Bryan Butler, born in 1944, was a radio journalist with 2CA from approximately 1965 to 1968.
Interview with Bryan Butler, part 1
A Blanckensee: This is an interview with Bryan Butler who was a radio journalist with 2CA from approximately 1965 to 1968. Bryan will be speaking with Andrew Blank… for the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. On behalf of the Director of the Museum Bryan I would like to thank you for agreeing to participate in the program. Do you understand that the Commonwealth owns copyright in the interview material but disclosure will be subject to any disclosure restrictions you impose in completing the rights agreement?
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: Okay, thank you. That being so may we have your permission to make a transcript or a summary of the recording should we decide to make one?
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: Great. The interview is taking place today on 22nd June 2015 at the Museum in Canberra. Can we begin Bryan talking a little bit about your background. I sent you some questions so maybe if you could just tell me about your parents, where you lived and little bit about your background that you would like to share with us for the record.
B Butler: Yes, well going way back of course, the root ancestry is quite a mixture from England, the Isle of Man, Ireland and Scotland, so it’s quite a mixture. My parents were British stock and they — my father was the disciplinarian, which is often the case, especially in those days, and gave me the moral compass. My mum was the person who gave me all the love and kindness. I hopefully have combined the two and brought those through in my dealings with people today.
A Blanckensee: Right. Had they migrated to Australia? Are we talking about two or three generations further back, the migration process?
B Butler: Yes, two generations back migrated to Australia. I went back and saw my great-grandparents place at the Isle of Man which was still in existence after, I think it was four hundred years it had been there. That was quite a moving time to go back. Likewise to Ireland, our ancestors owned the Kilkenny Castle so I went back to try and claim it, or reclaim but to no avail.
A Blanckensee: A few people had got there before you.
B Butler: That’s right. So my parents were from Sydney and from Hinton near Newcastle.
A Blanckensee: What was the name of the place near Newcastle?
B Butler: Hinton.
A Blanckensee: I don’t know it, is it a fairly small place?
B Butler: Yes, a very, very small place. My grandfather was a farmer. My dad was very poor. Mum’s parents were a little bit better off. They were in the accounting business. Dad was very bright, much brighter than me. He ended up going through Sydney University and getting Honours degrees there and he was able to put my son through there as well to get a double Honours degree through Sydney University. My forte was at the lower level and I always was keen on radio and so that was where I was heading.
Going back a step, I was born in Sydney, although I don’t remember much about it because, after six months my parents — dad being headmaster, well at that stage a teacher, but he wanted to be a headmaster and get a promotion. He went to the department and they said, the best way was to go west, which is what he did. He ended up at a two teacher school which he was principal of, or headmaster as they were called in those days. He took us all out to Bilbul which is six …
A Blanckensee: I’ve heard of Bulbul. B Butler: … yes six miles out of Griffith, between Griffith and Yenda. Of course the place now where De Bortoli Wines and McWilliams Wines are. Those boys went to our school …
A Blanckensee: The De Bortoli?
B Butler: Yes, the De Bortoli brothers.
A Blanckensee: So they must have been the first generation, because De Bortoli was founded in the ‘20s I think, so it must have been the next generation.
B Butler: Yes, the next generation.
A Blanckensee: Oh very interesting.
B Butler: I guess the background is that my dad was a very kind person but very visionary for his time. We’re talking about the mid-to-late ‘40s. He went to the school and he had a P&C Meeting, his first P&C meeting. Of course it’s a very large Italian community there, refugees from World War Two. After the P&C meeting a lot of them came up because they couldn’t read and write, with documents — the standard sort of documents you get from government for this and that. They asked him if he would read it to them, tell them what they should do, which he did. Then they were pulling out their wallets to give him money and he said, ‘What’s this?’ they said ‘We give you money’ and he said ‘No, no, no definitely not, absolutely not’ and they said ‘Well the previous headmaster did’ [laughs]. Things were tough in those days. I was running around with bare feet but he said, no, he said, ‘On top of that, if you’re willing, as you seem to be, to get ahead, then every … ‘ I think it was Tuesday night ‘I’ll run an English class, English as a second language, and you can learn to read and write’.
