Evan Whitton

1928 -      |    NSW    |    Investigative journalist

Evan Whitton was one of the outstanding reporters of the second half of the 20th century, principally for Melbourne Truth, The National Times and the Sydney Morning Herald. He pioneered aspects of the so-called American “New Journalism” that used long narratives, detail and literary techniques to tell stories. He was an outstanding newsbreaker, triggering a Board of Inquiry with his exposure of corrupt Victorian police in the abortion industry. This led to Victoria becoming the first State to decriminalise abortion. Whitton won five Walkleys. He also won the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award for his penetrating reporting of the Street Royal Commission.

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Biography

Evan Whitton

By ALEX MITCHELL

In December 1969, Truth newspaper, a Melbourne-based tearaway tabloid, hit the streets with a front-page sensation implicating Victorian detectives in an illegal abortion ring, complete with transcripts of incriminating tape recordings.

Masking her excitement, Mrs Peggy Berman, a receptionist with leading gynaecologist Dr James Troup, secretly taped a conversation with Melbourne Detective Inspector Jack Ford which was later played in court. Mrs Berman can be heard asking the corrupt officer in all innocence: “What does it [Truth] say?” And Ford’s rasping reply: “WE PAID OFF THE COPS by Evan Whitton. Fucking mongrel bastard.”

This would not be the first – nor the last – occasion when crooked cops, politicians, lawyers and judges would heap private and public abuse on Evan Whitton. He didn’t mind. According to Whitton’s first principle of journalism, if he wasn’t being vilified or menaced by someone in authority, he wasn’t doing his job properly. Whitton was the epitome of “old school” gumshoe reporting and eye-witness observation; he worked the cafes, pubs, clubs, watch-houses and courthouses chatting, listening and taking notes.

His network of contacts stretched from the corridors of political power to the overnight drunk parade in police cells. He didn’t romanticise his profession either, once remarking: “The way of the reporter is hard. He’s out there, tireless feet crunching in the gravel, and never a kind word from anyone.”

Born in Toowoomba, Queensland, Whitton attended Downlands College, a Catholic day and boarding school before joining a Brisbane newspaper as a cadet. His real training began when he joined Solly Chandler’s Truth in Melbourne in January 1966 to write about the corrupt underbelly of Victoria during the Liberal premiership of “Hanging” Henry Bolte and his deputy, Sir Arthur Rylah.

When invited to join John Fairfax & Sons in Sydney, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Longer pieces in the serious-minded press were closer to Whitton’s ambition and he relished his new role at The National Times in the 1970s and The Sydney Morning Herald in the 1980s. As he once remarked: “In journalism, the trick is to find yourself at the right paper and at the right time.” He always did.

Whitton’s output during those turbulent 20 years is prodigious and it has been faithfully catalogued for posterity on a website he created upon retirement. A Fairfax contemporary from that era, David Hickie, who later became editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald, described Whitton as “a formidable investigative journalist who insisted on forensic research and scrupulous fact-checking accuracy”. Hickie added: “His other great strength was setting an example to younger journalists like me on The National Times and mentoring us.

In 1973, Vic “The Sorcerer” Carroll, editor-in-chief of The National Times, came to the perverse conclusion that people wanted to forget the Vietnam war and he invited Whitton to “reopen the wound”. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam instructed a senior and trustworthy Foreign Affairs official to examine the diplomatic records and to brief Whitton.

The result was a stunning re-examination of Australia’s involvement. Whitton revealed that the architect of the Australian military commitment, Prime Minister Robert Menzies, believed that Chairman Mao’s China planned to invade Australia and that the Vietnamese would let Chinese soldiers march through Vietnam to get to Australia. “He was thus ignorant of a simple fact: Vietnam had been fighting off China for 2000 years,” said Whitton. Secondly, Whitton’s investigation exploded the myth that Menzies sent Australian forces as a loyal US ally whereas the fact was that he persuaded the US administration to take part.

Whitton’s exhaustive piece of research was published in April 1975 just as Saigon was about to fall to units of the National Liberation Front (NLF) led by General Van Tien Dong. Proprietor Sir Warwick Fairfax was outraged and, according to Whitton, “tried to sack everyone involved”. He failed.

Whitton’s career flourished not only as an investigative journalist, essayist, political commentator and occasional sports writer, but also as a prolific author. He won a Walkley Award for journalism on five occasions – 1967, 1970, 1973, 1974 and 1975.

He was named Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year in 1983 for “courage and innovation” in reporting the royal commission into Premier Neville Wran’s alleged misconduct. He described his coverage of the Fitzgerald enquiry into Queensland police and political corruption in the 1990s as “the biggest and most important story I ever worked on; the experience of a career”. In retirement he continued to write sparkling essays for Richard Ackland’s legal website, Justinian, that circulates among lawyers, journalists and academics.

Perhaps the most enduring testimony to Whitton’s career is the number of outstanding journalists whom he mentored: Paul Kelly, Andrew Clark, Anne Summers, Wendy Bacon, David Marr and Brian Toohey to name but a few. His other major legacy is that his carefully-catalogued work is full of wise advice for today’s journalists as well as tomorrow’s.

Alex Mitchell began his 50-year career as a cadet on The Townsville Daily Bulletin. As The Sun-Herald State Political Editor he was president of the NSW Parliamentary Press Gallery from 2001 to 2007.

 

Evan Whitton in 1998, courtesy of Fairfax.

 

Cover of Evan Whitton's The Hillbilly Dictator, published in 1989 by ABC Enterprises

 

 

 

Further reading

 

Amazing Scenes – Adventures of a Reptile of the Press, Evan Whitton, Fairfax Library, 1987.

 

Can of Worms II: A citizen’s reference book to crime and the administration of justice, Evan Whitton, Fairfax Library, 1987.