Daily Media Quotation
Oh, How He Loved To Reel Them In
May 13, 2006
by Alan Ramsey - Sydney Morning Herald
Over the hills south of Canberra is Brindabella Valley. It is a magic place. I first saw it, at its best, when the Herald's Peter Bowers took me there to fish for trout in the Goodradigbee River 40 years ago.
Two historic properties dominated at the time, the largest owned by the Dowling family. The other, Koorabri, is at the far end, where the Goodradigbee rises in the high country behind Kosciuszko National Park before it runs the length of the valley, then on through gorges and precipitous bush country to the Murrumbidgee, near Wee Jasper.
It is Koorabri that has Gwen Meredith's log cabin.
This remarkable woman, in her 99th year, lives in NSW's Southern Highlands. Australians everywhere still revere her as the author of two beloved ABC radio serials of another time. One, The Lawsons, ran for five years and 1299 episodes until February 5, 1949. Its sequel, Blue Hills, a family saga of Australian country life, went to air three weeks later, on February 28, and lasted until its record 5795th episode on September 30, 1976.
And the log cabin?
It was built by Koorabri's owners in the early 1950s, for Gwenyth Valmai Meredith and her husband, Ainsworth Harrison, an engineer. Both were fly-fishers and bushwalkers, and when I rang this week Meredith recalled happy memories of "long holidays" at Koorabri. Blue Hills disciples with long memories would recognise, of course, the valley's influence on the long-running serial.
And the point of this history lesson?
Well, Richard Carleton.
Carleton, at age 26, came to Canberra in 1970. He replaced Mike Willessee as federal political reporter for ABC television's This Day Tonight after Willessee, the show's founding Canberra man in 1967, moved on to anchor Four Corners. Two years later, in 1972, four journalists negotiated with Koorabri to jointly lease the old Meredith cabin on a year-to-year basis. Carleton was one. Peter Luck and Gerry Stone, TDT colleagues in Sydney, were two others. The fourth was Richard Walsh, publisher at the time of Nation Review - "the ferret" - and later a Packer executive.
The arrangement lasted a decade. They were 10 great years, for the quartet and their families and friends.
Luck and Carleton were the fishing obsessives. Luck still travels to the valley from Sydney when he can, more than 30 years later, to sketch and write poetry. The others have dropped away, one by one. Carleton was the last, a few years back.
Luck emailed this week: "Attached is a bushfire pic [from Christmas 2003]. Still terrifying 100 digital generations removed! Peter and Fran said the noise was even more terrifying, like a thousand locomotives. Incredibly, they saved every building on the property, including our little log cabin. I have a theory that the huge pine, which went up like a roman candle, acted as a sort of sacrificial anode. As it was, cinders found their way through the roof and burnt holes in the sofa cushions, but everything else remained pristine. The hut is still magic, and there are lots of memories of Richard there.
"Love to Laura and Tosca …"
Carleton was my friend for 35 years. We "met" out the front of Old Parliament House in the early evening of March 9, 1971, not all that long after he arrived in the press gallery. He was on one side of a camera and I was on the other. That was the day I'd yelled, from the gallery, at the prime minister, John Gorton, that he was a "liar", while Gorton was recounting to Parliament a conversation between us in his office a week earlier concerning Malcolm Fraser. I got foolishly sensitive to what Gorton was saying, and now I was trying to explain to Carleton and his viewers why I'd made such a clown of myself.
(Carleton would tell the National Times's Sally Loane six years later: "I've still got saliva in my right ear from Alan Ramsey when he yelled, 'You liar!' to Gorton. I was standing right next to him. Arthur Calwell said something like, 'Deal with the animal' as he looked up into the gallery, and I remember hoping they didn't think it was me.")
We became firm friends ever after, bonded by profession, by support for our personal relationships with others, and by the exhilaration of fishing the streams and rivers of the Brindabella Mountains as well as the waters of the South Coast. What I learned about my friend was that he was a very private person behind all that flamboyant bombast at times, and, while he could behave outrageously, he was loyal and generous with his time to those who had his trust, which didn't seem all that many.
Since his death, some silly, ignorant things have been written, as they were throughout his career, by people who knew him only as difficult or for his celebrity with the 60 Minutes machine. For example, in The Australian this week: "Carleton was not part of the almost incestuous press gallery push. Rather than living within a kilometre of Parliament House, he lived almost in isolation in the Brindabella Valley."
Absolute bunkum. Across the 14 years, in two stints, that Carleton worked in the Canberra press gallery, he lived the entire time within a few kilometres of Parliament House in four splendid locations, none of them "isolated". Depending on family circumstances, often in some tumult in those years, Brindabella Valley was his retreat, never his home.
Thirteen of those 14 Canberra years were with the ABC, not the "25 years" often reported this week. But those 13 years were what established Carleton as a journalist of substance and significance - particularly his second stint from 1979 until he delivered himself, for $250,000 a year, into the showbiz maw of the Nine network and moved back to Sydney, in August 1987, from where he'd come 17 years earlier. Along the way he'd had a bad year (1976) with Macquarie radio, when it was still owned by Fairfax, and two good years (1977-78) with BBC television in London.
His marriage to Susie had gone by the time he returned to Australia, driving a Land Rover the length of Africa on the way here, bringing Margaret with him. This was long before he married Sharon on a memorable Saturday afternoon in the Brindabellas in 1983. Last Sunday afternoon, 23 years later, Sharon was driving to Melbourne with their teenage son, Oliver, when a mobile phone call shattered them both by telling them Richard was dead.
