Leslie Seymour: The Everywhere Man — Have Camera Will Travel

“Who the hell is Leslie Seymour?”
That’s what journalist and broadcaster Ray Martin asks facetiously in his foreword to the autobiography of Les Seymour, his long-time mate, and it’s a fair question. Unless you’re a veteran journo or a media junkie, you may not have heard about cameraman extraordinaire, Les Seymour.
All he’s ever done as a camera operator and producer is work with journalists like Ray, Richard Palfreyman, Paul Murphy, Ian Macintosh, Allan Hogan, Mark Colvin, Paul Lyneham, Paul Lockyer, Tony Joyce and Richard Carleton, and film famous people like Dame Joan Sutherland, Sir Sidney Nolan, Shirley MacLaine, Paul McCartney, US President Jimmy Carter, Pope John Paul II, Charlton Heston, UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Bryce Courtenay and Gore Vidal, to name a few.
Les has also covered the world, shooting stories in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Europe, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Latin America, again to name a few. He’s been everywhere, man. In fact, he is an everywhere man. Have camera, will travel. He’s also a great storyteller.
I better disclose early in this review of his book, My Best Shot: A Life Through the Lens, that Les Seymour is a mate, and I first met him on the Nine Network’s Sunday Program more than 25 years ago when I was a field producer.
Les begins with a prologue in the Middle East: His assignment as an ABC cameraman covering the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 in the Golan Heights. He and reporter Roger Allebone and sound recordist John Page were in their twenties and involved in their first full-scale war. As bad luck would have it, their car hit a boulder and Les had to go to a nearby kibbutz to get transport. Caught up in the Israeli bombing and Syrian mortar fire, Les and Israeli soldiers were taken from a bunker by Syrian fighters to a prison outside Damascus. The Syrians thought Les, who had left his camera behind, was a plain-clothes military man, and placed him in a small cell, eight feet long and six feet wide. During daily interrogations, he was punched and kicked by guards for what seemed like weeks and he could barely say his name. Fortunately, a Swiss Red Cross officer found Les’ passport and confirmed he was not a spy but an Australian cameraman. He was released and taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital. Les said he was still haunted by the experience but has learned to live with it. He never discovered the name of the Red Cross officer, but he writes: “He was truly a guardian angel who saved my life.”

(Cover Photo Above by Allan Hogan: “Les in Gaddafi’s Libya, 1972”)
From a near-death episode, Les remembers happier times, growing up in the inner-city suburb of Leichhardt, in a Catholic family with four brothers and a sister. They lived in a small house with a traditional Aussie outback toilet, but as Les puts it: “We lived in poverty but didn’t know we were poor.” By the time Les was born, his father had separated from his mother, who kept the family together with several full and part-time cleaning jobs, helped out by neighbours like the Cohens, bringing food when money was short.
Les was taught by nuns, the Order of St Joseph, and parish priests, the Order of Capuchin at the local Catholic school, but a revelation in his memoirs surprised me. Les had been sexually abused by Father Dominic, the main parish priest of St Fiacre’s, for over a year while he was a choirboy and decided to go to the seminary to escape this “disgraceful creature,” as he describes him later in the book. He finally added his story about Father Dominic’s abusive treatment to the Royal Commission into Sexual Child Abuse in 2017. Les was in the Capuchin seminary in Plumpton west of Sydney from age 12 to 16, and said he was “living on harrowed rather than hollowed grounds,” but made the right decision because he was never again sexually abused.
In 1965 Les Seymour started his 20-year career at the ABC as a film dispatcher, but it didn’t take long before he switched jobs and became a Commonwealth driver for then Deputy General Manager, Dr Clem Semmler. Clem took an interest in Les and gave him experience as an assistant cameraman with one of his first big jobs shooting the tragic Blue Mountains bushfires of 1968. Les called it his “professional baptism of fire” with his footage of the burning suburb of Warrimoo leading the 7pm ABC News. Clem also helped Les when he moved to London to improve his career as a cameraman, and gave him the number of a contact at BBC’s Ealing Studios. Voila, Les got the job as a camera assistant in the documentary unit. Several years, documentaries and programs like Panorama and Z Cars later, Les Seymour was appointed as a fully-fledged cameraman, the first in the ABC’s London Bureau in the West End.
During his first five years in London, Les had another dream job: he was regularly sent to the ABC’s New York Bureau to work with journalists, including some of the best, Ray Martin, Peter Barnett and Jeff McMullen. One of his first assignments was the 1972 presidential election campaign, and he and Ray and the crew covered the New Hampshire Democratic primary, featuring candidate George McGovern. When Ray discovered Hollywood celebrities like Shirley MacLaine and her brother Warren Beatty were fundraising for McGovern, he tried to get Shirley to talk about her role in the campaign the next morning at a local school, as well as chatting to George McGovern. After Ray had told Shirley that “Les” was pronounced “Lay” in Australia, and he was a Greek prince, Shirley responded by saying “Good night Prince Lay” to Seymour, and farewelling Martin: “And Sir, you can go fuck yourself.” The next day Les filmed the kids and George, but Shirley had no comment. Hollywood 1, ABC nil.
Four years later, Ray telexed Les in London asking if he could shoot a profile piece on the Democratic presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter, campaigning around America on a Boeing 737 codenamed “Peanut One.” Of course, Les said yes, but on three separate flights serving wonderful meals like lobster, roast turkey and warm pastrami sandwiches, he wound up with a small aluminium tray labelled “Strictly kosher.” Les complained he wasn’t Jewish and Ray told him to stop whingeing. Third time around, Les stood up in his seat and shouted: “I want sandwiches and salad just like everyone else.” The steward burst out laughing and all the passengers applauded. Everyone, including Ray, was in on the joke, except Les, and 30 seconds later, Jimmy Carter came to his seat, shook his hand and said: “I knew you Aussies had a good sense of humour but we didn’t think you’d last this long, Les.” The future president signed Les’ press pass and the steward brought him warm pastrami sandwiches. Just two of the funny episodes in the Seymour Saga.

(Photo Above of Mark Colvin and Les on an extinct volcano in Uganda)
One of the most poignant stories in My Best Shot also involved President Carter, who attempted to rescue American hostages being held by Revolutionary Guards in Tehran with a military raid called “Operation Eagle Claw” in April 1984. With two of the eight helicopters destroyed by mechanical defects and blinding sandstorms, the mission was called off and eight US servicemen lost their lives. ABC London Correspondent Mark Colvin and Les returned to Tehran just after the failed operation to cover the hostage crisis. Mark, who died in 2017 from the repercussions of the auto-immune disease he picked up covering the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, wrote about the chilling aftermath of the Eagle crash in his brilliant autobiography, Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son. (There’s also a lovely story about Les meeting Mark again in 2016 near the end of My Best Shot.) Les remembers Mark’s vivid description of their encounter with the Revolutionary Guards two days after the aborted rescue attempt as journalists were allowed into the US embassy to watch the desecration of the servicemen’s corpses by Ayatollah Khalkhali, known as the “Hanging Judge.” Mark writes: “One of his guards gave him what was either a bayonet or a large hunting knife and he started hacking at the charcoal surface. As he scraped away he revealed what was recognisably an aviator watch. This was a man’s arm he was holding, a man who had been alive a couple of days before. It was certainly the worst thing I’d seen to that point in my life, and to this day, along with that unforgettable stench, it remains in my memory, as indelible as a brand.”
Days later, Mark and Les covered a mass rally of half a million people including Hezbollah and groups loyal to the Revolutionary Guards and the Ayatollahs. Les began filming Hezbollah “hot-heads” and got permission to shoot the proceedings from the top of an OB truck. A large group of youths pointed at Les, shouting: “Down with America! America Out! Kill America!” He got off the truck and the youths, believing he was an American, starting punching, kicking and pummelling him. Mark managed to flag down a truck of Revolutionary Guards who came to his rescue. Les writes: “There was no doubt in my mind that these soldiers of Iran’s new regime had just saved my life.” Taken to the emergency department of a hospital overflowing with casualties, Les was x-rayed by radiologists who neglected to hide his private parts. His genitals came up on the hospital screen, much to the amusement of some children. Les was suffering from a fractured pelvis and acute embarrassment. But he survived.

(Photo above of Les filming in Ethiopia)
Another sad story for Les Seymour took place in 1973 when he and ABC London correspondent Paul Lyneham flew to Ethiopia to cover another African famine, worse than Biafra in the late 1960s, where more than a million people died. Paul was outside a tent in one of the refugee camps talking to aid workers and doctors, while Les was inside filming haunting images: “One young woman with a beautiful face was holding her dying daughter as she took her last gasping breaths and died in front of me. The young mother’s tears flowed down her cheeks as she hugged her dead little girl. It was the most harrowing sight I had ever witnessed. This single image would portray the horror of the Ethiopian famine.”
On a happier note out of Africa, Les was asked by British producer Brian Adams to shoot a one-hour documentary in 1977 on one of Australia’s greatest artists, Sidney Nolan. The main location was Nairobi where Les filmed Sidney with African wildlife, travelling extensively across Kenya and staying at well-known game reserves and hotels. The shoot went well, and Les asked Nolan to draw whatever he saw in front of him, using a sketch pad and crayon, a new medium for the famous artist. It turned out to be a sketch of Les filming Sidney with his camera on his tripod. Asked why he drew Les, Sidney replied: “Well, you were in front of me most of the bloody time!” That sketch (see below) was used throughout Les’ book to end various chapters. The doco, Nolan at Sixty, was well received as a record of the artist’s incredible life’s work. Four years later Sir Sidney was knighted by the Queen and was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1988, the bicentennial year.

