Less-Than-Great Acts of Journalism

When I confessed here in 2019 to my worst disaster in journalism, I thought I might start a trend, with other household-word journos “coming out” to confess their own greatest foul-ups. No such follow-up occurred, so we’ve been denied the ABC’s Sarah Ferguson writing a hilarious insider account of how she fouled-up her Trump/Russia three-part Story of the Century.

My big stuff-up was in 1972, when I was in the Canberra Press Gallery as the first  Economics Writer for The Age. I wrote a piece getting stuck into ICI and its subsidiary, Fibremakers, for rorting the tariff system to make obscene profits. Sadly, I had no education in accounting, and I double-counted Fibremakers’ actual profits. Age editor Graham Perkin had to wear a 10-para grovelling correction on the front page next day. You can read the gory details here.

Current TV god David “Kochie” Koch and I, call me Thomasie, were both working for Bob Gottliebsen’s struggling new Business Review Weekly magazine in 1983[1] when Koch’s own almighty stuff-up happened. But why would I remind anyone of it? The (admittedly feeble) answers include

♦ In retrospect it is funny, although not at the time

♦ In 2006 Kochie was mean on-air to Prime Minister John Howard, his wife Janette, and Labor leader Kim Beazley by making them the principals in an old joke involving snow, urination and handwriting.

♦ Kochie is president of the Port Adelaide AFL team and my grandson, a North Melbourne supporter, likes anything negative involving Port Adelaide.

♦ I’m jealous of Kochie’s TV success – a million on his contract here, another million there: for a journo — alas, not for me — it soon adds up to real money

♦ This is the significant 40th anniversary of Koch’s foul-up, and cries out for a re-hash.

Let me take readers back to February 1983 and the whisper amongst us BRW underlings that Koch had come to editor Bob “Gotty” Gottliebsen with a super-scoop – a comprehensive list of major donors to the Liberal Party. The 1983 double-dissolution election was only days off (March 5) and the timing couldn’t have been more apt.

We viewed Koch with mingled awe and envy as he held stage in conferences while the magazine’s artists got busy laying out the coming blockbuster issue. We wondered how had he come to get hold of the list? Did he have a Deep Throat in the Liberal leadership? Koch, we heard, had also cracked the document’s coding to reveal even the sums involved.

The magazine hit newsstands on February 26 with the cover story: “Election CASH – who pays the parties? Koch’s scoop ran across eight pages and was fronted with a full-page illustration of a dart board and story line, “Who hits the target – By David Koch.” Someone did hit the target because the dart board had one dart in the bullseye and two next to it. Koch’s story began,

While the activity of the political bagmen is shrouded in almost Masonic secrecy, they are a political fact of life … The two main parties have developed a sophisticated, efficient cash-collecting infrastructure in which business plays a vital role.

His long screed was larded with the big names of Australian finance – John Elliott, Frank Lowy, John Valder, Denis Horgan (WA tycoon), Charles McGrath (Repco), Robert Law-Smith (NAB, BHP, TAA), Sir Robert Crichton-Brown (NAB, Rothmans), Bob White (Westpac) and so on.

But the article’s crown jewel was its dazzling list of “those who bankroll the Libs” – close to 500 names in alphabetic order, mainly with NSW connections. There were so many names the list had to be set in sub-normal type size to fit them all into two pages. Top of the list was Prime Minister Hawke’s boss, Sir Peter Abeles, followed by John Adams (Syntex Pharmaceuticals) and Lawrence Adler (FAI). At the other, omega end was Natalie Wright (real estate), Vic Yerbury (Envirotech), Francis Young (Aquitania) and John Zeleny (Sterling Homes).

Koch described his “confidential” list as “a typical profile of the cross-section of business that supports the party.” He cautioned, “It does not necessarily reflect current donors, merely people who have donated in recent years.” His research revealed that the biggest contingent was from the insurance industry, followed by banking-finance and, strangely, by the advertising agency crowd – the likes of USP Needham, McCann Ericksen, Leo Burnett, Ogilvy & Mather and Clemenger.

Koch’s code sleuthing, or so it seemed, was on a par with Alan Turing’s at Bletchley Park. But the reporter remained puzzled that “although donors are named as individuals, their accounting codes are structured in terms of corporations.” Warming to his thesis, Koch noted that Ian McNair, chair of consultants McNair Anderson, was coded as 38-259, while the group’s managing directors, Ian Muir and Frank Teer, were coded 38-259A and 38-259B respectively. The general manager was 38-259C:

“No explanation is given for the system …it is interesting to note that the AMP’s code is 1-1.”

