Journos’ memoirs don’t highlight their stuffups, those brands of Cain on one’s career. Best to stick with your triumphs.
I’ve got nothing to lose career-wise recalling my debacles, but even 50 years later, the memories put me on the rack. The two big debacles were from my decade in the Canberra Press Gallery, 1971-79. The first involved chemicals giant ICI; the other outraged the entire Australian second-tier tertiary sector.
I came home from Rigoletto close to midnight on Friday June 2, 1972, to find Age editor Graham Perkin calling from Melbourne. I had filed an economic diatribe that afternoon against ICI’s synthetics monopoly, Fibremakers, and documented its tariff-bludging ways.
I was nervous that I’d misread Fibremakers’ profits. So I had sent my figures to a Tariff Board executive Bill X to check. Bill’s underling gave the figures an OK, but in fact I’d made a serious mistake. So I was about to blow myself up, along with Fibremakers, in the modern-day style of a suicide bomber.
ICI’s barons literally looked down on Melbourne from their blue-glass eyrie in Nicholson Street handy to directors’ favorite haunt, the Melbourne Club. Perkin was phoning to congratulate me ahead of Saturday’s publication. That was my walking-on-air moment after 18 months as The Age’s first “Economics Writer”. In real life, I was half way through Economics 101 part-time at ANU across the lake. Sadly I hadn’t started Accounting 101.
ICI’s lawyers spent Monday dictating to Perkin a super-grovel for next day’s paper. I expected to get fired but the axe seemed slow to fall. A fortnight later Perkin phoned: “Don’t let that business get you down. Pity you got the accounts wrong but it was a good try.” Wow! Such a great guy, Perkin.
In more detail, my xenophobic report was headed “Why ICI’s men love the land of plenty”. A box read, “Tony Thomas examines the Government’s astonishing treatment of Fibremakers Ltd and finds it’s no wonder the British think this is the lucky country.”
The real villain was the Special Advisory Authority on Tariffs, run by arch-protectionist Sir Frank Meere, 76. A month earlier he’d awarded Fibremakers another $18 million a year worth of protection (in today’s money: $200m). He wrote, “The share of the market now being supplied by Fibremakers as regards both nylon and polyester is smaller than I would regard as satisfactory for an industry of this nature.” So he delivered them a guaranteed 85-90% market share versus imports. This protection was equivalent to $10,000 a year per employee. Today that would be $100,000. Not bad since the workers’ average annual pay was only $3000. And all without any inquiry into the economics and efficiency of Fibremaker’s operation.
I also gave Fibremakers a blast for profit-shifting to the UK to minimize Australian tax, like an interest free $5.7 million loan to ICIANZ ($72 million in today’s money) of indefinite duration; raw materials bought from ICI UK at above world prices; and mysterious “substantial” payments to ICIANZ for “technical assistance”. Only a week earlier Labor’s Senator Lionel Murphy under Parliamentary privilege had accused ICIANZ of transfer-pricing rorts. My finance editor added Murphy’s Hansard to the piece, further twisting the British lion’s tail.
ICI laughed off the attack because I’d wrongly added up Fibremakers’ five-year profit record using the annual line item “Total available profit”. Worse luck, that item was already compounding year-on-year so I’d double-counted. The correct total was $13m, not my “$20m”.
The Age’s grovel ran to 10 wordy paragraphs.
It is contended by ICI Australia and Fibremakers that this article was misconceived in that it contained a number of serious mistakes damaging to the companies and to their directors … The inference to be drawn … was that Fibremakers and those directing it had hoodwinked and deliberately misled the income tax authorities, the Tariff Board and the Special Advisory Authority on tariffs in order that ICI might be benefited … Such a possible inference was never intended and The Age unreservedly retracts and apologises for it.
The companies also contend that the profit figures reported in the article are misleading and do not give the true position. The Age concedes that the figures reported in the article do not accurately indicate the net profit figures made by the company.