Nolan at Sixty was such a success, Brian Adams asked Australian opera singer Joan Sutherland and her husband Richard Bonynge if he could produce a program on the life of La Stupenda. Despite a great recommendation from her friend, Sidney Nolan, Joan Sutherland had reservations, wanting to keep her private and professional lives separate. Brian and Les drove up to their chalet on the shore of Lake Geneva to talk her into it. Seated a table with Joan and Richard, the director of the Sydney Opera House and opera singers and friends, Les was a bit worried about the conversation turning to opera. Joan asked Les what his favourite opera was. The table was silent, Brian Adams was aghast, and Les decided honesty was the best policy: “I must be honest with you. I’ve never been to an opera.” Joan replied: “Isn’t that great? I can mould you!” Adams smiled again, and Joan agreed to do the doco. Over the next six months, Les travelled with Joan and Richard (Photo of Les filming Joan and Richard below) to the great opera houses of Europe, and the film, Joan Sutherland: A Life on the Move, was broadcast in 1980 with terrific reviews. In 1979, Joan Sutherland was named by the Queen as a Dame of the British Empire and was awarded the Order of Australia. At the end of his memoirs, Les Seymour praised Dame Joan and Sir Sidney as two of the most wonderful people he had known: “They both inspired me with their timeless art forms.”

My favourite story Les shot for the Sunday Program was one I produced: taking author Bryce Courtenay back to his South African homeland two months before the first multi-party democratic elections in the country’s history. Les filmed at Morris Isaacson High School, where the Soweto riots began in June 1976. Bryce was giving a moving speech to a senior class when police tried to stop students from chasing a suspect who allegedly raped a female student. Bryce and I were standing between two school buildings when a South African policeman pointed his AK-47 at me. Fortunately, Les was inside filming another class. And another place Les and I will never forget is Phalo Park, a shanty town on the outskirts of Johannesburg. While Bryce and I tried to get permission to film in this dangerous squatter camp, Les heard beautiful sounds coming from one of the shacks. It turned out to be a local choir singing about Nelson Mandela. Les showed us the song on his camera viewfinder and we were gobsmacked. Bryce was delighted and the next day he spoke to a class of sixth formers at King Edward VII Boys School in Johannesburg where he won a scholarship. It was partly set in his novel, The Power of One. Bryce told the students he had been in Phalo Park yesterday: “The sun was setting and as I wandered alone through the human desolation of this forsaken shanty town, I heard the sounds of a choir coming from deep within the metal shack.” Les nearly dropped his camera as Bryce appropriated the story. Les forgave him: “After all he was the storyteller, and my contribution was part of a team effort to produce a terrific Sunday cover story.”
Les Seymour writes eloquently about two of his close mates who died while on assignment for the ABC. Tony Joyce was London Bureau correspondent in 1979 when he and a freelance cameraman flew to the Zambian capital of Lusaka to cover a story about a bridge destroyed by commandos on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. On the way back to Lusaka, Zambian soldiers stopped their car, arrested them and put them in the back of a police car. A man dressed in black, thought to be a political officer with the militia, shot Tony in the head, but he was still alive. Taken to hospital in a coma, two doctors flew to Lusaka from London to operate on Tony and remove a bullet. Several days later he was flown to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, but still in a deep coma. He remained that way for two months, and Les often visited Tony’s wife, Monica, who was at the hospital for nearly every moment of those ten long weeks. Tony’s good friend Paul Murphy flew from Sydney to deliver a moving eulogy to his mate. Les writes: “The day I helped carry his coffin out of that church in London was one of the hardest of my life. He is never far from my thoughts.”
His other mate, Paul Lockyer, was a special journalist. I was Paul’s producer in 1992 and part of 1993 and Les worked with us on the Sunday Program. We covered tourism and the Paul Keating election in 1993, to name just two, and Les was Paul Lockyer’s cameraman not only on Sunday, but Midday with Ray Martin, and shooting stories in Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Europe and Moscow. By this time, Les had become a field producer as well as a cameraman for Midday and found out from Paul that Nine was planning a special Sports Sunday story to sponsor the first Asian bicycle race in Vietnam. Tongue in cheek, he asked Paul why management didn’t tell him first, as he was the producer. Paul replied: “Mate, I hate to tell you this, but you’re not a producer’s arsehole.” The friendly banter between Paul and Les was beautiful.
But Les lost his good mate, Paul Lockyer, and two of his ABC colleagues, helicopter pilot Gary Ticehurst and Brisbane cameraman, John Bean, when their chopper went down in South Australia on the night of August 18, 2011. Les hadn’t felt that much grief since the death of Tony Joyce. Paul was an award-winning journalist, and his memorial service at St Ignatius College in Sydney was packed with family, friends and colleagues from all the networks. Paul’s son Jamie said this of his father at the funeral: “I will miss Dad’s love and compassion, Australia will miss his stories, and the world will miss a man of greatness.”

(Photo above, l to r: Paul Murphy, Paul Lockyer, Richard Palfreyman, Maria Lockyer)
The last chapter of My Best Shot focuses on “New Beginnings,” after Les took a voluntary redundancy from Nine in 2006 and became a freelance producer and cameramen working with Ray on Nine’s A Current Affairs and the Fred Hollows Foundation. Ray first met Professor Hollows in 1980 when he did a 60 Minutes story on Fred, who restored eyesight for tens of thousands of people in Australia, Asia and Africa. It’s estimated more than 2.5 million people can see today because of Fred Hollows. Les met Fred in the early 1990s when he filmed his first lens production factory in Eritrea for the Sunday Program. After Fred’s death in 1993, Les filmed his first cataract removal and the insertion of flexible intraocular lenses developed by Dr Sanduk Ruit, who took over from Fred Hollows, in his Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology in Kathmandu. Since then, Les and Ray have been everywhere in Asia and beyond. It was in a tiny village on the Lao border with China that one of the Hollows team removed the cataracts of two seven-month-old Laotian boys, Samlan and Sintham, in a successful operation filmed by Les on A Current Affair. (Featured photo of the twin boys with their mother and Les at the top). Les received the annual “Fred’s Helping Hand Award” for 2016 for his special role in keeping Fred’s vision alive. No wonder Les is happy. His daughter Danielle, her husband, Iain, and two grandsons, Ethan and William, have a beautiful home on Sydney’s northern beaches and his daughter, Elisabeth, and her English husband Richard live in in a lovely terrace house in London with granddaughter, Amelie, and grandson Harry.
The last words of his memoirs should go to Les: “I’ve seen the best and worst experiences of human nature. I’ve heard the cries of starving children. I’ve smelt the stench of death. I’ve tasted the finest food and wine in the world. I’ve touched the lives of many people. I almost feel as though I have lived ten lives. I have been lucky to observe and capture so many of these aspects of life through the lens of my camera.”
That’s who Leslie Seymour is. His tales are worth reading.
My Best Shot: A Life Through the Lens, My Autobiography by Leslie Seymour, TimeWorks Media Ltd (Distributed in Australia by Woodslane P/L), 380 pages. RRP: $24.95

Strewth! A magnificent memoir of home truths

“What do you call a fart in the bathtub?”
It was a question I asked award-winning columnist of The Australian, author, snake lover and bagpipes player, James Jeffrey (Photo above The Australian), a decade or so ago.
The answer, of course, is “Gorp,” the sound of a fart in the bath. James liked it and we have been exchanging bon mots ever since. He did mention that the excellent actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, said his surname sounded like “a fart in the bath,” but it has too many syllables. James replied: “May Gorp be with you,” and we have used it and many variations ever since.
But this is not a piece about Gorps. It’s a belated review of James’s magnificent memoir, My Family and Other Animus, which was published four months ago. Better late than never. It’s a book mainly about a family of animated spirits, especially his mother, Eszter, a feisty Hungarian dedicated to smoking and several marriages. In his preface, James mentions a list of suggestions that will make for a better life and a happy family. My favourite and his: Make sure the kids see the love flow between their parents.
His family arrived in Australia on a ship from England in 1976, when James was four, with his mother and his siblings and his British father, Ian, heading for a coal-mining job in a country town a few hours up the road from Sydney. His mum found the town so boring, she waged a successful campaign to move the family back to the Big Smoke and the Sutherland Shire.
Four years later, the Big Fight, as it became known, erupted between his Mum and Dad, and his father’s mother and sister, visiting on Australia Day, which led to screaming, and the barricading of James and his sister, Olivia, in a bedroom. The Siege ensued, and eventually, when his father went off to work, the removalists arrived and the family left him behind. James writes: “… this was the moment in which my old world ended and a new, chaotic one rose in its place … life would take on a seismic instability so filled with madness and strain and vendetta and daftness and acts of love both beautiful and misguided that, decades later, I rarely go a week without thinking about it all.”
The split led to the Family Court and two years after the Big Fight, the divorce and custody arrangements were settled in 1983. James, who was eleven at the time, told the Family Court: “Yes, I love them both the same. But I’d rather live with Dad.” James and Olivia stayed with their Dad. (His mother had moved in with her third partner, Janos.)

