My late father’s account of the Murdoch-owned “Sydney Mirror” story in 1964 that led to a suicide

In looking through my late father’s papers, I found the following, which he wrote about an incident on Rupert Murdoch’s Sydney Daily Mirror in the mid-1960s.

I found it fascinating in light of the News Of The World controversy that was uncovered during 2011, though of course one should not jump to conclusions about the practices in the 1960s versus more recently, particularly at News’s current Australian newspapers.

I want to make it particularly clear that I’ve never had an issue with reporters I’ve dealt with at the Herald Sun, various local Leader publications, and other News Limited papers (or from other publishers).

(The Daily Mirror merged with the Daily Telegraph in 1990.)

My dad, circa 1969Perhaps more recent debate about Australian media reform is also relevant.

I have not modified the text apart from making minor typographical corrections, adding some paragraph breaks for ease of reading, and inserting an image of the newspaper article (found separately in my dad’s papers) into the text.

I note the same incident is discussed in this recent article by Richard Neville (named below as then editor of Oz — which should not be confused with The Australian, which started later in 1964). Other references can be found by searching Google for the boy’s name.

However, aside from a quick look at these, I have not verified that any of the information in the account below is accurate, such as checking with those named for their side of the story.


Preparatory note

A likely scenario to this incident is: In 1963, Murdoch was eager for Calwell to beat Menzies. In 1964, NSW had a state ALP Govt to which, of the four Sydney dailies, only Murdoch’s Mirror was sympathetic. Elections were due in 1965. It is possible that a Kitchen-Cabinet decision was taken to let him off the hook. He had then only two dailies, worked just up stairs from us, and was in those days accessible in personality.

The boy lived in Zetland, which comes under Sydney Central Police. What still seems striking is the helpless outrage, not only of whole communities, but of an entire police force.

David Bowman has asked had I any hard detail on a parallel incident on Murdoch’s News Of The World (London). News Of The World would have six school sex stories every year, and you cannot check the consequences, the way you can this one, by putting the Sydney Sun and Mirror stories side by side, say in the Mitchell or National Libraries, then checking in Oz that the incident did actually occur, then picking up the name of the boy in the Perth Sunday Times.


Early in 1964, the circulations of Sydney’s two afternoon dailies, the Mirror and the Sun, were running about level. The Mirror was continually angling to win, if only for that day, the race for circulation.

Both papers run first at 9.30am to hit the streets at 11am. The edition sent to press at 11.30am to hit the streets at 1pm is normally not greatly altered during the rest of the day. Therefore a story well prepared the preceding day can knock the rival paper off balance.

This is the story of a Mirror front page and its consequences. I was a D Grade reporter on the Mirror at the time, and played no part in the events I now record.

Charles Stokes, who had a long history on Sydney papers as a Churches correspondent – he was a very up-front Anglican – found this story, and brought it to the editor, the late and unlamented Zell Rabin, who said on the Wednesday, “Give it a beat up!”

Sydney Daily Mirror 12/3/1964We ran it as front page lead on Thursday 12 March 1964 in all editions. The headline was SCHOOL SEX!, the school was named as the J.J.Cahill Memorial High School, Mascot, and we claimed that parents were angry at widespread fornication among the pupils. We stated that already a thirteen year old boy and a fourteen year old girl had been suspended from school: photograph of school and one angry parent, a Mr J.Attard.

The Sun found itself forced to get a few paragraphs together, which they could only do for their final edition (3.30pm for 5pm) so we won the circulation race handily that day. They were accurate. They said only that a parent had read his daughter’s diary, and on this basis, the boy and girl were under temporary suspension, pending investigation, medical examination, etc.

In 1964, fourteen year old girls’ diaries were likely to be vague and imaginative.

All that afternoon, parents were ringing us saying, “What have you done to us? Ours is a good school.” Gerald Stone and I had the two front desks in the newsroom. Three thirteen year old boys appeared, and Stone was deputed to listen to them. When he had sent them off, he murmured to me that it took guts for kids of that age to come into the city, and ride up in Murdoch’s lifts. Later, as I left the building, kids were shouting, “We think your paper stinks!”

That night, the boy hanged himself, and a copy of our front page was found in his pocket.

The next day, Friday, the nits who hope to collect £2 by ringing in a piece of news were ringing all the other papers. Their reaction was a stunned “This might have happened to us.”

On Saturday the nits were ringing us. I was on duty, as was Charles, and the editor came in when he heard the news. Charles was upset for quite some time. He said it was the parents’ fault. They lacked understanding.

