The bond between the Canberra press gallery and federal politicians always tends to be unhealthily close, but rarely has it been so incestuous than during the hectic few days in March 1971 when Prime Minister John Gorton, after three crisis-ridden years in office and fearing that he would be outvoted on the floor of the House of Representatives, chose to stand down as federal Liberal Party leader.
The media was no impassive observer of the Prime Minister’s sudden demise. In March 1971 Gorton was widely seen as the victim of a malevolent plot masterminded by the old-style press baron Sir Frank Packer (attempts to suggest that the Fairfax press was a fellow conspirator against Gorton failed to take off). Sir Frank had power and, unquestionably, loved to use it, although usually against the Australian Labor Party. He was known to be close to the disaffected Liberal minister William McMahon, whom he much preferred to Gorton and who succeeded him as party leader.
In 1971 Sir Frank’s tightly marshalled empire included two television stations in Sydney and Melbourne, the Bulletin magazine and the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph in Sydney. A press offensive against Gorton that drew on these resources could not be ignored.
The idea that a concerted campaign was afoot seemed all too plausible during Gorton’s last Sunday as Prime Minister. That morning the Sunday Telegraph featured an editorial which thundered that it was “time for a change of leader”. At the end of the day various participants in a “command performance” on the Packer television program Meet the Press conveyed the message that Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser, then engaged in a byzantine power struggle with Gorton, would be risible if he did not resign. On the following day Fraser did resign, precipitating Gorton’s fall.
In the light of Sunday’s events the inevitable question had to be asked. Could Gorton’s speedy demise be directly attributed to an orchestrated Packer plot? This matter was canvassed in the media and in parliament and excited renewed discussion in August 1971 when veteran Packer journalist Alan Reid released a book, The Gorton Experiment, that presented an unflattering portrait of Gorton’s prime ministership. McMahon sacked Gorton—who had lingered on as Defence Minister and deputy party leader since the dark days of March— after he wrote a series of newspaper articles disputing Reid’s book.
The events of August followed sharply on the heels of one of the more lively and intriguing journalistic pieces that examined the Packer empire’s political role in 1971. The article in question—“A Packer Plot?”—appeared in the winter issue of the Australian Quarterly and was written by a Canberra insider in the immediate wake of Gorton’s fall. A suitably cloak-and-dagger air was adopted. The article’s author, in a rare break with custom at the Australian Quarterly, was identified only as Mr Y.
Though secretive, Mr Y was no rabid conspiracy theorist. Gorton’s downfall, the anonymous author pointed out once he started warming to his theme, did not start off as a Packer plot. Sir Frank was not responsible for Malcolm Fraser deciding, towards the end of February 1971, to start planting stories in the press critical of the leadership of the Australian Army. Fraser’s hostile message, put out in confidential briefings with journalists—and initially buried without fanfare in a couple of newspapers—was that senior officers in the Australian Army were trying to “sabotage” civic action initiatives in South Vietnam.
The action began to hot up on February 24 when Fraser briefed the Bulletin, which then decided, for marketing rather than conspiratorial reasons, to give the story top billing under a racy headline (“The Australian Army’s ‘Revolt’ in Vietnam”). To further promote the story, the Daily Telegraph published a sensationalised version on the day before the Bulletin hit the newsstands.
The “influence of Packer” at this stage of events, as depicted by Mr Y, was largely a matter of what the Packer journalist Alan Reid chose to do. Reid knew all about the Bulletin story before it appeared. With malice aforethought—or so Mr Y implied—the wily Reid suggested to the writer of the Daily Telegraph article (Bob Baudino) that before adapting the story he should check its accuracy not with the Defence Minister—even though Fraser was the source—but instead with the Prime Minister. Baudino’s showing the story to Gorton, or so Mr Y thought, had the desired effect, from Reid’s Machiavellian perspective, of enraging Gorton. The Prime Minister impetuously and immediately supported the army against his Defence Minister. For Fraser, Gorton’s taking sides against him in this way was an act of “significant disloyalty”.