But life goes on, and James tells tales of the birth of his first child, Daisy, who was born in a Sydney hospital in 2002, in a “labour-and-caesearean marathon.” His wife, Bel, had come back earlier from Moscow where James was working, and he arrived in time to be at the birth: “Daisy’s first act was to part her legs and pee on the doctor, confirming in quick succession that she was a girl, and that she was our girl.” He had the photo developed and scanned by a 2002 computer that downloaded line by line. The result prompted a colleague to email from Moscow: “It looks like a scene from Alien.” Three and a half years later, Leo was born, with James whispering: “He’s a boy,” to Bel, adding (he regrets to say): “He’s got a really big schlong.”
James Jeffrey loves his family, but journalism is also in his blood. Aside from his much-read and much-loved daily Strewth! column in The Australian, where I first “Gorped” with James, he writes the parliamentary Sketch, inherited from the late, great Matt Price, whose pieces in the Oz were priceless for their humour and insight. James also captures the joy and mayhem of Federal parliament in his Sketch, occasionally saying outrageous things about outrageous politicians.
He’s also not afraid to take on readers who abuse him via email or tweets, bravely stating: “All I ask is that they try to be original with their abuse.” And there are two things that make him ponder the value of the online comments section below his columns and vignettes and short Strewth! tales: “And this passes for journalism?” and “And your point is?” His response is razor-sharp: “I’m still in love with the idea of a newspaper being a banquet with plenty of courses. Hard news, breaking news, solid analysis – all of this is important. But they’re not the only reason readers turn up. So, for those of you poised to ask me what my point is – apart from vive la difference – it’s a straightforward one: this article passes for journalism.”

Speaking of journalism and journalists, Jeffrey has a chapter on one of the best, the late Mark Colvin of the ABC (photo above Mark and James, The Australian), described by James as a “broadcaster, writer, Twitter friend, outstanding human being and , in a twist of fate I still pinch myself over, dear friend.” Colvin would often comment on a piece or a single line or two and once he caught James “completely off guard” with a line about the last of his Home Truth columns in The Australian: “I hope Bel is suitably appreciative of what between the lines is one of the great love-letters of all time.”
Mark was dying of cancer and spent a lot of time in hospital, but, as often happens, James thought he had time to visit him the following day when he got the saddest of news from his mutual friend, the ABC’s Leigh Sales, and was whisked away to the office of another friend, Labor MP Terri Butler, where he went “wild with grief.” Despite his distress, he managed to write a poignant tribute to his dear friend for The Australian’s next edition. Here’s a brief excerpt – the piece began in Bunnings where the pair used to meet and chat: “Our conversations sometimes wandered the world or history, sometimes stayed very local. Sometimes we dug deep, sometimes skated happily across the surface. Then eventually, we’d say goodbye – and suddenly I’d realise I was still in Bunnings.”
The tribute continues: “He was brave, he was stoic. Injustice and hypocrisy made him angry … He was one of the finest people I’ve ever known, and becoming his friend has been one of the great joys of my life. He left one last tweet to be sent out once he was gone: ‘It’s all been bloody marvellous’.”
That chapter, and the ones piecing together the columns about the dementia and death of James’s father and his mother are worth the price of admission to this brilliant book. If you’re a sentimental old journo like me, you might shed a few tears, but that’s good for the soul.
Dementia. Not a good word. Not a good way to die. James finally confronted his father on a nostalgic trip to Lightning Ridge. In the car on the way back to the mining town, he talked to his Dad about the “d-word,” which prompted him to get out of the car and start walking along the road toward Lightning Ridge. “Come on Dad, we have to talk about what’s happening to you,” called James. His Dad’s reply: “Do you think I’m not aware?” The last sentence of that chapter is full of sorrow: “The sky was immense, but the world beneath it was suddenly smaller.”
The next column on his father begins with this ominous sentence: “It was a Sunday when Dad first forgot my name.” The descent into full-blown dementia was swift, and he asked his son: “What line of work are you in?” Within days, his Dad was moved into the dementia ward of a nursing home. James muses in the last paragraph what the future holds for his father: “He still has the company of his phantoms. Bit by bit, they grow more assertive as the flesh-and-blood people in his life slip out of focus, flicker and fade. Then one day, I’ll go out into that garden and sit among the flowers with a man who looks like my father.”
I teared up after reading that. The next paragraph is James’s turn: “That was the hardest column I had yet written. When I finished typing it, I stared at the last seven words for a very long time. As it turned out, we didn’t have long at all and I was soon writing the most bittersweet of follow-ups.” The next column on his Dad is certainly bittersweet and worth reading, but I’ll leave it to you.
Let’s end this review on a slightly less lugubrious last chapter: “Apres mum le deluge.” After selling her house on Gumtree, the online classified site, James’s Mum decided to move house again a few months later. It was only three minutes from Coles and she told James she was happy. Then she had a heart attack in the morning and a second one later that afternoon, and was flown by helicopter to Newcastle for surgery in a larger hospital 380 kilometres to the south. The entire family gathered around her as she spent 18 days battling as her life ebbed away. Finally the respirator was switched off, and she was gone.
The funeral was a celebration of his Mum’s life with a little ghetto-blaster in the back of the hearse taking the coffin to the cemetery switching from a “sad, yearning voice and a keening violin” to Fur Elise, “a trusty bit of Beethoven Mum had always loved playing on her piano.” Near the end, the celebrant asked the family and friends: “If anyone would like to share a memory of Eszter, please do.” Cue the thunderclap. So loud it felt like it had pounded the mourners’ eardrums deep into their skulls.
“Once we were confident no one had been hit by lightning, we all laughed. In that carnival of grief, it was even more than a moment of release – it was almost magical. More than anything, we understood that there couldn’t have been a more Mum way to say goodbye. Well, either that or a shower of cigarettes.”
James, Thank Gorp for such a wonderful read.
My Family and Other Animus, James Jeffrey, Melbourne University Press, 185 pages.
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Sam the Man: A tenacious titan of television generous to a fault

Sam Chisholm, sales director and former head of Channel Nine, Managing Director of BSkyB, and television executive extraordinaire, was also known as a legend in his own lunchtime.
But lunches were special to journalists and tv executives in those days. My best mate, Cliff Neville, who died in 2012, was the supervising producer of Nine’s 60 Minutes and he loved working lunches. It’s where he was at his best, bringing people together, healing wounds that would have festered if they weren’t brought out into the open.
Sam and my former boss, Ian Frykberg, then executive producer of the Nine Sunday Program and the editor of The Bulletin magazine, excelled in lunches like that. Okay, they drank, but they did deals and solved problems with journalists, media moguls, business directors and politicians, including prime ministers. And both liked loyalty. To keep loyal employees from leaving Nine, they would take them out to lunch. They stayed. Even if it was a long lunch that turned into dinner, the next day Sam and Frykers would remember every word from the night before.
My memories of Sam came during his funeral service last week at a packed St Swithun’s Church in Pymble on Sydney’s north shore where every time you turned around there was another media executive: former Nine boss, David Leckie, Seven’s Bruce McWilliam (who wrote an excellent two-part tribute to Sam in The Australian), former News Corp chairman, John Hartigan, Fairfax Media Chairman Nick Falloon (who engineered the deal delivering Fairfax into the clutches of Nine this week), Foxtel’s Executive Director of Television, Brian Walsh, Fox Sports Head of Television, Steve Crawley, and Ten consultant and former Nine and Ten news and current affairs director, Peter Meakin, to name just a few. Others included Brian Henderson, Jim Waley, Paul Fenn, Vickie Jones, Caroline Frykberg, Helen Biven and Kamahl, a varied group of friends and colleagues.
Sam’s friend and long-time maestro at Nine, Geoff Harvey, played the organ and piano, giving the congregation a lovely musical reflection after tributes by Sam’s daughter, Caroline Jumpertz, and his former business partner at BSkyB David Chance. The four score and three-year-old Harvey still knows how to tickle the ivories. Sam’s wife Sue and Caroline were inseparable at the service (Photo above Caroline and Sue. Picture: John Feder The Australian).
Caroline talked about her happy upbringing, with Geoff Harvey playing Christmas carols on the piano and Humphrey B. Bear coming to her birthday parties, and Dennis Lillee occasionally bowling in the backyard cricket matches. She has tried to live up to her father’s advice: “Never big note yourself” but don’t be a wallflower either. She said her father had the uncanny ability to read people, as any Nine or BSkyB employee would know, and she told the media they could use any adjective to describe him since “most of them would be accurate.” I can think of a few, but Caroline nailed it when she called her dad a “tenacious, complex, charismatic man” and “generous” long before he became rich.
I was a beneficiary of Sam’s generosity in 1987 when I was called to his office after Ian Frykberg had told him that I was going to have a double hip replacement in a month. “Tom,” he said, “I think you need to lose some weight before the operation. If you lose a stone this month, I will give you a flight to the US to see your mother.” With an offer like that, how could I say no? In fact, the flight also included my wife and two young daughters. When I came back I gave him the “key” to San Francisco, admitting I had purchased it in a pawn shop, probably pawned by a poverty-stricken politician, because what else could you give a man who had everything. Sam said: “Well, Tom, I’m glad you enjoyed the trip because you’ll never get another one like this.” He was right.

