Decoding a Satire: Kenneth Cook on the ABC

Wake in Fright was not, as commonly supposed, Kenneth Cook’s first novel. Two years before its publication, Ken, then working as a scriptwriter in the newsroom of ABC Television at Gore Hill, Sydney, dashed off a withering denunciation of the organisation and a lament for television as a news medium. But ABC regulations then prohibited publishing a book while employed as an ABC journalist, and in any case, for reasons that will become apparent shortly, Ken would have wanted to put some space between his book and the real events that inspired it.

By the time Chain of Darkness appeared in 1962, the year after Wake in Fright, it was overlooked in the excitement over that novel, which was drawn from Ken’s experiences as ABC Regional Journalist in Broken Hill. Nobody realised that a rattling good but simple crime story was written in code; Ken would have gone to his grave laughing to himself. Sixty years after the events that provoked Chain of Darkness, all the characters on which it is based are gone, and it is now possible to safely decode the novel for readers.

Ken and I first crossed paths (without meeting) in June 1953 in a frantic shuffle of journalists in ABC offices in regional Queensland. Ken was in Rockhampton, relieving the sick incumbent, thus delaying his posting to Townsville to replace a reporter promoted to Sydney. I had been appointed to Longreach, but agreed to delay my holidays and transfer to go to Rockhampton to release Cook. That was how thin the ABC was in those days.

I first saw Ken, dirty, unkempt and barefoot, when I returned from Papua New Guinea to a posting in ABC Television News at Gore Hill in 1958. His scruffy appearance belied his talent. He was the Top Gun of scriptwriters—fast, accurate and therefore the only person to be entrusted with late film. He was so proud of his ability to set crisp words to film that he could not resist the temptation to include a description in the book:

Now Davidson was writing the script of the film proper, scripting to match the film running through at a rate of one point six feet per second, and an announcer reading about five words a second … After years in television Davidson did this almost automatically, calculating mentally as he typed, almost nonchalantly, but aware all the time that there were four minutes before the news started, three minutes, two minutes, and one mistake in calculation could make nonsense of the whole script, could reduce the whole news programme to chaos.

As producer of the news bulletin, I have seen him do it, while I sweated along with everyone else as the clock wound down. But only two years after the launch of television in Australia, and the clamour of every ambitious reporter to be part of the new medium, Ken was already thoroughly disenchanted with it.

This essay appears in June’s Quadrant.
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The Commission had been terrified of television. It had developed phobias about production techniques that had nothing to do with values and standards: for instance, it banned the “big heads” popularised by John Freeman in his Face to Face interviews on the BBC. But it was more concerned that news would be infiltrated and distorted by pictures of worthless news value simply because they were dramatic. The Commission resolved that “content should be based on the standards now applied in sound broadcasting and should not be influenced by the availability of illustrations”. So television news would be best as radio news read in vision.

There was a running battle to introduce valid illustration of news stories. It led to a diktat that no more than two minutes of film could be used in the fifteen-minute 7 p.m. bulletin. The level was frequently exceeded, resulting in a complaint cascading down from the Commission, a reprimand from senior management and an unlovely scamper in the newsroom to shift the blame.

Behind the smiling faces of ABC television—continuity announcer Tanya Halesworth and newsreader Jim Dibble—the newsroom was a dysfunctional cockpit of competing egos, rancid argument and incompetent leadership.

Because television news was seen as a presentational adjunct to the real business of news gathering, all copy was supplied by teleprinter from the national radio news headquarters in William Street, Kings Cross. On a very few stories, one of the scriptwriters would be sent out as a reporter with a camera crew. The cameramen hated being assigned to news. They saw themselves as creative artists, not journeymen recording mundane events for a program they despised. The atmosphere was lackadaisical when not confrontational, the daily conference in the viewing suite to review the film (the “five o’clock follies” as they were known) usually descending into sneering point-scoring.

The head of Television News was Keiran (Keith) Fraser (left), my former Queensland News Editor, a one-time mounted policeman with a supposed military intelligence background but no journalistic experience whatsoever. A sociopath who swung from pretentious patronising to bullying and betrayal, he ruled by using the office informer to keep tabs on everybody and by playing one ambitious journalist against another. In Chain of Darkness Fraser is Rex Forster, running the news, but like his original, spending most of his time in the Television (729) Club. The book is set in the newsroom of a mythical commercial television station, but I could close my eyes and hear this conversation at ABC Gore Hill:

Jimmy Meredith: I had another run in with Forster today.

Ben Davidson: Again? You must be tired of your job, Jimmy.

Jimmy: This confounded cancer story. He had the gall to call me into his office and blast me for running it. Do you know I went to the beggar last night and asked him what he thought about it and he said to make it second headline.