Zell went out to beard the bereaved mother. As Charles said, she lacked understanding, having been more concerned for her husband and her’s neighbourhood reputation than for the state of mind of her son. She told Zell that for days young Johnny had been watching the awful violence they have on TV, cowboys, gangsters, etc, then lo and behold, she went and found him hanging from the rotary clothes hoist. Perhaps she and Zell were not looking each other in the eye.

Zell runs a story to that effect in the early editions, before the sports results begin to pour in. No names, no address, and it looks quite a moral little story.

But we also have Sunday papers in other state capitals. At least our Perth paper, the Sunday Times, runs quite a different story that is sent out, by a bungle I should hope. It is also a moral story. It says that a boy in Sydney, aged thirteen, who had been suspended from school for sexual misbehaviour hanged himself as a result. Name and address are supplied.

As it happens, government doctors find the girl was a virgin.

Our crim reporters find it hard to get tips from the police for some time, because they think Zell should be in the dock for manslaughter.

When the inquest comes up, the Sydney Morning Herald pulls itself together, and sends a reporter and photographer. The coroner says, no photos, no reports. Laurie Oakes muttered to me (only a guess) that Murdoch bribed him.

I was telling the story all around town. Geoffrey Lehmann, then a young lawyer, asked me if he could give it to Oz. I said he could give it to whomever he wished, adding sarcastically that Oz editors Richard Neville and Richard Walsh, with their sex-in-the-head obsession with nymphets would fuck it up. Lehmann used to get invites to their exclusive nymphet parties. They did. Eight sentences which their most devoted admirers don’t even remember, and their punchline was – THE GIRL WAS A VIRGIN! Oh big deal fellers!

I handed this story, with the related press clippings to Brian Johns, for the Ethics Committee of the Australian Journalists Association. They took no action. It would be interesting to know if the AJA still had this material. The related Saturday Mirror might be hard to track down, because material is shed as it becomes mainly a sports results paper as the afternoon progresses. (Also check various state editions of Truth, Adelaide News, Sunday Mail?)

I was basically saving up to go to England, where I ended up sitting out the Vietnam War. On my return, I found good-hearted Sydney journalists (say Dick Hall) had forgotten, or pretended to forget the incident. A ready amnesia for an event that caricatured so horribly their occupational rationale?

Charles Stokes also came to London, got on the London Guardian. He was then appointed to a lectureship on journalism at Queensland University, but is now with a NSW Government Dept. (He was picked sight unseen by the then Senior Lecturer-in-Charge, an old Guardian man, but was finally told the University wished he’d go away.)

No one was ever punished for this incident, any more than the London Sun beat-up men are. (Sydney Morning Herald and Age Weekend Magazine 18-3-89 has the story of how Elton John forced Murdoch to pay out £1,000,000.)

When Rabin died in 1967 aged 35, people made an incredible fuss about the Boy Genius of Tabloids – even an obituary in the London Times (not then owned by Murdoch). It was probably written by Murdoch who was then in London, and who as he then was, liked Zell because he’d stand up to him.

My dad and the Brisbane PT campaign, circa 1951

I was interested to see this post complaining about Brisbane bus services to the University of Queensland.

In this Courier Mail article it appears that the most overcrowded bus services in Brisbane all serve university precincts.

My dad was editor of the UQ student newspaper Semper Floreat in 1951. UQ has recently put many (possibly all) old editions of it online. To my surprise and delight, I found that he put a series of front page stories about the UQ bus services into several editions of Semper, highlighting crowding and in particular the lack of concessions for university students.

Semper Floreat 6/3/1951

In the March 6th edition, they asked various politicians, a representative from the Transport Department, and one from the Bus and Tramways union if they favoured fare reductions for students, and concluded:

We know that students at the southern universities get fairly generous concessions. And as the University of Queensland is scattered all over the face of Brisbane, we think we deserve them even more. We also consider that, with full bus-loads guaranteed, the City Council could afford to reduce the St Lucia fare piecemeal.

Semper Floreat 15/5/1951

In a follow up article on May 15th, Semper reported that a student delegation to the council with little result, and pleads for the students as a whole to make some noise about the issue in the hopes of getting it resolved.

These days, fulltime tertiary students in Queensland do get a 50% concession fare.

Dad never told me about this. Of course, there were others involved, and Semper took on many causes, but I find it fascinating that 61 years ago he was campaigning on this particular issue. There’s something in the blood, eh?

Brisbane Day 3

Monday 3rd October

Day three in Brisbane, and it was time to get to the whole point of the trip: to visit my Dad’s memorial bench at the University of Queensland.

After waiting for my Uncle Frank (Dad’s last remaining sibling) to arrive (his bus was delayed), we headed down Adelaide Street to find the 109 — not the 109 tram I’m more familiar with, but the 109 bus to UQ’s St Lucia campus.