Everybody has a Sam story. Geoff Harvey got a trip around the world from Sam after he gave up smoking for six months. Tim Sheridan, a veteran sports journalist at Nine, and now senior sports correspondent at Fox Sports, told me at the wake about the time someone had borrowed his car at the station and parked Sam’s car in. Tim saw Sam at the door looking very angry and went up to apologise. Instead of bagging Tim, he said: “Is that your car? Isn’t it about time you got one you deserve?” A few days later, Tim got a new car.
The Reverend Craig Potter, rector of St Aldan’s in the Sydney suburb of Longueville, was Sam’s friend as well as his former minister, and therefore able to deliver a very good address about Sam, instead of the usual speech about eternal life (though it was mentioned). Rev Potter also talked about Sam’s “overwhelming generosity,” telling Craig to come down to his farm at Bundarbo, near Yass in New South Wales. His visits were frequent over the years, and he said the Chisholm hospitality was “generous to a fault.”
David Chance, Sam’s deputy at BSkyB in the late 1990s, paid a wonderful tribute to his friend, starting it off with his boss’ favourite insults to TV executives, describing them as “having a $20 haircut and a 10 cent brain,” “flapping their gums until they’d worked up a Force 10 gale,” and “offering him a penetrating glimpse of the obvious.”
Two of my favourites were his accusation of some executives as “being a person of cast-iron whims” and “never letting self-doubt cloud their judgment.” Sam was an expert in free character analysis. He was also not afraid of experimenting: even if it was a little on the funny side: at one point, proposing a “sheep channel” for BSkyB. (It’s a long story.)
David also talked about his generosity: Summer holidays with Sam and Sue in the south of France and how other friends would get to party with Miss October, on the back of a Harley Davidson.
In a poignant tribute, David Chance said Sam had “more tenacity and determination than anyone I ever knew.” He was in pain, but he never complained. Sam suffered from emphysema, an inherited illness which killed his father and brother. He eventually had a double lung transplant in 2003. “He was tough, but greatly admired, and respected by everyone that ever worked for him,” said David. And he spoke directly to Sue who was Sam’s rock: “You are a truly remarkable woman.” She was, of course, as she looked after Sam for decades, especially in those 15 years with his double lung transplant. David summed it up perfectly: “They don’t get any better than this.”
Sue Chisholm’s tribute was shorter; how she managed to do it, given her last few weeks, only demonstrated her bravery. “My darling Sam,” she began, remembering his warm smile, and how Sam “never complained – ever.” She also told the gathering that Sam had left her with the irreplaceable feeling of being “deeply understood and completely loved … Sam was my rock. He was my anchor … My darling Sam.” There was hardly a dry eye in the church at the end. Despite his illness, Sam didn’t go into hospital until Friday and he died on Monday night with his family around him. Sam Chisholm even knew how to die well.
At the wake afterwards in their lovely home on the north shore, there were more stories about Sam, his generosity, never being afraid to speak his mind, and his love of motorcycle riding. His daughter Caroline said Sam was definitely not a Trump supporter. She was in New York on election night, and Sam called hoping that he had lost. Unfortunately, he didn’t. I was happy to hear Sam never liked Donald Trump.
And my favourite anecdote at the wake came from Caroline. Before the renovations that transformed a weatherboard ranch-style house into an extended home at each end, building upwards with huge windows, Sam used to ride his motorbike from one end of the smaller abode to the other end in the bedroom. When Caroline and Sam’s first wife, Ronda, came home, they could smell a whiff of petrol in the air. “My father was crazy,” joked Caroline.
Sam might have been a bit crazy in those days (we all were), but he loved his family, he loved his job and he was one of a kind. We will not see his like again.
PS I would have loved to hear what Sam thought of this week’s merger of Nine with Fairfax. I can imagine him smiling now, standing next to a grumpy Kerry Packer saying: “It’s about bloody time.”

Dear Diary: Why hast thou forsaken me?

Sorry about the headline, but I wanted to get your attention. It comes from Psalm 22.1: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The psalm Christ recited on the cross.
My cross is much less of a burden. It’s just trying to decide if it’s worth going through more than 30 years of diaries to write a memoir on my career in television. Every time I turn to the literary pages of The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Los Angeles Times, another memoir pops up. Among the most recent contributors are journalists or politicians: Mike Willesee, Peter Greste, Hugh Riminton, Mark Colvin, John Simpson, James Jeffrey, Janelle Wells, Sarah Ferguson, Chris Patten, Joe Biden to name a few.
Would my meagre memoir attract the attention of publishers who have already rejected my novel about television? My wife has always said my factual journalism is better than my fiction. Last year I wrote a post about a diary on the death of Princess Diana and posed a question to readers of this blog: “Would you prefer a novel or a memoir?” The majority said memoir (my wife is always right), but do I make it an autobiography or a diary a la David Sedaris, whose latest bestseller is Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002? It’s only Volume One so there’s a lot more to come. Sedaris, who was in Australia recently, writes in his author’s note: “If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you’re interested in … you keep the diary you feel you should be keeping … the point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person.”
“To thine own self be true,” as Shakespeare put it. Well, I’m making my final pitch to readers. When I moved from newspapers to television in 1983, urged on by a friend and journalistic colleague, Matt White, to keep writing, I chose a diary as my guardian wordsmith. Here’s an excerpt of the diary (photo above) which began nearly 35 years ago, when I became the foreign editor of the Seven Network in Sydney:
September 12, 1983
“Nervous to begin with, but the welcome by Cliff Neville (deputy news director) and Vincent Smith (news director) combined with the quiet professionalism of Paul Dougherty (producer) quickly got me over any nerves (all three are deceased). Learned about all the feeds and usual problems associated with Monday mornings. Paul makes the point: “Ninety-nine per cent of the time the words take care of the story.” It’s nice to know in an industry focusing on pictures, words still count. Friendly atmosphere at the news conference: I’m the “new boy.” The worst mistake you can make in an intro is to repeat what is said on tape: it makes the newsreader looks stupid. Ten to 20 seconds is best length for a normal intro. Most important news of the day appears to be NBC at 8.30am, when the LA bureau sends the feed. A quiet day and I’m home early (6.20pm).”
September 13, 1983
“Today is the day of Andrew Fowler’s (see photo below) interview with David Hackworth. (Andrew is a mate of mine from my days on The Australian, and the author of a new book on surveillance: Shooting the Messenger: Criminalising Journalism, and the late Colonel David Hackworth was the most decorated American soldier in the Vietnam War.) It runs 21 minutes and Andrew has put a lot of time and effort into it. Although he continues to battle for what he believes in, Andrew seems a lot happier and more fulfilled than at News Ltd. It’s a disease which I hope is catching. It’s a superb interview and there is instant reaction on the phones near the 11AM desk, including a call from a wife whose husband is a “war-mongering colonel in the Australian army.” I call Hackworth and he tells me he knows my friend Bill Dolon, a Villanova graduate and a paratrooper in the 101st US Army during the Vietnam war, and adds “the difference between a fairy tale and a war story. A fairy tale begins: ‘once upon a time,’ and a war story begins:’No shit, man. This really happened’.” I watch Paul Dougherty cut a grass car story — a funny from NBC — and learn what a jump cut is, a jump in the footage that’s noticeable: “Use cutaways to avoid jump cuts.” Other advice: write down the beginning of the news script and the end words, aka the outcue. I learned a great deal from Paul. Vincent Smith grabbed me before the news and gave me this brief: “A foreign budget for each one of the programs and I want new ideas and plenty of them.” Gordon Westcott, producer of 11AM, said the same thing, asking for up and coming authors for interviews. That night I attended the Australian/Vogel Award at Len Evans restaurant in the city and told the literati and the editor of The Australian, Les Hollings, and managing editor, Arnold Earnshaw, how happy I was.”

September 14, 1983
“Wednesday began with a hangover and Andrew and Paul filling me in on Vincent’s unhappiness with G. Westcott. It seems everybody but Vincent likes Gordy’s work, so it must be a personality problem (Gordon is alive and well and one of the best producers I worked with. The last time I saw him was at SBS in 2013 when he was the Weekend Chief of Staff. He’s still very helpful). Andrew shows me Vincent’s memo, saying the Viet execution scene was gratuitous and ruined an otherwise excellent report. Paul Lyneham rang from London to say congrats and fill me in on what was happening. It’s imperative to keep him happy. He wants Beirut to be his bailiwick, and I agree. He mentions memos going astray and I must keep an eye on that.”
September 15, 1983
“Today was the day I gave up my newspaper notebook for a legal pad and cut my first story. It was Lyneham’s story on Vice-Admiral David Leach shopping for carriers in Liverpool. Despite all warnings, the intro didn’t reach me until I had already written one for 11AM. There were no problems cutting it for 11AM, it was much harder for 6.30, a tighter program. I gave my first suggestions at conference today and people actually listened and followed up. Andrew Fowler, who has been agonising over whether to reply to Vincent’s memo, finally did so. He said memos go on your record — I must remember that — and he was very helpful. I call CNN and learn what a rundown is all about. It’s a good guide when a big story is running or an advisory on an exceptional press conference is coming. Late in the day and out of the blue, Reporter Laurie Brennan asks me over a can of Carlton Light: ‘Why does everybody like you so much? Is it because you’re likeable or because you’re such a good writer?’ A good question.” PS Thirty-five years later, I still can’t answer it.
Well, that’s a sample. Only about 10,000 more entries to look at and edit. What say you? As I mentioned in my post on Princess Diana last year, the late journalist and author and mate, Ian Moffit, used to say: “We are all living on borrowed time.”

