Tribute to Phillip Knightley

Phillip Knightley, master craftsman of newspaper journalism, leaves a legacy of accuracy, independence and getting stuck into the rich and privileged … Mainstream media straining for rebirth of fascism … Why media got Austria so wrong …. Time to fight for the ABC

Personal tribute to my captain

Phillip George Knightley, newspaper journalist par excellence, died on 7 December in London aged 87. We were newspaper colleagues and the dearest of friends. His loss has been hard to take. After Brian Johns and Ian Frykberg, the departure of “The Captain”, “Cap” or “PK”, means that the ranks of reputable journalism have been diminished.

He travelled to Fleet Street in the early 1950s to make fame and fortune and succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. His accomplice was another brilliant Sydney journalist Murray Sayle whose biography and major works have been lovingly edited by Lewis Chester.

Knightley and Sayle were celebrated in the UK long before they were acknowledged in their homeland. For example, Knightley was Britain’s Journalist of the Year in 1980 and 1988 and Granada TV’s Reporter of the Year in 1980 but not awarded an honorary doctorate by Sydney University until 2007. Sayle received also received a doctorate from the university where he was a provocative editor of Honi Soit and the belated recognition meant a lot to both of them.

But mention the names of the “Australian Mafia” at the London Sunday Times in the 1960s – Phil Knightley, Murray Sayle, Bruce Page, Tony Clifton, Nelson Mews and Alex Mitchell – and very few of today’s journalists have ever heard of them. Why should they? They worked in another country in a very different era. Most of today’s “hot” journalists weren’t even born.

On the outstanding  Sunday Times Insight team, Phil Knightley from Sans Souci, was not the most brilliant scholar. But he had a singular ability to build courteous and respectful relationships with his colleagues and contacts.

He dug into the thalidomide profiteering by the pharmaceutical and medical profession, exposed the 60-year tax evasion by the Vestey family (who owned vast parts of Australia) and the Whitehall cover-up of the Philby-Burgess-Maclean Soviet spy network.

He wrote several books, notably The First Casualty, exposing the propaganda role of war correspondents in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Knightley’s  innate generosity was central to our post-Sunday Times friendship and the formation of the El Vino’s wine bar group that met every Friday night, first in Fleet Street and later in  Blackfriars. It brought together the stalwarts of good journalism ( all Rupert Murdoch refuseniks) and  membership was simple: buy a bottle of French champagne.

We all believed  that journalism, whether practised in the 18th, 19th, 20th or 21st century, has certain unswerving values: to expose the rorts of the privileged and support the interests of the common man or woman. And the definition of news is something that the rich and powerful don’t want the public to know.

Knightley and Sayle called it PSJ – Public Service Journalism – and I adopted their approach (although, in truth, I had independently reached a similar conclusion after early experiences in Townsville, Mount Isa, Sydney and Canberra).

Many of today’s practitioners – I won’t call them journalists – believe in “fake news” and follow the opinions of “social media”.

Unlike most journalists, Phillip became more left-wing the older he became. He supported the restitution of journalist Wilfred Burchett’s passport in the 1960s – it was eventually granted by prime minister Gough Whitlam after his 1972 election – and he desperately wished that the Australian government would give Wikileaks founder Julian Assange a safe passage back to his homeland and family.

In our last meeting in July 2016, Phillip asked me whether Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a former journalist and successful defender of the right of MI5 agent Peter Wright to publish his memoirs, would reach out to bring Assange home, I was forced to say: “He’s no Gough Whitlam, Phil. He’s a Liberal.”

Media enthralled by far right

A reading of the mainstream media in Europe suggests that for them the triumph of far right politics can’t come quickly enough.

When Austrian voters elected Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent Green as their president in May, there were palpable sighs of disappointment from all the major media outlets in London, and that sentiment was echoed in Australia.

It followed their regret over the victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party leadership election.

Freedom Party (pro-fascist) candidate Norbert Hofer appealed to Austria’s Constitutional Court against “voting irregularities” and successfully called for the election to be re-run. The media was jubilant because a new election would give the fascists a second chance.

