1917-1977 | VIC | Journalist, Editor & Author
Rivett joined the Melbourne Argus in 1940. By 1941 he was working as a broadcaster in Singapore, where he became a captive of the Japanese. He later described his experiences in the best-selling Behind Bamboo. In 1951 he became editor-in-chief of Adelaide's Daily News, and worked closely with its new owner, Rupert Murdoch. Under their leadership, the paper forced a royal commission into the murder conviction of Rupert Max Stuart, an Aboriginal man. Rivett later became director of the International Press Institute, based in Zurich.
Rohan Rivett was a tenacious journalist who wrote one of the most acclaimed accounts of the suffering of Australian prisoners of war under the Japanese, and whose crusading post-war editorship led to a royal commission into the dubious murder conviction of an Aboriginal man – and a charge of seditious libel against Rivett.
Rohan Deakin Rivett – a grandson of Alfred Deakin – was born in Melbourne on 16 January 1917. At the age of 13, while a student at Wesley College, he visited England with his father and wrote a book-length narrative about the Australian cricketers’ 1930 tour.
He later studied history and political science at Melbourne University, graduating with first-class honours, as did classmates Manning Clark and A. G. L. Shaw. Clark and Rivett went on together to study at Balliol College, Oxford.
Rivett’s interest in international affairs, aroused earlier in Melbourne by W. Macmahon Ball’s lectures in political science, became intense and remained so. At the outbreak of World War II, he and Clark returned to Australia without completing their courses.
Rivett joined The Argus as a cadet reporter before enlisting in the AIF in June 1940. Two months later, he was released on loan to the Federal Department of Information to prepare news bulletins in Sydney, and later Melbourne, for an overseas radio service run by Ball. After Japan entered the war in December 1941, he volunteered to work with the Malaya Broadcasting Corporation in Singapore and was discharged from the army.
On 9 February 1942 Rivett told the world that Japanese forces had landed in Singapore. Although the British surrendered the island on 15 February, he was not captured until 8 March, in Java, after harrowing journeys by sea and land. He was one of the Australian POWs then forced to work on the infamous Thai-Burma railway.
Rivett’s wartime experiences were described vividly in Behind Bamboo, written in October-November 1945 while he was recovering from the rigours of captivity. Reprinted eight times, the book sold more than 100,000 copies. The years of imprisonment left Rivett with an enduring respect for ordinary Australians and an enhanced awareness of Asia.
He returned to The Argus after the war, but in January 1946 was recruited to the Melbourne Herald by Sir Keith Murdoch. In October 1947 Rivett, whose first marriage ended in divorce, married actress Nan Summers, with whom he had three children, including a son named after Murdoch.
After sending Rivett to China in July 1947 to report on the civil war, Murdoch asked him to work in his London office from 1948. Rivett’s dispatches impressed the proprietor, who invited him in 1951 to be editor-in-chief of Adelaide’s evening daily, The News, almost the only paper in the Herald & Weekly Times group which Murdoch personally controlled.
When Murdoch died in October 1952, he left the News to his 21-year-old son Rupert, then studying at Oxford. He and the Rivett family had been friends in England and became still closer in Adelaide. The young proprietor and the youngish editor shared a radical liberal view of the world and a Melburnian urge to liven up Adelaide. Rivett was allowed a freer hand than any other editor in Australia.
Kingsley Martin, editor of London’s left-wing New Statesman, judged The News “the one genuinely liberal daily in the continent”. David Bowman, one of Rivett’s protégés who later edited the Sydney Morning Herald, described Rivett and J. D. Pringle as “the only men of real consequence and capacity for thought” who edited Australian newspapers in the 1950s.
Listeners to the ABC radio program Notes on the News were familiar with Rivett’s earnest and lucid voice. The commentator himself made news when the ABC prevented him from saying in November 1956 that Britain was “regarded throughout most of the world as an aggressor” against Egypt.
In 1959 The News was largely responsible for forcing South Australian Premier Sir Thomas Playford to set up a royal commission into the controversial murder conviction of Aboriginal man Rupert Max Stuart. Counsel for Stuart, J. W. Shand, walked out of the commission after complaining that its chairman, Chief Justice Sir Mellis Napier, was impeding his cross-examination of a former policeman. The News reported the event in headlines which provoked an astonishing prosecution of the paper and its editor, not only on the unusual offence of criminal libel, but on the practically forgotten one of seditious libel.
Beginning on March 1960, the trial lasted for 10 days. Cross-examination revealed that Murdoch and Rivett had worked together composing the headlines in question. The jury found the accused not guilty on all but one charge, on which it could not agree. With Rivett on bail, the remaining charge hung in the air for almost three months before being withdrawn. Many believed Playford dropped the last charge in return for an undertaking from Murdoch that The News would go easy on his government.
Two weeks earlier, Murdoch had moved from Adelaide to Sydney, where he had bought the Daily Mirror. By 1960 The News ’s circulation and profit were both much higher than they had been before Rivett arrived. In that year, however, Murdoch dismissed him.
Murdoch was unhappy with some editorial decisions taken after he had left for Sydney. He said privately that he needed to be on the spot in order to give a steadying hand. “Headstrong” was his word for Rivett. Even friends and admirers could describe Rivett as over-enthusiastic, or as courageous but unstable; he himself owned up to a “fairly volcanic” nature, and said later that he had not expected the relationship with Murdoch to last.
Rivett never edited another paper and never overcame his sense of loss at having to leave The News. Between 1961 and 1963 he worked in Switzerland as director of the International Press Institute.
After returning to Melbourne, he worked as a freelance journalist, broadcaster, public speaker and author, at every opportunity encouraging Australians to be aware of their Asian and Pacific neighbours. He was a regular contributor to The Canberra Times and the radical weekly Nation Review. He wrote several more books, including a life of Herbert Brookes, Deakin’s son-in-law, before his death in 1977 from a coronary occlusion.
Ken Inglis is a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Papua New Guinesa and professor of history at the Australian National University. This profile was adapted from his entry on Rohan Rivett in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Photo: News Corp, 2000
Behind Bamboo, Rohan Rivett, Angus & Robertson, 1946.
The Stuart Case, K. S. Inglis, Melbourne University Press, 1961.