Ben Hills

1942-    |    VIC    |    Investigative reporter

Hills was the pre-eminent investigative reporter in Victoria for more than a decade, leading the resurgence of the craft from the early 1970s as head of the Insight team. Among the team's exposés were the secret commissions paid by maintenance products company Magna Alloys to government purchasers, the stories which led to the Loans Affair and triggered the sacking of the Whitlam government, corruption in the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works and the land scandals of the early 1980s which contributed to the downfall of the Victorian Liberal government. Hills later worked for The Melbourne Herald, 60 Minutes and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Biography

Ben Hills

By MIKE SMITH

Ben Hills, the most aggressive and effective muckraker during one of the golden eras of Australian media, was almost lost to the more mundane but no-less-honourable pursuits of municipal bureaucracy or teaching.

Hills was a first-year university dropout, unable to live on the three pounds a week that came with his teaching fellowship. He was preparing for his first day as a clerk at the Brisbane City Council when he opened a letter from the editor of The Stanthorpe Border Post, serving the Granite Belt on the NSW- Queensland border. It was a bi-weekly that began in 1872 as a foolscap-sized journal that, when rolled up, was the size of a boundary peg and thus earned the nickname ... “The Boundary Peg”.

Local cake competitions and stock prices (of the animal variety) were common fare in the Post. A decade later, Hills was the gun reporter on The Age, then rated one of the 12 most influential newspapers of the world. He was head of the Insight team – an important part of the paper’s brand – exposing crooks and charlatans and shaking governments. The loss to local government and teaching was journalism’s gain. Once again, a small country paper had produced a thoroughbred.

The 1970s were glory days for newspapers and journalists. Almost 1.5 million copies of The Herald, The Age and The Sun were being sold each day, giving Melbourne one of the highest newspaper readerships in the world. The papers were awash with the ‘rivers of gold’ of hundreds of columns of classified advertising and the baby boomers provided a big and hungry readership, fuelled by university degrees which heightened their interest in politics and social issues.

In the 1970s, Watergate and Woodward-Bernstein sparked a revival in investigative journalism and, with the advent of bylines, the beginnings of celebrity journalism. Hundreds of young reporters aspired to hunt for suspiciously shifting pot plants and to cultivate their own Deep Throat. Most choked on their own mediocrity. But Ben Hills was a stayer and a star.

The Yorkshire-born Hills came to Australia as a teenager with his family. He arrived at The Age in 1968 after leapfrogging from paper to paper: after Stanthorpe came The Brisbane Telegraph, The Forbes Advocate, The Goulburn Evening Post and The Hobart Mercury, where he was talent-spotted by Age reporter John Tidey, who was impressed by his coverage of the 1967 bushfire catastrophe and advised Graham Perkin to hire him.

Most reporters on morning papers worked an afternoon-night shift, usually beginning at 2 pm. Tidey remembers Hills always being in the o ffice before noon, hoping to be tossed the good assignments – or dig up his own – before the other reporters arrived. Hills usually had a story in the bag before the rest of the reporting staff had taken off their coats.

He was also the last to leave, often lingering with a can of beer in the locker-room bar till midnight for the presses to roll and the thrill of seeing his stories on the front page. In the pre-overnight talkback radio days, newspaper editors often received late-night telephone calls from aggrieved, inebriated or unbalanced citizens wanting an ear – and the only ear available at that time of night was that of a morning newspaper person. Most of us called them the midnight “crank callers”; the most persistent was the man who insisted that Prime Minister Harold Holt had been taken by a Japanese submarine in Port Phillip Bay. But there was always the chance of a real story.

Hills was thrown one of these calls one night. It was a destitute farming couple from the Bulla area who had gone for help to the State Government’s Public Solicitor, an office that performed a function like today’s Legal Aid. The Public Solicitor promised to help; instead he stole their farm. Alan Douglas lost his job as Public Solicitor, a new career in investigative reporting had been born and Graham Perkin coined a new credo. “If there’s muck there to be raked, it’s our job to get out and rake it,” he growled.

Perkin sent Hills to London to learn from the world-beating Insight team at Harold Evans’s Sunday Times, the model for Perkin’s unit. He worked with John Larkin on a “Minus Children” series that exposed scandalous conditions in Victoria’s residential institutions for intellectually disabled children, a series that led to major reforms.

