Radio Days: Welcome to the ABC
21 April 2020
PORT MORESBY, 1966 – Late in 1966, I received a pleasant surprise when Papua New Guinea’s 30-something director of education, Ken McKinnon, recently returned from Harvard with a PhD, transferred me from my highlands hideaway at Gagl Primary T School to Port Moresby as editor of the School Paper.
For this unexpected elevation I had to give thanks to the trifecta of Kundiawa News, scriptwriting for the ABC, and freelance journalism for Pacific Islands Monthly and the South Pacific Post.
McKinnon, these days a great supporter of PNG Attitude and long retired to Sydney, had a distinguished career both in PNG and thereafter: as inaugural head of the Australian Schools Commission; first vice-chancellor of the University of Wollongong; and chairman of the Australian Press Council.
In PNG he had modernised a clapped out school system, professionalised the administration of education and pioneered the first national curriculum. He trod on a few toes in the process but proved to be a good man for any climate.
After my three years in the highlands, Port Moresby – even the Snake Pit bar at the Bottom Pub - felt like high sophistication, although, after the freedom of living in the bush, I did feel hemmed in by the confines of Ranuguri Hostel, where single public servants were quartered and at the nearby Konedobu Hotel well watered.
My great compensation, of course, was the new job, just a short walk down Spring Garden Road to the decrepit World War II hut that housed the educational publications unit.
Each day was a joy. I was writing professionally for the first time and, under the tutelage of illustrator Hal Holman, who a few years hence would design independent PNG’s coat of arms, I was learning the intricacies of layout, printing and Port Moresby’s night life.
As I edited the School Paper, introduced a new school broadcasts magazine and produced other publications, the ABC continued to contract me as a writer, actor and then producer in their school broadcasts department.
For a short time I also wrote under a pseudonym for a new satirical magazine, Black & White, published by sacked Post-Courier journalist Henry Lachajczyk until his craziness and increasingly overt racism drove me away.
I was now beginning to draw lines of responsibility around my writing as consciousness grew that it was not merely fun. It carried with serious obligations to the subject and the reader.
My freelance work for the ABC flourished and I was increasingly employed after hours by its small education unit of Brian Halesworth and Lester Goodman. My first fully fledged production was John Warnock’s weekly 'Current Events'.
Eventually, with the proviso that I survive an interview by the ABC’s Territory manager Malcolm Naylor, Halesworth offered me a permanent job as a producer.
Naylor was a pompous, old school ABC type who had been a cricket commentator in Tasmania during the island state’s wasted years before it was admitted into the Sheffield Shield.
He referred to managers and cleaners – at opposite ends of his social scale – by their first names, called supervisors by their surname and gave junior staff like me the appellation ‘Mister’: “Mr Jackson, tell Henao to deliver this memo to Halesworth?”
The only time Naylor perked up in the interview was when I mentioned I'd been to college. He perked down again when he learned it was teachers' college and not an elite learning institution. But I got the the job.
Then as now, the ABC’s state and territory branches were organised as a hierarchy with Sydney in command. Head office was in Elizabeth Street opposite Hyde Park, just a well shod executive stroll a block up from the menswear department of David Jones.
On the next level of status was Melbourne, the pivot of drama and entertainment but relegated to be a disgruntled second fiddle to the shiny bums of Sydney.
On the third step down were the BAPH states – Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart. And on the fourth tier, Darwin.
Languishing in the cellar was Port Moresby. You could look up the management ladder from there to Darwin.
Despite this low standing, however, the ABC in the Territory had acquired all the hubris of its southern superiors.
When a listener pointed out a factual error in one of my productions, I drafted a letter of apology for Naylor’s signature saying we would correct the program before rebroadcast.
“Not good enough, Mr Jackson,” said Naylor when I handed him the draft. “The ABC does not apologise.”
But such vanities aside, Auntie made sure I learned my trade including sending me on a four-week production course to the Kings Cross training studios in Sydney where, amongst other things, I learned to say over the intercom: “Cart, cart! Ai sai cawst, ken we taek thet from lain nain puleez? Thenkew!” Translated: ‘Cut, cut! I say cast, can we take that from line nine please? Thank you!’
During this period, I also enrolled for an economics degree at the recently established University of Papua New Guinea, became athletics correspondent for the PNG Post-Courier (ex South Pacific Post) and helped to set up an advocacy group called COST – the Consumers Organisation for Saner Trading.
Its mission was to try to stop the big trading entities – Burns Philp, Steamship, Carpenters – charging more in their ‘native stores’ than they did in department stores catering mainly to whites.
And, glorious day, I married my first wife, Sue Flatt, in a little wooden church where the Grand Papua Hotel now stands, with our first child, Simon, born later that year at Taurama Base Hospital.
I played cricket and tennis and squash and lived adjacent to the ABC studios in a fine house on a hill above Boroko.
By any measure these were full and fruitful years for a guy in his mid-twenties.
But despite all this, I was growing increasingly dissatisfied. I didn’t realise it then, but youth can be so ungrateful. I’d joined the ABC full of delight and pride, and now felt both emotions being squeezed out of me by Auntie’s infamous and ponderous bureaucracy.
