1938 - 2020 | NSW | Correspondent & political columnist
Alan Ramsey started his journalism career in 1953 and was a seasoned reporter in 1965 when he accompanied Australian troops to Vietnam, where his fearless reporting irritated military authorities. He joined the Canberra press gallery in 1966 and brought the same boldness to his reporting of politics, famously shouting ‘You liar’ at Prime Minister Gorton from the gallery. He was deputy editor of The Australian from 1969-71 and in 1987 started a 22-year stint as a weekly political columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald. His trenchant and curmudgeonly criticism of governments of all colours and politicians of all persuasions earned him a must-read status.
Journalism was Alan Ramsey’s life and he honoured it with fearless passion and uncompromising commitment. Ramsey knew the indispensable rule: make sure you are compulsory reading. He didn’t much care whether people loved him or hated him – each category was over-subscribed – but Ramsey’s journalism meant nobody could survive to lunchtime without having read his column. For 50 years he stalked the halls of power driven by a compulsion - to expose self-interest in the public interest.
He saw politics as a struggle of personalities engaged in endless combat. He brought politicians to vivid, pulsating life, since his focus was political character and the intoxicating spell of power. He wrote with insight and anger about human frailty and the egregious, hypocritical, funny and uplifting sides of political life. His imprint is all over political coverage of his times.
Ramsey’s story is the realisation of a young boy’s dream. The boy was fascinated by the 1950s Australian radio broadcasts of the NBC Nightbeat series featuring the fictional reporter, Randy Stone, a tough journalist with a good heart. Born at Hornsby, Sydney, on 3 January 1938, Ramsey lived with his family at Bronte and Newtown, then near Tuggerah Lakes before settling at Gosford on the central coast. “My great ambition was to cover the night beat,” he said.
At the end of primary school, aged about 12, he persuaded his mother to take him to the Telegraph office in Sydney where they met a news executive. “I wanted to know what I had to do to become a journalist,” Ramsey said. “The message was: come back when you’re 15 years old after you’ve done your intermediate certificate.” Three years later, he began as a copy boy. One of the first people he met was a young Peter Bowers, later an illustrious Sydney Morning Herald journalist. “You’ve got a shit job,” Bowers told him. “Prove you can stick at it and you’ll make it.”
Ramsey seized the chance for a cadetship on the Mount Isa Mail where he was virtually the only reporter covering courts, local events and the miners. After a stint on the Northern Territory News based in Darwin he broke into metropolitan newspapers in 1956 with a job on the Sydney Sun as a ‘D’ grade journalist. This included the midnight to 8 am round, in the car with a driver and photographer, tuned into the police radio. The night beat dream had come true. The young Ramsey met the young Max Walsh doing a similar job for the Daily Mirror.
Keen to work overseas, Ramsey joined AAP and was posted to Port Moresby for 18 months before getting the prized London appointment during from 1960 to 1964. “Everything seemed to happen while I was in London, it was magic,” he said. The world was changing as the Kennedy vibrations transmitted around the globe. After London, Ramsey was one of five reporters and photographers who travelled aboard HMAS Sydney to South Vietnam with 1RAR on the initial deployment of Australian troops where the unit was located at Bien Hoa air base.
Ramsey and SMH photographer, Stuart McGladrie, were the only correspondents living on the base in a tent – yet he was banned after a few months. After a search-and-destroy mission where a female Viet Cong “suspect” had been shot, Ramsey interviewed two soldiers and quoted one describing the action. Army Minister Jim Forbes said he had “committed a breach of security.” An AAP executive, Norman Macswan, was sent to investigate the issue and his report persuaded the board to fight the ban. Ramsey was reinstated, returned to his tent but was subsequently recalled.
The turning point in his career came in late 1965 when Peter Smark asked Ramsey to join The Australian newspaper, recently launched by Rupert Murdoch. He seized the opportunity, arriving just in time for the farewell dinner for Sir Robert Menzies.
As a 28 year old who had seen a lot of life, Ramsey became a formidable presence with his sharp pen and tough-minded journalism. He thrived in a remarkable partnership with Adrian Deamer, the paper’s editor. “Adrian was never a Murdoch person, he was too independent,” Ramsey said. Among the politicians Ramsey became a friend of were Menzies’ successor Andrew Peacock and his wife, Susan, and the bright former Queensland policeman Bill Hayden. Ramsey served in Sydney as Deamer’s deputy before returning to Canberra after Deamer was sacked as editor.
In March 1971, Ramsey published a sensational story, the biggest of his career, saying the head of Army, Sir Thomas Daly, in a conversation with Prime Minister John Gorton had accused Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser of extreme disloyalty to the Army and its minister, Andrew Peacock. Ramsey had put the story to Gorton before publication and it had not been denied. The upshot within days was a crisis between Gorton and Fraser, Fraser’s resignation and Gorton’s fall as PM. During the showdown on the floor of parliament, an angry Ramsey interjected on Gorton shouting “you liar” before a startled House, an insight into his fiery temperament.
In late 1973, Ramsey was forced out of The Australian as it changed its political orientation. He was told to transfer to the Sunday Telegraph and refused: “I told them I worked for The Australian. I wasn’t switching. Can you believe they sacked me for refusal of duty?” He was furious but politics was in his blood. He remained in a press gallery freelancing until Hayden became Labor leader and offered him a job. Ramsey said of those years: “You learn about politics from the inside, about the bastardry and how self-interest is so dominant. Why should anyone be surprised?”
The next turning point was the offer from the Sydney Morning Herald to become their prized Saturday political columnist, a position Ramsey held for 21 years and for which he is most remembered, spanning four prime ministers and eight federal elections. His weekly judgments were harsh and acerbic, critical of Hawke, supportive of Keating, hostile to Howard. Yet Ramsey’s anger was punctuated by tragic comedy. He saw the funny side of human nature and his deep laugh would ring down the corridors as he told yet another anecdote of human folly.
Ramsey travelled to Melbourne, lunched with Fraser and told him the source of the shattering 1971 story – it had been Susan Peacock to whom Daly had confided. After his retirement in 2008 a remarkable dinner was held in his tribute at Old Parliament House, a gathering of ageing political and media warriors, friends and enemies.
Alan was unique, often too honest and fierce for his own good. His insights were sharp and his columns became a long study in the interaction of politics and human nature. He generated fear and respect among politicians and was recognised for his unrivalled possession of that indispensable journalistic virtue – courage.
Paul Kelly is editor-at-large on The Australian. He has written about politics and public policy for more than 45 years and has known Alan Ramsey for most of this time.
Courtesy of News Corp
The Way They Were, Alan Ramsey, University of NSW, 2011
A Matter of Opinion, Alan Ramsey, Allen & Unwin, 2009