1929-1975 | VIC | Editor
Perkin was the editorial dynamo who awoke The Age from nearly half a century of provincial mediocrity to create one of the 12 greatest newspapers in the world (Martin Walker, Powers of the Press). A generation of journalists were inspired by his leadership during his nine-year editorship from 1966. He established the Insight team which exposed corruption by public officials. He campaigned for the rights of children, people with disabilities and indigenous Australians. He appointed Australia's first environment reporter, expanded foreign coverage and assembled an outstanding stable of cartoonists. He fought vigorously for media freedoms while insisting on better professional standards and accountability, introducing a We Were Wrong column to explain and apologise for the paper's mistakes.
On October 14, 1975, Graham Perkin, editor of The Age, wrote an editorial for the next day’s paper. The heading was “Go now, go decently”.
The Age had supported the election of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party in 1972, but now he wrote: “We will say it straight, and clear and at once: The Whitlam Government has run its course; it must go now, and preferably by the honorable course of resignation ...”
On October 16, Gough Whitlam issued a press statement: “I knew Graham Perkin well and was shocked and saddened to hear of his death. He was an outstanding journalist and a brilliant editor whose integrity and professionalism and extraordinary capacity for work made The Age one of the great newspapers of the world. Australian journalism can ill- afford the loss of a man of his ability and independence of mind.” There is no doubt about Whitlam’s sincerity. Perkin had a presence which commanded and demanded respect. He became editor of The Age in 1966 and took the paper back to its 19th Century roots when it was the ‘Australian Thunderer’, savaging colonial governors, defending the Eureka Stockade rebels, calling for the birth of a democratic republic; Perkin reinvented, revitalised and modernised The Age. His independence of mind and his belief in editorial independence led inevitably to conflict with his proprietors. His extraordinary capacity for work contributed to his early death at the age of 45.
Edwin Graham Perkin was born on December 16, 1929 in country Victoria. His father, Herbert Edwin Perkin, was the baker in the small township of Beulah, a dot on the broad sweep of the Mallee where farmers fought the biblical enemies of flood, drought, locust swarms and mice plagues. But it was boy heaven: ferreting, fishing and free roaming. Here Perkin’s values were formed. In Ben Hills’s biography Breaking News: The golden age of Graham Perkin, essential reading, the portrait is of a young boy learning dedication and habits of hard work from his father, dressed in tiny white apron and hat, four years old and standing on a stool to knead dough. From his deeply religious mother there was an infusion of concern for social justice and of Methodism, though he would in adulthood ignore with damaging enthusiasm strictures against smoking and drinking. He gave up the habit of Sunday church-going.
When Graham was 11, the Perkin family moved to the larger town of Warracknabeal, solidly prosperous and proudly rural: there are street statues of a kelpie herding sheep and a dog sitting on bales of wool. In Warracknabeal Perkin, high school student, got his first taste of journalism. The Warracknabeal Herald, a bi-weekly published since 1885, served the community with and survived on a staple diet of local council and rotary club meetings, weather vagaries and sporting contests. Perkin was not paid, which did not mean that he worked for nothing. He got what he wanted: a thick sheaf of cuttings.
Perkin dabbled unsuccessfully in law at Melbourne University then in 1949 submitted his cuttings to The Age. Addicted to adrenalin and fiercely competitive, he soon began his rise and rise. The Warracknabeal boy went into the wide world in 1955 on a one-year Kemsley journalism scholarship to London. He returned to report Canberra politics and write features of controlled passion and anger. He began his Walkley Award-winning story of open heart surgery in 1959: “An exposed human heart is dark red and filled with inhuman independence. It throbs in the open chest, contorts itself in formless movement and beats out the rhythm of life.”
By 1964, he was assistant editor to Keith Sinclair. The Age then needed to change. It was in genteel decline. Sinclair was a good editor and did not reveal himself to many of the staff. A coat was required to take part in the editorial page conference and until Perkin’s elevation, sub-editors, good craftsmen though they were, shaped a stolid newspaper that was losing relevance.
The Age needed Perkin and Perkin and The Age needed Ranald Macdonald, great grandson of David Syme. In 1856, Syme injected funds into The Age, which had become insolvent despite the brilliant editorship of his brother Ebenezer. David Syme made The Age his vehicle for 40 years. It became profitable and it was relentlessly pugnacious on Syme’s varied causes.
