1937 - | South Australia, NSW | Business journalist
A journalist for more than 60 years, Trevor Sykes wrote one of the world’s longest-running columns - Pierpont - in The Australian Financial Review and The Bulletin. Sykes exposed more boardroom malfeasance than any other finance journalist and is recognised as the foremost chronicler of the corporate excesses of the 1980s through his journalism and books. As editor of The Bulletin, he achieved record circulation of 120,000 and published the exposé that led to the Costigan Royal Commission on the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union that morphed into a window on bottom-of-the-harbour tax schemes and political dynamite when the commission’s files on Kerry Packer were leaked.
Sometimes what seems an apparently insignificant event can have profound consequences. And so it was that a young teenage cadet journalist, Trevor Sykes, witnessed a fisherman stranded by an unanticipated rising tide on the mudflats of Torrens Island, Adelaide, shaking a copy of the Adelaide Advertiser and yelling out to passing boats: “It is wrong! It is wrong!”
The fisherman was referring to the daily tide notices in the Advertiser, which had misstated the times of the high tide. Around the nation at that time, cadet journalists were often given the task of changing the tide times each day, partly to test their accuracy. Sykes as a cadet on the Advertiser (he started as a copy aged 16) had always recorded the tide times correctly but his successor got them wrong, leaving the fisherman stranded.
Sixty years later, Trevor Sykes still remembers that incident because, for him as a young journalist, it underlined the importance of getting the facts right. Right through his 60-plus years in journalism, getting the facts right was embedded in everything Sykes wrote and, through his editorship roles, he passed on that journalistic fundamental to countless journalists. Sykes, via his nom de plume Pierpont, is the only financial journalist in the land and one of the few in the world who conveys his message to readers via satire and humour. In the financial world you can only satirise events on a regular basis if you have the facts right.
At the Adelaide Advertiser Sykes was given a thorough training in the old fashioned basics of journalism including typing and shorthand. He became a brilliant shorthand transcriber. After The Advertiser, he moved to The Sydney Morning Herald in 1959 and was posted to Canberra during parliamentary sittings because of his excellent shorthand. Three years later, in 1962, that brilliance in shorthand enabled him to gain a position as a parliamentary reporter for Reuters in London.
Sykes’s brilliance in shorthand changed the course of the UK government because he was able to accurately report that the then British War Minister, John Profumo, had claimed he did not know prostitute Christine Keeler. Sykes’s shorthand meant there was no doubt that the Australian journalist had accurately reported the Profumo claim. Later events showed that Profumo had not been telling the truth and the scandal contributed to the downfall of the Tory government in the 1964 election.
Sykes had made his mark in London and returned to The Sydney Morning Herald as a subeditor. Then he was able to gain an A-grade journalist rating by shifting to The Sun News Pictorial in Melbourne in 1965. Here again Sykes found himself in the middle of the action, covering the murder trial of Ronald Ryan – the last man to be hanged in Victoria. Sykes brilliantly captured the atmosphere in the courtroom when Justice John Starke sentenced Ryan to death.
Then Sykes, aged 30, made a decision that not only transformed his career but journalism in Australia. He decided to become a business and financial journalist at the urging of the founder of The Australian, Max Newton, and the editor of The Australian Financial Review, Max Walsh. The Sun agreed to transfer him to finance and he managed to get a trip to Kalgoorlie. Soon after, Poseidon hit nickel and an enormous mining boom followed. Trevor Sykes was in the thick of it and developed an extensive knowledge of mining companies good and bad.
In 1971 the Financial Review hired him as investment editor. It was a fantastic time for Sykes and the AFR because the mining boom was unravelling and companies like MinSec were collapsing. Sykes knew their background. During the 1960s and 1970s it was not easy to get pay rises in large publishing houses and so to gain extra remuneration journalists had to shift to other publications. Sykes played the game to perfection and in 1972 left the Financial Review to become financial editor of The Sun News Pictorial. But then the Financial Review realised the talent they had lost and counter-offered and six weeks later Sykes was hired back to the Financial Review to be the Melbourne editor. He said at the time, “I was a mercenary – every time someone made a better offer I took it, you rarely got much advancement at the same paper”.