Comic duo Laurel and Hardy’s moments to remember: Tales of Hollywood stranger than fiction

Laurel and Hardy were two of my favourite comedians. Every year on Thanksgiving, a US TV network played one of their old films. We laughed at their jokes and slapstick, with perfect timing and the sheepish face of Stan Laurel and the exasperated reactions of Oliver Hardy providing moments to remember.
What brought back that memory? A brilliant new novel by John Connolly, a former Irish journalist who’s written 15 books about a fictional American detective, Charlie Parker, a crime series that started with a plane crash in the state of Maine and has branched out into an epic story about Hollow Men, the Brotherhood, a Monstrous Mother and a criminal empire. I’ve read most of them and noticed on Connolly’s website that he was publishing a novel reimagining the life of Stan Laurel, one of the great screen comics, with his jolly, overweight partner, Oliver Hardy. He is a work of fiction, but it’s based on an enormous amount of research, outlined in the Author’s Note, including four seminal Laurel and Hardy biographers and the letters of Stan Laurel, a prodigious correspondent whose missives can be found in Stan’s Correspondence Archive Project, along with a brief biography. Connolly loved Laurel and Hardy because they were part of his childhood. My childhood.
The novel begins in the Oceana Apartments by the sea in Santa Monica, California where Stan “chases butterfly memories” in the last days of his life. He remembers Oliver (Babe) Hardy: “Babe is always with him … But now Babe is gone, and he is alone.” We get to read more of Stan’s memories throughout the book (and this post). It’s a short first section, like the 202 remaining chapters, but it encompasses the life of the comic duo from Stan’s childhood in northern England where his father, Arthur Jefferson, aka AJ, managed theatres and was also an actor and director to Babe’s upbringing in Georgia carrying a sandwich board advertising specials at the Baldwin Hotel run by his mother. Along the way, Connolly tells tales of Hollywood and its stars (imagining what Stan would say): Chaplin for one, who has sex with 15-year-old girls; who takes actress Paulette Goddard to bed, believing she is 17, and ‘is disappointed when she reveals that she is twenty-two;” who is the greatest comedian Laurel has ever seen; and, last but not least, according to Stan, “Chaplin is a monster.” Harvey Weinstein comes to mind.
Stan Laurel had a Chaplin complex. He was Chaplin’s understudy at Fred Karno’s comedy company when he was only 19. Stan travelled with Karno to the US in 1910 and 1912. The company split when Charlie moved on to become a star in motion pictures in Hollywood. When Stan’s common-law wife, Mae Dahlberg, told him he was as good as Chaplin, he replied Charlie was the best that has ever been. Babe Hardy was working with movie producer Larry Semon, who wanted to make pictures like Chaplin’s and didn’t care who the Little Tramp was screwing. Babe believed Chaplin should be in jail. But Chaplin is Chaplin (often repeated in the novel). Semon had no vision and his company collapsed. It led Babe to sign a contract with Hal Roach, one of Hollywood’s most famous and successful movie magnates, and the partnership of a lifetime with Stan Laurel that began in 1926.

While Stan and Babe had a great partnership, it didn’t mean they always chose the right partners in marriage – not to mention their affairs. When Mae returned to Melbourne, Stan married Lois Neilsen in 1926. They had two children, a daughter Lois, and a son who died tragically nine days after his birth. They were divorced eight years later and Stan married Ruth Rogers. But Stan continued to pine for Lois, who refused to remarry. The marriage to Ruth lasted three years, who told Stan: “You’re just a child. You have no idea what you really want at all.” His next partner was a mad Russian actress and singer, Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, accompanied by Countess Sonia, and Roy Randolph, the Dancing Master. Stan and Vera had three wedding ceremonies. Connolly writes: “He (Stan) will spend most of 1938 drinking, for reasons not unconnected to their marriage.” Years later at the Oceana Apartments, Stan remembers Vera: “He remembers that Vera was a drunk. He remembers that Vera couldn’t sing … He remembers that Countess Sonia’s perfume smelled like cat piss … He remembers driving the wrong way down Reseda Boulevard, intoxicated and crying and only (his lawyer) Ben Shipman’s bamboozling of the jury keeping him out of jail.” There’s more. He remarries Ruth in 1941. That lasted until the end of the war, when he met and fell in love with Ida Kitaeva Raphael. When Ben Shipman read about their wedding in a newspaper on May 6, 1946, he screamed: “Jesus Christ, he’s married another Russian.” But this marriage endured until death did them part nearly 20 years later.
Babe Hardy had a similar chequered marital record, starting with Madelyn Saloshin, who played the piano at a theatre where he was singing in a quartet. They had a dog and a monkey. Babe said it wasn’t a marriage. It was a zoo. It was short, followed by a longer, but not much happier union, as his second wife, Myrtle Reeves, was a drunk. He had a lover, Viola Morse, but he continued to look after Myrtle, who did things like escaping from a sanitarium, sneaking out of her sister’s house and trying to drink herself to oblivion in a hotel. A policewoman talked her out of jumping out the hotel window, and Myrtle was arrested. Every newspaper in the country had the story. Still Babe found it hard to leave her, although he spent a lot of time at the races in Santa Anita. He sought comfort from Myrtle with other women, but eventually got a divorce and paid hefty alimony bills. Although he’d been with Viola Morse longer than Myrtle, Babe finally met his true love, Lucille Jones. Despite Viola’s pain, Babe and Lucille married … and she cared for her husband until he died in 1957.
Somehow Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy managed brilliant careers in spite of their marital problems and family tragedies. They made short films for Hal Roach, released through MGM, during the silent era in the late 1920s and took to audio like ducks to water. Their first sound movie was a success: Unaccustomed As We Are in 1929. With their traditional bowler hats, suits and ties, mixing sight and sound gags (mostly written by Stan), the Pom from Ulverstone and the Yank from Georgia enthralled American audiences during the Great Depression. Laurel and Hardy won the first Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Comedy, in 1932 for The Music Box, a revision of their silent film, Hats Off.

Later that year, Laurel and Hardy decided to take a vacation and made a deal with MGM: ten days of publicity, the rest of the time to themselves. They travelled by train to New York via Chicago and took what they thought would be a leisurely cruise on the RMS Aquitania to Southampton. Stan and Ollie were amazed by the thousands of people who waited for them in Chicago, just wanting to touch them, shake their hands. It was worse, and scarier, in New York when the Broadway multitudes did not let them pass. They had to hide in Minsky’s Music Hall and were smuggled aboard the Aquitania. Much to their surprise, Stan and Babe had become two of the most famous men in the world. In Britain, thousands greeted them from London to Leeds and Birmingham, to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Stan spent time with his father, AJ, who wondered why his son changed his last name from (Arthur Stanley) Jefferson to Laurel. Stan had no satisfactory explanation; it was Mae Dahlberg’s suggestion.
Laurel and Hardy made 105 films between 1926 and 1951, when they retired from movies. Laurel met Charlie Chaplin at his house in Beverly Hills, and they reminisced. Chaplin said: “Who else like us is left”? Stan “cannot help but admire Chaplin, even as he wishes him more capable of truth, and more worthy of affection.” He never saw or spoke with Chaplin again. For Babe, his moment in the sun was taking part in a John Ford touring production of What Price Glory, a fundraiser for the Order of the Purple Heart. Among the cast were John Wayne, Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr and Jimmy Cagney, who told Babe he was so good that if someone hadn’t held him upright, he would have fallen on the floor laughing. Hardy sat in the club car of the train on the way to San Francisco, regaling the famous actors with tales of old Hollywood, with Duke Wayne’s eyes and ears wide open. Connolly writes: “They were listening to me, Babe says. Can you believe that? All those great men were listening. To me.”
Stan and Ollie toured England in the early 1950s, to dwindling audiences, until May 18, 1954 when Babe had a heart attack. The tour was cancelled, and they returned to the US where Stan worked on scripts for television. In 1955, he had a stroke, from which he recovered, but Babe had another heart attack and a stroke, was paralysed and lost his voice. He died on August 7, 1957. At the Oceana Apartments, Stan pays tribute to his partner: “Babe is with him and of him … he knows that he loved this man, and this man loved him, and that is enough, and more than enough.”
Stan continued to write jokes and sketches for fellow comedians, and was recognised with a special Oscar for his creative pioneering work in cinema comedy in 1961 (Photo above from LettersFromStan.com). The actor Alec Guinness wrote Stan a letter which had a prominent place on his desk, congratulating him on his Academy Award: “For me you have always been and will always be one of the greats.”
In his Author’s Note, John Connolly says Stan Laurel “kept his telephone number in the Malibu directory because he enjoyed being visited and had no fear of those who might make their way to his door.” Among those visitors were Dick Cavett, Jerry Lewis and Dick Van Dyke. Stan Laurel died on February 23, 1965 and Dick Van Dyke gave the eulogy at the funeral: “The halls of heaven must be ringing with divine laughter.”
John Connolly admits his novel and his depiction of Stan Laurel might not meet with unanimous approval: “All I can say is this: by the end of the writing of this book, I loved Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy more than ever, with all their flaws, in all their humanity, and my admiration for their artistry had only increased.”
As a reader, I felt the same way.
He, John Connolly, Hodder & Stoughton, 453 pages
PS: If you’re interested in watching some of the old clips of Laurel & Hardy films, you can find them on their official website: http://www.laurel-and-hardy.com/ The BBC has produced a biopic of Laurel and Hardy’s final tour of the UK in 1953, titled Stan and Ollie, starring John C. Reilly as Ollie and Steve Coogan as Stan. No release date has yet been announced, but fans of the famous comedy duo won’t want to miss it. A preview by indiewire.com and photos of the film have been released on Twitter.

