Recorded: 10 July 2003
Length: 39 minutes
Interviewed by: Tony Duffy
Reference: OPH-OHI 48

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Interview with Bernard Freedman  

T Duffy: …Parliament House Canberra, one of the volunteers, and we’re doing a series on members of the press gallery who served in this building in the civil round to tell us what goes on, or what used to go on.

Our guest today is probably one of the most senior of the newspaper people in the print world, Bernie Freedman from The Jewish Times. Welcome, Bernie.

Bernard Freedman: Thank you. Where do we start? We’ll start from the beginning, as always.

T Duffy: Start from the beginning–how the press gallery exploded as the ENG (electronic news gathering) started. We had people working out of broom cupboards upstairs.

Bernard Freedman: I was lucky to escape that. I was here in the glory days, when the press gallery was a relatively quiet place where–I don’t know how many people there were but I was with the Melbourne Argus newspaper and I had an office up in the corner which later was overbuilt with some structure to accommodate Laurie Oakes–a very strong structure–and also Channel 9, I think, I don’t know what it was, but before that it was a large office, really large office, and there were two of us, I think, and one teleprinter machine and a couple of large armchairs and that was the way things were. That was a much more luxurious situation than came later.

Most of the offices, as I recall, were fairly comfortable. We also had a common room where people used to play table tennis.

T Duffy: That became the ABC studios.

Bernard Freedman: Yes, eventually, apparently–it was a long, long room which became the ABC studios, whereas in the time that I’m talking about the ABC occupied a couple of rooms next to the sole lavatory in the gallery, the unisex lavatory as it must have been, because as it happened at that time when I’m talking–I’m talking about the 1950s–my wife of that time was the only woman regularly based in Canberra in the press gallery. She was with the Daily Telegraph of which Ken Schapelle was the head and George Kerr, who is still with us but living up in Queensland, was a member of the staff, and there were some other people there, too.

Reverting to the gallery itself, the ABC, as I said, in those days, had two offices which were right next to the lavatory, occupied by three people, Jack Cummins who is no longer with us and one large gentleman called Frank Jost who was generally called Mr Justice Jost because he was always handing down judgements on almost anything that was happening. He was a remarkable character. There was also one other person there, named–I can’t think of his name; we called him ‘Cheery-bye’ because he was very English and he’d come out to Australia I think post-War and his farewell greeting was always Cheery-bye.

Cheery-bye at one time found himself sitting in the House of Representative, I think, and there were all these Ministers and other people sitting around there, and officials, and he couldn’t understand why there was nobody else from the press or the media, which was solely the press at that time, and he sat through these proceedings and he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t relieved by somebody else to come in and take over from him. He sat there all day and then he returned to the ABC office and confronted Jack Cohen about it and said, ‘This was a shocking thing, I’ve been sitting here all day, nobody came to see me, and yet the most interesting story there.’

It turned out that he was sitting in a closed meeting of the Loan Council at which the head of the State Governments, the Premiers of the States and the Treasurers of the States and the Federal Treasurer who would have been Artie Fadden at that time, and the Prime Minister of the day, were arguing the toss about how much money the Federal Government was going to give them from the tax collection to allow them to carry out their business.

He’d sat there all day listening to this highly confidential stuff and of course he never reported it. He didn’t realise apparently what he was sitting in.

T Duffy: That ABC room, the toilet opposite became fairly prominent, didn’t it, when Michelle Grattan was the first lady journalist up there.

Bernard Freedman: It would have been before because my wife of the time was a journalist there.

I can’t remember any particular repercussions about it.

T Duffy: I think they erased the word ‘male’ and it became a unisex toilet for a while.

Bernard Freedman: I don’t know how she managed, frankly. I never asked her, to tell you the truth. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to ask her, Where did you go to the loo? It could well be that she went downstairs and went to one of the other loos around the place, although there weren’t too many women’s loos, as I recall, because Members of Parliament were largely men and there weren’t too many women in the Parliament at that time.

There was Dame Annabelle Rankin, I think, in the Senate; Enid Lyons; Dorothy Tangney–not too many others.