Macdonald was a Cambridge graduate, man of principle, golfer, gambler and later subject to enthusiasms which ricocheted him from project to project, some with bad financial consequences. He became managing director in 1964, aged 26. Two years later he appointed Perkin editor. Perkin was then 36. They were an odd couple, but it was a symbiotic relationship, Macdonald as patron and protector, Perkin building The Age’s circulation and power. As spur for them, and a worthy competitor, was Rupert Murdoch’s new paper, The Australian, under the editorship of Adrian Deamer.
When Perkin took the chair, he transformed the newspaper physically and in detail, changing the typography, modernising the masthead, expanding the features section and the space for foreign news. In an article he told the readers of The Age what he was about:
We are trying to produce a different kind of newspaper, a popular paper of great quality and breadth. Our paper will look at the whole world, at all people. It will attempt to spread understanding and encourage decency, discourage inhumanity and attack prejudice. “Will it sell papers?” will be one test, but not the only test we apply to editing tomorrow’s paper. We believe there are stories that people OUGHT to read, even if they are stories they might not WANT to read ...
As editor-in-waiting, Perkin had recruited young journalists from around Australia. He now established an incomparable stable of cartoonist and illustrators: Les Tanner, Bruce Petty, Michael Leunig, Ron Tandberg, Peter Nicholson and John Spooner. He built an investigative team around Ben Hills to expose police, political and financial corruption. It was a great period to be an innovative and crusading editor: the times were changing, socially and politically. Melbourne, the home city, once a roaring town, was breaking out of a chrysalis of stodginess. The migrant-inspired food revolution was beginning and the year Perkin became editor the uncivilised 6 o’clock swill ended. The Age’s Epicure section caught and exploited the mood. Less than two months after Perkin became editor, Labor, which under Arthur Calwell had come within a seat of victory, was buried under a 41-seat Liberal-Country Party landslide. From the rubble strode Gough Whitlam who would take his party and the nation on a wild ride after the long years of conservative rule.
There were critics who labelled The Age “the Spencer Street Soviet”, but Perkin was no radical. He was driven, however, by a sense of social justice and injustice: the Minus Children campaign was a sustained attack on the shameful treatment of the disabled; there was ground-breaking support for Aboriginal land rights as a necessary, though not sufficient, measure in the recognition and the remedying of the violent dispossession.
Dominating the nation’s political and emotional life during the Perkin editorship was the Vietnam War. When Australia’s involvement was announced in 1965, The Australian opposed it: “It is wrong because Australia’s contingent can have only insignificant military value, because it will be purely a political pawn in a situation for which Australia has no responsibility whatsoever.” The Age gave simplistic support, saying: “There was no alternative but to respond as we have.” Perkin’s Age continued this support, suggesting during a 1966 visit by American President Lyndon Johnson that Australians were not split on the issue, but “basically all the way with LBJ”. However Perkin – and this was the mark of his journalism – the next year went to Vietnam, returning to write that the war was a moral trauma and that great mistakes had been made. He did not come out against the war. In May 1970, undoubtedly in part reflecting the tide of public opinion, he slapped down his friend, Liberal Minister Billy Snedden, for describing Moratorium organisers as political bikies pack-raping democracy. “The marchers,” The Age said, “showed their concern for human agony ... they renewed democracy rather than raped it.”
Perkin in 1974 faced the reality of the balance of power between proprietors and editor. He lost a battle over his intention to support the re-election of the Whitlam Government. Hills reports that at the time of Perkin’s death he was poised to leave The Age and the editor’s chair for the top corporate job in Fairfax as managing director. Perhaps he would have better shaped the response to the coming digital revolution. His natural habitat, however, seemed to be the newsroom. He was a primal force, enthusing, admonishing with his trademark shout of “Jesus chap!”, creating excitement and an exciting newspaper. His death spread grief; his fitting epitaph came from sports editor David Austin who told Hills “it was almost like batting with Bradman when you were with him”.
Cameron Forbes was a leader writer, foreign editor and foreign correspondent. He has won the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year award and the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism.
Graham Perkin with staff from The Age.
Graham Perkin outside 10 Downing Street.
Breaking News: The Golden Age of Graham Perkin, Ben Hills, Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2010.
'Perkin, Edwin Graham (1929-1975)', Creighton Burns, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, Melbourne 2000.