Ian Fitchett

1908-1988    |    Canberra    |    Political Correspondent & War Correspondent

Ian Fitchett and Alan Reid were the senior figures and role models in the Canberra Press Gallery in the 1960s and early 70s when the gallery was expanding quickly because of a renewed interest in federal politics. Fitchett broke big stories and wrote authoritatively as political correspondent for The Age and later the Sydney Morning Herald. Earlier, he was an official war correspondent, and from Malaya wrote what Alan Reid described as “some of the most distinguished writing that came out of World War II”. Fitchett initiated a succession of journalists into the art of political reporting and analysis.

“I will be happy to eat crow, Prime Minister, if it is garnished with the sauce of your embarrassment.”

Ian Fitchett, to Prime Minister Robert Menzies


Ian Glynn 'Fitch' Fitchett


Imposing in stature, physically and professionally, Ian Fitchett was a leonine luminary of the Canberra Press Gallery during the post-war Menzies era and beyond. He patrolled the political jungle with a critical, sometimes belligerent eye, and graced the pages of The Age and then The Sydney Morning Herald with well-informed, finely-crafted articles for more than a quarter-century. He had previously qualified as a lawyer, served as a soldier in World War Two, and been a distinguished war correspondent.

A big, barrel-chested man with thinning ginger hair, bristling military moustache and booming baritone voice, Fitch generated a host of quirky anecdotes, being unafraid to ping even the prime minister with acerbic wit and occasionally coming to fisticuffs with colleagues. Independent of mind and incisive in comment, Fitchett, like the haughty French president Charles de Gaulle, regarded himself as not of the Right or the Left, but “above” the tumult of politics, which he tended to view with disdainful detachment.

Ian Glynn Fitchett was born on 11 September 1908, in Terang, western Victoria, son of a country solicitor. Educated at Xavier College, he was articled to his uncle, F. H. Fitchett, and admitted to practise as a solicitor and barrister in 1935. But two years later, he forsook law for the lure of journalism. Through friendship with Sydney Deamer, he secured a mature-age cadetship with Sir Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph in Sydney, gaining his first taste of political reportage on the federal round.

Some weeks after the outbreak of war in 1939, he enlisted in the army and sailed for the Middle East as a sergeant with the 2/4th Battalion. In February 1941 he was released by the AIF to become an official war correspondent to cover the Libyan campaign, filing reports from the siege of Tobruk. He then served as official war correspondent with the 8th Division in Malaya but managed to leave Singapore five days before the surrender to the Japanese in February 1942. Until the end of the war in 1945, he worked first for the Department of Information in Australia, Papua and New Caledonia, and then as the Daily Telegraph and London Daily Express war correspondent with South-East Asia Command covering operations in Burma, India and China.

Back in civilian life, Fitchett briefly returned to the Daily Telegraph before joining The Age, which sent him to head the Canberra bureau in 1947. There he had only one regular assistant correspondent, two during parliamentary sessions. One, for a two-year stint, was the great editor-to-be, Graham Perkin. This was a time before obstructive media units and manipulative spin doctors, when reporters could mix freely with politicians in King’s Hall in the old Parliament House. Fitchett had an enviable range of contacts.

He may not have garnered as many sensational scoops as his friendly competitor and occasional collaborator Alan Reid, the “Red Fox” of the Daily Telegraph, but he was highly respected for the quality of his writing and the force of his political commentary. One would-be exclusive proved to be an embarrassing fizzer. A Monday morning front-page report predicted an imminent policy change of far-reaching financial consequence. When it didn’t happen Fitchett reached for the phone to remonstrate with his “leak”. Struck by a profanity-laden, personally-abusive tirade, Treasurer Billy McMahon could only stammer, “But Ian . . . but Ian . . . I was rolled in Cabinet.”

On parliamentary sitting days, Fitchett would often lunch at the Commonwealth Club and return about 2pm to slump in his office armchair for a snooze before the bells rang for question time. Early one session a timid knock at the door disturbed his slumber. The intruder, eager to meet senior members of the press corps, introduced himself as the new Liberal member for Barker, Jim Forbes (later to hold a succession of ministerial posts). Opening a baleful eye, Fitchett barked: “Oh f--- off, Forbes, it’s too bloody hot”, and resumed his nap.

Fitchett’s verbal bouts with Prime Minister Robert Menzies are legendary. Menzies called one of his rare press conferences in his office to announce the appointment of a new Governor-General, a former Speaker of the House of Commons who had just been raised to the peerage. In response to an invitation for any questions, Alan Reid cheekily asked: “Prime Minister, you have told us Lord Dunrossil is a Scot; may we presume that he is also a Presbyterian?” Menzies, who sometimes liked to describe himself as “just a simple Presbyterian”, said he believed this was so. From the biggest armchair at the back of the room Fitchett’s voice boomed out: “And is he simple to go with it?” For once, the master of scathing repartee had no retort.

Stung by some articles by Fitchett critical of him, Menzies on encountering Fitchett in Parliament House told him that “I’ll make you eat crow.” Fitchett responded: “I will be happy to eat crow, Prime Minister, if it is garnished with the sauce of your embarrassment.”

In the summer of 1959-60, Fitchett switched from The Age to its then rival, The Sydney Morning Herald. At the time, The Age was oddly allied for interstate news with the tabloid Daily Telegraph while the SMH was linked with the Herald & Weekly Times and its Queensland and South Australian stablemates, known in Canberra as “the club”. Fitchett headed the SMH Canberra bureau for 10 years and then wrote for another three years on defence and diplomatic affairs.

Canberra colleague Michael Macgeorge recalls the first Menzies press conference Fitchett attended as the SMH man in Canberra. Fitchett, who never deigned to stand at these events but sat in a comfortable leather chair at the corner of the room and boomed his questions through the cordon of journalists around the PM’s table, came up with a question. “Is that you, Fitchett?” Menzies began, “I suppose Henderson (then the powerful chief executive of the SMH) told you to ask that question, did he?” To which Fitchett was equal: “Henderson?” he declared, “Henderson to me is like the Almighty, I’ve never met him.”

In awe of no man, Fitchett was painfully shy in the presence of women. So surprisingly, at the age of 50, the seemingly confirmed bachelor and suspected misogynist began to court a widow, (Florence) Myrtle Edlington, an editorial assistant in the adjoining Daily Mirror press gallery office. They wed in January 1959. She died in 1974, leaving a son and daughter from her previous marriage.

A lonely, ailing figure in his final years, Fitchett died in Canberra on 10 October 1988.

Those who remember him with admiration and affection still chuckle at the plethora of illustrative Fitchett stories.

Claude Forell is a former chief leader writer, columnist and London correspondent with The Age. He was Fitchett’s deputy in Canberra in1959, and author of How We Are Governed, Cheshire (1964). He is a former president and life member of the Melbourne Press Club.

Australian press corp in Ikingi Maryut, Egypt, including Ian Fitchett, Gavin Long, Reginald Glennie, John Hetherington, Maslyn Williams and Ken Slessor. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.


Courtesy of Fairfax




Further reading


‘Fitchett, Ian Glynn’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, John Farquharson, Volume 17 (MUP), 2007


‘Deadbeats and blimps who were the fierce minds of journalism’, Fairfax Digital, Alan Ramsay, 29 January 2003