The Buttons: Speechless but never at a loss for words

It’s taken me a while to read Speechless, a lovely book about speechwriting by James Button, Walkley Award-winning journalist and author and son of John, a senator and a former minister in the Labor Governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. It’s not only a story about speeches but a father and son relationship, the public service and former prime minister Kevin Rudd. (SMH photo above, Left: James, John and Nick, at Geelong match.)
James Button worked as a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd when he was PM in 2009 and later with the Strategy and Delivery Division (SDD), part of the Australian Public Service (APS), where acronyms abound. The reason it took me so long to read Speechless was simple: I enjoyed it so much I wanted to savour every word. (The late Bob Ellis called it “a quiet masterpiece, to be savoured.) It’s also about words and even has a chapter devoted to clear writing in the public service called The Dejargonator, a blog Button’s boss asked him to set up so that people could post examples of “grisly official prose and have a crack at writing clear alternatives.” Button learned from the Great Dejargonator, Don Watson, and his books on jargon “lacerating bad language” that “we are all dejargonators now.” But he also discovered why jargon persists: for the government, it’s about managing risk. He writes: “a vast effort is expended to make sure nothing bad happens, which creates another form of risk: that nothing happens at all.”
As a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd, Button realised the PM rarely gave good speeches: “He could or would not find the connection with his audience. Yet, it’s strange, for he gave one great speech. It had people in it.” In his Apology speech in 2008, Rudd described Nungala Fejo, an Aboriginal woman taken from her family by welfare worker who never saw her mother again, as “an elegant, eloquent and wonderful women in her eighties, full of life, full of funny stories, despite what has happened in her life’s journey.” He spoke of the 1997 Bringing Them Home report on the removal of Indigenous children: “There is something terribly primal about these firsthand accounts. The pain is searing; it screams from the pages … These stories cry out to be heard. They cry out for an apology.”
But as James Button points out in his Acknowledgements in Speechless, it’s his father’s story as much as his. They had difficulty talking about the death of James’ younger brother, Dave, from a heroin overdose. They came close when James showed his Dad a draft of a long piece he had written about Australia’s future for Time Magazine in 1992. John replied: “It’s very long. It’s pretty bleak. And I don’t think you’ve quite caught the spirit of innovation in the economy.” That, of course, angered James who wrote a letter to John saying he had read the piece as a politician, not as a father. A few days later, John told James after a meal at a restaurant: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” a famous line from the English poet Philip Larkin. The anger disappeared. But ten years later, he helped his father write a Quarterly Essay on the Labor Party, both working hard for a week. His Dad spoke at the launch of the essay, thanking his son only in passing. His anger returned but he never told his father what he felt: “I should have said something to him! … I had robbed him of the chance to explain why he didn’t mention it … And we would have grown closer.” James then writes one of the key paragraphs of the book: “We were two articulate men, friends, who loved words and talking together about words. Yet in these respects, we were speechless.”
James still had questions about his father’s memoir, As It Happened, and his mother pointed him to a profile of his Dad in a book of interviews he did with a Melbourne University political scientist, Alan Davies. The psychological profile of the 26-year-old John Button paints him as “tense, troubled, self-absorbed,” a snapshot James recognises: “He seems to be saying, ‘I am a plain man, there is no bloody nonsense about me.’” Later James reads As It Happened again and goes to the last page where his father is musing on his life in politics: “He has regrets, but no complaints: rather the curiosity of wondering what life would be like if he had done something different. And that thought – what if he had done something different? – makes him think of his father: “From my father, I acquired the instinct of taking what comes in life and learning to cop it without complaining. As a child I learnt this the hard way. In later life I was grateful. I’m sure I helped to keep me sane.” James writes: “There it is, hiding in plain view, like the letter on the mantelpiece in a Sherlock Holmes novel. His father is the last person in his book. He has written the book he had to write. He won’t write another but it doesn’t matter. He has made peace with his father.”

I’m only sad because I didn’t have a chance to go to a footy match with John Button, a lifelong supporter of the Geelong football club. James describes walking beside his father at a Geelong match with his brother Nick: “I would hear a constant hum: ‘That’s John Button’.” In his obituary of his father published in the May 2008 edition of The Monthly, James talked about his Dad’s love of Geelong: “He was seriously, battily, obsessed by football, and by the Geelong Football Club. More than once, in the Geelong changing rooms, I caught Dad staring a little too intently at Gary Ablett’s thighs. Week after week, year on year, he would draw an oval on a sheet of paper and compile his team in his crimped handwriting, which a secretary of his once compared to the scratchings of a chook. Sometimes he would mail them to the coach; always he would mail them to Nick and me. I think football was a great release from politics. More than that, though, it gave him a chance to be with his two sons, and I know that his love of football was also a love of us.”
I was fortunate enough to produce John Button for a cover story he was reporting for the Channel Nine Sunday program (later moved to Business Sunday) in 1993, and wrote about it on my blog in April. He was a gracious, humble man who loved his footy and was loved by all the CEOs he talked to about the future of Australian business. He got along well with the workers as well, this “plain man” with “no bloody nonsense” about him. He even talked the then Prime Minister Paul Keating into doing an interview with him for the program, and it was a privilege for me to sit in Kirribilli House and listen to these two Labor veterans talk intelligently about politics and industry, and produce a few headlines for Channel Nine.
If he were still alive, I’d send him an email or a text, saying may the best team win in tonight’s finals match between Geelong and Sydney. But, of course, my team, the Swans will emerge victorious. I only know James as a fellow journalist, but he has written a wonderful book about the Geelong Football Club called Comeback: The Rise and Fall of Geelong, a profile of the Cats’ three premierships in five seasons from 2007 to 2011.
Author and cricket expert extraordinare, Gideon Haigh, reviewed Button’s book in The Weekend Australian last September, saying Comeback is “notably free of needless grandiosity. There are no special claims, for instance, about the bond of club and city: rather, Geelong is an ‘ordinary club in an ordinary town that has done extraordinary things.’ In what Button says he is never other than thoughtful; in what he excludes, the surfeit of repetitive, rigidly chronological detail that retards so many sports books, he may be even more effective.”
James, your father would be proud of you. May the best team win tonight.
Update: Unfortunately, from a Swans supporter’s point of view, the best team was Geelong, who beat Sydney by 59 points last night in a sudden-death final, and go on to play Adelaide in a preliminary final next weekend. The season is over for the Swans. The Button family will be happy.

A producer’s diary: The night the People’s Princess died

Matt White was a show business legend, from his days on Fleet Street after his stint in World War II in the Intelligence Service and later on The Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph in Sydney. He wrote about films and television and movie stars, many of whom were his friends. Matt was also a great mentor. Whenever I had a problem at The Australian, I would look for him at the local pub, The Evening Star, and ask for his advice over a beer or two.
When I decided to leave The Australian to become foreign editor at Channel Seven, I asked Matt what he thought about the move. “Well,” he said, “how many words do you write a week? You’re the literary editor and TV critic for The Australian, and write author interviews, book and tv reviews and profiles of famous celebrities.” I thought about it for a few seconds and said: “Probably about 3000 words in a normal week.” Matt replied: “How many words will you write when you go to television? You’ll write intros to news stories and voiceovers for packages and the morning foreign news list. You’ve got to keep writing every day, longer pieces.”
That made sense, so I thought about it and decided I’d keep a diary of my days in television. I started the diary in September 1983 and kept going until my last full-time journalism job in 2013, as a series producer for The Observer Effect, hosted by Ellen Fanning, working at Shine Australia and putting it to air with EP Paul Steindl on SBS. This blog began when I was working as supervising producer on Ten’s Meet the Press in 2011, but the diary still haunts me. I wrote a novel that was rejected by three publishers, mainly, I was told by those who read it, because it concentrated too much on television and not enough on the story. I’m still working on the third rewrite, but the diary notebooks are still there, and I decided to look up what I wrote in my diary on August 31, 1997. It was 20 years ago today when Princess Diana died in a car crash (photo above of Princess Diana: AAP; photo below of the car: AFP), and I was putting the Sunday Program to air. It all started on August 30 because I always worked from Saturday morning about 8am or so until Sunday afternoon when the show was finished, and the paper work and the political guest transcripts were completed.
Here’s an edited version of that day and a half, with some additions that weren’t in the notebook!
Saturday, Aug 30, 1997
“In early and I cut down the Stuart Diver piece with (gun editor) Ross Wilson and was finished by 2pm. Everything else was going well. The power piece was being cut by Cindy Kelly and it was finished by midnight after all the sound work by Cindy. I got the news feed in from Darwin at 10.30 to 11, thereby missing the end of the Swans game – which they managed to lose again (Editor’s note: Things have changed since then!). While waiting for Cindy to bring up the tape, I wrote a news story, and after that I got about 40 minutes sleep.”

Sunday, Aug 31, 1997
“Up at 5.10am, and as soon as the news editor Ross Chilvers was ready, he cut the Darwin package with Jim Waley’s voice on it. After a difficult night, I was just starting to relax in the control room at 9.30am (the show started at 9am), when Jim said on the floor via the IFB (Interrupted Feed Back): ‘Princess Diana’s been seriously injured in a car crash.’ We didn’t have any pictures from Paris yet (remember this was 20 years ago), and I was worried about how we were going to cover the story. All this occurred during (Nine’s political editor) Laurie Oakes’ interview with the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Shane Stone, so I had to write a back announce for Jim, saying Princess Di and Dodi Fayed had been seriously injured in a car crash in Paris and we would bring viewers the latest details as soon as they came to hand. After the 13-minute interview, Shane Stone turned to Laurie and said: ‘I don’t think we’re going to be on page one tomorrow.’ I then sent a message to the Nine News executive producer of the day, Anthony Murdoch, asking if we could get a two-way with reporter Danny Blyde in London, who he just woke up. Jim had asked for a voiceover to write at the end of the next segment, but we still didn’t have any pix. Jim had to do a long live read, and he wasn’t happy we didn’t have any pictures from the scene. Ross had cut some Princess Di background, but that was all we had. At 10.55am, with only five minutes left in the show, Anthony let us know Dan was there, with Michael Usher on his way to Lausanne for a SOCOG (Sydney Organising Committee for the 2000 Olympic Games) meeting! It was a brief two way: not many details were coming out of Paris. We went over a bit due to the breaking news, driving the presentation director bananas. It was that kind of morning. I was stuffed and sure enough, Diana and Dodi were both pronounced dead by one pm Sydney time. I turned on ABC radio and the veteran newsreader, John Hall, presented the sad news for the first five minutes of the bulletin, and then said: ‘In domestic news, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Sharon Stone, told Nine News …’ I don’t remember what he said after that I was laughing so hard at John’s slip of the tongue, and I immediately called Laurie Oakes and said: ‘Did you hear what I just heard on the ABC? The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Sharon Stone?’ Laurie was laughing, too, and confirmed it.’ It was a laugh we needed after an emotional and very sad morning.”
I then wrote: “Wait till next week.” I was thinking how big the funeral would be for the People’s Princess on the following weekend. I wrote in the diary on Tuesday, September 2: “I had my work cut out for me this week with Princess Di’s funeral on Saturday night our time. It meant a ‘That was the night that was’ story, suggested by Jim, followed by an extended breakout written by me, and cut by Bruce Inglis, a former BBC producer, who covered Di’s last tour here. So we were okay on that one.”
The next Saturday Princess Di’s funeral was watched by 2 billion people around the world and all hands were on deck for the Sunday Program of September 7. We had to squeeze an obituary of Mother Teresa into the packed show. She died early on Saturday morning Australian time. The diary for Sunday, September 7 reads: “I didn’t get any sleep, but I knew that would happen anyway … It was a good show, a good week, and Father’s Day.” (My daughters used to call it half-jokingly Anti-Father’s Day because I was always working.)
Dear Diary: Thanks for the memories. Now a question I have to ask myself: Is it time to go through the diaries, and write a novel based on them, or make it a memoir? As another old mate, no longer with us, the wonderful journalist and author, Ian Moffitt, said to me when I asked about writing a novel: “We are all living on borrowed time.”

