Culture News and events

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 2011

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.

Friends and loved ones

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)

Brisbane 2011 Friends and loved ones

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.

Friends and loved ones music

The power of music

(My blogging is likely to be a little sporadic for the next week or two. I’m sure you can work out why.)

Music can often be very powerful at capturing an emotion, a feeling, a memory.

After that post a couple of months ago about songs on a theme, here’s another theme that’s become relevant to me since three months ago today.

The Living Years, by Mike and the Mechanics. I sometimes hear this one in shops and so on. It’s peppy enough that for most of the song you can ignore the story of it, but if you listen closely, they’re quite moving.

Tank Park Salute, by Billy Bragg. I found this one emotional enough when I first heard it, years ago. I find the lyrics incredibly powerful. To be honest I haven’t wanted to listen to it since my dad passed on.

No doubt there are other songs on this theme out there, though I can’t think of any others I know well.

A different theme, but due to family circumstances both when I was growing up, and in my adult life, Weddings Parties Anything’s Father’s Day is also one that resonates very powerfully with me.

Friends and loved ones

Things I discovered when picking up my father’s ashes from the crematorium

Things I discovered when picking up my father’s ashes from the crematorium:

1. At Fawkner, you pick them up from the office, not the crematorium itself. If you catch the train there, the office is in a non-intuitive location, back towards Sydney Road.

2. Make sure you have photo ID. I guess they don’t want just anybody making off with ashes.

Fawkner Memorial Park bag3. The ashes and their container are heavier than you might expect. Well at least, they were heavier than I expected.

4. The ashes are inside a plain grey plastic container, not an urn. I guess everyone’s tastes in urns is different. The container is quite well secured; I haven’t figured out how to open it yet (have no wish to, just in case anything spills out accidentally or I can’t figure out how to seal it again).

5. The container is inside a cardboard box.

6. The cardboard box, in turn, is inside a tasteful “Fawkner Memorial Park” shopping bag. Unless anybody looked closely and read the name on the bag or the sticker on the top of the box, they’d probably never guess what you had in that bag.

7. Fawkner included a list of options when they sent the letter to let me know they could be collected. It’s notable that some of the memorial options include 25 year tenure, and some (more expensive) are perpetual. From the looks of it, you can upgrade, too. We haven’t actually sorted out what will happen to the ashes yet — we’re looking at options in Queensland, where Dad grew up.


More for my own records than anything else, here are the notices that were placed in the newspapers:

Friends and loved ones

“You couldn’t have a full-blooded aborigine or Chinese teaching”

Yesterday it was a month since my Dad passed away.

And yesterday, the Brisbane Courier Mail published an obituary by his friend, Peter Edwards, Emeritus Professor of English at University of Queensland.


You can read the full text here.

It talks about a 1949 article, of which I have obtained a copy via my Uncle Frank.

They misspelt his name, but it’s the story itself which is amazing. What can one say about this… well, it’s all summed-up by the comments from a union official at the very end.


I suspect and hope that times have changed.

Friends and loved ones

The funeral

Yesterday was a hard day, but a good day.

Thank you to my sister (siblings help so much at times like these), Reverend Johnsan David (and helpers) at St David’s Anglican Church in Moorabbin for accommodating us, Brian at Mannings Funerals, Laura and the others at South Eastern Private Hospital, all the others who helped this week and attended yesterday, and everyone else for your thoughts this week.

Pictures of Dad

Here are my eulogy notes (with the ad hoc changes I recall), but of course they won’t be word for word…

Thank you for coming today. I especially want to thank Uncle Frank, dad’s younger brother, who has travelled from Brisbane to be here.

Some of you have known Dad since well before my sister and I were born. Many old friends of his from around Australia have been in touch over the last few days, and we are learning more about his incredibly diverse life every day. It’s not that he kept his past life a secret, but clearly there was a lot more to him than he talked about.

As a young man, Dad had a teaching scholarship taken from him when the authorities discovered he was of Chinese heritage. He felt strongly about this and it lead him to fight against the establishment for what he believed was right.

While editing Semper Floreat, the student newspaper at the University of Queensland, Dad was very vocal, including railing against the mainstream media. I always meant to ask him what he thought of today’s impending downfall of the mainstream media due to advances in technology.