Reid had not originated the crisis but he exploited it for all it was worth. He publicly declared that Gorton’s failure to kill a story by Alan Ramsey in the Australian covering the army’s criticism of Fraser amounted to an endorsement of the criticism. He also made “full use” of a Max Walsh revelation, on This Day Tonight, to the effect that Fraser was indeed the confidential source for the Bulletin and the Daily Telegraph.
So, based on all the available evidence, did Mr Y think that there had been a carefully hatched Packer plot? His considered judgment was that Reid, who certainly did believe that Gorton had to go, was undoubtedly the “leading activist” in a far from united or far-sighted Packer camp. Reid’s mischievous actions were crucial—it was Reid in particular who dwelt on Gorton’s alleged “disloyalty” to Fraser in the fatal Meet the Press program—but they were not systematically orchestrated from above. Mr Y found it hard to detect a solidly Machiavellian level of energy operating higher up the Packer hierarchy. Talk of a plot simply overlooked the extent to which, through an act of characteristic impetuosity, Gorton himself contributed to his own demise.
Mr Y’s conclusion was hardly earth-shattering and yet its very harmlessness adds to the mystery of why he was so coy about revealing his identity. This latter question can only be attempted once the immediate matter to be determined on this occasion—Is it possible after all these years to identify Mr Y?—is settled.
Ending Mr Y’s anonymity is a worthwhile exercise because it sheds fresh light on one of the more dramatic episodes in modern Australian political history and can do little harm to anyone given the passage of time. Furthermore, unlike many other mysteries in the world of anonymous authorship, this matter can in point of fact be settled surprisingly quickly and conclusively.
Mr Y’s identity is revealed in an oral history transcript dating from 1974 which I have consulted at the National Library of Australia. In the course of an interview covering his career, the journalist Peter Samuel, who at the time of the interview headed the Canberra bureau of the Bulletin, indicated without any prompting that it was he who had, just three years earlier, written the anonymous Australian Quarterly article.
Samuel was a first-hand witness and direct participant in the events of February and March 1971. He was therefore able to relate an interesting Canberra tale based on an insider’s view of these recent important events and yet, given the sensitive nature of some of the information, it was perhaps wisest to do this anonymously. Two considerations in particular weighed in favour of namelessness.
The first related to journalistic ethics. All journalists were obliged to protect their sources whenever confidentiality was involved. Samuel knew that it would be unprofessional and unfair if he declared in public that he had been confidentially briefed by Malcolm Fraser on February 24. He refused to do so on the Meet the Press program even when pressed to do so by other Packer journalists. Even after Fraser was outed Samuel was not ready to come out and publicly name his source and it seems he was prepared to write about how he obtained his information for his Bulletin story only on condition that he (though not his source) was not named. A figleaf of respectability was maintained.
The second reason relates to the fact that Samuel was keen to downplay any notion of sustained and significant anti-Gorton intent operating in the Packer organisation—from Sir Frank Packer down—except in the case of Alan Reid. Samuel was ready to publish certain facts about Reid’s role as a would-be plotter but the maintenance of a viable working relationship with his senior Packer colleague demanded that he do so anonymously. Too brazen an exposure was best avoided, especially given that the targeting of Gorton by individual Packer journalists mostly went ahead without the blessing of Sir Frank Packer and sometimes indeed contrary to an explicit ban on such activities.
In his oral history testimony, Samuel indicated that one of his stranger activities during the Gorton years came when David Fairbairn emerged as a focus of disaffection after resigning from Gorton’s cabinet in October 1969. Acting at Reid’s behest, Samuel prepared speeches for Fairbairn after he emerged as a rival to Gorton.
The role of the two journalists in boosting Fairbairn’s chances was explicitly canvassed in Mr Y’s article. Apart from drafting speeches, Reid and Samuel discussed strategy with Fairbairn and rehearsed press conferences in an attempt to strengthen Fairbairn’s effectiveness and impact as an anti-Gorton critic. These two journalists were willing to get involved in, and not merely observe, the latest internal Liberal Party intrigues.
