“Books about journalism are capable of multilayered appeal,” wrote that master reporter, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Damien Murphy. “For practitioners, they can contain a sort of myopic fascination and a certain self-affirming pleasure yet simultaneously confirm an outsider's worst prejudices.”
Ben Hills achieves this and more with Breaking News: The Golden Age of Graham Perkin (Scribe; $59.95) in which he explores the short and brilliant life of one of Australia’s finest newspaper editors.
With the force of a journalistic tsunami Perkin shook up the cosy world of Australian journalism, focusing on investigations, assigning reporters to seriously cover areas health, social welfare, higher education and the environment, while elsewhere mundane politics, crime and courts were the staples.
Hills traces Perkin’s rise from the Mallee district of Victoria where, at 12-years-old, he filed sports stories for the Warracknabeal Herald to the editor’s chair in Melbourne at 36, and then to his death nine years later, just as he was about to accept the greatest prize, running the Fairfax empire.
In telling this story, Hills reveals much about the sordid world of business, backroom deals and backstabbing, and has done a service by bring this into the daylight.
Here is “Rags” Henderson, Fairfax chief, urging Perkin to pick a fight with his managing director so that the board of directors would back Perkin. “You’ve got to be contemptible if you want to get on in this business,” says Henderson. His approach seems to have been adopted by some of his successors at Fairfax.
It says much, too, that today’s Fairfax Media refused to allow Hills to see historical records, such as minutes of board meetings, even though almost all participants are dead and the events were 40 years ago. Even governments are not so sensitive.
He paints a clear picture of Perkin, the son of the town baker and descended from shopkeepers and trades folk, who bizarrely claimed a dodgy link to royalty centuries earlier, a quirk at odds with his dour Methodist side. Here is the schoolboy cricketer Perkin with his 24-pace run-up to bowl, earning this from the stand: “You’ve forgotten your pushbike, mug.”
As the golden-haired son, Perkin was understandably hurt when Wesley College rejected him after he and his father made the trip to Melbourne, an event made even more galling when the school accepted his brother, Brian, some years later (although he was pulled out when money was tight).
So the young Perkin later again journeyed to the city, this time to archaic offices of The Age. It was a time when, as the great Australian journalist Murray Sayle was to write, the only qualities essential for real success in journalism were rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability, plus a capacity to steal other people’s ideas.
Perkin would later quote this and put some of it into action.
At 17 he became a cadet, learning how to find and note down the comings and goings of ships. Those who had ships leaving port before they arrived blighted their careers. Reporters had to provide typewriters and pay to learn shorthand and typing. Much of the furniture had been burnt, says Hills, to warm the sub-editors during the Second World War.
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