1941 - | Queensland | Journalist, War Correspondent & Author
Hugh Lunn was one of Australian journalism’s most versatile all-rounders. He won three Walkley Awards for feature writing, a national prize for one of his 16 books, covered the Vietnam War and the 1969 Indonesian takeover of western New Guinea for Reuters and campaigned for the preservation of Australian idiom in the face of American cultural influence. On Queensland’s 150th anniversary in 2009, Lunn was named a Queensland icon, alongside Geoffrey Rush, David Malouf, the Bee Gees and the Great Barrier Reef.
Hugh Lunn has in many ways led a fortunate life. To start with, he chose his parents well, selecting a famously ordinary family from the Brisbane suburb of Annerley Junction. He then went on to immortalise the extended Lunn household in his unlikely bestseller Over the Top with Jim. This love letter to 1940s and 50s Australian suburbia featured his improbable friendship with Russian immigrant Dima (Jim) Egoroff.
The book rapidly became the highest-selling Australian childhood memoir ever published, shifting hundreds of thousands of copies. Lunn’s Over the Top with Jim musical had a sell-out season at the first Brisbane Festival in 1996 in Hugh’s hometown, where his mum and dad, the inimitable Fred and Olive, had run their Lunns for Buns cake shop in the 1950s. The musical then toured Queensland. In the dirt underneath that shop, young Hughie would sort the empty soft-drink bottles, just as later he’d sort through his rich store of memories and stories to hone his feature writing skills.
Over the Top with Jim was followed by Head over Heels, the rollicking account of his days as a journalism apprentice.
Lunn’s long and stellar career began as a cadet on the Courier-Mail before he left for Hong Kong aged 23. Curious about communist China — which was, in the 1960s, as hostile to inquisitive Westerners as medieval Japan had once been — Hugh talked his way alone across the border despite being accused of “idle individualism”.
“You Australians are all poisonous weeds, fashion-conscious coffee-shop dwellers, and running dog lackeys of the Yankee Imperialist aggressors,” he was told. His memoir Spies Like Us is his entertaining account of these youthful adventures.
Kicked out of China and then Russia, Lunn landed on his feet in London where he found work on the London Daily Mirror before being sent to Vietnam in 1967. As a fledgling Reuters war correspondent, he witnessed the most bloody phase of the conflict, leading to the Viet Cong invasion of Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive when more than five hundred American soldiers died each week.
Standing outside America’s “Pentagon East”, Lunn watched American soldiers trying to re-capture their own heavily fortified embassy from the Viet Cong. He later labelled this “The Day the Vietnam War was lost”.
Bombed, shot at, and lied to by the US military, he also discovered that this was a war of words as well as bullets. Hugh’s father had once been a pastry cook in the mining city of Mount Isa, and his communist grandfather (also named Hugh) had spent two years in jail for political activism. Fred Lunn’s best advice to his son was that governments of all persuasions “will all kill you quick”. In Vietnam, reporters were killed in unprecedented numbers.
More than once, Lunn was caught in the dangerous crossfire but survived to pen his war memoir Vietnam: A Reporter’s War, which won the Age Book of the Year. The book not only vividly describes his frontline adventures but also traces his friendships with the legendary correspondent Jim Pringle and Reuters inside man Pham Ngoc Dinh. In a country “always too short of fortune-tellers”, Dinh accurately predicted the death of Hugh Lunn’s roommate and friend, 23-year-old Reuters reporter Bruce Pigott, from Melbourne. “Bruce not long live man,” Dinh warned Lunn.
After Vietnam, Lunn was posted to Indonesia where he and Dutch journalist Otto Kuyk were the only reporters to cover the entire six-week “Act of Free Choice” in West New Guinea to observe Indonesia’s takeover of 800,000 Papuans. The two reporters exposed the UN-overseen vote as a rort. Indonesia specially selected 125 men in each of the eight province capitals and, surrounded by Indonesian soldiers dressed as civilians, these men had to stand up and vote for Indonesian rule.
Lunn took photos of three men and a boy arrested for carrying a sign “ONE VOTE”. In one photograph, an Indonesian soldier punches a Papuan in the jaw while a policeman hits him on the head with a baton. In walks after midnight, the two reporters – who were followed everywhere in daylight – received letters soaked in blood and petitions for Papuan independence. Questions were asked in the UN but the world, including Australia, backed the result.
Back home, Lunn joined Rupert Murdoch’s Australian in 1971 where he worked until 1988 as “Rupert’s foreign correspondent in Queensland”. A series Hugh wrote in 1981 for The Australian about the shameful treatment of Aboriginal people in Queensland was re-published by the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, led by Nugget Coombs, in a book, Four Stories About Aboriginal Australians in Queensland. The committee described Lunn’s stories as “historic articles”.
From close quarters, Lunn observed the rise and rise of Rupert Murdoch. Over two decades, he was sacked from The Australian, rehired, sacked and then hired again – a rollercoaster ride he recalls with great insight and not a little affection in his 2001 journalist’s memoir Working for Rupert. A Washington correspondent wrote that he had read all the books on Murdoch: “Without a doubt the most instructive, emotional, enlightening, and ironic was by the Australian journalist Hugh Lunn.”
Hugh Lunn possesses many enviable skills as a journalist. His instincts for a good story are second to none, whether as a war correspondent sifting fake news from real or profiling an outback character so tough he washes his hair with Solvol soap.
Without doubt one of our finest feature writers, Lunn redefined the memoir genre and proved that bestsellers like Vietnam: A Reporter’s War could also be award-winning works of literature. His first bestseller was the iconoclastic biography Joh: The Life and Political Adventures of Johannes Bjelke-Petersen.
Over many years, Lunn has campaigned for the preservation of Australian idioms in the face of American cultural influence. On Queensland’s 150th anniversary in 2009, Hugh Lunn was named a Queensland icon, alongside Geoffrey Rush, David Malouf, the Bee Gees and the Great Barrier Reef.
Hugh Lunn and his roommate, Melbourne journalist Bruce Pigott, outside the Reuters office. Vietnam. Pigott was shot and killed in a VC ambush a few months later. Copyright Hugh Lunn
Hugh Lunn 1969 with three West Papuans during so-called Act of Free Choice. Copyright Hugh Lunn
Sydney Morning Herald article about the Papuan 'Act of Free Choice'
American and South Vietnamese press accreditation cards to cover Vietnam War for Reuters, 1967. Copyright Hugh Lunn
Reuters war correspondents and friends Hugh Lunn and Pham Ngoc Dinh, 1967, Mekong Delta, Vietnam. Copyright Hugh Lunn
Reuters Indonesia correspondent Hugh Lunn finds British air ace Sheila Scott after she was lost in the London to Sydney Solo Flight Air Race. 1969, Sumbawa Island, Indonesia. Copyright Hugh Lunn
Hugh Lunn at the 1974 Walkley Awards Dinner in Brisbane, hosted by the awards founder, businessman Sir William Walkley. Copyright Hugh Lunn
Hugh Lunn addresses Brisbane State High students. Courtesy of News Corp
Vietnam: A Reporter’s War, Hugh Lunn, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane,1985.
Working for Rupert, Hugh Lunn, Hodder Headline Australia, Sydney, 2001.