Around 1972, Sykes conceived the idea of writing a commentary under the name Pierpont – after the legendary American robber baron J Pierpont Morgan. Sykes hit on the idea after a conversation with Michael McAlister, the then chairman of the Australian Stock Exchange, who was previously private secretary to the Duke of Windsor who abdicated the British throne in 1936. Sykes conceived the idea of an elderly fictional character enjoying Bollinger with men of wealth and power in the “Croesus” Club.
Sykes’ concept of Pierpont was enthusiastically embraced by then Financial Review editor, the late Peter Robinson. With incredible journalistic skill (and correct facts) Sykes as Pierpont in the “Croesus” Club was able to add a whole dimension to the behaviour of corporate chiefs and boards in a way that has never been replicated.
Sykes took Pierpont back to Sydney when he became assistant editor at the Financial Review under Max Walsh as editor. But then he was lured to The Bulletin, the weekly news magazine published by Kerry Packer and Australian Consolidated Press. Much to the dismay of the Financial Review, Sykes took Pierpont with him.
Fairfax tried to block the shift in the New South Wales Supreme Court but Sykes and The Bulletin won and Pierpont became the possession of the journalist and not the publisher. Sykes had achieved a huge win for journalism in Australia.
Bulletin readers loved Pierpont and later Sykes was appointed deputy editor under Trevor Kennedy, becoming editor himself in 1980. During his time as editor of The Bulletin, he lifted the circulation to an all time high of 125,000 – an incredible achievement.
Sykes had a skill for picking talent and so at The Bulletin he hired none other than Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. Former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr had joined the magazine before Sykes became editor but worked under Sykes. Further back in his career, when Sykes was Melbourne editor of the Financial Review he hired Greg Hywood, who later became chief executive of Fairfax. He also hired Christopher Skase. Some of Sykes attention to detail rubbed off on Skase when he left journalism and first went out on the takeover trail. But later the Sykes influence on Skase waned and the Skase empire collapsed. Meanwhile, from The Bulletin Sykes went on to become editor-in-chief of Australian Business.
In 1995 Sykes returned to The Australian Financial Review. It is an enormous tribute to him that Fairfax, despite having lost a court case over the ownership of the Pierpont name, welcomed him and Pierpont back into the Fairfax fold.
During his time as a journalist, Sykes also wrote six books including the Bold Riders – the best explanation of the dramatic events of the 1980s when corporate characters such as Alan Bond, Christopher Skase, John Spalvins, and Robert Homes a Court dominated the corporate stage. In a tribute to Sykes, one of Australia’s top chief executives and chairmen told a gathering to mark his 80th birthday that he had just re-read Bold Riders to remind him of what happened in the 1980s.
Sykes’ Two Centuries of Panic, which traced the corporate collapses of four great recessions in the 1840s, 1890s, 1920s and 1970s is also essential reading for anyone wanting to understand how corporate Australia evolved. Corporations are notorious for forgetting their history and the Sykes books - particularly Two Centuries of Panic and Bold Riders – have made an enormous contribution to enabling Australian corporate executives to better understand what happens in booms.
Trevor Sykes’s contribution to journalism in Australia is unparalleled and through his books he will continue to make a contribution to contemporary understanding of past events.
Robert Gottliebsen started the Chanticleer column in 1974 when Trevor Sykes was Melbourne Editor of the Financial Review. On occasions when Sykes was on holidays, he wrote Pierpont and discovered that writing corporate satire to deliver a clear and powerful message was not easy. Gottliebsen was inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame in 2014.
Courtesy of Fairfax
Cover of Bold Riders, by Trevor Sykes
Cover of The Money Miners, by Trevor Sykes
Pierpont website, Trevor Sykes
The Trevor Sykes Column: clear prose about complex financial issues", Andrew Clark, The Australian Financial Review, 6 January 2017
The Bold Riders: Behind Australia's Corporate Collapses, Trevor Sykes, Allen & Unwin 1996