Inside Story

Current affairs and culture from Australia and beyond

On the Age’s river of gold

Extract | A former journalist recalls life on the newspaper during the era of legendary editor Graham Perkin

Iola Mathews 21 June 2019 3754 words

The writer as a young reporter: Iola Mathews interviewing for the Age.

The personnel manager at the Melbourne Age, a military-looking man in his sixties, glanced at my résumé and references, and noticed I’d done research for the writer Graham McInnes. He leaned forward excitedly. “I knew him at school,” he said. “I’ve read all his books; he’s a damned good writer. Tell me about him.” This was my lucky break.

It was early 1969 and I was looking for a job as a cadet journalist. Most cadets came straight from school, but a couple each year were let in from university. The personnel manager thought I’d want to work on the women’s page, “Accent,” but that was exactly what I didn’t want. It had a lively column by Nancy Dexter but mostly focused on weddings and social events, fashion and recipes.

“You won’t like journalism,” he said. “You’ll have to work 2pm to 11pm and on Sundays. A young girl like you wants to go out to parties at night, don’t you? You can’t have a social life with this kind of job.”

I assured him that the hours weren’t a problem, but he said there were no vacancies. A few weeks later, though, one of the female cadets left to take up a job in television, and I was hired at a salary of $52 a week. My surname (Hack) was an unfortunate one for a journalist, but my colleagues were kind and didn’t make fun of it. Not in front of me, anyway.

The Age was then at 239 Collins Street, with a statue of Mercury above the portico. The training was informal and on-the-job, a kind of apprenticeship in which you started with simple reporting jobs and someone corrected your copy. As a cadet, you also did a number of menial tasks each day, such as collecting the weather report, monitoring the news bulletins and writing up the shipping news. I soon realised these tasks were a kind of initiation process, a test of accuracy and good humour.

As a graduate cadet, I had a shorter training period than those who’d come straight from school. There were only three or four women in general reporting, among them Sue Preston, a third-year cadet, who told me she’d worked on the magistrates’ courts, on the paper’s television “Green Guide” and on police rounds, where the male reporters took her to the morgue and showed her a corpse to toughen her up.

One of her jobs was to write up weddings, which were published in “Accent” on Mondays. She had to assemble the details during the week (“the bride carried a bouquet of lily of the valley”) and then phone the reception centre on Saturday to check the details and make sure the wedding had gone ahead. Women were supposed to be referred to by their husband’s name (Mrs John Smith, not Mrs Mary Smith), although this rule was breaking down.

The newsroom had a large grid of desks for reporters, and at the top was the “subs’ desk,” a horseshoe-shaped table for the executives and subeditors, all men. Beyond the subs’ desk were the offices of the editor and executives. I never outgrew my fear of the subs’ desk. Most of the men who worked on it were kind and decent, but there were one or two who saw a young, unattached woman as fair game, and I was too shy to handle their jokey, flirtatious comments. For years I had to summon up my courage to approach their desk and hand over my copy.

My first reporting job came a few days after I started. Some parents at an outer-suburban school were threatening to keep their children home unless they got a new classroom. I interviewed them by phone, wrote it up, and the chief of staff corrected it, explaining how a news story should be structured as an inverted pyramid. The most important piece of information had to be in the first paragraph, the second most important in the next par and so on. The story also had to answer the basic questions of who, what, why, when and how. The idea was that the subs could cut the story from the bottom to fit the space available and it would still make sense.

The typewriters were heavy and ancient, with keys that stuck together. We had to type each par on a small piece of paper, with several carbon copies underneath. When the story was finished, we separated the copies and gave them to the chief of staff, news editor and the “copy taster” at the subs’ desk. After my first assignment, I rushed to open the paper the next morning, and there was my story. I proudly cut it out and pasted it into the large scrapbook they’d given me. I was hooked. Three weeks later I got my first by-line, misspelt as Lola but thrilling just the same.

I rented a flat with my sister and concentrated on learning my new job. I felt shy, working in an office with so many men, but most of them were friendly and helpful. Sometimes a group of reporters would go to the pub late at night after work and invite me to join them. I was grateful, and ordered a beer to be “one of the boys.” In some respects it was an advantage being female; I could have a drink and leave quietly, without the social pressure of having to stay for endless rounds.

