1912-1990 | England, VIC | Editor, journalist
The name Duncan Hooper may no longer strike an immediate chord of recognition as one of Australia’s great journalists. It should.
He was a distinguished war correspondent in the early part of his career, but in Australia he made his mark as an organiser and innovator, helping the newsagency Austalian Associated Press become a national institution.
As Reuters bureau chief in Moscow in the final two years of the war, Hooper managed to get permission to join the Soviet forces in Berlin in May 1945, when they were closing in on the remnants of the Third Reich.
Filing copy from the besieged city, however, was almost impossible and when Hooper learned from Soviet sources that dental records had positively identified a charred body as Hitler himself, he was in despair at how to get the news out, especially when he discovered that a group of American correspondents on a day visit to the city with Allied supreme commander General Dwight D Eisenhower had been briefed and were now on their way to Paris to file the story. “I went out into the street, feeling despondent and desperate,” Hooper recalled later.
By a stroke of luck Hooper heard the noise of a motor cycle being ridden by a British dispatch rider. “I flagged him down and he told me he was on his way back to Lubeck,” Hooper recalled. Lubeck was the nearby Germany town where Hooper’s Reuters colleague was stationed at British military headquarters. Hooper scribbled out a report by hand and promised the rider a bottle of Scotch if he could get it to Martin. He did so, and four hours later the Reuters report was read out on the BBC before the American correspondents had filed from Paris. The Americans were “unpleased”, according to Hooper, and later claimed inaccurately that Reuters had broken an unofficial embargo on the story.
Two weeks earlier, Hooper scored another world scoop on the death of Geobbels. A Soviet official he knew came up to him at a cocktail party and said: “Isn’t it very sad about Dr Goebbels?” Using the reporter’s trick of leading on the conversation by pretending to know more than he did, Hooper extracted details about the suicide and the poisoning of his wife and five children in the Hitler bunker.
His world exclusive was broadcast first by the BBC. He even beat the official Soviet newsagency Tass. Briefly this caused some nail-biting when the BBC got back to Reuters in London to ask why Tass hadn’t confirmed the story. But soon afterwards loudspeakers in the Berlin streets were broadcasting the official Tass version.
After the war Hooper was posted to Bombay as news editor, overseeing Reuters’ coverage of a turbulent time in the lead-up to the partition of India. While on home leave in the months following the January 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Hooper was offered the chance of a secondment to Sydney. AAP had just taken up shares in Reuters with the idea of establishing a joint news-gathering arrangement in the Pacific. Hooper was there to guide the new operation and, reading between the lines, to pull a struggling news organisation into shape. Confirmation that he did a good job came within 12 months when, in September 1949, he was appointed AAP’s first Editor at a salary of 2,500 pounds ($5,000) a year. He had already recommended moving the main news operation to Melbourne, where communications were superior.
Hooper became AAP’s managing editor in 1956, the year of the Melbourne Olympics, and oversaw the transfer of head office back to Sydney in 1964, when the completion of the Commonwealth transpacific undersea telephone cable Compac finally established a reliable link with the rest of the world.
Although now an administrator, Hooper never lost his nose for the story. In 1952, went to Perth to organise AAP’s coverage of the first British atomic test at the Montebello Islands off the West Australian coast and then the Woomera tests the following year. According to the Fleet Street journal World Press News, “Reuters landed their first flash in London 36 minutes ahead of all competition ... the main cover coming from Mr Hooper”. Hooper explained the back story years later when he told an interviewer: “We correspondents were not allowed to file from Woomera but had to fly to Adelaide. On the flight, I sat at the back of the plane. As the plane was about to land, I noticed that the other journalists were already on their feet and heading for the door. I suggested to the air hostess that she should ask them to fasten their seatbelt. The hostess saw that this happened and when the plane landed I was first to the door.” More importantly, Hooper had organised an “open” phone from the airport to the Reuters bureau in New York and the story was away within minutes of him disembarking.
In 1954, Duncan was in the AAP newsroom in Melbourne during the dramatic exit of Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov and his wife on board a plane to Europe. Darwin was the plane’s last port of call in Australia and at 6 am Hooper called his Darwin stringer Doug Lockwood. The timing was perfect because Lockwood was able to dictate a blow-by-blow account of what was happening in the struggles at the airport between Mrs Petrov and her Russian bodyguards. Lockwood asked Hooper to hang on and came back simply to say “She’s decided to stay”. The phone line to Darwin was lost soon after, but those four words were enough for a world exclusive.
From his Reuters days – not least his Hitler scoop – Hooper realised the value of communications. It was his vision that laid the groundwork for AAP’s development to the point where it had the most sophisticated private communications network in Australia, with the know-how to establish successful offshoots like AAP Communications Services and later the telephone company AAPT. Younger journalists who worked in AAP’s Sydney newsroom in the 1960s and 70s remember Hooper as a gruff, rather fearsome figure, with a his favourite pipe permanently clamped between his teeth. Older Colleagues respected his strong moral and ethical values and foresight about technology. According to his daughter Christine, who lives in Melbourne, he was entirely different at home. “He was a generous and loving father and he and my mother Elsie remained extremely close throughout their lives,” she said. “I wouldn’t like to think he is judged on how he was towards the end of his career, when I think the stresses of the job had absolutely worn him out.”
Hooper was made an OBE in 1968 for services to journalism and in 1971 was appointed AAP’s General Manager. He retired in 1977, handing over to another Reuters man Lee Casey, who became the company’s first CEO.
Born in London on 6 February, 1912, Duncan Percy Hooper died of abdominal of cancer in Geelong on November 1, 1990, aged 78. he day before he died, Hooper telephoned friends around the world to tell them he was on his final paragraph. He even scooped The Grim Reaper.
He was one of the most important administrators in Australian journalism history, but his reporter’s eye was just as vivid a legacy. Here is one of his reminiscences about Russia at war’s end : “In a bomb and shell-battered square in Kharkov, on a grey winter’s morning and under a sky heavy with snow, three Germans in immaculate uniforms did a dance of death from gibbets flanked by Red Army men and watched by a huge crowd. All three men had a long record as killers and torturers and their bodies were still swinging in the wind from the steppes as we left Moscow a few hours later.”
John Coomber was AAP's fourth Editor, holding the position between 1996 and 2004. He is now Training Editor. This tribute is adapted from an article that first appeared in 2010 in The Wire, which marked the 75th anniversary of Australian Associated Press. It also draws on a memoir, Duncan Hooper: A Newsman's Life, collated by Hooper's son-in-law Ian Marshall.
Nazi leaders Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels: Hooper scooped his colleagues on their deaths
Mrs Petrov struggles with Soviet security men at Sydney airport.
Duncan Hooper: A Newsman's Life, Ian Marshall, Victoria Enterprise Press, Balwyn, 1999.