Ben: Well, that’s normal procedure. Double think and all that. You’re not still surprised at that sort of thing, are you?

Later, at a conference with the sponsor of the news program, Forster was showing off, à la Fraser:

We must take more care about the subjects we include in the news. We have not got the same licence as a newspaper. We must always remember that we are guests in the viewers’ living-rooms … there was one story recently dealing with cancer, which, frankly, should not have been told to young children, or even adults, over their evening meal.

Those excerpts depict the newsroom atmosphere at Gore Hill on October 9, 1959, when two desperadoes, Kevin John Simmonds and Leslie Alan Newcombe, escaped from Long Bay Gaol. The next six weeks provided the first big “made for television” story in the medium’s brief history, but the ABC didn’t see it that way. Where the newspapers and the commercial channels would give full vent to the excitement of the chase and the hysteria of the cheer squads, the ABC would calmly, discreetly report only “significant” developments, without film where possible.

Nevertheless, Ken and I took turns to spend hours at the police search headquarters set up in a paddock outside Wyong, where there was little to report and less to see. There were no interviews, and the ABC then did not “do” pieces to camera by reporters. We had a camera crew with us most days, but they didn’t shoot much because they were prohibited from following the police search teams into the bush. This drove Ken mad, and when he did bring back film, it was invariably ridiculed in the five o’clock follies, and junked.

With Ken’s brilliant eye for the absurd, he had his alter ego Ben Davidson reflect:

What a strange submarine world was that of the conference room, inhabited by queer fish like Forster and Prescott and Bloomfield, their mouths continuously opening and shutting, emitting sounds which resembled human speech, but which, on analysis, turned out to be utterly bereft of meaning.

Within a fortnight, Newcombe had been recaptured in Sydney, but the resourceful Simmonds, by stealing cars, hiding out in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, and then striking out north-west through dense bush, eluded the police pursuit for thirty-seven days. As an inverted hero worship developed for the photogenic escapee, with housewives, schoolgirls and much of the media forming a fan club and reviling the incompetent constabulary, the ABC ordered there must be no glamourising of a criminal.

Barefoot, starving and friendless, Simmonds made his way sixty kilometres through trackless bush from Wyong to Mulbring and Kurri Kurri in the Upper Hunter region before he was spotted, reported and finally tracked down by dogs. The capture was a major news event by any standards, even without admiration for his feat of survival. Newspaper photographers and Channel Seven got to Kurri to photograph him with his captors, but the ABC did not.

KEN Cook raged about the betrayal of television, the failed journalism, the bureaucratic muzzle. He vowed to say something about it, but didn’t explain what, and I transferred from television to radio soon afterwards and thought no more of it. When Jacqueline Kent published her charming memoir of her life with Ken two years ago, it prompted me to ask her if she knew whether Ken had followed up on his idea to write about his television experience. “Of course,” she said, “he wrote Chain of Darkness.” I tracked down a copy of the thin paperback.

His fictional story begins with all the power and economy of one of Ken’s news scripts: “Johnson was confused and he probably didn’t even mean particularly to hurt the policeman, but he killed him just the same.” Surprised after robbing a jewellery shop, he had instinctively clubbed the man with the tyre lever he had used to break in. Johnson sees the crime reported on television: “A sensual spasm spread through Johnson’s stomach and sent tendrils down to his loins as he realised what he had done. He was moved to a sense of wonder, and unexpected achievement.”

In the newsroom, Meredith is displaying all the cynicism that got certain journalists into so much trouble over the years: “Don’t you get sick of the taste of boot polish when you’re talking to Bloomfield?” asks Meredith. And to the advertising man Prescott: “You’ve got your ear so close to the ground it’s a wonder the ants don’t bite you!” (The real-life Meredith told Keith Fraser to his face that he wasn’t fit to tie the shoelaces of a real journalist. Undiplomatic, but quite right.)

In the novel, Cook was able to give free rein to the heroics of television reporting that he was forbidden to deploy in real life. He gave Ben Davidson the scoop of a lifetime. After prowling back roads ten miles from the police camp at Ulverston, Davidson and his film crew were surprised by the fugitive Johnson bursting out of the bush, pointing a rifle at them. But the resourceful reporter talked the criminal out of stealing their car, then persuaded him to let him interview him. “The chance of interviewing a murderer on the run was one that wouldn’t come to a journalist in ten lifetimes, and to pull it off on film—that was superb.”

“Mr Johnson, it has been reported that you broke into a city jewellery shop and later killed a policeman who tried to arrest you. Would you care to give us your version of the incident? … would you tell us what happened?”

“It was an accident,” blurted Johnson, and stopped.