It follows from this that the figures which the article quoted relating to the ratio of profits to fixed assets was wrong and we accept the companies’ statement that in fact this ratio was 8.5 per cent.
We also accept the companies’ statement that profit on shareholders’ funds for the year 1969-70 was 13.6%, not 23% as quoted.
It was not the intention of “The Age” to mislead its readers in relation to these figures and we unreservedly apologise to the companies and their directors for these errors.
My mate Bill X at the Tariff Board was contrite about dropping me in the manure. He invited the Thomas couple home to dinner (a unique event). Our evening’s small talk involved no mention of Fibremakers or “total available profit”.
From all this I learnt the hard way that experts (including the Tariff Board’s) weren’t necessarily so. The buck stops with me.
I kept my nose clean, grovel-wise, until I embarked in 1976 on an expose of featherbedding and rorts in colleges of advanced education, teachers colleges and technical institutes. My material became a two-part Age series under the heading “The great college perks”. The magic touch of Perkin’s successor, Les Carlyon, is evident in the great sub-head: “Academics ride the learning boom in new cloisters of paradise”.
My evidence was furiously disputed by the quasi-academics and The Age ran another abject apology. I lived in infamy for several days, until I convinced the editors to correct the correction. I say “editors” because the snafu straddled the last days of Les Carlyon’s term and the first days of his successor Greg Taylor’s. For each, it was a mess.
So what was what? In the previous decade poky technical schools and teacher colleges, hardly bigger than a city high school, had been clawing their way up to the luxury staff conditions of the uni sector, although many staff barely had bachelor degrees. When the Whitlam government began fully funding colleges in 1974, the momentum surged. Even plumbing or dressmaking teachers were putting their hand up for a year’s paid sabbatical. Bunyip titles like “Professor” and “Reader” multiplied. Teaching loads halved (to make room for junior-grade “research”).
From my Parliament House dog-box, I saw that the Academic Salaries Tribunal’s Mr Justice Campbell  had just issued a tactful but critical report, after colleges had put in submissions defending their lavish conditions. The sole public copies were on a wall of shelves in the Remuneration Tribunal. I did my normal day’s work in the press gallery, and the kindly Tribunal people let me in after dark unsupervised to take notes and limited photocopies from around 100 submissions. It was a hell of a job.
I drafted the story and our teleprinter guy, moonlighting from the PMG, clack-clacked it to Melbourne, and then I immediately collapsed into bed with the flu. You might think the perks I wrote about are nothing much. But in the Spartan 1970s they seemed the height of extravagance — like paying staff salaries while they studied full-time for a higher degree on sabbatical. Other samples:
# Up to a fifth of some colleges’ staff were rated sub-standard, or in my own colorful terms, “unsackable drones”.
# “LaTrobe University rounds off the connubial bliss [of parental leave] by offering three weeks of ‘marriage leave’ on full pay to female administrative and technical staff. Even in the federal public service, ‘marriage leave’ is unheard of, the presumption being that honeymoons are covered by ‘recreation leave’.”
# I quoted the judge, “Most staff are, in fact, able to absent themselves from their institutions during vacation periods to a much greater extent [than uni staff. They] seem still to operate as though they were school teachers.”
# “But all this welter of leave is only icing on the biggest cake of all – one year’s ‘staff development leave’ (sometimes called ‘intellectual regeneration leave’) on full pay after a mere six years service, even to some senior tutors and admin staff. This glorious holiday is usually accompanied by a golden handshake of $1500 to pay for a round-the-world-trip, strictly for study purposes of course. The ‘intellectual regeneration’ in theory is so that students benefit from staff’s travels. This being so, it is odd that college staff can take their year’s intellectual fiesta within two years — or even one year — of retirement.”
# “… The effect is that the numerous staff became instantly eligible as soon as the colleges were upgraded. Only the need to have some staff actually at work, and an overall limit on funds, prevents a mass exodus of staff abroad for ‘intellectual regeneration’. But you can guarantee that as fast as you pour teaching funds into these colleges, the faster it will pour out in staff development leave.