Mr Y’s article confirmed that between them Reid and Samuel were engaged in skulduggery for most of Gorton’s period as prime minister—with Reid, Samuel insisting, definitely being the senior partner. Earlier on in 1969, Samuel was in contact with the ineffective MHREdward St John, after St John, in the argot of Australian politics, “tipped a bucket” on Gorton. Then—and far more seriously—Reid in the lead-up to the events of March 1971 was “in close touch” with the organisers of the final challenge—Fairbairn, Jeff Bate, Kevin Cairns and Peter Howson—as well as with McMahon.
Not until near the very eve of Gorton’s demise was any of this subversive activity deliberately fostered and encouraged from above in the Packer camp. David McNicoll, Packer’s editor-in chief, was long “duchessed” by the Prime Minister to good effect. Bob Baudino, the populariser of Samuel’s Bulletin story, was usually reckoned to be a Gorton man. Back in 1969, Donald Horne, as editor of the Bulletin, was directed from above to stop featuring any “vitriolic” criticism of Gorton. On another occasion in the same year Sir Frank Packer briefly terminated Samuel’s employment because it was considered that his enthusiasm for extracurricular anti-Gorton activities was getting out of hand.
Reid, unlike Samuel, was too much of a Canberra fixture and too good a corporate lobbyist for Sir Frank ever to dispense with his services lightly. Samuel therefore was free to reveal something of his senior colleague’s wicked Machiavellian ways but for his own safety and mutual convenience it was best done anonymously.
The Mr Y story was written partly out of a desire to deflate the myth of a systematic Packer plot against Gorton and partly out of a sheer desire for a good laugh. Samuel wanted to savour the shocked reaction among fellow Canberra insiders when the steamy relationship between politicians and journalists, usually shrouded in confidentiality and humbug, was all too fleetingly discussed in public.
The desire to make mischief was duly rewarded. There was “a great furore” when Mr Y’s article appeared. For a while political and journalistic circles were abuzz with speculation as to who the anonymous author might be. The journalist David Solomon was a suspect as was, for some inexplicable reason, Ainsley Gotto, Gorton’s Principal Private Secretary.
Mr Y’s notoriety was all too fleeting and any persuasiveness that his article might have was weakened by a number of events that merely served to bolster the myth of a Packer plot. Two months after his article was published, Gorton was removed from McMahon’s government after publicly responding to his depiction in Reid’s book The Gorton Experiment. The ABC then got into the act by inviting Sir Frank to broadcast his thoughts on Gorton’s perceived unsuitability for continued high office. Reid’s contentious book was written in his spare time and the Packer broadcast was the ABC’s own idea, but on the basis of such flimsy evidence the notion that Gorton was indeed the victim of concerted Packer machinations seemed to be proven once and for all. Labor’s leader Gough Whitlam was able to assert without much fear of contradiction that “the Packer press decided to run Mr Gorton out of public life”. Mr Y’s more nuanced and truthful view could now all too easily be discounted.
Sir Frank Packer seemed such a domineering figure during the transition from Gorton to McMahon and yet the highly personal nexus between political and media power which he embodied so strikingly and that was examined in Mr Y’s article was not fated to last much longer. In the middle of 1972, a year after the article appeared, commercial considerations forced Sir Frank to sell the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph to Rupert Murdoch. The McMahon government, as a result, had to contest the December 1972 federal election without the support of a reliable Packer-owned daily newspaper. Whitlam was victorious, and Sir Frank’s death followed in 1974.
Peter Samuel left the Bulletin in 1980 and eventually moved to the United States. He has never publicly admitted that he was or indeed still is Mr Y but surely no harm can be done now by revealing his identity. It is a good thing at last to be able to uncover the truth behind one of the more intriguing incidents of the now legendary Gorton era.