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July 04th 2009 print

Peter Coleman

My friend Frank

Frank Devine was an indomitable cavalier. A bon vivant who loved long lunches, he was a conviction journalist whose religious faith was central to his life. (He used to pray privately at work: “Jesus Christ, Son of God , have mercy on us.”).

Frank Devine, who died on 3 July, was the Laughing Cavalier of Australian journalism. His laughter, often noisy, was always infectious. When I asked Rupert Murdoch for a comment, he said : “Frank had a great sense of humour… which he applied to nearly everything in life!”  Paul Kelly found him “always engaging, always optimistic and always full of amusing anecdotes.” William Shawcross recalled him as large, cheerful and jovial.

But he was also an indomitable cavalier. A bon vivant who loved long lunches, he was a conviction journalist whose religious faith was central to his life. (He used to pray privately at work: “Jesus Christ, Son of God , have mercy on us.”). His politics were conservative. (He once supported E.G.Whitlam — in 1972 — but not for long.) A family man, his last published essay, in the May Quadrant, honours his wife Jacqueline, his three children, and his fifty years of marriage.

He was also a loyal friend: mourners at the funeral of Paddy McGuinness will not forget the sight of Devine weeping as he delivered his tribute to his old atheist friend. He was a sports fanatic (he had a bookcase full of dog-eared Wisdens), a film buff (his favourite film was The Godfather), and a stylish writer with a love for words (he wrote a column in The Australian about English usage which became the book, The Quick Brown Fox.)

Inevitably  he figured prominently on the hate list of the Left:  right-wing ranter, senile fascist, CIA agent, were among the many corrupt libels loaded on him. Paul Keating sneered at  “that old fart.” Although Devine sometimes fancied himself “an IRA hitman manqué”, he never retaliated in kind.

Frank Derek Devine was born in Blenheim, New Zealand, on 17 December 1931. His father, a carpenter who built their modest timber house, was chairman of the provincial Labour Party. The Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk once had dinner at the family home. After he had helped with the washing up, Devine’s mother hung the tea towel on the wall and would never let anyone touch it.

Devine’s primary school was St Mary’s. (He was an altar boy.) His high school was Marlborough College. (He was a house captain.) The College was so impressed with his brains that it allowed him to spend days in the school library rather than wasting time in classes.

He began his career as a journalist and sports reporter at the age of 17 on the Marlborough Express under the respected editor Selwyn Vercoe who encouraged his interest in literature. He took a second job on the railways to help pay for a trip around the world. In 1953 he set out for London but stopped off in Perth and decided to stay. He found a job on The West Australian. He also met Jacqueline Magee, a reporter on the women’s page.

It was a life-changing meeting. They married in April 1959. As Devine tells it, he approached matrimony with a callow lightness of being. “Do you think we should get married?” he proposed. “ I suppose so,” she replied. He was 26. But soon after the marriage Devine became a foreign correspondent for about ten years — first for three years in New York (where his daughter Miranda was born and where he lost his Labor sympathies), then for six months in  London, then five years in Tokyo (where his daughter Rosalind was born.) Life among foreigners without the support of their extended families consolidated their marriage and made them strongly dependent on each other.

Back in Perth in 1970 he was sounded out about joining the Reader’s Digest as editor-in-chief of the Australian and New Zealand editions. He went  to New York to be screened by the legendary owner and founder of the magazine, DeWitt Wallace, then 80 years old. Wallace wanted to know if Devine thought the Digest should use the word fuck in its condensed novels . Devine said if you could not delete the word, it was not much of a story. He got the job. He moved to Sydney (where his daughter Alexandra was born.)

Among his coups as editor-in-chief were the first substantial report (by Alan Trengove) on the growing use of sports drugs and the exposure (by Maurice Shadbolt) of how a New Zealander convicted of murder had been fitted up by an Auckland detective.(The man was released.)

He met Rupert Murdoch when he moved to the US to become an editor of the American edition of the Reader’s Digest. Murdoch’s insatiable appetite for  work and capacity for concentration impressed him deeply.(“I found him a more concentrated man than I had ever previously encountered or imagined.”) For his part, Murdoch told me: “I was impressed by Frank’s grasp of journalism and his warm personality.” In 1986 he made Devine editor of the Chicago Sun-Times.