Dad’s intellect was amazing. His interests ranged across theology, philosophy, history, literature, politics. He was a remarkable reader, dedicated to ideas, with an incredible memory and breadth of understanding.

* * *

When Susannah and I were growing up, Dad didn’t live with us. But he was never far away. When we lived in East St Kilda, he lived just down the road. When we moved to Elwood, and later to Elsternwick, he moved nearby. I doubt that was a coincidence.

For myself, family and personal relationships aside, the two biggest things in my life today are the technology I use at work and at home, and my advocacy of public transport. And Dad helped me find both those things.

When I first got interested in computers, he bought one for me. He may not have understood computers, but he could see it was important to me. I’d found my calling: it took me through university and into the workforce, and for my “day job” I still work with computers.

At some stage I decided I liked train travel. So he took my sister and I on trips; one day we rode all the way to Hurstbridge and back just for the ride. He showed me magazines he’d got from some mob of troublemakers, then called the Train Travellers Association… they sparked my interest, and you’ll know how that turned out.

* * *

Here are some thoughts from my sister Susannah:

I hope Dad has found himself in heaven. I hope his heaven is a huge library, with books and magazines and journals from theology, history, politics, literature, and a special focus on 1950s culture, and well read people to argue and debate with.

* * *

Susannah also recalls two things Dad said to her that stuck in her mind:

He said “I used to think if someone had an Arts degree I could have a conversation with them. Lately I’ve thought it needs to be a Literature degree”

And when he asked for some Sassoon poetry, and she couldn’t find any and brought him Wilfrid Owen instead – she said she was sorry it’s not what he wanted but she thought he’d like Owen. And he said “of course I like Owen, who doesn’t?” – Susannah likes his vision of the world where everyone likes good poetry.

* * *

Dad’s friend Christopher Koch wrote a well known book “The Year of Living Dangerously”. Dad used to say the Chinese-Australian photographer in the book, Billy Kwan, was partly based on him. I’m not sure I really believed it until I read it.

The character in the book calls everybody “Old man” — Dad used to call me that.

And the book describes the character:

Kwan was one of those people who rarely answer questions directly, and who start conversations in the middle.

That was very Dad.

* * *

Another long term friend, David Malouf, has offered to write a memoir of Dad. That would have meant a lot to him, and it will mean a lot to us in helping us remember him.

In the last year or so, Dad had a helper to get him to medical appointments and to the library. My sister and I would sincerely like to thank Karen, who made such a difference these past twelve months.

[Words from Karen]

* * *

Dad had had a difficult time of late. Ten years ago or so, an accident with a cyclist triggered a series of hospital visits, and sent him on a downhill slope.

It was a blow for him when his dear friend, Louis Green, passed away in 2008. Thank you Louise, for coming.

But in the past few months, with Karen’s help, he’d regained an interest in reading, and whenever I saw him we’d chat a bit about politics. I’m sure he’d have been interested to see tomorrow’s election result.

I’ll finish with some words from Christopher Koch:

[John] was a remarkable man, as I’m sure you know. He had a first-rate intellect, and a vital mind which often stimulated me when we were young. His tragedy was – and I’m sure you won’t mind my saying this – that some inner divisions stopped him from realising his full potential. I’m sure, though, that he’ll remain a vivid memory to all his friends. There was no-one else like him.

Friends and loved ones Health


My dad turned 79 the week before last.

He got sick and went into hospital on Thursday. Pneumonia.

Over the weekend he was very unwell, and yesterday he expressed the view that he would like to go soon.

Tonight he got his wish, and slipped peacefully away.

RIP JQ. 7/8/1931 — 16/8/2010.

My dad, circa 1969Update Tuesday 8:40am:

Thank you all for your thoughts.

I thought I’d just highlight a post from 2008 where I noted one of the influences my dad had on me: My dad and the trains

The other one was computers. He didn’t understand them, but he could see it was important to enable me to pursue my interests, and thus he helped fund my first three: the Vic 20, the Commodore 64, and the BBC Micro.

Here’s also a link to some text about him from the biography of Lillian Roxon, the legendary rock music critic.

And I thought I’d repost this fantastic old passport photo of him from 1969.

See also: The funeral