Atlas Hugged

This biography is a labour of love. It is not lost in schmaltz, however, as the daughter of ___ Stewart Cockburn pursues her father’s life through the archives of his years, 1921 to 2009, with a keen eye for his foibles, sharpened by a biography course on top of her BA Political Science/LLB (ANU) and Master of Laws (Georgetown University).

Her approach is cradle-to-grave (read crematorium). In page-turner, must-read style, she highlights the stations of her father’s career. An alumnus of Scotch College, Adelaide, he did not proceed to the city’s university. Predestined (in a non-Calvinist way) to be a journalist, he joined the staff of Adelaide’s broadsheet, the Advertiser: his grandfather George was a printer there, and his father Rodney a journalist. To cap this, his mother’s first name, Ruby, also denoted a type font.

This review appears in November’s Quadrant.
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Afire with ambition, young Cockburn was fast-tracked from cadetship to C-grade, thus overleaping D-grade before advancing to B-grade, A-grade and Super-A in the mazy system devised by executives and trade unionists of whom Sir Keith Murdoch was both and, ever a talent-fossicker, a Cockburn mentor.

As the world prepared for war, so did Cockburn. He joined an Austral-Scots unit of the militia, intrepidly adding pacifism to his sporran during a chat with the commanding officer. Subsequently, he sought to join the Navy. This entailed the diagnosis TB-scars and the verdict, unfit.

Despite this, he persisted with the RAAF in the spirit of its motto, Per ardua ad astra. The promotion that came his way in 1943, the Press Gallery, Canberra, was a sufficient compensation even though it was acting, temporary and subsidiary in the Herald & Weekly Times team which then supplied federal parliamentary news to the Advertiser.

Canberra was then still in its bucolic phase, the location of its Parliament House triangulated from the parish pumps of Sydney and Melbourne. In letters to his mother, Cockburn described aspects of his lifestyle: his Civic Hotel room which he shared with Kevin Power (who knelt to say his night prayers) and Leo (“Mac”) Maclellan (another Catholic whose non-spiritual exercises included losing his expensive silk shirts in betting sprees).   

Cockburn’s next station was Reuters, most prestigious of agencies, since its founder carrier-pigeoned the profitable news of Waterloo to London, and the conjuror was Sir Keith Murdoch, who sat on the board of trustees (there’s an ambiguity for you). The assignment’s downside was that Cockburn had to farewell his fiancée, Beatrice (“Biffy”) Ferguson, a university princess, fluent in French, and take the RMS Asturias for Southampton. As a result of war service, conditions on board the ship were not as comfortable as they had been.

Diary and reading list ready, Cockburn got copy from other passengers. His scoop, with Neil Kelly, covered the inadequacies of the Asturias. Cockburn’s luggage was less elaborate than Boot of the Beast’s. But in the ship’s hold was a tucker-box containing one hundredweight of tinned foodstuffs—a precaution against post-war austerity in Britain where the soap ration was larger than the cheese.

The precaution was otiose: Cockburn and Kelly were accommodated country-house style while learning the intricacies of the Reuters sub-editing system before sallying forth into news coverage. Here Cockburn derived heightened excitement from hazardous assignments, compensation for his missing out on active service.

At the same time, in a letter to Beatrice he evinced concern that to reach the top, he would need a certain ruthlessness as well as an absolute focus to the detriment of other cultural interests. He made it clear that, unlike colleagues, he was not a practitioner of journalism’s sub-crafts: “cheating on expenses” and “beating up stories”.

The Reuters HQ, on the El Vino side of Fleet Street, stood opposite the dark-glass façade of the Daily Express/Sunday Express building. This circumstance enables Cockburn fille to record her father’s lunchtime glimpse of Lords Beaverbrook, Camrose, Kemsley, Rothermere in converse. “What devilry is afoot now?” Cockburn asked in his Beatrice letter.

One of his assignments took him over the border into his ancestral Scotland where he delighted in a railway station named Cockburnspath and enjoyed the ambience, without lament for the circumstances that forced so many to emigrate.

If “devilry” is taken as a synonym for media stratagems, Cockburn’s next station may lie on it: the Melbourne Herald’s London Bureau on “knocked me speechless” terms, again Murdoch-conjured, having met and approved Beatrice. Reunited, not sans diplomatic, ma-in-law exchanges, Cockburn married his fiancée before plunging into the pell-mell of bureau reporting which, acknowledged or not, tends to subsume local coverage, in this case Fleet Street at its worthiest and Lunchtime O’Booze.

Together they visited their ancestral Scotland by bus—transport that owed something to the need to balance the wedding Rolls-Royces and to his frugality. This, it must be said, was not on the stereo­typical scale that made Harry Lauder a knightly fortune.