In Chicago Devine scrapped the paper’s traditional headlines such as RABBI HIT IN SEX SLAVERY SCANDAL and turned it into an aggressive home-town watchdog. He was proud of his campaign for a new public library. (He also sent a small group of top, computer-skilled copy editors to Wapping in England to help Murdoch crack the infamous print unions in London.) When Murdoch sold the Chicago Sun-Times  Devine moved to New York to edit the New York Post where he introduced a lively Op-Ed page. But this job too was also short-lived — a casualty of Murdoch’s need to sell the paper to hold on to the television channel Five.

Devine returned to Australia to be editor of The Australian. As in New York, he introduced a strong Op-Ed page with outside contributors. (One of them was Owen Harries who on the day the Berlin Wall fell wrote a piece Devine headlined as “The End of the World As We Know It.”) But now for the first time in his journalistic career  he experienced a setback. In December 1989, after fifteen months in the job, he was sacked. The reason why, he said with heavy irony, remained “one of the enduring mysteries of Australian journalism.” When I asked Murdoch why, he replied: “The paper did not do well.”  Devine insists that circulation had risen. He noted William Shawcross’s explanation in his biography Rupert Murdoch — that he had made the mistake of supporting the pilots in the 1989 pilots’ strike. But Devine does not recall supporting any side in that strike except to oppose the Prime Minister Hawke’s use of military aircraft and crews to break the strike. He denies another charge that his Reaganism was too potent  for weak Australian stomachs. He  concedes that his insistence on American ideas of the independence of editors  irritated Australian management.

Years later Murdoch said : “Frank was one of my mistakes. But I love him”  I asked Murdoch what he meant. He replied “No comment.” Devine stayed on with The Australian as a columnist — and continued, with an interruption, for twenty years. His last column appeared on 16 April. It was about the future of Australia and the risks as well as the benefits of our cosying up to China. He ended by defending the Western alliance — and backing the sensible advice that Polonius gave to Laertes in Hamlet : “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried/ Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.”

Later this year Keith Windschuttle’s Quadrant Books will publish a selection of his Quadrant articles to be called Older and Wiser: Essays 2002-2009. It will be the quintessential Devine, a personal manifesto. There are several tributes to important figures in his life. One is to his friend Cardinal Pell who believes that Western society is the creation of Christianity. Devine responds that even if this is so, we should keep our distance from political priests. Another is to Paddy McGuinness: “an illuminator” of great intelligence, learning, charity and honesty. Another is to “Bradman the Liberator”, a “major figure in Australia’s decolonization” whose frustration of the English dirty tricks helped free us from an inhibiting awe of the Motherland and its splendours. In another tribute he honours Christopher Koch for placing Hobart on the world’s literary map “with the riches from its secret worlds matching New York, St Petersburg, and Paris, not to mention Berlin, Los Angeles and Rio.”

There are several autobiographical essays. One is a mould-breaking report on his cancer treatment: “The general conviviality of the radiation centre waiting room is, as they say, a tonic. I have mingled extensively with patients. The calm and courage of all of them, some travelling a much harder road than mine, stir heart and mind.”

Another describes the night he took out Australian citizenship He was in his 70’s. It was not easy. He had been brought up, like all good New Zealanders, to see Australians as “ill-educated, spendthrift, technologically backward, uninventive, racist, sexist, fat and drunk.”  When, as “one of 64 wogs in all”, he took the brief , sharp oath of allegiance to Australia (as largely drafted by Les Murray), he was not prepared for the joyfulness of the occasion. The local state member, Jillian Skinner, congratulated the new citizens on “your decision to join us”. Thereupon the North Sydney Council Chamber “exploded into a disco revel of laughter, smiles, tears and hugs and some raucous cheering probably from New Zealanders. We were happy, happy, happy, happy.”

But one of the most moving essays is his affirmation of marriage. “My experience is that intimacy is there from the start in a long and happy marriage. Reticence falls away quite quickly. Trust builds progressively. We over-reached once to the edge of financial ruin. There were opportunities for finger-pointing and blame-laying. Instead we comforted each other and together made plans for recovery. The locking stone of total trust fell into place.”

Frank Devine is survived by his wife Jacqueline and his three daughters Miranda, Alexandra and Rosalind.