We probably should have checked which bus to catch down Adelaide Street, because it was a long walk to the relevant stop, but eventually we found it, and didn’t have long to wait.

The bus headed across the river, along Brisbane’s much-vaunted (at least by Bus Rapid Transit enthusiasts) and rather impressive (no matter who you are) bus ways. More about this, and Brisbane’s PT in general, in a later post.

University of Queensland bus terminal

We arrived at the UQ campus, and strolled over to where we thought the bench would be. As we approached, I noted a crowd around one bench, and remarked that it would be embarassing if that was the bench we sought.

It was.

A group of perhaps 30 students was crowded around it, having a picnic. Somehow my sister managed to find their leaders and ask politely if they’d mind moving… which they very gracefully did, though it appeared that rather than move, they broke up their party. Oops.

Anyway, there we finally were: the memorial bench.

Dad's ashes on his bench

Dad's bench

It was a nice spot. Despite nearby building construction, a very peaceful location by the lake. Dad would have liked it, I think. The bench is nice too, and with a bit of luck should be there for a good few years into the future.

We had a small container with some of Dad’s ashes, and sat him on the bench, before scattering some of them into the lake, and snapped a few pictures. A passer-by helpfully took a photo of all of us.

Afterwards we headed for the ferry terminal, to catch the City Cat back to central Brisbane. The sun was shining, and (after touching our Go cards) we sat out on the back deck as we zoomed along the river, dropping the remaining ashes into the water as we sped along. (Most of the ashes remain at home in Melbourne. I expect they’ll go on the garden.)

University of Queensland City Cat wharf

Giant duck, Brisbane riverFrank pointed out the Regatta Hotel (after which the Regatta wharf City Cat stop is named), and recounted the incident when Merle Thornton (mother of Sigrid) and Rosalie Bognor chained themselves to the bar in protest against men-only public bars. He reckoned Dad knew Merle and her husband, and had later been an occasional babysitter for the young Sigrid in London in the late-60s.

We got off the ferry at Southbank. Frank verified that it was indeed the same area that I remembered from visiting Expo 88 when I was but a teenager. It’s quite different now, though I recognised one of the towers from my earlier visit. We found some lunch (sandwiches or kebabs, according to preference) and ate while a rainshower came through, drenching anything and everything not undercover.

My sister and her family were keen to head towards the Gold Coast before too long, so we found South Brisbane Station and caught a train with them back to Central so they could collect their baggage. As we left Central, it started to pour down, and for a while we took cover and watched the rain come down. I took the opportunity to try out the slow-motion filming on my camera — very cool.

At some point Adrian and I decided to dash for the baggage, and everyone else went back into Central station to find a hot chocolate. We met up a little while later, and everyone boarded a train for the Gold Coast, with my mob and Frank getting off again at South Brisbane to go look at the science museum.

Alas, the science museum was closed, renovations until January.

Instead we headed over to GOMA — the Gallery of Modern Art, and had a look around there. We’d just missed the Surrealism exhibition, which would have been quite interesting, but instead had a look at an exhibit of modern art from the Torres Strait, which Frank noted was where our Chinese ancestors had initially settled before moving on to Brisbane during WW2. There was some interesting stuff, though the boys at one stage decided to just sit and chat on a comfy couch rather than walk around the gallery… fair enough.

After that we walked to the Cultural Centre busway stop, and thanks to the excellent Translink mobile journey planner web site (why doesn’t Metlink have that?), I was able to tell which buses we could catch to a stop back closer to the hotel than we’d set out from that morning.

We farewelled Frank and headed back to the hotel for pasta, TV and sleep.

A year since Dad left us

It’s a year today since Dad passed-away.

It’s got easier to deal with and think about as the months have passed. Life goes on. But yes, today (and on the 7th, which would have been his 80th birthday), I did find myself in contemplation.

Doubly so when a $7 refund cheque for him for a cancelled utility arrived recently.

His influence is still felt, and he is remembered fondly.

As my sister said so much more eloquently than I:

A year goes by quickly. Hope you are getting in good reading in the great library in the sky, Dad.

(21/8/2010: The funeral)

The memorial bench

At the University of Queensland this week, they installed a park bench, a memorial to my father, who studied there and was editor of the student magazine Sempor Floreat sixty years ago this year.

Dad's memorial bench at UQ

Dad's memorial bench at UQ

Dad's memorial bench at UQ

I’m told it’s beside the lake (obviously) next to College Road, close to the intersection with Staff House Road.

Judging from the pics, I reckon Dad would have liked the spot, though I bet he’d have his head buried in a book rather than be enjoying the scenery.

I’m hoping to get up to Brisbane later in the year with the family to see it for ourselves.

Many thanks to the Property & Faculties division of UQ for being able to organise this for us.