Untold story of Canberra’s first coup: The political assassination of PM John Gorton – Part 6

The Sunday Times page 1 story, 23 March 1969

My part in John Gorton’s downfall

London, Saturday, 22 March 1969. The sheer excitement of having a story on the front page is the dream of all reporters, and don’t let them tell you otherwise. I hung around after I had finished my shift on London’s Sunday Times to grab a copy of the first edition to see my front-page piece revealing how our anti-Vietnam war group had ambushed Prime Minister John Gorton on his arrival at The Savoy Hotel in The Strand two months earlier.

During the week the Gorton saga had made a media splash when a Labor MP in Canberra, Bert James, a former policeman, revealed allegations about Gorton’s after-hours flirtation with cabaret artist Liza Minnelli at Chequers nightclub in Sydney the previous July. James’s salacious account differed wildly from the one given by David McNicoll, the preposterous editor-in-chief of Sir Frank Packer’s conservative-supporting media empire. McNicoll wrote enthusiastically about Ms Minnelli’s “usual magnificent performance” and recalled the evening – which he had personally organised – as “pleasant” and “normal”.

Sunday Times newsroom, Thomson House, Gray’s Inn Road, 1961

As the news agencies filed stories about James’s “bombshell” in Canberra, I regaled colleagues on The Sunday Times with the “real story” of John Gorton’s embarrassing London visit in January. “That’s a bloody good story,” one of my editors enthused. “You should write it.” I felt conflicted, however. Should I tell the story or not? What would my colleagues in Australians and New Zealanders Against the Vietnam War (ANZAVW) and the Get Gorton committee think of my breach of confidence? After a nano second of reflection, I agreed to tell the inside story of the London demo but with one condition: it should not appear under my name but “by Sunday Times reporters”.

The front page of the Sunday Times on 23 March 1969, carried a report on a lifeboat tragedy off Scotland by Anne Robinson, later to become famous as presenter of the television programme, The Weakest Link; a clash between civil rights marchers and security forces in Northern Ireland; and Manchester City’s 1-0 victory over Everton in the FA Cup semi-final. However, my attention was focused exclusively on the five-column story running across the foot of the page: “How the ‘Get Gorton’ men began the smear”. The article was continued on Page 2 under the headline: “Gorton gossip spreads”. Immediately above it was a story from Athens: “Greeks clamp down on Theodorakis”, a reference to Greece’s world famous song writer and composer, Mikis Theodorakis, who wrote the acclaimed scores for Zorba the Greek, Z and Serpico.

The Gorton article recounted in detail the secret preparations for the PM’s “welcome” to London. “It was on January 5, in the back bar of the Prince of Wales public house in Notting Hill Gate that members of the (Get Gorton) committee met to consider how they could enliven the demonstration they planned for the next day when Mr Gorton was due to arrive in London for the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference,” the article read.

Gorton with Australian troops n Vietnam, 1968

“Some of the members were disconsolate about the likely ineffectiveness of straight anti-war slogans and they reflected moodily that a few ‘Get out of Vietnam’ banners were hardly likely to lead to the withdrawal of Australian troops. A new tactic was necessary and the group decided to use information sent them from Canberra and Sydney about Mr Gorton concerning his alleged friendship with Liza Minnelli, 23-year-old daughter of Judy Garland …

“They had particularly in mind details of an alleged incident involving Miss Garland (sic) at the Chequers Restaurant, Sydney … At 10 a.m. on January 6, 12 pathetic demonstrators stood in The Strand outside the Savoy Hotel awaiting their Prime Minister. The main banner declared: ‘Hands off Vietnam’ but on the back it said, ‘Hands off Liza Minnelli’.” It was rumoured later that while Gorton laughed and waved, his stuffy External Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck turned and asked: “Who is Liza Minnelli?”

In the immediate aftermath of Bert James’s revelations, a tremendous political storm broke in Canberra over the prime minister’s future and the story of his indiscretions received global coverage. I had only one reservation about the presentation of my article in The Sunday Times: why hadn’t the paper used a photograph of the contentious Minnelli banner? The paper’s picture editor told me the photograph was “not available”. He said newspapers and press agencies received legal warnings from Australian officials saying the picture was “defamatory” and anyone republishing it would be sued for libel. The threat worked and the picture simply disappeared.

A preview article by Stewart Harris, the Canberra correspondent of The Times, was intended to paint a likeable portrait of the larrikin Prime Minister from Down Under but it had an unnerving opposite effect.

