1911-1977 | Canberra | Political Reporter
Don Whitington was a leading member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery as bureau chief of the Daily Telegraph in the early 1940s. Frank Packer sacked him when he supported striking journalists and printers in Sydney. Whitington pioneered freelance journalism in the gallery, co-founded the influential newsletter Inside Canberra and co-founded the NT News and Mt Isa Mail, both later sold to the Murdoch group
When Bertram Lindon ‘Don’ Whitngton died after a long illness in 1977, Labor leader Gough Whitlam issued a statement saying Australia had lost one of its most distinguished political journalists and authors and one of Canberra’s most respected and popular personalities. Whitlam finished his statement by declaring that Whitington pioneered freelance journalism as a valuable alternative to the established system of employment for political journalists.
Whitington had been an outstanding Canberra correspondent for the Sydney Daily Telegraph when he was sacked by proprietor Frank Packer in 1944 for supporting striking printers and journalists in a Sydney industrial dispute.
It was virtually impossible for a political journalist to operate in Canberra without being attached to a major news organisation. Whitington’s reputation and contacts were strong enough for him to survive by writing feature articles as a contributor to the Sunday Telegraph and other publications.
Then, three years after his sacking, Whitington formed a partnership with Eric White, who had just resigned as the Liberal Party’s foundation publicity officer after taking some of the blame for the party’s 1946 election defeat.
Whitington knew nothing about public relations and White knew nothing about news reporting. But together they launched Inside Canberra, the first and most successful political newsletter in Australia. It became compulsory reading for political journalists who often followed up its scoops from the political scene and the bureaucracy. Curiously, it was established with the help of a loan from Packer, who was close to White even though he had sacked Whitington.
Whitington and White followed Inside Canberra with other newsletters, including Money Matters and the monthly Canberra Survey. Inside Canberra was still being published 70 years later, although by then it had lost much of its clout.
The Whitington-White partnership allowed them to pursue their own interests while combining when it made sense. White pursued public relations contracts from government projects while Whitington planned his “Darwin project.”
In the 1940s, the Federal Government in Canberra was concerned that the only newspaper in Darwin, the union-owned Northern Standard, was communist-leaning and a threat to the loyalty and morale of the population during wartime. In 1949, the Chifley Labor Government approached Whitington to start a Darwin newspaper after being impressed by the non-partisan approach of Inside Canberra.
The deal lapsed when Canberra could not meet Whitington’s conditions which included access to the Standard’s printing equipment after the existing paper was banned under the proposed legislation banning the Communist Party.
Two years later, in 1951, the new Menzies Government offered travel by the government-owned airline and accommodation for the new newspaper and the NT News was born on 8 February 1952.
Newspaper historian Rod Kirkpatrick recorded that Whitington wrote that no newspaper had been launched in more unlikely circumstances: “ Inspired by a senior public servant who was virtually exiled from Australia after a change of government, financed largely by Chinese and produced in a ramshackle tin shed in Darwin reserved at that time exclusively for the Royal Australian Navy, it was an immediate success, due largely to the death in England of King George VI.”
On day one, the King’s death saved the paper on a slow news day as the staff cobbled together the story from radio broadcasts and background. The rival Standard was not banned; it struggled on for three years and closed in 1955.
A year after the NT News launch, White – who had been cool on the Darwin project – was keen to start a newspaper in Mt Isa at the urging of one of his clients, Mount Isa Mines. The team launched the Mount Isa Mail on 26 June 1953 and then bought the nearby Cloncurry Advocate, which was incorporated into the Mount Isa paper.
Seven years later, the Darwin and Mount Isa papers were sold to Rupert Murdoch. In his biography of Murdoch, William Shawcross wrote: “The purchase of the Northern Territory News in Darwin was typical of the way Murdoch did business….Murdoch zigzagged his way up the country by DC-3. He bounced into town and haggled for the Northern Territory News with the owner, Sir Eric White, who recalled later that they had quite a night of it.”
White said Murdoch did not say yes, no or maybe but talked about everything under the sun. White had to catch an early morning flight and went to bed thinking Murdoch was cool on the deal, temperamental or teasing him. At Darwin airport next morning, Murdoch was waiting for White on the tarmac with a grin on his face and a piece of paper signing off on the deal.
The sale of the papers ended the association between Whitington and White. Whitington established Australian Press Services and continued to publish newsletters.
He wrote a series of books on politics, several novels and a play. His unfinished autobiography, Strive to be Fair, was to be published in 1978. Colleague Bob Walker said Whitington was born with the 3-H factor – humour, humanity and humility.
Among his listed recreations were carousing and Australian Rules football. Following his death, a group of senior editors and journalists began an annual Don Whitington launch on Grand Final Eve to yarn about the passions they shared with Whitington - politics, football, history, food and good wine. In 2015, it was renamed the Harry Gordon lunch so younger participants could remember another Hall of Famer with similar passions who died earlier that year.
Michael Smith was editor of The Age from 1989 to 1992 and Group Executive Editor of Fairfax from 1992 to 1994. He is chair of the Advisory Panel for the Australian Media Hall of Fame and a life member of the Melbourne Press Club.
Don Whitington at aged 19. From Strive to be Fair: An unfinished autobiography
From Strive to be Fair: An unfinished autobiography
Don Whitington dressed to report from a down-and-out boarding house. From Strive to be Fair: An unfinished autobiography
Letter of recommendation from Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. From Strive to be Fair: An unfinished autobiography
‘Whitington, Bertram Lindon (Don) (1911–1977)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, John Farquharson, MUP, 2002
How a Communist rag in Darwin became a Newspaper for Mount Isa, Rod Kirkpatrick, PANPA Bulletin, June 2005, pp56-7
Whitington papers, National Library of Australia