1925-2015 | VIC | Reporter, War Correspondent, Editor
Harry Gordon of The Sun News Pictorial and Graham Perkin of The Age were the outstanding editors during a period that was the golden era of the printed version of newspapers in Victoria. In the early 1970s, Victorians were buying 1.4 million newspapers a day, or two for every three adults in the State; forty years later there was one sold for every six adults.
Newspapers were supreme and very powerful. Television current affairs was in its infancy and there was little public affairs on radio. Futurology was a popular science at the time, but the internet never figured, not even in the most absurd predictions.
The newspapers had the power to make and unmake governments. The Sun and its afternoon sister paper The Herald had enormous reach and The Age had great influence amongst its opinion-shaping readership. One survey rated The Age the most influential institution in Melbourne and its editor the most influential individual.
But it was Harry Gordon and The Sun who triggered perhaps the most important social policy change in Victoria of the second half of the 20th century with “Declare War on 1034”, a relentless campaign to change community attitudes to the road toll. It began with a Harry Gordon editorial: “We, as a community have developed a strange and unattractive talent: we accept as normal a rate of road slaughter that is the worst in the world. On Monday mornings, after each weekend’s lunatic harvest is counted, the same sincere adjectives are paraded by the same sincere people…”
Harry threw all of his best reporters, writers, cartoonists and photographers into the campaign. At Red Cliffs, 1034 people were persuaded to lie down on a football ground and be photographed from a crane to show what the annual road toll looked like. He enlisted the hotel industry and the TAB to place posters in all hotels and betting agencies. Then road toll barometers went on display on VFL scoreboards, the Royal Show and the Melbourne Cup. Then Harry teamed up with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons which was lobbying – unsuccessfully – for Victoria to introduce seat belt legislation. The Sun coverage gave the State Government the political will to become the first jurisdiction in the world to introduce compulsory seat belts. Then came a series of follow-up laws on blood alcohol testing, random breath testing, speed limits and other road safety measures. The road toll plummeted even faster than newspaper sales and 40 years after the campaign began the annual toll was less than one third of 1034.
While 1034 may have been the most successful newspaper campaign of the 20th century, Harry’s seven-decade career is studded with excellence and leadership. Born in Melbourne and educated at Melbourne High where he was the school’s middleweight boxing champion, he began his newspaper career as a copy boy on The Sydney Telegraph in the company with Les Tanner, Phillip Knightley and Jack Pollard. He was a frontline reporter in the Korean War, the youngest war correspondent of that war. In 1952, he was sent to the Helsinki Olympics where he began his Olympic marathon of 60 years as a Games reporter, author and historian, which earned him the Australian Olympic Committee’s highest individual honour, the Order of Merit (1999) and the International Olympic Committee’s highest award, the Olympic Order (2001). In 2006 he became the second recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the International Society of Olympic Historians.
Harry’s career at The Sun began in 1949. He worked as a general reporter, sportswriter, columnist, foreign correspondent. He spent 18 years as a newspaper editor in the Herald & Weekly Times group in Melbourne and Queensland. He is the author of 15 books, including the award-winning Eyewitness History of Australia. In 1981 he was awarded the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) for services to journalism and in 1991 an Order of Australia (AM). He received the inaugural Lifetime Achievement in Sports Journalism from the Australian Sports Commission.
Above all, he was a sweet writer. After 38 years, he left the Herald and Weekly Times in 1987 and spent the next five years as contributing editor for Time Australia. For 15 years he was a contributor for The New York Times Magazine where one of his pieces on tennis champion Arthur Ashe found its way into an anthology of best sports writing.
He mentored many fine journalists including Keith Dunstan, John Hamilton, Robert Haupt, Terry McCrann, Michael Gawenda and Bob Cronin. Gawenda has written: “I would argue that The Sun under Harry Gordon was one of the world’s great tabloids, with some of the best reporters in the business”. Gordon once overlooked many senior journalists when he took a punt on an unknown 22-year-old and sent him to Canberra to write simply about politics; his name was Laurie Oakes.
Gordon and Perkin were fierce competitors in the 1970s, but they had enormous respect for each other, and acknowledged each other’s landmarks. Congratulatory notes, even bottles of champagne, were swapped on occasion. Such a gesture (plus a generous editorial) came from Perkin after Gordon declined to offer an apology to Parliament after being wrongly charged in parliament (along with Douglas Wilkie) with a breach of parliamentary privilege, and again when Gordon’s retirement as editor was announced. Another note came after Peter Game secured an interview that blew open the Loans Affair that brought down the Whitlam government. Once Gordon, during a vice-regal presentation for the 1034 campaign, took time out to praise The Age’s Minus Children campaign.
The relationship was not always harmonious, though. Once, when The Sun obtained an exclusive picture of a class of schoolchildren kidnapped at Faraday, Perkin phoned asking for a copy of the picture of the full class. Gordon said no, he’d send to The Age a picture of just one child. Perkin exploded, then reacted by re-photographing the class picture which appeared in The Sun’s first edition and plastering it across The Age’s front page. “He did a superb job,” Gordon said in a National Library tribute after Perkin’s death. “I’d love to think I’d have reacted just as aggressively and professionally if our roles had been reversed.”
Michael Smith was Editor of The Age from 1989 to 1992. He is a Life Member of the Melbourne Press Club and chair of the advisory panel for the Australian Media Hall of Fame.
Harry Gordon wrestles with his typewriter opposite Ronald Monson of the Daily Telegraph, Korea. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.
The Sun's 'Declare War on 1034' campaign.
'Harry Gordon dies aged 89', Andrew Rule, Herald Sun, January 22, 2015.
Interview with Harry Gordon, Conversations with Richard Fidler, ABC website.