1952 - | Canberra | Investigative journalist & Editor
Jack Waterford was the outstanding servant of the Canberra Times in the second half of the twentieth century. It is only a slight exaggeration to state that he taught Australian journalists how to use national freedom of information laws introduced in the 1970s. For most journalists, the laws were too complex, too slow and too legalistic. Waterford persisted and proved they could be used to uncover important stories. They are now a routine part of the journalist’s toolkit. In a 43-year career with The Canberra Times, Waterford started as a copy boy and became editor-in-chief, gathering accolades including the Australian Journalist of the Year Award in 1985.
Jack Waterford has always been a damned nuisance. My first memory of him was being a damned nuisance as an 18-year-old student on Commonwealth Avenue Bridge in Canberra at a 1970 Vietnam Moratorium march.
A senior copper asked me at the back of the demonstration who the bloke with the megaphone at the front was. “Oh, that’s Jack, I said, innocently, Jack Waterford.”
Later in the demo the senior cop monitoring the march yelled out on his megaphone: “Hey, you. Waterford.”
Most would have blanched. Not Jack. And he has been holding the megaphone ever since. In the ensuing decades, of course, the megaphone has been more nuanced and less strident and the audience has been wider and more discerning. Nonetheless, the message has been fundamentally the same and fundamentally consistent: “You are accountable.” “You must answer to public opinion.” “You must answer to public standards.”
In the heady student days it was an on-the-streets exposé of the Australian Government’s corrupt acquiescence to US involvement in Vietnam and to the immoral apartheid regime in South Africa. In the ensuing years, after beginning his cadetship in journalism at The Canberra Times in 1972, it has always been an expose of governments and bureaucracies who do not live up to reasonable public expectations and a demand that they do so.
The most important and pioneering example of that was with the passage of Australia’s first Freedom of Information laws in 1982. Waterford seized the moment. He bombarded virtually every public service department with FOI requests and was rewarded with Victorian-era Official Secrets Act mentality responses: How could it possibly be it the public interest for the public to know what the bureaucracy is doing?
One case went to the High Court (and Fairfax management must be praised for funding it). Waterford may have gone down legally in a screaming 2-3 heap, but bureaucratically the message was clear: FOI and the public’s right to know was here to stay.
It was trail-blazing journalism. Waterford was recognised as the 1985 Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year.
John Edward O’Brien Waterford was born in Cooonamble, NSW, in February 1952 and attended St Joseph’s College, Hunter’s Hill, before enrolling in law at the Australian National University. He dropped out of the course after joining The Canberra Times.
Oddly enough, after fighting that administrative law case and other FOI cases through the courts, when Waterford later sought to re-enrol in law the ANU ruled that his 1970s pass in Administrative Law was stale and that he would have to repeat the unit before he could gain his degree – which he did some 17 years after first enrolling.
Waterford put his degree to good use, and not just in journalism. He took a break to work with Fred Hollows helping deal with eye disease among Indigenous Australians in remote parts of the country. Hollows desperately needed money for his project and the Federal Government was not forthcoming until it was suggested that every “consultation” with every Indigenous “patient” should be bulk-billed under Medicare. The Government came good.
Waterford came back to journalism at The Canberra Times where he lived up to its then motto: “To serve the national city and through it the nation”. That motto is as apposite to his approach to journalism as the present one: “Independent Always”.
In 1987 he won a Jefferson Fellowship to the United States where he absorbed the jurisprudence and journalism of the First Amendment, but neglected the details of collecting receipts for his expenses. On his return, he spent several months dodging General Manager Graham Wilkinson and his demands in numerous memos that Waterford acquit his expense account.
Finally, Wilko cornered him. These were the glory days of Fairfax and the rivers of gold. “Get into my office and sign this,” Wilko bellowed. He shoved a bit of paper in front of Waterford that read: “To various expenses incurred during my Jefferson Fellowship in the United States. $10,000.” And that was it.
Waterford was made a Member of the Order of Australia in the 2007 Australia Day honours, "for service to journalism, particularly as a commentator on national politics, the law, to raising debate on ethical issues and public sector accountability, and to the community in the area of Indigenous affairs". Later that year Jack was named Canberra Citizen of the Year.
One of the enduring themes of Waterford’s journalism has been to expose the disgraceful consumption of Indigenous funding by white “providers” and the failure of successive federal governments to effectively heal the historic injustice of the dispossession and alienation of the first peoples of this land. His writing was informed by his first-hand experience on the front-line battle against eye disease in Indigenous communities.
It has been a relentless 40 years. Just asking, nay demanding, that those on the public purse with a public duty, do that duty. It was far too much to ask, of course. Waterford was demanding of public officials what came naturally to him: uncompromising pursuit of the public interest.
For four decades Waterford has also used one of the most powerful devices in the Canberra information market: the long lunch. Fairfax paid for it. Fairfax benefitted from it, slightly. But the biggest beneficiaries have been the Australian public.
In that discourse, the public did not benefit from the exposure of some immediate piece of salacious or scandalous piece of gossip. Rather the public benefitted from the way Waterford gained a deep understanding of the symbiotic relationship between the bureaucracy and politicians. No other journalist has, without any “gotcha” moments, increased the public understanding of the relationship between the bureaucracy and politicians and made each of them understand their accountability as has Jack Waterford.
Along the way, Waterford has always needed a good sub-editor. The trouble is that he is so chock-a-block full of information from informants and lunches and ideas and knowledge from his own intellect and reading that he has often lacked the time to craft it into a neat 900 words by deadline time, especially given his method of typing with just the index finger of the right hand.
He filed late. He had the privilege of seniority. So oftentimes his copy was denied what most writers on The Canberra Times were so often the beneficiaries of – the crisp sub-editorial pen of a Michael Travis. It is a tribute to his intellect and substance that most of Waterford’s readers have always been willing to occasionally wade through the molasses of his double negatives and his 200-word sentences to grasp the gem within.
Despite some of the occasional opacity of the writing, that gem has for forty years been crystal clear: the public interest.
Crispin Hull started work as a cadet journalist on The Canberra Times in 1972 and was Editor from 1985 to 1992. He worked in various writing and management roles before spending a decade teaching journalism and media law at the University of Canberra. He continues to write a weekly column for Fairfax Media and teaches law part time at the ANU.
Waterford with loudspeaker, bottom right, at a march over the Vietnam War. Courtesy of Fairfax
ASIO surveillance photograph of John WATERFORD (Jack Waterford). Image purchased from the National Archive of Australia. NAA: A9626, 118
Courtesy of Fairfax
Then Canberra Times deputy editor, in 1991. Courtesy of Fairfax
Courtsy of Fairfax
The Canberra long lunch. Courtesy of Fairfax
Jack Waterford at work. Courtesy of Fairfax
Rebuilding Canberra's spirit, Griffith Review, Jack Waterford, December 2004
Canberra and the Parliament: An Increasingly Uncomfortable Marriage, Jack Waterford, Papers on Parliament No.60, March 2014