When another election was held this month, media commentators poured into Vienna to cover the campaign. But they simply recycled racist, anti-refugee and anti-EU propaganda on behalf of the fascists. The Green candidate barely received a mention.

All sections of the media predicted that the fascist candidate would win. The polls predicted his victory as well. In fact, Van der Bellen from the Greens won with 51.7% of the vote while Hofer received 48.3%.

The coverage begs the question: what has happened to the reliable, intelligent and brilliantly crafted work of foreign correspondents? It was once an honoured and honourable profession and their reports were followed by millions of people all around the world: James Cameron, Claud Cockburn, Alan Moorehead, Sam White, Clare Hollingworth and Godfrey Hodgson spring to mind, but everyone had a favourite.

I offer three reasons: today’s foreign correspondents are hopelessly devoid of worldly experience; they take their information from taxi drivers, embassy spooks, the ghastly social media and each other; and they also watch British and American TV reports and follow their lead.

The result is that foreign reports are homogenised: everyone is writing the same political line with a few different words here and there.

A classic is Philip Williams, now grandly titled as the ABC’s Chief Foreign Correspondent. Rushed in front of a camera the other day to comment on the surprise resignation of NZ Prime Minister John Key, Williams said: “As every political leader should know, all leaders have a used by date, but few recognise the signs it is time to go.”

A howling pedestrian observation if ever I’ve heard one. He actually gets paid for this kind of stuff. Richard Dimbleby, Alistair Cooke, Michael Charlton and Ed Murrow must be revolving in their graves.

What to know about Austria

Anyone with any knowledge of modern Austrian history would appreciate the population’s deep apprehension of fascism.

Adolf Hitler was Austrian, born in the town of Braunau am Inn in 1889. One of his most senior henchmen, Ernest Kaltenbrunner, was also Austrian. German-born Adolf Eichmann went to school in Austria where he became a lifelong friend to Kaltenbrunner.

They became leading figures in implementing the Fuhrer’s “final solution” for Europe’s Jews in which six million people were exterminated. An SS general, Kaltenbrunner was convicted of crimes against humanity at the first Nuremberg trial and executed. After the war, Eichmann escaped to Argentina where he was captured in 1960 and returned to Israel. He was convicted in a televised trial and hung.

When Hitler launched his violent strategy of uniting all ethnic Germans, his first target was the invasion and annexation of Austria. On 12 March 1938, his army marched into Austria and the following day he declared it part of the German Reich. The New York Times headline read: “Jews humiliated by Vienna crowds: Families compelled to Scrub Streets” while its editorial remarked: “A small state which has fought a battle against fate ceased yesterday to exist.”

Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, Austria’s leading Catholic, welcomed the Nazi takeover as a “blessing of Providence”. His enthusiastic declaration was read to the Catholic faithful in every church and concluded with the proclamation: “Heil Hitler!”

On 9 and 10 November 1938 Nazi thugs attacked Jews, their homes, shops, synagogues and schools killing almost 100 people and terrorising thousands into fleeing abroad. The horrific event, known as Kristallnacht, is commemorated every year around the world.

If any of today’s correspondents had the slightest knowledge of Austria’s recent history, they would have realised that electing a fascist sympathiser in 2016 was always going to be a difficult proposition. However, they decided to follow Twitter instead of consulting history.

Time to fight for the ABC

The late Clement Semmler, 1914-2000, deputy general manager of the ABC for almost 30 years, wrote acclaimed biographies of poets Kenneth Slessor and Douglas Stewart and bush balladeer A. B. “Banjo” Paterson.

In all, he wrote 10 books and edited 10 others, including A Frank Hardy Swag. He was a prolific book reviewer and contributed to Tom Fitzgerald’s Nation, Meanjin, The Australian Quarterly, Quadrant, Overland, Hemisphere and The Bulletin.

Semmler is credited with being a prime mover in the establishment of Four Corners as the ABC’s flagship current affairs programme, expanding Radio Australia and promoting children’s programmes.

I relate these facts to ask: can anyone imagine the current ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie writing a book, let alone reviewing one, or expanding the public broadcaster’s services?