Scaramucci does his last fandango for the White House

Anthony Scaramucci is being divorced by his wife, was fired by the president and is now reportedly dead. Okay, rumours of his death have been greatly exaggerated as Mark Twain once said, but it’s been that kind of a week for the sacked White House communications director. The New York financier was removed from his job overnight at the request of new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
According to the New York Post, reports of Scaramucci’s demise came in the Harvard Law School alumni directory, which placed an asterisk after his name meaning the 1989 graduate of the prestigious institution (where Barack Obama also graduated), had been designated as dead since the book was published in 2011. Harvard apologised to Scaramucci and said the error would be corrected in subsequent editions.
But Scaramucci (AP photo above) might as well be dead. He managed to get the former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus sacked for allegedly leaking administration secrets, forced the popular Sean Spicer to resign as press secretary, and alienated the president and just about everybody else for his profanity-laden interview with Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker. The most quoted Scaramucci line of that piece was directed at Priebus: “Reince is a f…ing paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac.” He dropped the “F” word a number of times and said he would kill all the leakers “to get the President’s agenda on track so we can succeed for the American people.”
Scaramucci did sound like President Trump in that interview but the latest (and unlikely to be last) White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the media: “The president firmly felt that Anthony’s comments were inappropriate for a person in that position.” She went on to say that President Trump didn’t want to burden the former Homeland Security secretary, General Kelly, with that line of succession. It was certainly some succession. You wouldn’t want to work in the Trump White House unless you had the courage of a Medal of Honour winner. Ironically, General Kelly attended a Medal of Honour presentation after the sacking, smiling and taking pictures of guests while the president tweeted: “A great day at the White House.”
Apparently a great day at the White House is one where you fire the chief of staff, the communications director, continue to attack the attorney-general and then claim there is no chaos in the Oval Office. The President tweeted: “Highest Stock Market EVER, best economic numbers in years, unemployment lowest in 17 years, wages raising, border secure, S.C.: No WH chaos!” Press secretary Sanders had the best spin of all in denying there was any chaos or ill-feelings on the part of the sacked communications director: “Mr. Scaramucci felt it was best to give Chief of Staff John Kelly a clean slate and the ability to build his own team. We wish him all the best.”
On an optimistic note, Alain Sanders, a political analyst, told the New York Post General Kelly was trying to restore a sense of order to the White House: “It’s at once surprising and unsurprising. Surprising that a communications director would serve for only 10 days, but unsurprising, because Mr. Scaramucci was quite unconventional, and there was that strange performance last week. It’s also not surprising that cooler heads would prevail at the White House, and may mark the beginning of a greater sense of purpose by the general.”
I hope he’s correct for the sake of America and the world. But I hear my 8-year-old granddaughter asking in that mock manner: “Seriously?” and I would have to reply: “Only in this White House.”
The last word should go to Democratic Congressman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, who tweeted this not-so-fond farewell to Scaramucci: “Thank you Anthony @Scaramucci for your service. I speak for a grateful nation when I say ‘has it really only been 11 days?!?’”
PS: It’s only been 10 days, Congressman Schiff, but it does seem a lot longer.

Jimmy Breslin: ‘Thanks for the use of the hall’

Jimmy Breslin was called the guru of shoe leather by his colleagues because he used a lot of it. Even in his late seventies and early 80s, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist still climbed stairs because, as he put it, “the story is never on the first floor.” Breslin was a reporter’s reporter, much loved in the city of New York where he covered everything from civil rights to political campaigns to his own brain surgery in one of the best of his many books, I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me. Among his other volumes are The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a funny novel about a real-life Mafia gang in Brooklyn, Table Money, about an Irish-American alcoholic and his long-suffering and life-saving wife, and Damon Runyon: A Life, about another famous columnist and Breslin hero, who wrote about the guys and dolls on Broadway. Breslin was also champion of the working-class, and made it into journalism schools for his portrait of the man who dug the grave of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Instead of interviewing the high and mighty at the funeral, Breslin focused on the gravedigger who earned $3.01 an hour and though it was an honour to dig the slain president’s grave. The piece below is the one I wrote to accompany a cover story I produced with cameraman Richard Moran and editor Tim Wilson in 2007 for the Channel Nine Sunday Program. The video narrated by then Sunday presenter Ellen Fanning is now posted on the bottom of the story. Here’s a longer print version (updated):

When you Google the phrase “classic journalism,” you get at least 21 million, eight hundred thousand results – probably more by the time you read this.
But are there really nearly 22 million pieces of classic journalism on the Internet? Of course not. And that is the problem. Too many journalists are Googling, instead of using shoeleather –climbing stairs, for example — to get their stories.
There was a reporter who wrote classic newspaper journalism, and was not afraid to climb stairs – Jimmy Breslin, the legendary American columnist and author, who died at the weekend, aged 88. I thought he was 86, but his devoted wife of 34 years, Ronnie Eldridge, corrected the commonly made mistake. He covered everything from civil rights to Vietnam to politics and his own brain surgery. He also wrote a column for the Herald Tribune in 1963 that they still use in journalism schools about the man who dug the grave for President John F. Kennedy — Clifton Pollard:

Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in
Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers
Battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment
operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of
the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-
fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns
$3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.

Denis Hamill, a former columnist for the New York Daily News and brother of Pete, another famous American writer, explained why this Breslin column is still being used by journalism professors and editors: “People were running around interviewing the dignitaries of the world at the funeral, but he went to interview the gravedigger and what it meant to him, digging the hole where this man, this great president, was to be buried. And to this day, editors still ask reporters to try to find the gravedigger in any story, which is to find the kind of odd, unexpected kind of person who is connected to a big story, the smaller person.”
I went to New York City in the American summer of 2006 to profile Breslin for a television documentary, and the conversation always seemed to turn to journalism and good writing and what’s wrong with newspapers.
Jimmy Breslin said journalism is simple, which he learned from his early days as a sportswriter with The Long Island Daily Press. “Don’t fall into the trap of just say writing three paragraphs and then reiterating,” he said, “but go and do some work. The most important thing you have is your two feet. Your column is your two feet first … because the story is never on the first floor of the building. It’s always six flights up, with no elevator, so walk.”
Denis Hamill agreed that journalism is about climbing stairs, and nobody does it better, even then at the age of 78: “When you read a Breslin column, you’re reading twice the reporting that you read in anyone else’s. He puts an enormous amount of shoeleather in it … Last year he was doing columns where he climbed three or four flights of stairs in the middle of the night, and that was classic Jimmy Breslin stuff. He would go and get stories no one else would get … and always bring it to you with an unbelievable writing flair.”
Speaking of flair, this is an excerpt from a Breslin column in 1965 in the New York Herald Tribune:
Nothing ever again can be the same after yesterday in Selma, Alabama. Here on Sylvan Street, a rotting piece of the Negro section of a Southern town, simple little people stood up in the sun and asked for a thing which was theirs and never had been given to them because they are black. They are people who have been beaten because they are black. They have had friends and relatives killed because they were black. They have been laughed at and spat at because they are black, and they have been held down on the dust of their streets and made to be dirty and uneducated for all their lives because they are black.
Yesterday they stood up from the dust and they asked for the right to vote which is the start of the right to live. And they asked for it gently, and in prayer, and with the dignity of human beings. And then they left Sylvan Street, and they marched out onto United States Highway 80, and they put all the beauty of the march on Washington back into the civil rights movement, and now it never can be stopped. There was greatness in yesterday.

Vintage Breslin. Keep it simple. Richard Wald, who was Breslin’s former managing editor at the Herald Tribune and Fred Friendly Professor of Media Emeritus at Columbia University, explained: “The thing about those columns that makes them reverberate 40 years later is that they’re about a specific place and time and person, but the emotion they convey is in a relatively simple language. I’ll bet you Jimmy never used a semicolon key on any typewriter he ever approached. They’re all in straightforward English. They’re all in simple declarative sentences. There are never any words that try to evoke emotion in you, and yet they do, and that’s the trick. It’s a kind of poetry, it isn’t prose, it isn’t just simply recounting of the facts. It is a way of writing that is infused with the push from Jimmy’s head and heart that you sense just reading what is basically straightforward reporting, and I think that’s it.”
Straightforward reporting. That’s what you got from Jimmy Breslin and his contemporaries, like Steve Dunleavy, the Australian journalist considered by some to be the ultimate tabloid reporter. This is what Dunleavy wrote in the New York Post the day after September 11: “The response to this unimaginable 21st Century Pearl Harbor should be simple as it is swift – kill the bastards. No, I don’t mean hunt them, arrest them, extradite them and prosecute them in a court of law. I mean a far quicker form of retribution … A gunshot between the eyes, blow them to smithereens, poison them … and if Saddam Hussein makes so much as a peep, do him, too.”
Dunleavy was also a great admirer of Breslin’s shoeleather approach: “He wasn’t a guy who reported from behind the barricades. I remember just after a very, very big shootout during the Cleveland riots years ago, the African-American population was very, very angry, and it was very, very dangerous … and he was wandering around … from door to door. He ignored the hostile crowd, even though it could get ugly. So Jimmy certainly showed me his mettle at a very early age.”

