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“When you work in a zoo it’s dangerous to get too friendly with the animals”

Despite his warning to young journalists, Alan Reid was both observer and player in Parliament House. His work has been recognised this month by the Australian Media Hall of Fame

Laurie Oakes 21 November 2018 1188 words

Machinations and movements: Alan Reid (left) with Labor’s Ben Chifley. Fairfax Media

The twenty-eighth of August 1941 was a dramatic day in Australian politics. Robert Menzies, having lost the support of cabinet, announced his resignation as prime minister. Late in the evening, standing in a Parliament House corridor near a staircase leading to the press gallery, Alan Reid watched Menzies leave the prime minister’s office and walk slowly into a darkened King’s Hall on the way out of the building. Reid wrote in Sydney’s Sun newspaper the next day, “And so Menzies disappeared into the shadows for all time, for there is no way back in Australian politics.”

There was a way back, of course. Menzies returned to the prime ministership in 1949, and made a point of reminding Reid of the error at least once a year for the rest of his time in politics. But the young reporter’s outstanding coverage of the events that culminated in Menzies’s resignation had earned him the right to a by-line. And that by-line quickly became one of the best known in Australian journalism.

When Reid retired because of ill health after nearly five decades in the federal parliamentary press gallery, it was generally agreed that no other political journalist had exercised such influence. Parliament paid tribute. The ailing newsman was pushed into the House of Representatives chamber in a wheelchair, the speaker interrupted question time to announce the presence of “a distinguished visitor,” and MPs rose to give him a standing ovation. The unprecedented occasion was acknowledgement of a remarkable career.

Reid, nicknamed the Red Fox because of his craftiness as well as his hair colour, was a news-breaker extraordinaire. An example was his 1965 scoop on a cabinet decision to send a battalion of combat troops to Vietnam, which embarrassed the government because it was published before a request for troops arrived from Saigon.

Alan Douglas Joseph Reid was born in Liverpool, England, on 19 December 1914 and migrated to Australia at the age of twelve with his parents and two sisters. When he left school in Sydney, the Great Depression sent him bush for a time, scraping a living by fencing, rabbiting and digging drains. He snagged a copyboy job at Sydney’s Sun newspaper in 1933, and was sent to Canberra as a junior reporter in 1937 — on probation because of a drinking problem. He gave up drinking after a pub brawl put him in hospital. He was in his element reporting politics, and quickly became the paper’s senior Canberra representative.

Reid got on well with Labor prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley. When Menzies returned to power, however, there was tension for a time. Menzies scornfully dismissed Reid in parliament as “that scribbler,” and in 1954 he tried to have the scribbler sacked from the Sun over a story on the defection of Soviet spy Vladimir Petrov. But Sir Frank Packer intervened to heal the breach, after hiring Reid as political correspondent for his Sydney Daily Telegraph.

Reid’s primary interest, as he described it, was the “machinations and movements” of the Australian Labor Party. His Labor contacts were legendary. Powerful left-winger and Whitlam government minister Clyde Cameron wrote of Reid in his diaries that “he has pipelines into all factions of the Labor Party.” Reid’s explanation for concentrating so much on Labor was that, to him, “the ALP has always been the dynamic of Australian politics, whether in government or opposition.” Another factor, he said, was his membership of the party from his teenage years until he was forced out because his journalism was deemed “incompatible with Labor principles.”

The scoop of which Reid was most proud lifted the lid on the secretive activities of B.A. Santamaria and the anti-communist Catholic organisation known as the Movement. The paranoid response it brought from leader Dr H.V. Evatt helped precipitate the great Labor split of the mid 1950s and throw the party into turmoil that lasted for years. No journalist was better equipped or more eager than Reid to cover that turmoil.

Another Reid exclusive that shifted the political ground — leading eventually to reform of ALP structures — was his report on the 1963 special conference at Canberra’s Hotel Kingston, called to consider whether Labor should support the establishment of a joint US–Australian communications station at North West Cape in Western Australia. The parliamentary leaders — Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam — got the result they wanted, but Reid saw that a much bigger story was their exclusion from the decision-making process. Its potency came from late-night photographs that Reid commissioned of Calwell and Whitlam waiting under a street lamp outside the hotel for instructions from “thirty-six faceless men” on how Labor MPs must vote.

When Reid turned his mind to it, however, as he did in the years of Liberal leadership instability after Menzies’s retirement in 1965, he was just as capable of exposing what happened in smoke-filled rooms on the conservative side of politics. Clear proof of this was his book The Power Struggle, telling the inside story of how John Gorton became Liberal leader and prime minister after the drowning of Harold Holt. The first of three books Reid authored on political events in the 1960s and 70s, it became an instant classic.

Slightly built, smoking roll-your-owns, speaking out of the corner of his mouth and wearing a hat and what Gorton described as “an expression of perpetual cynicism,” Reid cut a distinctive figure. He had no time for the club system — the sharing of stories between cooperating news organisations — or for the pack mentality that he thought affected some members of the press gallery. “I’m a lone wolfer,” he would say.

But, as well as uncovering secrets and interpreting events, Reid was often a participant in matters on which he reported. The proprietor’s agenda was a factor, but more important to the Red Fox’s tendency to be a player as well as an observer was his own taste for intrigue. This blurring of the lines made him a controversial figure.

A clear case of Reid shaping events came late in the 1961 election campaign when he advised Menzies to promise that full employment would be restored within a specified time. That was crucial in the Coalition’s one-seat victory. Another example was Reid’s part in the plotting that toppled Gorton from the prime ministership and installed William McMahon. A diary kept by one of the plotters, Peter Howson, later published, revealed details of his involvement and included an entry after the successful leadership coup that read: “I talked with Alan Reid and thanked him for all the help that he’d given us.”

A novel Reid wrote about the Labor split — suppressed at the time because of defamation concerns — betrayed a bleak view of politics as an activity in which even those who begin with high principles inevitably see them corroded away. He used to warn young journalists, “When you work in a zoo it’s dangerous to get too friendly with the animals.” The Red Fox was a giant of political journalism, but he failed to maintain the kind of distance between himself and the animals that he urged on others. •

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Spiky and refreshing: Charmian Clift in the mid 1960s. Herald & Weekly Times Limited/State Library of Victoria

Spiky and refreshing: Charmian Clift in the mid 1960s. Herald & Weekly Times Limited/State Library of Victoria