Twenty years on, my then boss, ABC managing director David Hill, joked to me that half the organisation was trying to put programs to air while the other half was trying to stop them.
And over lunch one day, Mike Carlton related how, as a young broadcaster, he went to the ABC’s technical desk to borrow a tape recorder. There’s just one left and he couldn’t have it, he was told. Why not? he asked. Because someone might want it, the clerk explained.
It was only some years later, when I was a well established manager myself, that I realised I hadn’t been so much attracted to management by its glow as driven to it by ineffectual leadership. I enjoyed being a creative but, if couldn’t beat them, I’d just have to join them.
And, as I matured in management, I found that it was also extraordinarily creative. And I could still write.
So, after six years in Papua New Guinea and three years with the ABC, I was ready to move on. I didn’t want to leave PNG, I had loved the place from first sight. Nor did I feel comfortable that I’d established a durable career in broadcasting. Indeed, I was in something of a quandary.
And it was then, in late 1969, that I saw the newspaper advertisement.
The second in an occasional series of autobiographical vignettes
On checking Ian Stuart's 1970 book, 'Port Moresby Yesterday and Today', it occurred to me that the little wooden church may have been that at Douglas Street, diagonally across the road from St John's Anglican, predating the St John of today and the wooden building St John's that was until about 1966.
Posted by: Lindsay Bond | 24 April 2020 at 07:25 AM
Keith, I can recall roofs which when walked upon, somewhat buoyantly put a spring in one’s step.
Though quite adequate for it’s appointed duty, the modest yet delightful St John's Cathedral Church had such effect at my scaling to its roof, accompanied by the Dean, there on inspection, that humour has me referring to the event as 'the Dean and I dancing on the roof' of that Church.
At that day in 2005, I was impressed that the Parish Council was carrying out maintenance, principally of windows. As is all too evident in PNG, maintenance of existing structures seems landed in neglect.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 22 April 2020 at 07:46 PM
My family would never have been able to send me to GGS without my father's employment there, Chris.
It was hideously expensive then just as it is these days.
KJ might not have come across Sir James Ralph Darling. After his chalkie days had been completed the Great Man was ABC chairman from 1961-67.
Keithy was still in PNG I recall.
Sir Robert Madgwick was chairman from 1967 to 1973, which covered my first stint at the ABC. I never met him but knew his successor Prof Richard Downing (who died in office after attending an ABC concert) and much later chairmen Ken Myer, David Hill and Bob Somervaille - KJ
Posted by: Richard Jones | 22 April 2020 at 03:25 PM
When I moved to Mosbi I spent about two horrible nights in the Ranuguri Hostel before the dog and I found alternative accommodation with a stove where I could cook my own food. A bit later my cook from Kiunga joined me.
There were some great cartoons in Black & White. One I remember was of a bloke in his shower. He turned the tap on and a voice came out of the shower head, "Boroko Exchange, number please?" I wonder what happened to Henry Lachajczyk.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 22 April 2020 at 01:58 PM
The little wooden church built in 1915 was replaced by Saint Johns Cathedral in 1966 Keith. It is flanked by the Crown and Grand Papua.
Thanks Geoff - I was obviously looking in the wrong place - KJ
Posted by: Geoff Hancock | 22 April 2020 at 10:19 AM
Enjoying your little vignettes. I attended ASOPA in early 1977 and am wondering what has happened to it and how I can access information a class list of that year training in Local Government leadership and management.
Hi Gerard - The ASOPA administrative records were transferred to Canberra where they now repose in the Australian National Archives. I've just had a quick look at the online summary of what they hold and I'm sorry to say there's nothing beyond 1974. https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/SearchScreens/BasicSearch.aspx
Posted by: Gerard Dogimab | 22 April 2020 at 09:54 AM
Thanks for correcting my error Richard and your account of how you came to attend what still is Australia's preferred elite school and a very expensive one as well.
One of my surgeons at Mount Gambier once complained bitterly about the cost of educating his 3 children.
Knowing how much he earned each year at the hospital (a very large 6 figure sum) I jokingly asked if he was sending them to Geelong Grammar.
"Yes," he replied, "and its damned expensive too."
I was too surprised to think of an adequate response. My kids were going to the local high school as Geelong Grammar was far beyond the reach of a humble public servant.
So, well done to your Dad.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 21 April 2020 at 09:02 PM
Dear Keith, I suspect the lunch with Mike Carlton was at Edna's Table at the bottom end of Clarence Street.
Not a bad guess, Bernard. But East Sydney was the precinct of choice - a short stagger from the ABC head office, which at that stage (mid eighties) was in William Street. The venue I recall best was Marios - where Mike, making an important point now lost to history, pounded his wine glass on the table with such gusto he was left just holding the stem - KJ
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 21 April 2020 at 04:56 PM
Just one alteration to your comment, Chris.
As an ex-student at Corio-based Geelong Grammar I must point out ex-PM Malcolm Fraser is a Melbourne Grammar boy. Alexander Downer GGS --- yes. Big Mal -- no.