In the Semmler tradition, former ABC managing director, the late Brian Johns, was a prodigious book publisher (at Penguin Books and then ABC Books), he mentored and encouraged dozens of authors and piloted the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) into supporting writers and poets.

In his 1969 Australian Quarterly essay on the literature of the shearers’ strikes of 1891 and 1894, Semmler observed that the defining issue between employers and employees at that time was “the right of the trade unions to a voice in defining their conditions of employment. ‘Freedom of contract’ was the employers’ slogan and ‘the principles of unionism’ was the workers’.

“The shearers especially saw ‘freedom of contract’ as the wish of the pastoralists ‘to employ anyone they liked – black, white or brindle – and also pay what wages they liked’.” (The Australian Quarterly, December 1969).

Under Ms Guthrie’s corporatist approach, the ABC bosses run roughshod over the unions and sack staff at will.

(Check out the pre-Christmas sacking of the Catalyst science team of reporters, researchers, producers and technicians and the vandalising to music and religious programming).

Historian Jenny Hocking believes that after Frank Hardy and Semmler met in the legendary Adams Hotel Marble Bar in Pitt Street, Sydney, in 1961 the ABC executive became “one of the most important people in Frank Hardy’s life”. (Frank Hardy: Politics, Literature, Life by Jenny Hocking. Lothian Books 2005).

He persuaded Hardy to write a series called The Yarns of Billy Borker which eventually ran for three years to tremendous popular acclaim. ABC general manager Charles Moses phoned Semmler, his head of TV, when he heard about the series saying: “Don’t you know that Hardy is a communist?”

When the Billy Borker book was published, Hardy gave a signed edition to Semmler with the inscription: “To Clem. Keep outa the pubs, mate.”

ABC Late News

ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has appointed another Rupert Murdoch-trained executive, Jim Rudder, to “restructure” the corporation. He will work alongside another Guthrie appointee, Debra Frances, described as a “business transformation expert”. Their salaries have not been disclosed but they will be taking home plenty; more than anyone who actually makes radio, TV or online programmes.

Neither Rudder nor Ms Frances has any recorded knowledge of public broadcasting. Like his new boss, Rudder worked for years for Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. According to The Guardian’s Amanda Meade, he has worked for Foxtel in Sydney and Sky operations in the UK, Germany, Italy and the US. I know nothing of Ms Frances or Mr Rudder. For all I know they have cherished a lifetime ambition to build the Australian public broadcaster into an outstanding cultural hub which provides tens of thousands of skilled jobs, builds the economy and sets new horizons for education, health, science, sport and the environment. However, their form guide tells me otherwise. We’ll soon know.

At present, the big salaried “names” at the ABC are all trimming to the new regime’s corporate strategy. It is tragic watching them desperately trying to hang onto their privileged salaries and positions while abandoning their workmates.

ABC chairman Jim Spigelman, a former editor of Sydney University’s Honi Soit, is a gushing fan of Ms Guthrie’s new broom. “Michelle emerged at every stage [of the selection process] on any criteria. She’s pushing it faster than Mark [Scott, her predecessor]. I have every confidence that Michelle will continue to do that and the ABC will be regarded as an even more dynamic place.” A “more dynamic place”? What does it mean? Sounds like Malcolm Turnbull’s “jobs and growth” election mantra which has become a sick joke as the economy plunges towards zero growth and drowning debt.


  1. Sad to hear of Phillip Knightleys death. They don’t make them like him any more.
    Great edition of the Weekly Alex.

  2. Ah Alex. It all reminds me of a little poem by Harold Pinter.

    “I saw Len Hutton in his prime.
    Another time, another time.”

    It was indeed.

    But are we beginning to sound like Yeats’ old men admiring themselves in the water? Perhaps standing together on Victoria Bridge looking down into the Ross Creek of old.

    Sticking with Yeats, why should not old men be mad? Even more so, as in his Prayer For Old Age:

    “I pray — for fashion’s word is out
    And prayer comes round again —
    That I may seem, though I die old,
    A foolish, passionate man.”

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