Bernard Freedman: I’d started to come in here on a Saturday night for the Sunday Telegraph when we had a Canberra edition, the Rugby and the cricket, and it always struck me at about half past five or six o’clock on a bright Saturday evening, people would be sitting around in those rooms bored to tears, not knowing what the hell they were there for and what they were supposed to be doing. The copy chappy–you had to do your one paragraph, one par to a half sheet, put it through that little hatch in the room, and up would go the hatch and a hand would come out and take it. After about three weeks John Sauls, the sports bloke from Sydney, phoned me up and said, ‘What are you doing with your copy? We’re not getting any.’ I said, Well, I put it in at 20 past 5 this week, and he said, ‘Did you put a couple of cans of Tooheys on it?–I said, No, and he said, ‘Well, until you do you won’t get your copy through.’

T Duffy: Where was this?

Bernard Freedman: In the room that was the library–that became the linotype room and the little hatch would go up, the hand would come out, in would go the two chitties, followed by the copy.

I heard stories before my time here, but I can remember people telling me, that in the earlier days here they used to put their copy down the chute and it used to go across to East Block where the post office was and where the post office telegraphists were, and they used to send their copy there.

There was apparently one occasion when there was god-awful trouble because the whole lot got jammed in the chute so nobody got any news copy at all.

Going back to the old gallery and looking around, I’m trying to picture it in my mind, going round it–opposite from this lavatory which seems to be a focal point of our discussion -

T Duffy: It was the only one up there.

Bernard Freedman: Yes, that’s right–was the office of the Sydney Daily Mirror and that included two marvellous characters: one Kevin Power who was here for many, many years and a very good journalist, and his offsider at the time, one Les Love. I don’t know whether -

T Duffy: He was around for quite a few years.

Bernard Freedman: Les was around–Les was a remarkable person. He was noted for his capacity for drinking of one sort or another and he was known as ‘Lapper’ because his shoulders used to go up with his arm and the glass and he used to drink like that. He used to do the overnight bit for the Mirror. In those days the first editions of the afternoon papers came out, started very early at about half past seven or eight o’clock in the morning, they’d be looking for copy, and he used to have to sit in the gallery at night, and in those days Parliament sat much more regularly at night than it does now, and it used to until half past ten or eleven o’clock at night, and sometimes even longer, and he used to sit there listening, he used to sit there so that he could report what was going on.

After a rather long dinner time spent in the non-Members bar, and several other occasional visits to that establishment, by the time he got to the press gallery he would be somewhat–he was never under the weather; he always denied that he was ever under the weather–he was just a bit tired. So he used to go to sleep. His head would go down on the bench in front of him in the gallery there, his head would be down there, but he had the capacity, or something, to wake up the moment somebody said anything newsworthy. It was remarkable. He’d be asleep and suddenly he’d wake up and he’d start writing, take notes, of whatever they said, and then somewhere along the line he’d actually get to write them. He was quite extraordinary like that. He was able to do that and he did it year in and year out: fall asleep, wake up in time just when somebody said anything worthwhile. He was a very, very remarkable character.

T Duffy: It has been said to me that in the wee small hours of the morning down in the non-Members bar you could start a rumour and run like hell and come through the front door and it would meet you going down the stairs.

Bernard Freedman: Yes, that’s probably true. It was a remarkable place, and it’s the sort of thing that’s missed most in this big new building up the hill there, the temple, because they did have a non-Members bar but it was long way from the press gallery and it is said, claimed, reported, that Mungo MacCallum left the press gallery because he said it was far too far to go from the press gallery to the non-Members bar in the old building.

T Duffy: There was a story about Mungo. David Stafford down at the non-Members bar went down there as manager for a while and he used to maintain that you could always tell the time of day by when Mungo MacCallum fell backwards off his stool for the first time after Question Time. He said the hairy legs go up in the air and away he’d go, pick himself up, dust himself down.

Bernard Freedman: It was a very important institution, as a matter of fact, because it was a place where Members would meet with the press in a very free and easy atmosphere, and it wasn’t necessarily to get scoops or to trade secrets, although I suppose there would have been a few done that way, but it was a place where people could really get together every day. You can’t do that in the new building.

T Duffy: I remember on the night of the Dismissal it was like a tomb down there. No one could believe that what had happened had actually happened. Peter Harvey said he couldn’t understand what had happened. It was just a dead silence. There’s usually a bit of repartee and rude words going around down there, but it was like a sepulchre that night–shaking their heads, saying, ‘What’s happened?’