Later that year, the Age moved to a new office on the corner of Spencer and Lonsdale streets. We worked in an enormous open space, against the clatter of typewriters, phone conversations and shouts across the room. It was exhilarating, especially one memorable night when I had to type my story in ten minutes for a deadline while the chief of staff snatched each sentence from the typewriter as I finished it.

I loved everything about journalism and learned new things every day. I loved interviewing people and having a licence to ask nosy questions. I loved the camaraderie of my colleagues, who were clever, curious, irreverent and jokey. I loved the buzz of the newsroom and the build-up of adrenaline as we rushed to meet a deadline.

This was the “golden age” of journalism at the Age, under the brilliant editor Graham Perkin, whom everyone admired. Perkin was an imposing figure with large, penetrating eyes. Idealistic, driven and humane, he was transforming the Age into one of the world’s best newspapers. I was in awe of him. In those days, the Age was a broadsheet, fattened like a goose with display advertisements and classifieds. There were plenty of pages to fill with news and features, and a large number of journalists and photographers on staff. I was incredibly lucky to have been there at that time.

Two months after I started at the Age, I got a really big break. A by-election was called in the federal seat of Bendigo, and the Age decided to send one of its “Insight” teams to cover it in depth. In a sense, it was a straw poll for the forthcoming federal election. The conservative Coalition parties had been in power for twenty years, but now Labor, with its impressive leader Gough Whitlam, was in a position to challenge.

The project was the brainchild of assistant editor Creighton Burns, who had taught politics at Melbourne University. The team consisted of three journalists, Roger Aldridge, John Jost and Ian Baker, with contributions from Allan Barnes, the chief political correspondent in Canberra. I’d known John slightly at university, and when he asked me to join them, I was dazzled.

For the next month, we spent most of our time in the country town of Bendigo, staying at a motel and fanning out during the day for interviews or voter surveys. I drove up and down to Bendigo with Roger, John or Ian, and we were soon good friends. In the evenings after dinner, they would yawn and stretch and say they had to get an early night or finish an article, so I’d go to my motel room to read or write letters. Years later they told me the truth: as soon as I was out of the way, they headed out to explore whatever nightlife they could find in Bendigo.

The Age gave us a full page for days. My job included interviewing the two independent candidates and the wives of the main candidates. I was shocked when the wife of the Liberal Party candidate said, “I couldn’t talk to you about anything political, that’s a man’s job.” When I asked if her husband discussed political or local problems with her, she said, “Oh no, he has had enough of work when he comes home.”

On election day, David Kennedy won the seat for Labor. This was seen as a good sign for Whitlam, and at the federal election later that year Labor almost won, with a massive swing of 7 per cent. The Coalition under John Gorton was returned, but Labor was now very close.

At around that time a young Finnish woman named Eila Ahvenainen, who was married to fellow reporter Vince Basile and was working on “Accent,” was keen to become a subeditor. “Certainly not,” was the reply, despite the fact she’d trained as a subeditor overseas. The subs’ desk was thought too rough for a woman: there was a lot of swearing and, later in the evening, drinking.

Eila didn’t give up, however, and one night when the subs’ desk was extremely shorthanded, they gave her a chance. She was a quiet, dignified woman who simply put her head down and did her job, without appearing to notice the swearing and drinking. The next night she was still there, and soon they forgot about the ban on female subs.

Another woman who broke down barriers was Michelle Grattan, who joined the paper in 1970 after tutoring in politics at Monash University. She asked if she could report on Trades Hall, where the unions were based, but was refused. Trades Hall was full of men who drank and swore, and Michelle drank only lemonade while at work. But she was tenacious, and she got her chance one day when they were short of reporters at Trades Hall. She drank tea with the union officials, got several good stories, and was in.

Michelle and I started having dinner each night with some of the editorial and feature writers, including Cameron Forbes, Claude Forell and Geoff Barker. Sometimes Colin Bennett, the film critic, joined us, along with Geoff Hutton, the drama critic, and his wife Nan Hutton, who now wrote a column for “Accent.” We went to a pub nearby, the Great Western. Before we left the office, Michelle would fossick desperately for her wallet under the mountain of papers around her typewriter. One of her jobs was to write up Age Poll, and her desk was piled up with printouts of data, books, reports and articles.

The chaos on Michelle’s desk contrasted with her sharp mind and fascination with politics. Les Carlyon, our news editor, encouraged her, and the following year she went to Canberra to join the press gallery, challenging the male monopoly there. By 1976 she was the chief political correspondent, a job she held for seventeen years before she was appointed editor of the Canberra Times, the first woman to edit a national daily.