Ainsley Gotto, Gorton’s chief of staff, brushes aside a reporter with the PM in the background

Under the heading, “Gorton: on and off duty”, Harris wrote that the Australian leader “enjoys the company of attractive, amusing, intelligent women at parties, and will sometimes fall deep into conversation with one while other guests, protocol conscious, wait around vainly expecting him to go home.” The English-born Harris, a former Special Air Services (SAS) officer, continued: “His secretary, Ainsley Gotto, is young and attractive, and somehow it worries people when he has taken her, with a fellow member of Parliament, into dinner in the parliamentary dining room. A more prudent man would not do this. But Gorton did not become a politician until he was 38, and never learnt to trim his sails to the political wind. After the presentable, amiable Mr Holt, Gorton, a more profound man, has shocked many people and provided gossips with plentiful ammunition.”

He described the Prime Minister as very much the “wartime fighter pilot living off duty”. What could he possibly mean?

Although The Times profile was intended to “humanise” the Aussie PM in front of a British audience, it provided “plentiful ammunition” for his enemies at home. Sir Frank Packer and his editor-in-chief David McNicoll plastered The Times piece all over the front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on 8 January 1969. Liberal Party “aristos” in Sydney and Melbourne reached for their snuff boxes and brandy balloons when they saw it, but in pubs and clubs the reaction was more friendly.

Talking to veteran Commonwealth correspondents in recent years I was told that Gorton’s advisers had held a “council of war” shortly after he arrived at The Savoy and drew up urgent plans to contact politicians, diplomats, editors and journalists to stop them from publishing photos of The Savoy demo. One senior correspondent said he suspected Harold Wilson’s Government used a D-Notice, a Whitehall censorship device, to ban the photograph from use in UK and Commonwealth media. Although I have been unable to confirm the D-Notice speculation, my mind did turn to the famous saying by Humbert Wolfe, 1886-1940, the poet and writer who famously wrote these lines:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,

thank god! the British journalist

But, seeing what the man will do

unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

Articles about the Gorton-Minnelli revelations soon appeared in news outlets in India, North America, Africa and Europe quoting my Sunday Times piece. John Gorton’s political future, if he had one, was questioned by all and sundry. While the domestic spy agencies of Australia, Britain and the US were desperately trying to find the prime movers in the public humiliation of the Australian Prime Minister, Australian exiles in London were basking in the notoriety of their anti-Gorton campaign.

Gorton himself had provoked their militancy when he reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to the US war on Vietnam and when he declared Australia’s position was “not to be the sheriff, but part of the posse.” ANZAVW and the Get Gorton Committee came alive with plans to make Gorton’s visit to London as uncomfortable as possible.

Daily Telegraph (Sydney) coverage of the anti- Gorton  demonstration at The Savoy in London

Our planned protests had been given a preview in The Sydney Morning Herald by the paper’s venerable London correspondent T. S. Monks who wrote: “Bigger demonstrations are planned by the ‘Get Gorton’ committee. These anti-Gorton demonstrations are being led by Australians living in London. The committee intends to harass Mr Gorton during his entire stay. It reckons it will join several thousand people at Marlborough House tomorrow.” (‘Rhodesia issue may split conference’, SMH, 7 January 1969).

The demo outside The Savoy was a great success. London and Australian newspapers all carried reports of Gorton’s stately arrival being ruined by anti-war protestors. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph carried a two-column story on Page 5 headlined, “Police guard Gorton’s car” with a story from London saying: “A dozen jeering demonstrators ran alongside the car of Australian Prime Minister Gorton today, as it approached the entrance of the Savoy Hotel. Police drove the demonstrators back as Mr Gorton emerged from the car and walked to the hotel.

“The demonstrators from the ‘Get Gorton Ad Hoc Committee’ carried placards reading, ‘Gorton, Chief Cop of the Police State’, ‘Gorton and Holyoake, the Fascist Guns of South East Asia’ and ‘Victory to the NLF’.

“Most of those taking part are believed to have come from the London ‘Australians and New Zealanders Against the War in Vietnam’ organisation whose members burned an Australian flag outside Australia House in a massive anti-war demonstration last October.

“The ‘Get Gorton Committee’ said last night it would try to stage a major demonstration against the Prime Minister at Marlborough House, site of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference, tomorrow.”

And it even published a quote from one of the protest organisers: “Another member of the group, Mr Alex Mitchell, formerly of Townsville, Queensland, said: ‘There will be a lot of people at the Tuesday demonstration and I don’t think Mr Gorton will get through the barricades unscathed’. Mr Holyoake could also expect some rough treatment, he said.” (Daily Telegraph, 7 January 1969)

My old paper, the Sydney Daily Mirror, also published an account of the Savoy demo saying: “Members of the ‘Get Gorton’ committee led by Australians living in London staged a small demonstration outside the Savoy Hotel when the Prime Minister arrived there by car from Heathrow airport today.

