A Lesson Mrs Pirate Never Absorbed

Recently, I recounted how, as a young journalist, I had been ordered to drive through a Category 4 cyclone to report for work by a boss I described as an addition to the Holy Trinity – God the Editor. Some Quadrant commenters suggested I could just have laughed down the phone and refused outright. But those were different times, Labor’s current controversial Closing the Loopholes Bill with its “right to disconnect” was as unimaginable as life on Mars. Simply put, with a mortgage and a pregnant young wife to care for, I would have been looking for a new career.

The God Editor was omnipotent, his commands to be obeyed at all costs, and I was but a mere junior reporter. But the Fourth Estate’s version of the Heavenly Trinity had some human frailties — a character flaw brought to mind  by the legal imbroglio surrounding the aborted Brittany Higgins/Bruce Lehrmann trial and subsequent defamation cases. Even as a cadet journalist I knew better than Lisa ‘Mrs Pirate’ Wilkinson (below with hanky-head hubby Peter FitzSimons) that, no matter what the legal advice, you never, ever comment on or report things that haven’t actually been discussed in open court. As I discovered in my first newspaper job, it’s a basic rule of which some senior players in the above cases seem to have been totally oblivious.

I thought I had finally found my niche when I stumbled into journalism, a career which had never been on my radar since leaving high school and completing a three-year pharmacy apprenticeship from which I eventually walked away. Unlike pill-counting and deciphering the secret codes in doctors’ scrawled handwriting, journalism provided new challenges almost every day. But as a more mature cadet than the usual crop straight out of high school, I was thrown in at the deep end while still capable of paddling only in the shallows.

After a few months, the God Editor had me covering anything in and around Bundaberg, from CWA and Red Cross meetings to magistrate’s court, council meetings and even big district court trials. One day I was called into his office and had to mount my own defence for the unforgiveable sin of arriving late at the annual CWA branch meeting.

“How the hell did that happen? You know it’s the most important day of the year for all those women?” my editor thundered.

“Er, well, Mr H, you also had me down for court and there was a bloke up on an attempted murder charge. The cop prosecutor said he had shot one of his neighbours  … I thought that would be more important”.

“But you could have picked up the details from the prosecutor later, couldn’t you? Just make sure you get a copy of the CWA president’s annual report and a list of elected office bearers. We need to cover the community’s bread and butter issues too, not just sensational court stories.”

Yeah, right. What would a cub reporter know?

Several months later I took his advice when a couple of similar engagements clashed. There was an adjourned hearing of the attempted murder case, but as the God Editor had directed, I would have to get the details later — better not keep those Red Cross ladies waiting (plus they served delicious jam scones and lamingtons after their meetings, just like the CWA members. The God Editor’s wife, Mrs H, always gave me a warm welcome too).

Well, maybe he was right. The police prosecutor was only too happy to give a graphic outline of the case against the defendant, down to the angry words and altercation over a girl which had led to the shooting on a rural property. Bundaberg, like the rest of Australia and the world, always lapped up a gory story, dating back to the days of “the Pressler trial” following the bloody murder of his cane farmer neighbours in what was apparently a love triangle gone horribly wrong. This is how that outcome was reported:

May 15, 1959: 30-year-old Marjorie Frances Golchert and her 33-year-old husband Clifford John Golchert, 33, were bashed and shot to death by their neighbour, Neville William Pressler, at their home in Kalkie, Queensland.

Marjorie and Clifford were found four days after their deaths with a .22 rifle and a half eaten apple nearby. Police spent six weeks searching across Queensland for their killer. Pressler flew under the radar, even acting as a pallbearer at the funeral of the Golcherts. On July 1, police arrested him…”

This latest shooting fortunately wasn’t a murder, but it had elements of our wild frontier days which I was sure our readers would enjoy. I typed my colourful copy that night on a battered old Remington and handed it to Rod, the night chief sub.

“Great story, John,” he said, “I’ll run this as the lead on page three”.

That was good to hear. Page 3 was almost as good as page 1, which was usually reserved for important national or international news in those days. I was chuffed as I went back to report the main talking points among the Red Cross ladies.

Then the phone rang. It was one of the city’s prominent solicitors acting for the defendant, who wanted to talk to me about the court case.  His suspicions had been aroused by the fact there was no reporter present. He had guessed I may have spoken to the prosecutor or a police witness. I confirmed I had.

“What did they tell you?”

“Well they outlined their case against your client. They told me what happened”.

And here is where Lisa Wilkinson might have avoided a lot of later grief had she learned the journalism on a local rag rather than Dolly magazine.

“You can’t print any of that!” the lawyer snarled. “None of it was stated in court, it was just another appearance and an adjournment to a later date while we prepare our defence”.

“I’ve already handed the report in. It’s probably being type-set by now,.” I stammered.

“Hold everything. I’m coming down there right now!”

Oh hell, I thought, what have I gotten myself into? I was simply following one of the God Editor’s commandments.

Sure enough, within 10 minutes the solicitor, a middle aged bloke in a dark pinstripe suit, came pounding up the stairs to the newsroom. I ushered him into the subeditors’ cubicle where he confronted Rod, a World War 2 Navy veteran dubbed “The Admiral” by the back-room printers. Rod was also a keen surf lifesaver and a pretty unflappable bloke, with an open neck shirt exposing part of his tanned and hairy chest.

He pushed himself back in his chair and lit a cigarette as he listened to the tirade from the defence counsel. The upshot was: “You’d better kill this story or we’ll sue”.

I saw the signs of defeat in The Admiral’s eyes. You could shoot back at the Japanese from a patrol boat but you couldn’t fight the law, and in this case, the lawyer was right. Time to run up the white flag.

“Ok, I’m sorry this has happened. We should have been in court”.

Needless to say, the page 3 lead was reduced to a small single column report which diddn’t win any Walkley awards.

Rod was ready to reprimand me until I explained the circumstances.

“Don’t worry, I’ll have a word to the editor about all this tomorrow. We don’t want anything like this to happen again, it could have been a bloody disaster.”

In this case, the God Editor listened. Maybe he even learned from my experience.  Better still, Mrs God Editor obviously had even more influence than The Admiral and this cub reporter.

“My wife tells me she doesn’t think you should have to attend every CWA and Red Cross meeting. She thinks you’re cut out for bigger things and maybe that’s true, so we’re asking them to appoint their own news correspondents”.

Wow! Every cloud has a silver lining, but I missed those scones and lamingtons.

John Mikkelsen is a former editor of three Queensland regional newspapers, columnist,  freelance writer and author of the Amazon Books memoir, Don’t Call Me Nev, which includes part of the above commentary

2 thoughts on “A Lesson Mrs Pirate Never Absorbed

  • Ceres says:

    Enjoyed your early journalistic recollections.
    Some of these current high fliers are legends in their own lunchbox and regard themselves as untouchables. Rules don’t apply to them and most times they’re right.

  • Beverley Prescott says:

    What a fabulous story!! One can picture all as though the reader was in the room as it was occurring.
    Got to love the CWA.
    I love that somehow Mrs. Pirate got intertwined as well as her despicable spouse and I hope they get to read it as well.
    Wonderful work Mr. Mikkelsen.

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