At the end of 1969, I was assigned to cover the Supreme Court and the County Court. I took over from Rosemary Calder, the first woman in the job, and worked out of a little room in the Supreme Court. On my first day, Columb Brennan, the court reporter for the Melbourne Herald, paid me a visit. An older man with ginger hair, he’d been around the courts for years. “I play golf on Wednesdays,” he said, “so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t file anything on that day.” I thought this was very odd, but said nothing. We were in competition, because the Herald was an afternoon paper and I had to send stories to our new afternoon paper, Newsday, as well as the Age, and reports throughout the day to our radio station 3XY.

The only way to get a story each day was to read the law list and walk from court to court, listening in for an interesting case. Lawyers were not allowed to advertise, but one barrister used to phone up like Deep Throat and say “go to court twelve,” then hang up. This was to his advantage, because at the bottom of each article we used to put the name of the barristers appearing and the solicitors who briefed them.

A few weeks later I had an urgent call from Newsday, saying Col had a dramatic front-page story in the Herald, and would I follow it up immediately. Cursing Col, I ran around to the relevant court and begged a transcript from the judge’s associate. The following Wednesday, when Col was playing golf, I filed the best story I could find for Newsday. From then on, all gentlemanly agreements were off.

A great variety of cases came before the courts — criminal cases, civil cases, libel, accident compensation and corporate disputes. But the most fun were the censorship cases, common at the time under the conservative Victorian government of Sir Henry Bolte and his chief secretary, Sir Arthur Rylah. It was not just women who were second-class citizens in the late 1960s. Discrimination against gay people and people of colour was also common. This was the stuffy and conservative Australia that Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Clive James and Robert Hughes had fled a few years earlier.

One of my first censorship cases involved the ban on Barry Humphries’s book, The Wonderful World of Barry McKenzie. It was originally a comic strip published in the London magazine Private Eye about a crude Australian living in London. Later it was turned into a film, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972). The Victorian Council for Civil Liberties ran a test case on censorship, using Barry McKenzie and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, a novel about life in the slums of New York. To test the law, a Monash academic sued Federal Customs for confiscating the books.

The case was before Judge Mitchell in the County Court. He read the books over his summer vacation and made it clear he wasn’t impressed. Barry McKenzie dealt with sexual matters and vulgarity, he said, citing examples from the book such as “girls going to slip it across,” “pointing Percy at the porcelain” and a song called “Chundering in the Old Pacific Sea.”

The barrister for the prosecution showed a section of the comic strip, which was a drawing of a lavatory. He said there was obscene writing on the wall, though it could not be seen with the naked eye, and handed up a magnifying glass. After peering at the drawing for some minutes, the judge said he still could not make out the words. I glanced around the all-male courtroom and stifled a laugh.

Turning to Last Exit to Brooklyn, the judge asked for a dictionary to translate the words “hip queer,” “fairy” and “queen.” He was told that most of the words referred to homosexual people. The judge said any family reading this book around the breakfast table would be disgusted. He ruled that both books should remain banned in Victoria.

The Age loved these court cases and published editorials calling for a relaxation of censorship. Around this time, the Victorian government stopped the play Oh! Calcutta! from being presented at the Lido Theatre in Melbourne. Written by the British drama critic Kenneth Tynan, it contained several nude scenes. The title was a pun on “O quel cul t’as!” — French for “Oh, what an arse you have!” In the Supreme Court, Justice Little described the script as “filth” and “an excursion into depravity” and banned it from being performed.

In January 1970 I switched to reporting on the Kaye inquiry into abortion, which was hugely important for women. Up until then, abortions had been illegal and the doctors who did perform them were protected by corrupt police, to whom they paid bribes. But after a doctor who had performed an abortion was charged in 1969 and tried in the Supreme Court, Justice Clifford Menhennitt ruled that abortion was legal if it was performed to protect the woman’s mental or physical health.

The “Menhennitt ruling” was a breakthrough, but it related to one case only and was not enshrined in legislation. The link between abortions and police corruption continued, until a crusading doctor named Bert Wainer, helped by the Abortion Law Reform Association, forced the state government to set up a judicial inquiry.

The hearings were sensational, involving crooked detectives, underworld figures and the story of the death of an MP’s daughter at the hands of a backyard abortionist. I covered the inquiry with a reporter named Dick Shepherd. We took turns to take down everything in the court and dictate it over the phone to copy typists. When I arrived back in the office each evening, the rolls of typed paper would be all over the subs’ desk. I remember one of the subs, Richard Beckett, calling out, “Hack, why do you keep sending me all this toilet paper?!”