How do you rate the new one for media purposes? Very good, I presume?

Bernard Freedman: The buildings, the press gallery, the office of course are good. It’s carpeted, but then there’s been a big change in newspaper offices and so on. Because of the introduction of word processors, which are much quieter than typewriters, it’s almost churchlike in there. One of the interesting things compared with the old gallery, you don’t hear any raucous laughter, you don’t hear the rattle of typewriters, or for that matter the rattle of teleprinter machines because they don’t have teleprinter machines. Anything that you get these days comes up on the screen and it’s all very quiet.

From that point of view, I suppose, the modern press gallery is a more comfortable place but not a very interesting place; in fact, it doesn’t have the atmosphere, but then the whole place doesn’t have the atmosphere that this old building had and still has in away. You can still see the ghosts running around the place here.

Which reminds me also, yet another story, no doubt there are so many stories you’ve probably heard most of them anyway–the alleged hearing post in one of the offices where apparently there was a claim that if you listened through the pipe carrying the heating or something up from down below, you could hear what went on in the party room. It was the Opposition party room.

I never had the pleasure of discovering whether that was true or not, but at the time I was there, there were enough leaks from that party room, the Labor party room, you didn’t need to listen to that.

That was at the start and through the period of the big split in the Labor party, the DLP.

T Duffy: What were they called? ‘The groupers.’

Bernard Freedman: ‘The industrial groupers’. ‘Catholic action’ was another term that was used. They eventually became the Democratic Labor Party, but in those days, when that was going on, you’d get phone calls. It wasn’t as if I was terribly closely associated with any of them, even though I was reporting, I’d get phone calls from them, people would phone me after a meeting to tell me their story of what went on in there.

There was one particular character from Tasmania who had the remarkable initials of V.D. Morgan. I can’t even remember what the V.D. stood for except what though it stood for. He used to phone and occasionally Stan Keon would phone, and one day, right at the height of this performance of this fighting that was going on, it was a particularly dramatic time when Evatt, I think, leapt up on the table to address the stormy multitude in there, I got so many phone calls from so many of these dissident members, the DLP, that all I had on what–in those days you didn’t get a real briefing, a debriefing. These days in Parliament, in the new House, you get a debriefing of the party meeting, the Coalition and the Labor party meetings, and the Democrats and the others put out notes about what was discussed, and if you want to follow it up you can with the appropriate people; but in those days there was nothing. The party meetings, they never ever told you what went on. I think you might have got a very brief - very, very brief indication from Doc Evatt about what went on.

This particular time it was such a stormy meeting and I was sitting in the office–I always remember this–about six or seven o’clock in the evening and I was writing the story on the basis of all this stuff I’d heard from all these people phoning me, and I suddenly thought, this is one side of the story and that’s all there is. Again this shows the intimacy of the building as it was as a Parliament and the access you had to Ministers and Opposition leaders and so on, which you don’t have now.

So I just walked down the stairs from the press gallery and knocked on the door of the Leader of the Opposition, Doc Evatt’s main office, I think he had one secretary, he wouldn’t have had many, and walked in. And there was this scene: there was just this desk light on, shining on the desk, and the Doc sitting there, no other light, it was quite dark, there was Doc sitting behind there. I said to him, ‘I’ve got all this stuff about what went on in the Caucus this morning and it’s all from the other side and I have no indication whatever from your side, your side of the story. What happened?’

He didn’t say anything to me. He said, ‘Clyde,’–and he turned round, there was Clyde Cameron sitting in the shadows to his right–he said, ‘Clyde, perhaps you could help,’ and he, Doc Evatt, got up and walked out.

Clyde Cameron produced a piece of paper from his pocket and then proceeded to read what purported to be his report or notes of what occurred, and he gave me this great thing. That was quite extraordinary.

That sort of thing could happen there. I can’t imagine it happening in the new building. It was the sort of thing that happened in this old building.

The last day I spent in Parliament House, in this Old Parliament House–I came here in 1951 and I always remember it was 1951 and particularly it was about the first time I sat in the press gallery in the House of Reps there was the first Naval Force being sent off to Korea. This was before they sent the Army up there. It was announced that particular day and I think in my memory that was about the first day I was here.