Once more ill-health hit, bringing about a return to ever-loving Adelaide. There, health and opportunity returned. Under the old mates act, he became Press Secretary to Prime Minister Bob Menzies, who nicknamed him “Atlas”, inspired by his weight-of-the-world-on-his-shoulders attitude. Not to be undone, Cockburn reinforced the nickname in a style reminiscent of the Charles Atlas sand-in-face advert. During a hectic election event in Adelaide Town Hall, he punched heavyweight Press Gallery member Ian Fitchett, who more in shock than injury reeled back shouting, “He king-hit me!”

Unreported, the bout was relished in journalists’ watering-holes as Cockburn achieved his objective: persuading his boss to be more amicable to the press he despised. Technically, this came in the form of a wire recorder, designed to create press-conference transcripts for quick distribution, initially spurned as inimical to press freedom.

And there was overseas travel to the United States and the United Kingdom including the pomp, circumstance and frolics of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation. Earlier, while at the Herald’s London Bureau, Cockburn attended a Savoy Hotel party where Ingrid Bergman (already interviewed) joined officials farewelling then Prime Minister Ben Chifley (in London for a Commonwealth of Nations reform conference). His plane was held back for an hour. 

Undoubtedly, Cockburn’s “Atlas” attitude contributed to another period of ill-health which threatened his press secretary tenure. His daughter expresses surprise at his choice of substitute, Hugh Dash, missing the point: her father’s choice of a weak substitute was designed to ensure a return. It was not to be. Dash, an ex-sports-writer, had a fund of stories that Menzies preferred to press conference questions.

Proximity to power can be addictive. Having had a sniff, Cockburn tried again, securing the position of Washington embassy press attaché. Alas, the ambassador, Howard Beale, was his own attaché; Cockburn fell back to his secondary position: information officer. The cocktail round and red-carpet premieres, art galleries and concert halls, films and theatre premieres continued.

Too much and too little. Resigning prematurely, he returned to home base with Beatrice and their children. Never ocker (the invention of the well-bred adman John Singleton), he left behind a might-have-been: a walk-on part in the posthumous Camelot created by President John F. Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline, from memories of the Lerner-and-Loewe musical with prompts from the journalist Theodore H. White.

Cockburn, a networker—mainly by letter—corresponded more or less confidingly, but usually winningly, with friends, colleagues and employers. To the latter, he made it clear he expected them to maintain the standard of living he wished for his wife and their children. He achieved this, working and entertaining in his own homes, city and beachside.

As a member of the Australian Journalists Association, he joined in strike action (about grade-system imbalances). Later, he apologised to editorial managers—less fence-sitting than barbed-wire walking. 

Cockburn fille quotes her father on his lack of self-confidence. This scarcely accords with his achievements. Could it possibly be a ploy to enhance them? Nor would Cockburn be the only journalist to come on as diffident to trick rivals and as a means of breaking down a subject’s reluctance to talk.

Faced with an abundance of offers, Cockburn forgot Hilaire Belloc’s advice, “Always keep a-hold of nurse / for fear of finding something worse.” He did, in a partnership with a former press gallery member Rodger Rea, founder of a Canberra agency that supplied political info to corporate clients. Lucrative, but not lucrative enough to prevent Cockburn returning disgusted to Nurse Tiser.

Much was made by Cockburn, and reiterated by his daughter, of his traverse from journalist to author. This, it is suggested, was Alpine or Andean, whereas it was no more than the Mount Lofty Ranges. And any number of journalists have made a similar traverse. His first book, The Salisbury Affair (1979)—about dark, police-political doings during the Don Dunstan era—was akin to The Case of Splatt, his newspaper analysis of a grisly murder trial. His focus was on the circumstantial forensics and led to their rectification. But only locally, despite a Walkley Award in 1982.

The test of Cockburn’s high-calibre professionalism lay in the time-frame; he got onto the Splatt case while working on Oliphant (1981), the biography of Sir Mark Oliphant, prickly peer of all those who took part in the Manhattan Project with all that it entailed, and will entail till time ends (or it ends time). The fact that Sir Mark had absent-mindedly commissioned another biographer, David Ellyard, a television writer-producer, might have been fissionable. Appropriate grants cemented their greed to work together albeit in different locations. Communicating with Ellyard, Cockburn admitted to “verbal diarrhea” in comparison to Ellyard’s more laconic approach.

Arguably this was another ploy: Cockburn was a thoroughbred out to win. He had a talent for profiles. Nor did he leave them buried in Advertiser-bound volumes. His book The Patriarchs (1983) collected them. Among the subjects was Sir Douglas (“Pastor Doug”) Nicholls, a sign of where Cockburn’s pro-active sympathies lay in the ambiguity left by an Oliphant comment when Don Dunstan made Nicholls Lieutenant-Governor of South Australia.