The inquiry brought out Graham Perkin’s crusading spirit. Suddenly our by-lines were in large type on the front page. When the courts resumed after the summer break, I went back to covering the court round and other reporters took over the inquiry, which continued until May.

Ian Baker, who’d been part of the team reporting from Bendigo, was the Age’s first education reporter, and in 1970 I became the first woman in the role. Ian took me aside and told me it was all about Masons versus Catholics and advised me not to write about what was going on in the classroom because nobody was interested. I decided to do it my own way.

Having a “round” like this meant you could become a specialist in your area and write news stories as well as feature articles. You developed a wide range of contacts who fed you information and ideas. An obsession with accuracy, drummed into me by my father, helped enormously. I made a habit of reading back quotes to people I interviewed, to check if my notes were correct. Most reporters thought it was crazy, because interviewees might retract something they’d said. I found very few people wanted to change anything. In fact, they were extremely grateful and often provided valuable information afterwards.

It was a wonderful time to write about education, because much of it was in turmoil. It was the time of student demonstrations in Victoria’s three universities — Melbourne, Monash and La Trobe — against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, and demanding more say in university affairs.

At each university, students occupied buildings, stopped council meetings and insulted staff. At Melbourne, the vice-chancellor and 200 staff were barricaded in the administration building for five hours. None of the three vice-chancellors knew how to react: at first they came on tough, charging and suspending students, but when this led to bigger demonstrations, they backed down.

The government schools were also in turmoil, with militant unions leading rolling strikes, especially in secondary and technical schools. There were strikes over the Teachers’ Tribunal (which set wages), class sizes, teaching hours and qualifications. Teachers were in short supply, and plane loads were flown in from Britain, the United States and Canada.

Government schools were old and crowded, and some parents withdrew their children because of a shortage of accommodation. The inner-city schools were particularly bad, overcrowded with immigrant children and insufficiently resourced to provide the English language lessons and remedial teaching they needed.

Education was a key political issue in the lead-up to the federal election of 1972. The state governments were starved of funds from the federal government; Catholic schools were even worse off, with old buildings and hugely crowded classrooms. The federal government under Robert Menzies had supplied money for science blocks since 1963, but it went mainly to private schools. Gough Whitlam promised a massive increase in federal funds for all schools — Catholic, independent and government — on the basis of need and also promised free tertiary education.

I was like a pig among truffles, sniffing out stories everywhere, sometimes publishing three or four a day. In February 1971, on the first day of school, Graham Perkin launched a series called “Pupils in Poverty,” with an “Insight” team made up of Roger Aldridge, Ben Hills and me. It started with a front-page editorial calling for more federal funding and a report that over 1000 pupils were kept home from school because they had no classroom. Each day we reported on derelict schools and teachers working in corridors or tents.

Perkin believed it was our job to fight for justice, to hold governments to account, and to shed light in dark corners. In July that year, he launched a new section of the paper, “Education Age,” headed by Barry Hill, an Australian who’d been working for the Times Education Supplement in London. Barry created a wide-ranging forum on education that strongly supported Whitlam’s policies, and we worked closely together. I contributed feature articles as well as pieces for “Buttonhole,” a newsy column. One day I showed Barry some cartoons in a teachers’ journal and suggested we ask the artist to do some work for us. Barry agreed. This was the brilliant Ron Tandberg, who was soon on the front pages of the Age and stayed there for forty-five years.

The Victorian education minister, Lindsay Thompson, must have dreaded opening the Age each day because of our relentless exposure of problems. He had to face the media, explaining patiently that the state government spent nearly 40 per cent of its budget on education, and had greatly improved teacher–pupil ratios. I admired his capacity for hard work and his courtesy under pressure, but I didn’t think it was my job to do the government’s public relations. I was a crusading journalist and felt I was helping to make a difference. •

This is an edited extract from Winning for Women: A Personal Story, by Iola Mathews, published by Monash University Publishing.

Read next

1180 words

WIN or lose for rural viewers?

Does the regional broadcaster’s decision to close more newsrooms breach its licence obligations?


Thinking locally? Communications minister Paul Fletcher. Paul Braven/AAP Image

Thinking locally? Communications minister Paul Fletcher. Paul Braven/AAP Image