“As Mr Gorton stepped from his car, about 15 men and women rushed forward waving signs reading ‘Gorton, chief cop in a police state’ and ‘ Gorton, racialist, fascist and murderer’.” (“PM faces ‘fascist’ cries”, Daily Mirror, 7 January 1968).

Anti-war demonstration at Australia House, London, in 1965

The second demonstration outside the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference at Marlborough House brought hundreds of demonstrators to protest against apartheid in South Africa and Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) in white-ruled Rhodesia. Our tiny anti-Vietnam war contingent was lost in a sea of banners focused on Commonwealth issues.

Gorton shrugged off the protests telling Fairfax journalist Margaret Jones: “This Government will tolerate dissent only while it remains ineffective.” Ms Jones, a distinguished foreign correspondent, commented: “The last quote illustrates the view now generally held by the vocal English leftists that Australia is ‘going fascist’ like South Africa.”

After publication of The Sunday Times article about the anti-war-plotters, The Anniston Star in Alabama gave the Gorton story a full four columns under the headline: “Australian Premier Target Of Group – The Get Gorton Ad Hoc Committee” while the Democrat-leaning Washington Post’s headline story, “Australia’s Gorton Denies Rumor About Liza Minnelli”, said: “The allegations of misbehaviour, which have been simmering for several days, come, however, at an embarrassing time for Gorton. He is scheduled to fly to the United States and meet with President Nixon on April 1-2.” (Washington Post, 21 March 1969).

Der Spiegel, the leading German language news magazine selling one million copies, followed the story with great zeal.

Under the headline, “A Fleeting Kiss”, it reported: “Gorton was alleged to have followed singer Liza Minnelli, 23, a daughter of US singer Judy Garland, into her dressing room at a Sydney nightclub. She gossiped in the presence of news reporters about the ‘nice Prime Minister who looks like a trucker or an ex-boxer, at any rate not at all boring’. ‘He was pleasant and not at all what you think’.”

The magazine reported that Ms Minnelli’s mother-in-law Armidale-born Maria [real name Marion] Woolnough recalled the scene in the dressing room: “He only kissed her fleetingly on the cheek, praised the show, and left.”

Newsweek magazine reported that Gorton had refused to resign and had called off his planned visit to the US to attend the funeral of President Dwight D Eisenhower (and call on President Nixon). This was the correct diplomacy, Newsweek advised solicitously, to “let steam off the big Canberra scandal”.

Stern, another other major German news magazine, with a worldwide circulation of just less than two million, chased the story as well (“Peck on the Cheek”, Stern, 13 April 1969).

Richard Helms, CIA director

I noted in my Sunday Times piece that Gorton’s “off-the-cuff unpredictability and his contempt for ceremony have proved a marked contrast to the staid patronage of Sir Robert Menzies and made him several enemies”. When a newspaper interview with Gorton arrived at Langley, Virginia, for the attention of the CIA director, Richard Helms used his blue pencil to highlight several passages: “Of course I like having a drink. I also love parties, where I can sing and dance. Yes, I even like talking to women. Do they want me to live in an ivory tower and meet only diplomats and politicians? Well, damn it, I’m not going to.” Helm’s opinions were circulated among leading Western politicians and to trusted journalists. It was a clear signal that the Americans were going to put in the boot.

“Ridiculous,” said Ms Minnelli in a statement. “Nothing dishonourable occurred between us.” Gorton angrily rejected the allegations of any misconduct saying: “I am personally very satisfied with my behaviour”, but many others were not convinced.

Mr Edward St John, a Sydney Liberal MP from Gorton’s own backbench, went public with the information that the PM’s questionable conduct with Ms Minnelli at Chequers had been circulating for months. St John wrote: “It is essential to emphasise that these stories were circulating widely by word of mouth, and also being stated or hinted at in private newsletters and satirical magazines during the last few months of 1968 and the first few months of 1969. A Federal Liberal MP from NSW said to me with a gloomy air one day towards the end of 1968, ‘It has reached the electorate’. Another MP told me after returning from Tasmania, ‘It has reached the ABC in Hobart’. It is quite clear that by ‘it’ they were referring to the scandalous stories circulating about Mr Gorton.”