Cockburn followed suit in Notable Lives: 21 Profiles of South Australians (1997). The title of his more notable work, Playford: Beneficent Despot (1991), echoes the Aquinas suggestion that the ideal ruler might be a benign tyrant. Cockburn’s odd complaint was that the subject, the late South Australian Premier Sir Thomas Playford, left only a sparsely documented account of his dealings, and that he had to rely on quotes. The dealings were not inconsiderable. They enabled Playford to transform Adelaide and its hinterland into an industrialised city-state during his world record period in office. Its context, gerrymandering, was not also a world record. That title must go to Northern Ireland, which marked the centenary of its gerrymandered border in 2021.

Playford’s fulfilment, albeit temporary, did put him beyond the debtor’s vision of Edward Gibbon Wakefield but not necessarily Colonel Thomas Light, whose original design comprised a sea-to-city ship canal for the Athens of the South, city of churches and Masonic lodges, neither much mentioned (now there’s balance).

In the final phase of his career, Super-A Cockburn earned less from staff assignments than from freelancing: South Australian correspondent, Canberra Times, television, radio and public speaking. His books, though self-published under the imprint Ferguson, were profitable with the addition of subsidies, syndication and professional distribution. Fiction was not part of his array, although he envied the best-sellerdom of Morris West, one of many former journalists who found in fiction a means to propagate legally unacceptable facts.

Cockburn influenced three reform editors of the Advertiser, first Des Colquhoun (whose part in the Great Adelaide Tidal Wave Story goes unmentioned) and then Don Riddell and John Scales. It must be added that their muse was Shirley Stott Despoja (mother to Natasha).

Agnostic shading to atheist as he moved across the political spectrum from left to right, Cockburn used biblical terms, remarking in a letter to a friend that he might have come under the sway of “Mammon”. And he got to the church on time for both his marriages.

He espoused euthanasia, yet in his final years, overtaken by the ailments of age, accelerated by Beatrice’s death, he did not avail himself of it, preferring a measure of palliative care before a return to the beachside home-care of his children (Carol, Jenny, Kirsty, Hugh) and his second wife, Jennifer Cashmore, a politician, who had first admired him when she was a Tiser cadet. Compared to the home life of gonzo journalists, this has the ambience of Joanna Trollope Aga-fiction. Out of it, however, came an anecdote fit for any hack-lit anthology: quaffing wine, Cockburn crunched a hearing aid thinking it was a cashew nut.

It is a measure of the biography’s charm that you scarcely notice omissions. Indeed are they omissions? Or did Cockburn fille decide they were outside her brief, and refrain from a discursive account?

Nonetheless, during his Canberra periods, Stewart Cockburn knew the likes of Don Rodgers, who wrote the piece for Prime Minister John Curtin that switched Australia’s reliance from the United Kingdom to the United States.

Cockburn’s own introduction of transcripts started the evolution to post-modern coverage, and his short Rea partnership agency (a snail-mail version of online letters) quickened it. Now they are essential to the mix of lobbyists, influencers and staffers, seeking pre-selection or career enhancement amid blizzards of bumph which obscure rather than clarify the workings of democracy (in the foretold computerised, paperless world).

Most pertinently Cockburn’s career coincided with the rise and rise of the Murdochs, father and son, including the former’s thumb in the Advertiser pie and the latter’s control of it. Yet there is no explicit comment, pro or con, from Cockburn, who used the word devilry about British press lords.

His papers, it’s difficult to believe, do not contain relevant comment, say, on the Keith Murdoch deal to gain control of the Melbourne Argus, while Herald & Weekly Times chief executive—a deal from which the International Press Corporation’s Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp withdrew, leaving Murdoch to die abed between sheets of debt, and his son Rupert, his principal heir, to change them to sheets of profit. For anyone wishing to add a molehill to the Murdochian Ranges, Cockburn fille lists the locations of her father’s papers in her bibliography.

Summation, she leaves to him. “I can only express gratitude for having enjoyed for so long the incomparable privilege and responsibility of a public forum from which to exercise modest skills—sometimes I hope in the public interest.” Nicely said, if a touch rhetorically humble. There’s also the Cockburn clan motto, Accendit cantu—he excites us with song.

Writing for His Life: Stewart Cockburn, Crusading Journalist
by Jennifer Cockburn

Australian Scholarly, 2022, 474 pages, $44

James Murray’s first novel, The Pale Sergeant, was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 1986. His second, OlympiAntics (2000), his third, Shark City (2013), and his fourth, Ruffian in Waiting (2017), were not. His major work in progress is The Four Horsemen of the Enlightenment: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot

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