Writing for His Life

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Title: WRITING FOR HIS LIFE: Stewart Cockburn, Crusading Journalist
Published by: Australian Scholarly Publishing
Release Date: May 2022
Pages: 474
ISBN13: 9781922669353


The complexities of the man, the incongruities, the contrasts, made him such a character. His daring. We all pushed our editors to the brink sometimes in those happy, happy newspaper days when free speech was valued and non-conformity tolerated.
— Shirley Stott Despoja OAM, The Adelaide Review, August 2009

As a journalist, Stewart Cockburn was instinctive and fearless. The 16-year-old copy boy who started at the Adelaide Advertiser in 1938 was to have a career in writing, radio and television that spanned more than 45 years. Restless ambition took him to Melbourne with the Herald, to post-war London with Reuters, to Canberra as Press Secretary to Prime Minister Robert Menzies, and to Washington, DC as Press Attaché at the Australian Embassy. On returning to the Advertiser, Cockburn’s feature-writing won him a Walkley Award, and his opinion columns were ever informative and influential. In 1978 he challenged Premier Don Dunstan’s politically charged sacking of Police Commissioner Harold Salisbury. His tenacious investigative journalism also prompted the 1983 Royal Commission into the scientifically questionable murder conviction of Eddie Splatt. His books included The Salisbury Affair and very fine biographies of South Australia’s long-serving Premier Sir Thomas Playford and, with David Ellyard, the eminent nuclear scientist Sir Mark Oliphant.

Stewart Cockburn’s daughter Jennifer was inspired by her father’s fascination with people and his writings about them. When she started reading through his papers in the early 2000s, she realized that he was a perfect subject for a biography. As she read his letters and diaries, the essence of the man leapt off the page with the same furious energy as his fingers batting his typewriter keys in his home study in Adelaide all those years ago – that sound was one of her strongest childhood memories. The inter-weaving of his intense and complicated personality with his brand of journalism and life story had the potential for an intriguing narrative.

Cockburn had a visceral need to record and to communicate his thoughts and observations on paper, and an intense curiosity and passion that drove his journalism. In addition to the insights his writings provide on the man himself, they are a lens through which he captured the state of the world around him, from war-time Australia to post-war England to the Berlin Airlift, from his travels with Prime Minister Menzies to the Kennedy years in Washington DC and finally the Dunstan decade.

WRITING FOR HIS LIFE draws on Stewart Cockburn’s prolific correspondence and journals, his oral histories, public writings and other sources to bring to life a driven journalist and the changing times he so closely observed. The book’s balanced narrative documents his peripatetic career, examining both its highlights and disappointments, and the singular qualities that made Cockburn a highly respected and at times controversial journalist. It is a story of intense idealism and a quest for truth that resulted in important public interest journalism.


“Stewart Cockburn was probably the most prominent, and certainly the most controversial, journalist to write for the Advertiser during those golden years of newspaper journalism.”
—John Scales, Former Advertiser editor

An "engaging and meticulous biography."
—Mark Day, Weekend Australian, 30 July 2022