The second eight years with the ABC were, to me, the high point of Carleton's professional life. Those were the years he set the standard in political scrutiny for television journalists, forever baiting politicians on his nightly program with his oh-so-polite, at-the-throat questioning, which a livid Bob Hawke famously depicted as Carleton's "perverted reasons" and "stupidity" behind "your silly quizzical face".
The incomparable Jack Waterford, of The Canberra Times, one of the very few of us around for all 14 years Carleton was in the gallery, this week nailed him as "master of the mongrel question".
It is a wonderful line.
Waterford wrote: "[Carleton] had a tremendous capacity to disconcert, unnerve and surprise the person he was interviewing, in a way virtually guaranteed to make [his questions] unpredictable, and to shift [his victim] away from prepared responses, meaningless blather, or a simple refusal to address the question. There are good political television journalists today, but few are as fearless as Carleton was by, say, 1980, or more prepared to ask 'the mongrel question', or to tell a politician, bluntly, he was evading the point."
Amen. Carleton was all that, and more.
And then he joined the Nine network.
He'd have done so years earlier had it been possible. It wasn't. But when Alan Bond seduced Kerry Packer with $1 billion for his Sydney/Melbourne network in January 1987, the door opened for Carleton. Nine announced in August that year his decision to join the network (I'd argued he was selling himself short and was in Dublin when he sent me a telegram that said simply, "Tick, tick, tick").
In November, Nine announced he was replacing Jana Wendt at 60 Minutes, where his log-cabin mate from earlier years, Stone, was executive producer. Wendt went to A Current Affair.
And that was that. Carleton had quit journalism for the money and celebrity of Nine's entertainment machine. We all make our choices. Nineteen years later and 60 Minutes's titillation formula, a straight pinch from its American parent, still rates strongly.
Carleton, at 62, stayed to the end.
Last Sunday he walked up a hill in Tasmania, turned around and dropped dead. He was cremated on Thursday and the Nine family orchestrated his public farewell early last evening. I never quite made it.
Next week, sometime, Richard's real family will travel to Brindabella Valley and scatter my dear friend's ashes in the Goodradigbee. Gwen Meredith couldn't have written a more fitting ending.
The night of the long, white dressing-down
Most people with any interest in politics know something, however vaguely, about Richard Carleton's "blood on the hands" clash with Bob Hawke the day 23 years ago that Bill Hayden quit Labor's leadership for the pushy little man from Melbourne who would become prime minister a month later. The date was February 3, 1983.
Almost nobody remembers the night Tamie Fraser, the wife of the Liberal prime minister who Hawke supplanted, walked out on Carleton in the middle of a "live" interview at a Canberra ABC television studio 16 months earlier.
The date was October 2, 1981.
I'd forgotten, too, until a longtime friend jogged the memory. Carleton always found Malcolm Fraser a hard interview, whatever the issue. But nobody ever left him looking quite so bemused as Tamie Fraser this night when she stood up and left, the cameras still live to air, after Carleton had asked but a single question. It was an incident that had the letter writers to the ABC and the newspapers going for days.
A Herald columnist, Evan Whitton, called it the week's "most marvellous piece of theatre" and Tamie's performance her very own "address to the nation". The incident concerned Fraser's health and a piece of fiction in an afternoon newspaper that said he'd been to a Melbourne cancer clinic and "could" be preparing to resign. Fraser called a press conference to angrily deny the speculation as "totally and absolutely false" while Carleton, in Canberra, sought to have his wife come on his program, Nationwide, that night. She declined.
But just before Nationwide went to air, "the prime minister's office contacted [the program] to say Mrs Fraser did want to be interviewed", the ABC explained later. "She duly appeared live on air in Nationwide's Canberra studio while Mr Fraser looked on from an adjoining room." In fact, Tamie Fraser, dressed in a long, white dinner gown, didn't want to be "interviewed" at all. What she wanted to do was bucket the press and to do so, without interruption, on national television.
She was "in a great hurry to get to dinner", she began, and speaking to Carleton, went on: "I have only come here tonight because I am absolutely outraged at the reports, the provenly inaccurate reports, that [her husband] was meant to go to Peter MacCallum [cancer clinic], and I can't believe facts of this kind, which are not checked, can get into the papers. Malcolm is very well, as you can see … [and] … I have had all my children on the telephone saying, 'Is Dad all right?', which, again, I think is really outrageous that they should be so worried and hurt."
Carleton: "Well, how is his health?"
Mrs Fraser, getting to her feet: "I've said he is fit. How often do I have to say it?" And, turning, she walked out, saying as she left: "Well, thank you very much. I think I'll go off to my dinner now."
All Carleton had time to ask was five words about somebody else's inaccurate reportage. And who got walloped?
"The Richard Carleton segment was a very sad commentary on the type of program now permitted by the ABC," wrote an Elanora Heights reader on the Herald's letters page. "The fact Mrs Fraser appeared at a time most inconvenient for her was to her credit."
It got no better for Carleton at 60 Minutes.
Nine years later, when he interviewed Hawke and Paul Keating during the March 1990 election campaign, Keating got so annoyed with Carleton's introduction to the segment that he waited until the interview was concluded and they were off air to tell Carleton, as he stabbed the air with his finger, that he thought him a "rolled-gold pissant". Keating, who never spoke to Carleton again, confirmed the incident this week.
Vale Richard Carleton.