In the way of all hacks, I led with the most lurid perk. This highlight was my next suicide vest. I wrote that Prahran College of Advanced Education gave “at least 24 weeks of maternity leave” on full pay, double the federal public service standard and way ahead of private jobs. I got the fact from a compendium of conditions from the Federation of College Staff Associations. I added rashly that Prahran itself had “neglected to inform the Tribunal”.
The first part of the story ran on Thursday, August 26.
At 5pm my wife roused me from my sickbed to take a call from one of editor Carlyon’s assistants, whom I’ll call Fred. He explained that a deputation of furious Prahran heavies had informed the editor that they gave only 12 weeks’ maternity leave, not my alleged 24. “Well,” I said, “they’re wrong, or at least their staff’s submission to the Remuneration Tribunal is wrong.” I assured Fred I’d get the document faxed down to Melbourne in hours. But he didn’t seem convinced and hung up mournfully as if he’d been talking to a condemned man. I was still groggy from the flu and not much concerned anyway.
I cursed my betters in Melbourne for alerting me only when Canberrans was shutting shop for the night. The Tribunal boss very decently hung around to let me get at the documents once more. The high-tech copy and fax operation was complete by 9pm. Next morning I shook the frost from my Age and, to my dismay, found a ‘We Were Wrong” alongside Part 2 of my article.
An Insight article in The Age yesterday erroneously reported that Prahran CAE provided 24 weeks on full pay plus certain other benefits to staff members on maternity leave, and it deliberately withheld this information from the Academic Salaries Tribunal. The College’s maternity leave provision is in fact 12 weeks on full pay … The error arose in a misinterpretation of a submission – for 24 weeks’ maternity leave – made to the Tribunal last year by the Federation of Staff Associations…
The Age’ apologises to Prahran CAE for any embarrassment caused by yesterday’s report and withdraws the allegation that the College withheld any information from the Tribunal.
This was garbled. The 24-week leave had been stated as existing, not as an application. The “We Were Wrong” was wrong.
College-wallahs hit the paper with a further blizzard of complaints, but apart from a technical glitch or two, the rest of my pieces held up. But the 24-week maternity leave item stayed an albatross round my neck. I was even accused by the staff association of wrongly trusting its own compendium because it had “a number of errors and this is made known to whomsoever the Federation might supply with a copy. It cannot be help up as a definitive statement…”
I now knew that for its own sake and mine, The Age had to ‘correct the correction’. I sent down a note to Carlyon, saying
# I had accurately reported the Prahran staff submission
# The Prahran board might have a quarrel with its staff association, but that wasn’t our problem, and
# I should have been supported, not let down.
I got no reply. After three days, I phoned. He snapped, “Yes?!”
“About that correction … I sent you that note …”
“The note saying we weren’t wrong at all.”
“I never got any note!”
“Well, I sent it.”
He rung off, now perplexed as well as furious. He found that assistant Fred was first receiver of the note and had put it in his bottom drawer.
Carlyon anyway was clearing out his office, and the problem hit the in-tray of his successor, Greg Taylor, who told me to draft my own correction to the correction. But I figured that the more clearly I exonerated myself, the more silly I would make The Age look. Instead I merely drafted some facts which spoke for themselves and it became an inconspicuous footnote to a complaints letter.
My nemesis, Fred, rose to considerable height in the industry. My own self-vindication went unnoticed and peers continued to show Schadenfreude, or not-nice-joy, over my discomfiture. I went on to make stuffups aplenty, luckily not career-destoying ones.
Tony Thomas’s new book, The West: An insider’s tale – A romping reporter in Perth’s innocent ’60s is available from Boffins Books, Perth, the Royal WA Historical Society (Nedlands) and on-line here
 Tunes from Rigoletto, even La Donna e Mobile, remain anathema to me for this reason
 Carlyon was appointed at 33 when Perkin died of a heart attack on October 16, 1975. Carlyon left for health reasons a year later.
 Later Sir Walter Campbell