This story looked a shoo-in for Walkley fame. Except that it hadn’t hit the bullseye – two darts went out the window and one hit the barman.

As soon as the issue was on the streets, furious phone calls swamped BRW, which was at the time a respectable joint venture between The Age and the Australian Financial Review. Koch’s list was not, in fact, a coded ledger of Liberal donors,  rather a dog-eared list of invitees to a $100-a-head lunch organised two years earlier by the Liberal Party’s NSW President John Valder. If 500 invitees seems a lot to squeeze into a restaurant, many on the list neither accepted nor showed up. And the “code numbers”, we gathered, were keys to some sort of seating plan for the tables!

On top of that, the article had said wrong and bad things about Vic Garland being suspended from the federal ministry in 1976 over some money matter when the truth was that he actually stepped down voluntarily and was cleared of all impropriety. Garland by 1983 had retired from the party and, as Sir Victor Garland, was at that time High Commissioner in London. Oh dear!

Gotty doubtless had some sleepless nights pending his necessary explanations in the next issue of BRW (March 5-11, 1983). But he’s a genius wordsmith, getting the tone right even in the most dire situations. His letter to readers began:

This week is one of corrections. We have had a good record of getting things right in BRW but last week in publishing a list of people who we said were donors to the Liberal Party, we simply got it wrong. It has always been my strong belief that in journalism, or any other field, if you have made a mistake you should admit it. [Not that Gotty had any choice]. I don’t propose to change now.

We published the names last week in good faith but … it was not in fact a list of donors to the party. The party’s NSW president, John Valder, tells me that it was a list of invitees prepared for a North Sydney restaurant function addressed by Sir Phillip Lynch in May 1981 [two years back] and attended by the press … On page 14 this week we set the record straight.

When things go wrong, they don’t go wrong by halves…(W)e incorrectly said Vic Garland had been suspended from the Liberal Party in 1976…

Turning to page 14, one finds a half-page large-type heading, “LIBERAL PARTY DONATIONS – BRW APOLOGISES.” The small wriggle-room was that with the 500 listed names, quite a few doubtless happened to be Liberal donors, but heaps certainly weren’t. The half-page box listed 43 corporations and people (in alphabetical order) who had remonstrated just in that past week about being listed, including a lot of those ad agents, insurers and financiers, along with IBM, Getty Oil and the North Sydney Chamber of Commerce. It finished with a possibly unprecedented invitation to anyone else to complain and get an apology:

Any person who maintains that his or her name was incorrectly published should contact the editor.

Alan Cullen, executive director of the Australian Finance Conference, took Gotty at his word. In BRW’s leading item on the Letters Page, Cullen said that of the $100 ticket price to the function, a lot would have gone on the meal itself. (For interest, I’ve scaled up 1981’s $100 ticket to today’s equivalent, and get the answer, $440. Deduct $140 for the chicken and chardy, and the net for the Liberal coffers is $300 a head). As Cullen wrote testily, to call the ticket “a major corporate donation” was ludicrous — business people went to political-party lunches as a normal part of networking. Cullen hadn’t even attended the lunch, nor was he a member of any party, nor had he made any donations personally or institutionally since his group had to get along with whatever government of the day.

One problem was that many of the Fictive 500 were overseas and only belatedly put up their hand for an apology. In later weeks, and perhaps months, one finds a trickle of BRW letters from other aggrieved parties, under a kaleidoscope of headings like “Not a Donor”, “No Donation”, “No Donations” and “Lib Support Work Only”.

The fate of Kochie after this hiccup remains for me to reveal. You might imagine the worst, but in real life he fell upwards and within months was promoted to founding editorship of Personal Investment magazine. This magazine hit the spot with readers – it even had Cleo-style sealed sections with tax dodges in lieu of reviews of sex toys. Its editor’s career thereafter leapt into the stratosphere of print and TV hostingmanship.

If Kochie is reading this and has no hard feelings, Thomasie is willing to take a job as office boy on the Sunrise set for $20 an hour. He envisages standing-in for an indisposed Koch one morning with the babelicious co-host and chatting about Prince Andrew. It can’t be that hard, apart from getting out of bed early. Ratings soar and soon Thomasie is negotiating his own seven-figure contract with Seven’s grumpy tycoon Kerry Stokes. I can dream, can’t I?


AND NOW, just to prove I’m an equal-opportunity dispenser of embarrassment and years-after-the-fact discomfort, let me tell you of another journalistic outrage perpetrated by none other than Roger Franklin, the editor of Quadrant Online, when he was but a $42-a-week first-year cadet on what was then known as Melbourne’s Sun News-Pictorial.

