1892-1983 | ACT | Political Correspondent
Joe Alexander was the first influential Canberra political correspondent in Australia after the establishment of the nation’s ”bush capital”. Appointed by Keith Murdoch, then indisputably the nation’s foremost Press baron, Alexander accelerated the downfall of the Scullin Government in 1931 after he published leaked cables revealing a split in the Labor caucus. Alexander became the first Australian journalist banned from entering the House of Representatives. Scullin was succeeded as PM by Murdoch favourite Joe Lyons, who led a coalition between the United Australia Party and the Country Party. Alexander enjoyed inside information from senior ministers and public servants.
Joseph Aloysius “Joe” Alexander emerged quickly as one of the brightest stars of Australian political journalism after his arrival in Canberra as the Melbourne Herald correspondent in 1929. Aged 37, and fiercely ambitious, he was Keith Murdoch’s new man in the new national capital during a tumultuous era in Australian politics.
On both left and right, national politics was wracked by crisis, disunity and scandal as powerful personalities struggled for personal and policy control; the economy was heading towards depression and mass unemployment as international prosperity evaporated; militarised fascist and Marxist movements were starting to worry democracies everywhere.
Within two years, Joe Alexander had broken the story that established his reputation. In March 1931 he reported the contents of secret cables sent from London by Australia’s beleaguered Prime Minister James Scullin to his deputy in Australia, J.E. Fenton, discussing Caucus divisions and disloyalty. Alexander’s story gravely damaged Scullin’s Labor government and prompted him to crow later in his diary: “Everyone is saying at Canberra that I have put [Joseph] Lyons in as Prime Minister. It is more than half true”.1 Alexander was temporarily banned from the House of Representatives for refusing to reveal the source of the documents, but he had positioned himself for a stellar career that was to last until his retirement in 1957.
Plump and bespectacled, Alexander became the pre-eminent reporter of the frenetic politics of the Depression years, the confidante and scourge of politicians and colleagues who admired and feared him. During the war years that followed, Prime Minister John Curtin trusted Alexander with the deepest war secrets and gave him exclusive first use of his famous speech declaring Australia’s turn from Britain to the United States for its ultimate security guarantees. He later undertook diplomatic missions for Curtin, including a posting to Moscow in 1944, and successfully edited Who’s Who In Australia.
Melbourne-born Joe Alexander was the son of Roman Catholic parents and was raised mainly in Burnie, Tasmania. He attended St Patrick’s College, East Melbourne, from 1905 to 1907, when family poverty forced his return to Tasmania. From the age of 15 he seems to have been largely self-educated and focussed on a career in journalism.
Alexander worked initially on newspapers in Burnie and Launceston before moving to Melbourne where he was hired by Keith Murdoch’s Herald and Weekly Times in 1925. Obsessively hard-working, he flourished under Murdoch’s patronage.
The late Professor Clem Lloyd, in a perceptive 2001 article, called Alexander “the prince of the Press Gallery” and Murdoch’s “Canberra listening post and occasional assassin”. Certainly Alexander was one of the more intriguing and complex characters in journalism.
Despite his provincial colonial background and limited formal education, Joe Alexander matured into an internationalist with strong views on global affairs during the Depression and later as Hitler’s aggression intensified. He had a lifelong interest in Russian culture and language, which he learned to speak, although he loathed the communist system. Despite his Irish Catholic background, he was deeply moved by the byzantine beauty of Russian Orthodox worship and was instrumental in the development of Canberra’s Orthodox Cathedral. He would eventually be buried in an Orthodox funeral.
Like other senior correspondents in the small press gallery of the 1930s, Alexander enjoyed the patronage of a powerful proprietor and was as much a participant as a reporter and observer of the political game. Nevertheless, he disagreed sharply with Keith Murdoch when Murdoch attacked wartime Prime Minister Curtin for defying Churchill by insisting that Australian troops be brought home from the Middle East to defend Australia from the Japanese threat. He was also appalled when Lyons, the fellow Tasmanian who he had helped to become prime minister in 1932, adopted an appeasement posture towards Hitler as war approached.
Alexander’s famous scoop in 1931 unquestionably helped to pave the way for Labor defector Lyons and the new centre-right United Australia Party to assume power as the Depression deepened. Alexander suggested to Murdoch that he should back Lyons for Prime Minister. He arranged for Lyons and Murdoch to meet at the Murdoch family property outside Melbourne and he attended their meetings.
But Alexander’s advice to Murdoch did not seem grounded in any reflexive hostility to Labor. It was rather his pragmatic assessment (right or wrong) of who would best manage the crises then wracking Australia. In taped interviews for the National Library, Alexander repeatedly declared his admiration for Labor’s Curtin as Australia’s greatest prime minister. He was part of the so-called Travelling Circus of journalists in whom Curtin confided the deepest wartime secrets (which, of course, he passed on to Murdoch).
Alexander also admired former conservative Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce for persuading British interests to reduce interest rates on Australian debt, and for his leadership of the World Health Organisation. By contrast, he loathed the imperious Robert Menzies, a journalist-hater who refused to give him a job.
Eventually Curtin agreed to send Alexander to the Australian Embassy in Moscow as first secretary (information). Alexander resigned from HWT to take the job and served from 1944-1947. He acknowledged the Soviet wartime sacrifice but despised the Soviet refusal to acknowledge Western military aid.
Alexander recalled that early in World War Two he personally advised a shocked Menzies, then Prime Minister, of the non-aggression pact signed by the Soviet Union and Hitler and of the Nazi invasion of Norway. He received news of these events from the Herald’s London bureau while the British Foreign Office and the Australian High Commission apparently were asleep at the wheel. At least for Menzies, the disclosures were even more momentous than the leaked 1931 cables scoop.
After the war, Alexander’s star faded with advancing age and the hostility of the resurrected and triumphant Menzies. But he edited Who’s Who with characteristic professionalism, eventually retiring to Queensland with his wife. He died aged 91, his remarkable journalistic career deservedly past forgetting.
1. Warren Denning, Alexander’s distinguished contemporary and competitor, apparently did not share this view. In his book Caucus Crisis: The Rise and Fall of the Scullin Government, the first book to be published by a Canberra press gallery journalist, Denning mentioned neither Alexander nor the leaked Cables story, although he wrote that “any semblance of order and authority which remained in the party rapidly disappeared” after Scullin left for the UK, and noted that Scullin and Fenton engaged in long and desperate radio telephone conversations.
Geoffrey Barker is a retired former national political commentator, defence and foreign affairs correspondent, Washington and London correspondent and visiting fellow at the Strategic Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.
Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, April 1933. Alexander is standing front and centre. Courtesy of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery.
Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, December 1934. Alexander is standing in the front row, four from the right. Courtesy of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery.
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. Former journalist John Curtin meets the Canberra Press Gallery. (Known as The Circus) C.1945. JCPML00376/2. (Joe Alexander is standing, third from the right.)
Cartoon of Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery members, Canberra, March 1936. Courtesy of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery.
Alexander, Joseph Aloysius (Joe), Stephen Holt, Australian Dictionary of Biography Volume 17, MUP,2007
Joseph Aloysius Alexander, Patricia Clark, Canberra Historical Journal, No 79, September 2017