A long-time rival of Breslin, Dunleavy was also a self-acknowledged legend in his own lunchtime, who says journalists aren’t what they used to be: “All journalists were hard drinkers, all smokers, and really that was their life. They only lived and drank newspapers. And that doesn’t exist under the young people. Certainly the younger reporters, they’re just as good, I’m not criticizing their performance, but they don’t live their jobs.”
Jimmy Breslin agreed, but he also blamed it on computers. And if you really wanted to get his Irish up, you only had to ask him if newspapers are dying: “Well, they’re dying of suicide, they’re not dying. Stultifying writing, the writing’s awful, and I think that comes from computers. It will change, but I hope that changes in time. But you had at one time, the New York Daily News, the New York Herald Tribune, at deadline time, the smoke was as thick as the old fight films’ boxing arenas, the noise was tremendous, like a subway train going through the city room because of the typewriters, all going at once, and out of all that noise, and out of all that smoke, came nervous energy, which is what words must have for a newspaper … They must be the product of nervous energy and they don’t have that now. And afterwards, of course, everybody went into the bar, and that was vital because they discussed the day’s work, ‘this is a great line,’ ‘that was good,’ they go over it. Instead now, you have these marvelous computers and they make no noise, so there’s no excitement to them.”
Jimmy Breslin (Photo above of his days as a drinker. Photo Michael Brennan, Getty) came from a hard-drinking school that included Pete and Denis Hamill. Denis, now a contributor for the Daily Beast, said he agreed totally with Breslin: “It’s kind of sad. You don’t get the old teletype machines and the people banging on the old manual typewriters, and people shouting across the room for copy, and people email each other, and it’s all silent, and it sounds like a typing pool of crickets … Newsrooms used to reflect the street corner, it sounded like a street corner when you went into a city room, right?”
Richard Wald said journalism needed people like Breslin now more than ever: “It is so easy to get information off the Internet. It is so easy to trade emails instead of going to talk to him or her that Jimmy has become a sort of guru of shoeleather. He is somebody who preaches literally about going out and seeing the people, not because he thinks that’s the only way to do it, because he does it that way, but because it’s becoming rarer and rarer, because technology has made reporting impersonal, and Jimmy’s reporting is personal.”
But Professor Wald, who was also president of NBC News, had a solid rejoinder to old hacks who claim newspapers aren’t what they used to be: “The minute you hit 50 nothing is as good as it used to be. And journalism is better than it ever was. It’s more honest, it’s more informed, it’s more interesting, it’s got more stuff in it. There are terrific problems in newspapers because the advertising is moving away, not because they are badly written. They were always badly written. There are always some good writers. But the economics is changing because the technology is changing and because the culture is changing.”

Wald worked in the Columbia School of Journalism offices on 110th St and Broadway and just outside stands the statue of the crusading publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, who left Columbia $2 million in his will to set up the school. (Breslin above at a press conference in 1986 after winning the Pulitzer Prize. Photo: Mario Cabrera AP) Pulitzer might have been spinning in his grave as I talked to a number of students on the campus lawns. Only one of four knew who Breslin was, which wasn’t surprising, given that he only wrote the occasional column then. While they still read newspapers, they believed they were under threat from the Internet: “Yeah, absolutely, for breaking news and those sort of things,” said one young articulate student. “I think they need to redefine themselves in commentary, in-depth reporting, investigating pieces, things like that. If they do style pieces … things like that, they will be able to go forward.”
Good writing, in-depth reporting, stories about people, that’s what Jimmy Breslin was all about, according to Mike Daly, a friend and former protégé of Breslin at the New York Daily News, now a columnist at the Daily Beast: “That’s what they want to see,” said Daly. “That’s also what television can’t do, what the Internet can’t do. One thing that newspapers do that nobody else can.”
Denis Hamill said his brother Pete credited Breslin with reinventing the Cityside column, which offered a point of view, with a lot of reporting. He spoke to a lot of people other people wouldn’t speak to. “You don’t need to go to journalism school to know how to learn from Jimmy Breslin,” said Hamill. “You just have to read Jimmy Breslin.”
And Jimmy Breslin was still writing about ordinary people until the end because he could identify with them. As Richard Wald put it: “He can go out to any place in America and sit down and start talking to people, and they’ll talk to him, because he really is interested in them, and this is just reporting. And too many journalists forget that.”
In his final days, Breslin continued to take up the cudgels against Donald Trump. His good friend Pete Hamill told the Daily News: “He was a bit addled by (President) Trump. He knew Trump’s father, because Trump’s father was a Queens guy and Jimmy was the poet laureate of Queens.” Hamill said Breslin saw the 45th President as the kind of guy from his old neighborhood who “is all mouth and couldn’t fight his way out of an empty lot.”
Breslin is survived by his second wife Ronnie Eldridge, a formidable woman and his constant protector, as well as four children, three stepchildren and 12 grandchildren. His first wife, Rosemary, died of cancer, and two of his daughters — Rosemary and Kelly — died in their 40s.
When Jimmy Breslin left Newsday in November 2004 after predicting that John Kerry would defeat George W. Bush in the presidential election, he farewelled his readers with an old Irish expression: “Thanks for the use of the hall.” Thanks for the memories, Jimmy, and for looking after the little guy.

Mr Trump, Your time is up

One of my favourite Henrik Ibsen plays is An Enemy of the People about the doctor of a spa in a small Norwegian town who discovers the Baths are contaminated. The residents praise him as an activist until they learn the baths will have to be closed for several years, costing their jobs, and when he holds a meeting, they call him “an enemy of the people.”
Doctor Stockman blames it on the town’s leaders: “I can’t stand politicians! I’ve had all I can take of them! They’re like goats in a plantation of young trees! They destroy everything!” Sound familiar?
But he takes a different view from Donald Trump on “the forgotten people”: “The most dangerous enemies of truth and freedom are the majority! Yes, the solid, liberal bloody majority – they’re the ones we have to fear! … Who form the majority in any country? … Yes, yes, you can shout me down. But you can’t say I’m wrong! The majority has the power, unfortunately, but the majority is not right! The ones who are right are a few isolated individuals like me. The minority is always right!”
After his patients refuse to employ him and the mob breaks his windows, Dr Stockman is tempted to take his family away but he decides to stay and re-educate the locals: “I’m going to experiment with mongrels for once. They’ve good heads on them sometimes.”
The latter-day Doctor Stockman, Donald Trump (AP Photo above), has decided that the media is the real enemy of the people in an extraordinary tweet: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @ABC, @NBCNews, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people!” That upset a lot of American people and one of Trump’s staunchest backers, Fox News. Respected journalist, and a moderator of one of the presidential debates, Chris Wallace, said on the Fox & Friends show: “Look, we’re big boys. We criticize presidents. They want to criticize us back, that’s fine. But when he said that the fake news media is not my enemy, it’s the enemy of the American people, I believe that crosses an important line.” It certainly did.
The remark prompted Fox & Friends to show a clip of Trump talking about past presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, fighting with the press. The show’s anchors asked Wallace if Trump’s poor relationship with the media was a big deal. Wallace replied, quoting Jefferson: “And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
One of the alleged enemies of the American people, the Washington Post, published a piece by reporter Amanda Erickson, explaining the history of the phrase: “The New York Times … labeled it ‘a striking escalation’ from a leader who ‘routinely castigates journalists.’ Gabriel Sherman, national affairs editor at New York magazine, described it as ‘full-on dictator speak’.” Erickson went on to write about the earliest use of the term about the Roman emperor Nero, a disastrous ruler declared an enemy of the people by the Senate, who planned to execute him. He took his own life after failing to flee Rome. Others to use the term, aside from Ibsen, included Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Chairman Mao. Yes, it’s mostly used by dictators.
One of Donald Trump’s major opponents, Republican Senator John McCain, took the opportunity to point make that point: “If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and, many times, adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.” McCain said he didn’t think Trump was trying to be a dictator, but “we need to learn the lessons of history.”
One of the finest political analysts in the United States, E.J. Dionne (who’s regularly heard on ABC’s Radio National Breakfast with Fran Kelly), is a columnist with the Washington Post and a journalist who usually takes a moderate approach to American politics. So I was a bit surprised when I read his column in the Post last week with the headline: “Admit it: Trump is unfit to serve.” He begins with a bang: “Let’s not mumble or whisper about the central issue facing our country: What is this democratic nation to do when the man serving as president of the United States plainly has no business being president of the United States?” He goes on to say the forced resignation of national security adviser Mike Flynn “was the entirely predictable product of the indiscipline, deceit, incompetence and moral indifference that characterize Donald Trump’s approach to leadership.”
But Dionne saves his best for near the end. Like E.J., I have often heard the lament from Trump supporters that he should be given more time … more time to make things worse? I will give the last word to E.J. He deserves it: “It will be said that Trump was elected and thus deserves some benefit of the doubt. Isn’t it rash to declare him unfit after so little time? The answer is no, because the Trump we are seeing now is fully consistent with the vindictive, self-involved and scattered man we saw during the 17 months of his campaign. In one of the primary debates, Jeb Bush said of Trump: ‘He’s a chaos candidate and he’d be a chaos president.’
“Rarely has a politician been so prophetic.”
Right on, E.J. Right on.