“In what way was it an accident, Mr Johnson,” said Davidson gently.

Johnson didn’t say anything for a long time, and Davidson was afraid he had dried up, then, haltingly, his eyes shifting, he said: “I just bumped into him, like, in the lane. He sort of fell and I ran away. I didn’t mean to hurt him. It was an accident, like.” 

This was television journalism, thought Davidson … the desk men, the conference men know nothing of this exultation, this sense of success—this triumph of the gambler who wins gloriously.

Back in the office, Meredith was incredulous until he saw the film. Then, without authority, he rushed it to air as a news exclusive. Forster couldn’t be found because he was in the television club—an all-too-frequent real-life situation at the ABC. Davidson returned to the hunt, certain that the dogs would soon run Johnson down. But just as the police closed in, Davidson was ordered by radio to return to the office immediately. Despite his arguing vehemently that the police were closing in on Johnson, and they would miss the event, the story and the film, Forster insisted the whole team come back.

So Davidson missed the big story. A posse of police led by Detective Sergeant Osborne (in overalls and big spectacles, looking surprisingly like real Sergeant Ray Kelly) cornered Johnson in a poultry farm. And Ken graphically painted the scene:

Slowly Johnson stood up, shrinking back into the corner … his mouth was wide open, his tongue protruding, and he breathed in air in short gasps, breathing in until his chest swelled taut and hard, then loosing a long, shuddering moan. He no longer wanted to surrender, he was incapable of wanting anything; his whole being was submerged in the unspeakable horror of impending death.

As the policemen shot Johnson to death, some firing more than once, a more significant execution was taking place, simultaneously, in a conference back at the television station:

Forster: The—er—fact is that there has been a very serious transgression of—er—policy, and it’s most important that the matter is—er—cleared up … It should be quite obvious that such an interview should never have gone on the air, in fact I don’t think you should even have carried out such an interview.

Davidson: What exactly was the problem about the interview?

Bloomfield: I’ll tell you what was wrong, young man. My company does not pay large amounts of money just to enable criminals, murderers, to make excuses for themselves in our programme.

Meredith: It was probably the best television news story that’s ever been filmed.

Forster: That’s a matter of professional assessment, Mr Meredith, and it’s obvious yours has been badly lacking.

Meredith: What the hell am I supposed to do? I’m paid to put on a news show. A man brings in the best news story I’ve ever seen and I put it on—and look what happens; a bunch of incompetent nitwits who wouldn’t know a news story if they saw one, start raising Cain.

Forster: Mr Meredith, I might point out that I as a newsman quite agree with the general opinion of that interview.

Meredith: You wouldn’t know your arse from a hole in the ground.

Thus, Ken got off his chest all the pent-up frustrations, inanities and insanities of life in the early years of ABC Television News. He left the next year, but for the rest of us things got worse. Fraser went on to higher levels of incompetence as Controller of the entire News Division.

Davidson walked out before he could be sacked, disgusted with the perfidy of management, and reflecting on the false promise of television journalism:

If it came to that, was a journalist’s work anything to get excited about? What was he but a strange social phenomenon that occurred on the fringe of any activity? What had his story tonight told of the truth of the hunt for Johnson? Had it explained Johnson in any way; had it conveyed the essential tragedy of the death of the policeman, had it contributed anything of any worth to anybody? Or had it catered to the sick curiosity of a society so bored with itself  that it needed, to give the illusion that it was alive and vibrant, that sense of excitement and importance of affairs that was offered in terms of what everybody was pleased to think of as “news”?

Chain of Darkness is a crisp little crime story in its own right, a rehearsal of the grittiness of life to be developed in Wake in Fright, but above all, a searing indictment of a broadcasting bureaucracy. It should not be forgotten. 

Geoffrey Luck was an ABC reporter, foreign correspondent and news editor for twenty-six years

2 thoughts on “Decoding a Satire: Kenneth Cook on the ABC

  • Harry Lee says:

    The main point about the ABC is that it promotes a destructive ideology that causes misery for those least capable of looking after themselves. Same is true of 90% of the commercial media. Same is true of the education systems, from Kindie to Uni. Same is true for much of the criminal justice system. And the other main point is that there is no defence against this destruction, nor remedy, provided for in the Australian Constitution. A proper Constitution would protect the peoples so gathered from the malice, ignorance and parasitism of anti-Westernist, marxist-inspired power-mongers. Ours does not. And the success of the anti-freedom, Big Statist, power-crazed people and their naive idealist puppets is so complete that few nominally pro-Western, pro-freedom, pro-individual responsibility people even realise it.

  • STD says:

    I really enjoyed that Geoffrey- just like PS, short and succinct- riveting stuff.

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