1906-1984 | VIC | Foreign correspondent
Hughes was a railway shunter before he began a colourful newspaper career. He joined the Melbourne Star in 1934, and by 1940 was based in Tokyo, warning that Japan was likely to enter the war against the Allies. After service as a correspondent in the Middle East, he returned to Tokyo in 1945 and spent most of the remainder of his working life there and in Hong Kong. He distinguished himself in world journalism when he unearthed the defected British spies Burgess and Maclean in 1956. A flamboyant character, he was described by John Le Carre as “a sort of journalistic Eiffel Tower”.
In the inky, long-ago days before newsrooms became much tidier and quieter, characters abounded. Lennie Lower, often while either drunk or hung over, wrote some of the wittiest prose the Sydney Daily Telegraph published. Dave Barnes, a reporter on the same newspaper, spent hours tap-dancing on editorial tables: he may well have been a better hoofer than he was a journalist. The swashbuckling Ronald Monson once took holiday leave from The West Australian to walk – yes, walk – from Capetown to Cairo.
It is doubtful, though, whether Australian journalism has produced a more colourful character than Richard Hughes. He was flamboyant, gregarious, bohemian, even at times quite eccentric. He wore a monocle, dispensed ecclesiastical benedictions, and insisted that Sherlock Holmes was still alive, living on a bee farm in Essex. He held court, sometimes uproariously, for decades at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, where a sculptured bust in a bar pays tribute to him.
Apart from all that, he was an eminent foreign correspondent. He is remembered most for having found the missing British diplomat-spies Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, who had defected to the Soviet Union in 1951. It was about as huge an international scoop as possible to imagine in the mid-1950s. He later became the doyen of Asia’s foreign press corps.
Hughes was born on 5 March 1906 in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran. After leaving the St Kilda Christian Brothers College, he worked as a junior railways shunter; his first published writing appeared in the Railways Magazine. In 1934 he joined the new, short-lived daily Star, and when that paper folded in 1936 he joined (Sir) Frank Packer’s Sydney Daily Telegraph.
In 1939, long before investigative reporting became fashionable, he solved one of New Zealand’s more famous mysteries ... the Piha Bones case. By painstaking research, he proved that a heavily-insured man who was believed to have perished in a shack fire was still very much alive, and that the charred human remains – which became known as the Piha Bones – and had been found after the fire, had been acquired from a nearby cemetery. Hughes had been sent to New Zealand by the Sydney Telegraph, writing under the by-line of Dr Watson Junior.
In 1940 he took leave to visit Japan, and wrote articles for the Telegraph indicating that the Japanese were preparing to go to war. It might be claimed that if Hughes’s articles had been taken more seriously by governments, such events as the attack on Pearl Harbour, the fall of Singapore and the bombing of Darwin would not have caused the shock and surprise they did.
Hughes returned to Australia long enough for a stint in Canberra, where he wrote a satirical piece about a Senate debate which caused him to be charged with breach of privilege, and banned from parliament for four months. Then came a period covering the war in North Africa. His fascination with Asia continued, though, and when the war ended he returned to Tokyo to cover the Allied occupation – working mainly for The Sunday Times, where Ian Fleming was his foreign editor.
In Tokyo, Hughes soon became the go-to man for visiting politicians, diplomats and journalists. At his home base, the Correspondents’ Club, a conversation with Hughes sometimes came close to being an audience. He knew the city better than most Westerners, from its opium dens to its espionage haunts and its politicians. Even in his arthritic seventies, he strode through life (a little more painfully, it’s true) -monocle firmly in place, drinking too much vodka, smoking too many cigars, offering benedictions and home truths. He had earlier established his own chapter of “Alcoholics Synonymous.”
“Greetings, your Grace,” he would say. Or sometimes: “Listen, you mug.” His friends – and there were legions of them scattered around the world – tended to keep up the absurd charade, referring to him as “His Grace” and in later years “His Eminence”. Hong Kong was his “parish”, even his “diocese”. It was his habit to send off many post-cards. Those sent to this writer always bestowed the title “Monsignor”, which tended to baffle the odd postman.
Hughes, a bulky man, was an emphatic one-off. If he hadn’t existed, some imaginative writer might have invented him. What has happened instead is that legends have been woven about him, and fictional characters based on him. John le Carre, who portrayed Hughes as “Old Craw” in the spy novel The Honourable Schoolboy, once dubbed him “a sort of journalistic Eiffel Tower.”
Ian Fleming, his former foreign editor, used Hughes as the model for “Dikko Henderson”, the head of an Australian intelligence unit, in the James Bond novel You Only Live Twice. Fleming admired Hughes’ wit, capacity for fun, intellect and lust for life. Macswan believed he was in many respects the tough, romantic cynic, the man of action whom Fleming would have loved to have been.
Harry Gordon was the youngest Australian war correspondent in the Korean War. He later became editor of The Sun News Pictorial, editor-in-chief of the Herald and Weekly Times, and chairman of Australian Associated Press. He was inducted into the Victorian Media Hall of Fame in 2013.
Richard Hughes with Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond character.
The Man Who Read the East Wind, N.Macswan, Kangaroo Press, 1982.
Foreign Devil, Thirty Years of Reporting in the Far East, Richard Hughes, Northwestern University, 2008.