I went to school with Kerry Packer (he was dyslexic so placed in the 'Remove' Form) who was a fair bit older than me. Don't think the term 'dyslexic' had been invented in the late 1950s, but that was his complaint.
Also in my year there was one of the Fairfaxes (John, I think) and Hugh Morgan of Western Mining fame. Prince Charlie came a few years later.
And how did I get to such an august institution. Well, my Dad was successful in his interview with H/master Dr James Darling (later Sir James Ralph Darling) straight after WW2 and started at GGS in 1946.
His mates in the artillery division he served in told him that 'to continue teaching in a state school' as he'd done in the Thirties was not on for a man of my father's ability. So he started at GGS's primary and early secondary Geelong-based school Bostock Houser.
I attended there up to what we called S2 which equates to Year 8 these days. Then out to Corio, one miserable year at Timbertop near Mansfield (I hate camping and trekking so would have been of no use as a kiap), and finished up matriculating en route to Trinity College, Melbourne Uni.
Back to Dr Darling. He came into an Upper Sixth class one day as were discussing politics and said: "I don't know about this fellow Menzies, boys. He's in over his head."
Not surprising coming from James Ralph as he'd been an influential member of the Oxford-Cambridge Left in the 1920s. I've thanked him countless times for steering me to a lifelong advocacy and passion for the ALP.
And BTW because of my father's teaching tenure my sister and I received virtually free education at GGS and its girls' school affiliate in Geelong. All my parents had to purchase were school clothes and blazers --- and probably books.
Not sure about the last-named.
Posted by: Richard Jones | 21 April 2020 at 02:48 PM
Thanks Keith. Am really enjoying your reflections. I was on the verandah of Gateway Hotel waiting to go to airport and happened to meet Henry Lachajczyk and was having a beer with him and he told me someone had the day before brought up in parliament how shocking his Black & White magazine was and he had to be kicked out of New Guinea.
I found him to be such a witty fellow and enjoyed his company until all of a sudden we were surrounded by a television crew from Australia. He seemed to delight in being interviewed and I quickly snuck away before I was noticed.
The next day I was back in Aitape and did not hear if he was kicked out.
Posted by: Rob Parer | 21 April 2020 at 02:16 PM
Posh Oz is still around Chris. David Flint of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy fame does a good imitation. He was once head of the Australian Broadcasting Authority.
As for Rhodes scholars, my good mate Phillip Adams has pointed out that a succession of them of late haven't served Australia particularly well. Good at sports and other manly arts but not much chop when it comes to intelligence.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 21 April 2020 at 12:13 PM
I am enjoying your reminiscences Keith.
Your reference to the distinctive accent that was once a hallmark of the ABC led me to cast my mind back to my childhood, when that accent was much more common than it is today.
My recollection is that it was called a cultured or cultivated Australian accent, which the best private schools then strove to inculcate in their students.
Thus we had prime minister Malcolm Fraser's distinctive drawl, he being a product of Geelong Grammar. His wife Tammie spoke with a very similar accent having been educated at a very exclusive Melbourne private school for "gels".
Former foreign minister Alexander Downer, the third generation of his family to reach exalted political office, had a similar accent. He too was a graduate of Geelong Grammar and, later, Radley College in London.
In the mid 1970's we had a serious outbreak of rabid Australian nationalism, epitomised by the Ian Chappell led national cricket team, which was full of self confident and aggressive players who asked and gave no quarter.
Comedian Paul Hogan's marvellous social commentary and humour both celebrated and mocked the proverbial "dinkum Aussie", but clearly helped make the broad nasal accent of working class Australians a source of pride.
It is arguable that the election of Bob Hawke as prime minister, a Rhodes Scholar, Oxford graduate and all round larrikin, drove the final nails in the coffin of an accent many already regarded not as a sign of social cache but of pretension.
Nowadays the accent has largely disappeared. Even Geelong Grammar no longer strives to produce students who speak other than good, idiomatic English.
Its students still are disproportionately likely to find their way into the top jobs in the professions, business and conservative politics, but they no longer are readily distinguished by a faux BBC accent.
They now come from a much more diverse background than they once did and this is reflected in how the dominant accent of the well to do has changed over the years.
Given Australia's proud claims to be perhaps the world's most egalitarian country, the demise of the accent that you no doubt had to torture your tongue and larynx to learn must be regarded as a good thing.
So, onya mate!
Posted by: Chris Overland | 21 April 2020 at 10:40 AM
So you know Mike Carlton. I stopped buying the Sydney Morning Herald after they gave him the boot. After he left the SMH they tried to replace him with a series of smartarse writers who really got on my nerves.
I bought a copy of his wonderful book from the Kmart discount shelf for $4. Then Nine bought the SMH and the Melbourne Age and all its regional papers and proceeded to trash them all. None of them are now worth reading.
Apart from the limited and somewhat tedious The Saturday Paper, Australia now has no decent newspapers. And if that isn't bad enough the ABC seems to be trying to emulate the banality of the commercial television stations.
Thank goodness for the online papers like The Guardian. It's all quite sad.
Agree - KJ
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 21 April 2020 at 09:04 AM