At that time, circa 1973, Mandrax-addicted alcoholic Maxwell Newton was filling the void — the city’s dailies didn’t publish on Sundays back then — with his Sunday Observer, which was infamous for, amongst many other things, the front-page headline ‘Billy’s no poof, says Sonia’.

A young Observer reporter, whom we’ll call Clark W Kent, covered police rounds on Saturday afternoons, where he noticed that the sole Sun reporter on duty would dutifully write up whatever mayhem and car crashes happened, drop the copy in an unattended tray and then repair with his Age counterpart to Ron Stout’s City Court Hotel, now long gone. Clark would await his moment, grab the Sun stories and dictate them to the Observer.

After being accused by his chief of staff of plagiarising Observer stories that he had actually written himself, Roger was understandably miffed and decided to do something about it. Being a peaceful sort of fellow, he eschewed punching the copy thief in the nose and implemented a cannier revenge. Before heading to the pub with The Age‘s Peter Goldie, he left a memo ostensibly addressed to his chief of staff in the much-pillaged copy tray. The years have wearied Roger’s memory, so the exact words are long gone, but the memo went more or less like this:

South Melbourne Swans ruckman Peter Brown is a member of a Hitler-worship cult that gathers every Saturday in an Albert Park house to venerate a fragment of Hitler’s tooth. Neighbours report Nazis arrive, play Wagner and shout ‘seig heil’ for hours.

Helpfully, Roger included the address, and then drove the police rounds car to Brown’s home for a few more drinks with a mate he had grown up with in Yarraville. In those days, before mobile phones, it was much easier for young scamps to slip away from the office, especially on a non-publishing Saturday. The lubricants were flowing amid much merriment about the Hitler memo, which Roger thought would be taken as a warning not to steal any more of his Sun copy.

A camera flash at the kitchen window was the signal that the Hitler cult’s existence had been taken as gospel. Quick as a Panzerfaust, Brown’s girlfriend slammed some Wagner on the stereo as her swain goose-stepped up and down the hallway shouting, what else?, ‘Seig Heil!’ When the Observer team stopped pounding on the door and departed, the Wagner disc was slipped back into its sleeve and there were more drinks.

That night, half an hour before the Observer went to press, its editor learned from the ABC’s police roundsman that he had been hoaxed. This left the paper with an awkwardly blank front page. He filled it with a story, invented in seconds, that TV’s Graham “Gra Gra” Kennedy had successfully proposed, however improbably given he was gay and she a lesbian, to Australian-American singing star Lana Cantrell.

 Sceptic that I am about Roger’s stories, this one has legs. This wikipedia entry banished my scepticism:

It was reported in 1973 that Cantrell was engaged to Australian television personality Graham Kennedy.[16] This turned out to be a hoax.[17] Kennedy later claimed that his romance with Cantrell was purely an invention of the Sunday Observer, although Kennedy himself had confirmed publicly at the time that the relationship was real.[18] Judy Carne, of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In claimed she had a love affair with Cantrell.[19]]

Roger described the aftermath: “On Monday when I got to the office, my chief of staff literally grabbed me by the lapels and marched me into the den of the editor Arthur Heinrichs. I’ve never seen an editor so furious before or since. It turned out that one of the Sun‘s features editors was married to an Observer sub who had been greatly inconvenienced.

“ ‘You’ve trashed the fundamental core of journalism, namely fidelity to the truth, accuracy and fairness. This time only, I’ll allow you to continue your cadetship, but there had better be no second offence’.”

Some months later, at the office Christmas party, the editor took Roger aside and admitted he “could hardly keep a straight face while I gave you that ticking off about what a bastard you were!”

As to the Observer’s Max Newton, he lived up to the colourful-journo stereotype as a business bankrupt, opening three brothels and a sex shop before moving one jump ahead of creditors to Florida, where he filed “business insider” columns for Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post until his death in 1990.

Tony Thomas’s new book from Connor Court is Anthem of the Unwoke – Yep! The other lot’s gone bonkers. For a copy ($35 including postage), email

[1] The mainstay of BRW seemed to be revenue from full-page colour cigarette advising, like “Dunhill – for those who appreciate the finer things. Internationally acknowledged to be the finest cigarette in the world.” Another mainstay was ads exhorting males to give big diamonds to their lady friends: “A carat or more. A little extra weight she won’t mind putting on.” There were also big ads for brick-sized Telecom mobile phones: “Users of Telecom’s Mobile Phone [note capital letters] have found they’ve become a driving force in the office when they’re out. Constant contact with clients allows greater freedom of movement  and more efficient use of the time wasted in travelling.”

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