir Hans Heysen whose son was at school with my father and he just loved staying at, visiting the Heysen family, he was very close to them. I think Oliphant was another father figure for him. But I think that my father identified with Oliphant, obviously not in terms of their professions and my father was really clueless when it came to science, it’s just as well he had a co-author for that biography who was a physicist, but Oliphant also could be intemperate and impetuous and say things that would better not be said and there was a description my father gave in a speech he gave on Oliphant where he said that he was a prolific letter-writer and he had all these letters and he bared his soul and he was honest and he was argumentative.

Well that applies to my father exactly and so I think they just developed this very strong relationship and my father helped him a lot when he was older and helped him with his wife who developed Alzheimer’s. My father was like that, he liked to run around and be supportive in various ways. So that’s how it came about.

A: Thanks Jennifer, that’s – so I’m Michael Wilson, I’m Sir Mark Oliphant’s grandson –

J: Thank you for being here.

A: I agree with everything you’ve just said about what he was like and the fact that the two were very similar. I saw a lot of them together, interacting with each other but my question’s actually to you, what do you think Stewart would say about your writing his biography? I ask that because I asked him one day when we were working together on the second edition of Oliphant which came out – I think it was ’89 or ’90, I forget but it had a couple of new chapters and I said to Stewart but you’ve done so many things in your life, what about an autobiography or are you talking to someone about writing your biography? He said to me oh I don’t think anyone’d be that interested. I was never sure whether that was false modesty or not but how would he feel?

J: Well – and I’m not sure I could say for sure whether that was false modesty or not. Certainly when I brought the topic up he said oh no, don’t be ridiculous, the great South Australian writers Colin Thiele 50:16, Max [Fachin] 50:16, they’re the ones that deserve biographies, not me but you could write a family history. Of course he kept everything and a lot of it was kept for the family. I know like his letters between my parents, he left a note saying – to three daughters saying I hope you will read these letters and see how much your mother and I loved each other. So he wanted people to read those.

Did he hope that maybe somebody would write a book about him? I don’t know but he did write a letter to me saying – pointing out all the terrible things he’d done, The Salisbury Affair and getting too emotional and this, that and the other and why I shouldn’t write something about him but he didn’t say no. His editor, John Scales, loves to describe my father talking to him when I came to visit in 2005 to start some research and he said John, my daughter’s – and he kind of imitated my father – she’s going to write a biography of me and I’d really appreciate your helping, Jennifer, with the book and warts and all, John, warts and all. So I hope he would be pleased with the result.

S: Can you all join me in thanking Jennifer and Colin once again?


S: Now for those of you in the audience with us live here tonight and you don’t have a copy of the book – I’ll just hold it up again in case you’ve forgotten what it look like – conveniently we have a bookshop upstairs if you’d like to go and buy that right now and if you’re on the stream at home or on YouTube press pause now, look at title and buy this book from our online bookstore which we have as well. Jennifer, I hope you are still – your offer remains to sign some books up in the foyer after tonight’s event and I’d just like to thank everybody else for coming out tonight, it is a very cold Canberra night and I do appreciate that that is difficult sometimes in the current weather we’ve had so thank you very much for coming along and come back to the Library again and shop at the bookshop. Thank you.


In a discussion facilitated by Colin Steele, Jennifer Cockburn talks about her most recent book, Writing for His Life: Stewart Cockburn, Crusading Journalist.

As a journalist, Stewart Cockburn was instinctive and fearless. The 16-year-old copy boy who started at the Adelaide Advertiser in 1938 was to have a career in writing, radio and television that spanned more than 45 years. In this biography, Stewart Cockburn’s daughter Jennifer draws on his many letters and journals, bringing to life the father she knew and the changing times he so closely observed.