Big scalps came in the following years. Hills’s first big scoop was exposing secret commissions paid to State Government purchasers by the Magna Alloys company, leading to the conviction of six directors and the jailing of its boss. He revealed corruption at the Melbourne & Metropolitan Board of Works, Melbourne’s supreme planning authority. Hills captained the team that exposed crooked land deals under the Hamer/Thompson Liberal Governments, which forced the resignation of two Ministers and was a major cause of the Government’s downfall. Politically even-handed, he went on to break the first stories which eventually became known as the Loans Affair and which brought down Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government. Hills twice tried to escape from his typecasting as a muckraker.

In the mid-1970s he was appointed a roving correspondent based in London, covering Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He reported from around 60 countries on everything from the Ginsberg/Sharansky show trials in Moscow, river blindness in Burkina Faso and the 1970s civil war in Lebanon. Then, in the early 1980s, he was appointed publisher of The Age’s trade magazine group in Hong Kong, later returning to a position of assistant editor of The Age. But the executive life never suited him and he soon returned to journalism.

Hills was approached by Channel Nine to become a producer at 60 Minutes in its hey-day as Australia’s top-rating current affairs programme. For four years he produced stories with the original team of George Negus, Jana Wendt and Ian Leslie, ranging from a gold-rush up the Amazon to the first TV documentary on AIDS.

His investigation of an Asian baby-smuggling ring was the first Australian-produced segment to be broadcast to an audience of 100 million on the American CBS edition of 60 Minutes. “The Baby Traders” exposed the racket with interviews and footage tracking a stolen child from its anguished natural mother in Taiwan to a family in Launceston, which paid to adopt it.

In the late-1980s, Rupert Murdoch bought The Herald in Melbourne and appointed Eric Beecher as editor to turn around the struggling afternoon daily. Hills was recruited to work for it, and wrote some of the early stories on the murderous impact of asbestos in Australia, which led to the first of his six books, Blue Murder, documenting the fight for justice for victims of the Wittenoom asbestos mine in Western Australia. He also unearthed the corrupt monster that was the Victorian Economic Development Corporation, a Government investment arm that turned into a money pot for shady entrepreneurs, including a father and son team’s amphetamine factory. The first story created an avalanche of whistle-blowers whose stories buried the VEDC, the Tricontinental Bank that funded it and whose chief executive was jailed for corruption, the State Bank, which had to be rescued from collapse by the Commonwealth Bank ... and eventually the Cain/Kirner Labor government.

Ben Hills finished his newspaper career on The Sydney Morning Herald, including three years as foreign correspondent in Tokyo in the mid-90s, an eventful time during which he covered the terrible Kobe earthquake, a terrorist sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and the 50th anniversary commemoration of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was during this posting that his third wife, the artist Mayu Kanamori, began her career as a photographer for Fairfax.

Ben Hills’ telephone interviewing technique was an education for young reporters within earshot. He could disarm his best-prepared victim with a range of small talk, jokes and flattery. Then came a series of questions that were the equivalent of slow full tosses on leg stump, luring the victim into playing shots and chancing his arm. Gradually the questions became more relevant and pointed, including references to facts just conceded. The victim had bound himself in a web. Then came the bouncers, the throat balls and the blood on the pitch. The conversation would end and Ben would curse the corruptness of his prey.

No-one could ever accuse Ben Hills of being Mr Nice Guy. He was one of the first restaurant reviewers at The Age when Australian cooking, particularly in Melbourne, began its renaissance in the early 1970s. He was the first reviewer of restaurants run by Mietta O’Donnell, Iain Hewitson and Stephanie Alexander. The reviews of Hills, Peter Smark and Claude Forell appeared in a new section called Epicure as The Age recognised that while Sydney had its leagues clubs and the vice-dens of King’s Cross, Melbourne had become the dining capital of Australia. Epicure begat The Age Good Food Guide, which monitored and promoted Melbourne’s thriving restaurant scene.

Hills never wrote an ode to artichokes or rhapsodised over the texture of a choron sauce. He often wrote with a skewer dipped in acid. Smark once wrote that Hills brought a pungency to restaurant reviewing that made it a spectator sport. Said Smark: “It’s the only time I’ve ever been the mild-mannered half of a partnership.”

Hills was still writing 50 years after Stanthorpe. In his cupboard was the 1991 Walkley Award for investigative journalism, High Commendation in 1989 for Australian Journalist of the Year, the Alex Buzo prize for excellence in research in 2010 , six books he wrote and the scalps of several species of scoundrels.

Michael Smith was editor of The Age in 1989-92 and a reporter whose work sometimes appeared under the Insight banner.

 

 

 

 

 

Further reading

 

Blue Murder, Ben Hills, Sun Books, 1989.

 

Japan-Behind the Lines, Ben Hills, Sceptre 1997.

 

Breaking News – The Golden Age of Graham Perkin, Ben Hills, Scribe, 2010.