I came here at that time because the man who was in charge of the Melbourne Argus office, now no longer, long defunct newspaper, the man who was here had suddenly died. He died under the shower or something in the morning and there was somebody else here, Jack Patterson, I don’t know whether Jack’s around any more these days, certainly not in Canberra, he had died so I was asked or virtually told to go to Canberra, temporarily, and I was there temporarily until now–that’s 51 years.

I started with the Argus in 1951 and I was with them for five years, and I went from being the number three to the head of the service, head of bureau, in those years: 1951 to 1955, towards end of 1955.

Then having a difference with the editor of the newspaper at the time, I left and 12 months later the Argus folded. I always like to put it in those terms.

The fact is that at that time–I’ve got off the line of the story I was about to tell you–about this period of time–oh yes, indicating the intimacy of the place compared with the new place.

It was a Sunday and I was clearing my desk to leave Parliament House when I decided, it was Sunday afternoon, I decided I’d pop down and see Hughie Dash. Hugh Dash was Prime Minister Menzies’ press secretary. It was a rather strange choice because Hughie Dash had been (a) a crime writer and a sports writer and (b) a writer for Smith’s Weekly and I’m sure the Prime Minister engaged him as press secretary more for his amusement and entertainment than for anything else, although he was a very good journalist.

Anyway, I went down to see Hughie and Hughie was sitting in a little office about the size of a broom cupboard down on the ministerial level, that lobby, and I was just saying hello to Hughie and we were talking, and he was just about reaching down for his bottle of sherry to offer me a drink when the Prime Minister stuck his head round the door, Menzies. This would be about two or three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon.

Hughie said, ‘Oh, Bernie Freedman’s leaving’ and the PM–the Prime Minister and I had never got on as well as one might think, particularly as the Argus at that time had become a Labor newspaper and I’d already had some problems with him in the course of that period. Nevertheless, he said, ‘Come and have a drink’ and so we went into the–there was a little anteroom, the Cabinet room, and we sat there. I spent the entire afternoon from then on drinking his whisky and him drinking whisky, too, while he regaled me with stories and all sorts of things, the way he could. He was a great storyteller. Stories of all sorts about his life and his experiences. I didn’t have to say a word. It was a very great conversation.

T Duffy: This building lends itself to that sort of proximity to people. Up in the new place it’s like marble halls.

Bernard Freedman: The ministerial area in the new building is set off completely; it’s in a separate wing of the building, and the offices are big there, there are huge staffs now.

In the days of the Prime Minister, Hazel Craig was a sort of typist-secretary and there may have been somebody else. There was his secretary, Jeff–I can’t think of his name; he was the head of the department at a later time. There may be three or four people at the most in the Prime Minister’s office. Now there’s half a dozen people at least in every Minister’s office and you just can’t walk in and see them. You used to be able to walk in, for instance Harold Holt–in fact, there was a system in this old place here where some of the members of the press gallery, not the most senior ones but the number twos around the place, used to get together in the morning and walk round from office to office. They’d do a round of calls and they’d call in to see this Minister and that Minister, knock on the door and go in and see them. You could go in and see Harold Holt, you’d just knock on the door and he’d say ‘come in’ and there he was.

That’s totally out of the question now.

T Duffy: All of that’s gone, hasn’t it. That closeness to the politicians, closeness to the history. When you look at this old building now, now all the reconstruction work’s done, and somebody managed to save the old part of the press gallery–they were going to rip that all out, and now they’re saying it’s a pity we didn’t keep one of those old metal sheds that used to be up on the roof towards the end. They’ve all gone, and they were dreadful.

Bernard Freedman: There were a lot of people up there. I think the Financial Review was up there at that time, certainly Rob Chalmers.

T Duffy: There was no air-conditioning.

Bernard Freedman: No, I remember them. You had to walk across the roof to get to them.

T Duffy: You put two electric fires on and the fuse would blow.

Bernard Freedman: Yes, it was an amazing place. All the things that used to happen around this place in those days. Billy Hughes–in 1951 it was the Jubilee of the Commonwealth, the 50th anniversary of the Commonwealth, and Billy Hughes, who sat right in the front row (looking from the press gallery it was to the right in the front row), not in the Ministerial benches but just slightly round the corner, he used to sit there and he had this hearing aid which he used to turn up and cause all sorts of trouble for the people broadcasting. You’d get a howl-back off the microphone from his hearing aid. He was shockingly deaf.

