STEWART COCKBURN AM (1921-2009), the Adelaide-born journalist whose 45-year career spanned a golden age of newspaper journalism, began as a sixteen-year-old copy boy at The Advertiser in 1938, when the paper was still composed with hot metal type, and retired from the same paper in 1983 at the top of his game, but wary of the new computer terminals in the office.
He was an instinctive reporter, committed to uncovering the truth and relentless in its pursuit. Those qualities produced some far-reaching public interest journalism, especially in the last decade of his newspaper career. In 1972 he won a national Walkley Award for best feature writing for his series of articles on pyramid selling in South Australia. His 1981 investigative series questioning the basis for the murder conviction of Edward Charles Splatt attracted national news coverage, and led to a 1983 Royal Commission that resulted in Splatt’s pardon and an overhaul of police forensic procedures in South Australia. In between, his opinion columns challenging Premier Don Dunstan’s sacking of SA Police Commissioner Harold Salisbury sparked controversy and street protests; he wrote a book about it, The Salisbury Affair.
Cockburn’s restless ambition, fueled by his insecurities and wilfulness and fortified by his charm and work ethic, made for a peripatetic career in the early years: from war-time Adelaide to Melbourne and Canberra with the Melbourne Herald, to post-war London with Reuters and the Herald; back to Australia as Prime Minister Robert Menzies's press secretary in the early 1950s before the modern days of ‘spin’; and later, Australian press attaché in the Washington of John F. Kennedy. Cockburn’s journals and letters from these years are rich in details of his life, work and the wider world as well as his evolving thinking.
In 1981, his sixtieth year, Cockburn fulfilled his long-standing ambition to write a biography when he and his co-author David Ellyard published an award-winning account of the life and times of Sir Mark Oliphant, the nuclear physicist and colourful Governor of South Australia. Ten years later he published a second, well-received biography, this time of the long-serving SA Premier Sir Thomas Playford. The entrepreneurial writer self-published both.
The handsome and richly-voiced Cockburn was also a radio and TV commentator for most of his career, making him a well-recognized public figure and household name in South Australia, and always much in demand as a speaker. In 1995 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for service to journalism and literature and in 2005 was admitted to South Australia’s Media Hall of Fame.
The Salisbury Affair. Melbourne: Sun Books, 1979.
Oliphant, The Life and Times of Sir Mark Oliphant. Adelaide: Axiom Books, 1981. (co-authored with David Ellyard)
The Patriarchs. Adelaide: Ferguson Publications, 1983.
Playford: Benevolent Despot. Kent Town, SA: Axiom Publishing, 1991.
Notable Lives. Adelaide: Ferguson Publications, 1997.
In the early 1950s, most likely just after Stewart Cockburn was forced to cut short his tenure as Press Secretary for Prime Minister Robert Menzies and return to the newspaper where he began his career in journalism, The Advertiser in Adelaide, South Australia, he typed a draft piece called ‘Paradox’. This may have been intended as part of a series of articles that he wrote about his time with Menzies, and which were published in The Bulletin in March and April 1954. It seems, though, that this text was never published. It remained in his files, to be discovered by me after his death. I reproduce the introductory paragraphs of the piece, which illuminate his deep and contradictory feelings about being a journalist. (The piece went on to explain how he came to be offered the job with Menzies.) The irony of his talking about not wanting a son of his to become a journalist is that one of his daughters did!
Journalism must be the paradox of the professions. Every lawyer, every doctor, every dentist, every architect, every cleric surely harbours a wistful hope that, one day, his son will wish to ‘follow in his footsteps’. But no journalist I have ever known has ever admitted to feelings of other than revulsion at the thought that any son of his should want to be mixed up in the business of producing a newspaper.
If ever I have a son, I shall fight tenaciously to keep him out of journalism. He can be a fireman, an engine driver or the pilot of a jet aircraft. Each of those is a normal, respectable calling which I should approve for my son without hesitation. But a journalist – no!
Had my father, who was also a journalist, not died when I was ten years old, I have a sufficiently good opinion of him to believe that he would have adopted precisely my own attitude … adopted it, moreover, in time to save his innocent son from the pit.
A logical reason for this attitude should not be expected. Journalism is the business of news, logic that of lawyers and professors. Journalists concern themselves with life, not sweet reasonableness. The critics of the press, who include everyone I have ever met in my life, both inside and outside the press, say that it distorts the facts. But what, in the main, is life but a distortion of the eternal values of the philosophers? And how many so-called facts are merely impressions which vary according to the eye of the beholder?