The Canberra Press Gallery in Old Parliament House

While teams of “spooks” frantically worked around to clock to build a security profile of the London-based anti-war protesters, the real story was remarkably prosaic. Working in the Canberra Press Gallery for the Sydney Daily Mirror back in 1965, I had been a founding member of the Get Gorton Committee. It was a phantom body of about six members who were dedicated opponents of the US-led war against Vietnam and Australia’s military involvement championed by Prime Minister Bob Menzies’ Coalition government. I say “members” but the committee was very ad hoc and without any organisational or constitutional structure. My recollection is that the committee began life in the smoke-filled saloon bar of the Hotel Wellington, aka “The Wello”, since demolished. Inspiration and active encouragement was forthcoming from Professor Robin “Bob” Gollan, an academic at the Australian National University, his fellow academic, Sondra Silverman, a New Yorker, and Senator John Wheeldon, a Labor left-winger from Perth.

We chose Senator John Gorton from Victoria as our prime target because he was government’s chief red-baiter in the Senate, regularly accusing anti-war MPs and senators of being “lackeys of Moscow” and “unpatriotic enemies within”. He also argued for Australia to arm itself with nuclear weapons to confront unspecified Asian communists; opposed the expulsion of the apartheid South African regime from the Commonwealth; and supported the recognition of Taiwan on equal status with Beijing.

I supervised the committee’s chief activity which was circulating unsigned press releases in the Canberra Press Gallery giving details of demonstrations, teach-ins and protests against the war. We saw our role as twofold: provoking debate and informing the media that the anti-war movement was alive, kicking and growing. However, it must be admitted that as an agitational campaign, the Get Gorton Committee was a failure. Political roundsmen – there were no women at that time – ignored our press releases and I usually found them crumpled up and thrown away in the waste paper basket next to the gallery’s pigeonholes. “It [the committee] was an unnoticeable full stop on the page of the times,” one brutally frank contemporary told me.

When I travelled overseas from Circular Quay to Southampton in February-March 1967 I took the Get Gorton Committee with me. It took up no space at all because by then it existed only in my fevered brain. Shortly after starting work at the London Sunday Times I began to attend Friday night meetings of an Aussie ex-pat group called Australians and New Zealanders Against the Vietnam War. My introduction was facilitated by Joy Pinnock, a Sydney-born TV researcher then working for the BBC’s illustrious science unit. Our group met in the upstairs room of the Marquis of Granby pub at Cambridge Circus in the city’s West End. They were a fabulous group of people led by teacher John Roberts and his wife Lyn (she later died of cancer), academics Michael Taussig and his partner Anna Rubbo, an ex-Sydney University friend of Joy’s named Barbara Spode, New Zealanders Renata Prince and Dick Hoban, Moscow Narodny Bank economist Paddy McGuinness, later to become editor of The Australian Financial Review and the right-wing Quadrant magazine, and his friend Ian Parker, lawyers Andrew Fisher and Dennis Muirhead and sundry other footloose antipodeans passionately opposed to the Vietnam war.

While our anti-war group was making life difficult for John Gorton, another Australian soldier was killed in Vietnam. He was 28-year-old Sergeant Jeffrey Max Duroux, from Smithfield Plains in South Australia. It was a very sobering moment. Sgt Duroux was a married man, two years older than me, and I wondered what his mates thought of us gallivanting around London campaigning against the war. However, the “Get Gorton Committee” renewed its activities in the belief that bringing an end to Australia’s involvement as soon as possible would save Australian and Vietnamese lives. We were single-mindedly committed to an anti-war stance. Those on the opposite side of the argument were equally single-minded and many of them thought we were “unpatriotic scum”.

How wrong they were. One of the extraordinary moral lessons from the war was that those in uniform and anti-war activists were equally patriots. The political class in Washington and Canberra, the real architects of the war who did no fighting or demonstrating, were the real “scum”.

As events unfolded, the tide of history swept our way. The anti-war movement continued to grow across the world and mass mobilisations blocked streets in cities everywhere. The moment of historical vindication came on 30 April 1975 with the fall of Saigon when surrounded, demoralised and defeated US-led forces were airlifted back to where they came from. 

General Giap

The US lost the war because it didn’t understand Vietnam. We knew right from the outset that we would triumph.The word ‘fear’ never exists in our military philosophies… The US missed many opportunities to end the war in Vietnam, while Vietnam always took advantage of them all.

― Vo Nguyen Giap 

Next week: John Gorton’s midnight  caper at US Embassy with Geraldine Willessee

© Alex Mitchell

NB: These articles are covered by exclusive copyright with ownership belonging to the author. They can only be reproduced in full or in part by his written permission.

PS: This chapter of the John Gorton series replaces my usual Weekly Notebook on domestic and global politics. 

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