This was the Commonwealth Jubilee 1951. Of course he was in the very first Parliament, from 1901, so he got up and made his speech, the usual one. If he did make a speech, which he used to do about once a year, it was almost the identical speech about ‘populate or perish’, it was almost exactly the same speech.

So he made this speech this time and I thought you can’t report what he said, there’s nothing to report about what he said, except that he said it, that he did speak. So I thought, I must find out how many speeches he’s made in the Parliament in these 50 years. So I thought, I’m not going to try and talk to him because it’s impossible with his deaf aid and shouting, so I sent him a note: ‘Dear Mr Hughes, Could you tell me, in the 50 years of your time in Federal Parliament how many speeches you’ve made in that time?’

In a while I got a little note back, some time later an attendant came with a note saying, ‘Dear Mr Beedman’–he deliberately got the name wrong, you could almost hear him saying–‘I don’t know how many speeches I’ve made in 50 years, but I’m sure I’ve made fewer than most and said a great deal more.’

I gave that note to the National Museum in the days before it opened and I don’t know what’s happened to it, where it is, where it’s filed. I should have given it to the National Library, I think, but I gave it to the National Museum and I haven’t the slightest idea where it is now. It’s probably catalogued somewhere. I always remember that about Billy. It was one of those things you remember about the time.

I just keep looking at the little list I’ve got in my hand because it reminds of things like the Petrov business. I was here during that, when we were all chasing around Canberra looking for Mr Petrov.

In fact what happened, George Kerr from the Telegraph and I decided we would go to the Soviet Embassy and knock on the door and see what we could find out. We had a list of questions we wanted to ask the Ambassador, Generalov. So we went over there and knocked on the door, and to our surprise not only did they open the door but they invited us in.

So we sat there for a while while two hefty characters, one of whom at least was later immortalised in those photographs of Mrs Petrov being dragged off–he was a big fellow with a big suspicious bulge under his arm–and in the shade of two grim portraits of Lenin and Stalin.

Finally they said Generalov, the Ambassador, is at lunch, and he came back and we talked to him and we got an interview with him. We asked him where Mrs Petrov was and he said, ‘She’s here, upstairs’ but he wouldn’t let us see here.

So we got quite a good run on that story and the next day the Sydney Morning Herald, which had badly missed out, had a story about which I have very strong suspicions, of how they interviewed this tearful Mrs Petrov at the Embassy. I don’t know whether that ever happened. It might have done; who am I to say, but it seems strange that the first day we were refused, the second day somebody turns up and they agree.

The other thing here, the famous thing that always sticks in my mind, was the famous case of Fitzpatrick and Browne where they brought these two people before the Bar of the Parliament, Fitzpatrick having been the owner of a newspaper in the Bankstown area which included some articles written by Browne which were considered by a committee to be a breach of Parliamentary privilege because they said some nasty things about the then member for that area whose name escapes me, and always will, I think.

Browne and Fitzpatrick faced these people. Both sides of Parliament were attacking them, including the Hon. E.G Whitlam, on the Opposition side, and Menzies at his best on the Government side, attacked them. Archie Cameron was the speaker. They especially polished the Bar of the House.

Fitzpatrick was a trembling, frightened figure before this multitude, but Browne stood up to them and clicked his heels, practically gave them the Nazi salute and really had his say. Then, of course, they were both hauled off to prison where they were only rescued eventually by a writ of habeas corpus. It’s something that will never, ever happen again, one would hope.

T Duffy: That was just before I left the UK and I was working in the House of Common Library, I remember as the stuff came out from the tickertape machine there, there were members saying, ‘What’s going on in Australia?’

Bernard Freedman: It would have been very strange.

T Duffy: There was one of those old tickertape machines and it came through: ‘Browne and Fitzpatrick to appear before the Bar of the House’ etc. It was high treason if you had to do that.

Bernard Freedman: It was extraordinary; it certainly hadn’t happened before and it’s never happened again. The Privileges Committee is very careful about what it does these days.

T Duffy: Thank you very much. It was a great pleasure, knowing that will be in our archives for future generations.

Bernard Freedman: I’ll look forward to telling my grandchildren about it. They can come to Parliament House and discover their old granddad.

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