Oddly enough, those newspapermen who hate most the notion of professional succession are usually its most notable victims. In my own case, I am a newspaperman of the third generation. My grandfather, a fierce-looking and dogmatic Scot, who ran away to sea and thence to Australia at the age of 14, finished up as a compositor on The Register, one of the two morning newspapers in Adelaide, South Australia. My father, also ensnared by the Inky Way at the age of 14 (in his case and mine to editorial departments) became a reporter on The Register and, later, one of its Chief Sub Editors. As chief Sub, his salary in 1911 was £5/10/- a week. Those were the days before R.G. Menzies, in the time of his ‘self-confessed innocence’, secured for Australian journalists one of the best awards in their history. (These days, he can still successfully bait me by telling me of his disillusionment, and of his present conclusion that journalism is ‘the highest paid unskilled profession in the world’.)
But only journalists will understand me when I say how, at the same time, we love and loathe this profession of ours; how roundly we condemn it in our own esoteric society; how bitterly we resent any attack on it by outsiders; how we long passionately to be free of it; and how, once free, we yearn with a sickening nostalgia to be back again in its sweet grasp.
Only the journalist will know the ecstasy of immersion in the chaos that is the editorial department of any newspaper of consequence, large or small. What excitement is there in the whole of life to compare with the almost intolerable joy of one’s first scoop! And if ever in a newspaper career a man reaches the stage where his heart does not beat faster in the knowledge that he has soundly scooped a rival, then let him look quickly around for some other job. For his own days as a reporter worthy of the name are done; and any editor worthy of the name will not take long to discover it.
There are, of course, a hundred lesser but still delicious moments in every journalist’s day: when, for instance, the thunder of the presses comes roaring up from the basement and you stand about in groups in the Reporters’ Room waiting for the first edition, waiting to read the words that you have written only an hour or two before with your own fingers, stupidly tampered with, perhaps, by some sub-editor, but still, in the main, your own, now immortal in print for a few hours more before they etch their Gothic on some succulent steak.
‘Three tops this morning’, you murmur complacently to your rival if you work for a morning broadsheet.
‘Main lead two days running’, you boast if an afternoon paper employs you.
And the smell of the printer’s ink in your nostrils; the ceaseless rattle and clash of typewriter and teleprinter; the mad jangle of the telephone; the predatory eye of the Chief of Staff, alone in his glass eyrie in the centre of the Reporters’ Room; the dirty green eyeshade, the badge of his office, on the Chief Sub’s forehead; the smack and thud of the metal cartridges which speed back and forth from sub-editor to compositor; the litter of notebooks and copy paper on every desk; the objectionable static of the two-way radio between office and police roundsman, speeding in his car to some smash, or robbery or fire or murder; these and a myriad other delights I shall love till the day I die.
16 October 1921
Born in Adelaide, South Australia to Rodney and Ruby Cockburn
28 September 1932
Attends Scotch College, Adelaide, earning his Leaving Certificate in 1937
3 January 1938
Starts work as a copy boy at The Advertiser, aged 16
Editorial staff, The Advertiser
October 1945 to March 1947
Works on the editorial staff of The Herald in Melbourne, including stints in the Canberra Press Gallery
Travels on the SS Asturias to London
May - December 1947
Reporter and sub-editor at the Reuters news agency on Fleet Street, London
15 December 1947
Marries Beatrice Ferguson (the couple go on to have 4 children, born between 1949 and 1959)
Reporter for the Melbourne Herald Cable Service in London
Editorial staff, The Herald in Melbourne
Press Secretary to Prime Minister, RG Menzies, Canberra
Feature writer, The Advertiser, Adelaide; radio news commentator, Station 5AD, Adelaide; Member of Meet the Press panel, Channel 7, Adelaide
South Australian correspondent of The Canberra Times, except when serving interstate or overseas
Press Attaché, Embassy of Australia, Washington, DC
Senior feature writer and columnist, The Advertiser, Adelaide; radio news commentator, Station 5AD and Station 5AN (ABC), Adelaide
Partner, Specialized News Agency, Canberra
Receives a Walkley Award for best feature article(s) in Australian journalism
First book, The Salisbury Affair, published by Sun Books, Melbourne
Elected first Companion of Rostrum in South Australia for ‘services to freedom of speech, loyalty to truth, clarity of thought and effective communication’
Self-publishes first biography, Oliphant, with co-author David Ellyard
Oliphant awarded the SA Government’s biennial prize for literature at the Adelaide Festival of Arts
Earns Walkley commendation for articles on Splatt case
Retires from The Advertiser
Self-publishes The Patriarchs
Beatrice Cockburn dies
Marries Jennifer Cashmore, State Liberal MP
Self-publishes Playford – Benevolent Despot
Made a Member of the Order of Australia
Self-publishes Notable Lives, Ferguson Publications, Adelaide
6 July 2009
Dies in Adelaide at the age of 87