A Blanckensee: Fantastic.
B Butler: Yes, so that was, as I said earlier that was the moral compass that he gave me to help people. He also had quite a few Aboriginal people, fringe dwellers as they were then. But once again brought them into the community, community functions and the teaching and so forth. So that taught me a lot of tolerance for people that were just not the normal, as it was in those days, the normal European stock, sort of thing.
A Blanckensee: Sure, interesting, and I bet there wasn’t any Italian taught in the school for non-Italian students …
B Butler: No.
A Blanckensee: … that wouldn’t have been a thought at that stage.
B Butler: Well of course it was only a primary school. Dad very quickly realized that it’s much easier to keep young kids in line than to be trying to keep teenagers, fifteen and sixteen year olds in line, so he opted for the primary schools.
A Blanckensee: Yes, very interesting. You mentioned radio, that you had an early interest in radio, so how did that start, that interest?
B Butler: Yes, I was interested in radio and interested in politics, both my dad introduced me to it. At that stage we were living Gunning and he was headmaster of the intermediate school, I think it was called, which was primary and up to intermediate high. He took us across to Goulburn to get our hair cut and grocery shopping and things like that. He said to us one day, would you like to go in and see the radio station, because we had 2GN Goulburn on the radio at the time. Of course, I’m only six, seven years old and we were listening to Uncle, whatever his name was, Ken I think it was, on the radio, dishing out the stories and things. So, yes, we thought this would be great. I had no idea what radio was so we went along there and for the first time saw a radio announcer on the other side of the glass. We were then actually taken into the studio and introduced to him, while the record was on, then he gave us a cheerio as we were driving home. So here’s my name coming out of the — mine and my two brothers, out of the radio, wow, this was just amazing stuff. He played a song for us, ‘The Little White Duck’ which I now sing to the elderly at retirement villages. I was just absolutely fascinated with radio from there on.
Later on we had 2LF come over, the introduction of television and the latest Holden that was coming out, back in the mid-‘50s. They had a closed circuit television running plus the broadcast was on from 2LF from Young. Once again I went down there, my face stuck to the glass, won one of the competitions and so got my first album, which I cherish and still have to this day. So it was in my blood.
My mother’s side, my mother was keen on entertainment, that goes back to a lady Sarah Lane her name was, way back in the 19th century in Britain where she appeared on stage and we are descendants from that. Mum was always very shy so she was always in a choir but she loved music — so did dad but mum even more so, and she loved to sing. So we’d always hear her singing around the place. So I love singing as well. So it’s that mixture of the music, the voice and the radio station, the mystique of the radio station.
A Blanckensee: Yes, very interesting, that might be a good segue into how you got into 2CA. If you had this interest in radio, did you then — where you looking out for opportunities to get work or some sort of training in radio or did it happen coincidently?
B Butler: No, I’ve been fortunate in life that I think — I was contemplating this the other day. I think that nearly every job that I’ve got, I’ve been headhunted, and that was the case with 2CA. I was at Lyneham High School at the time and I had joined the radio enthusiasts group where kids would make radios, amplifiers and things like that and because I’d already dealt with this and had some knowledge about it — Mathias I think was his name, the teacher, Maths teacher. He asked us, the seniors to help the juniors. I remember one time the kid saying that his amplifier wouldn’t work but he reckoned the power supply did. So I made the mistake of picking up the amplifier and the power supply together only to find that he’d crossed wired and I copped [laughs] three hundred volts across me. I dropped it very quickly. But, yes we would sort out their problems and give them encouragement and so forth.
A Blanckensee: So what sort of time was this, you said you were at Lyneham High, do you remember the year?
B Butler: Yes, ’62-’63 was the period. It was the first classes to go through Lyneham High School, it was a new school. The music came into it there as well. The Sports’ Master was booking the social and he found it was going to cost some horrendous amount, in his words, to hire this band to play at our social. He came back to us and he called five of us in and he said, he told us the story, he said, that’s outrageous and he said, ‘We can do it ourselves’. He pointed to Richard and he said, ‘You can play the piano’ and sure Richard could, he could play anything, any key, which was terrific. Another guy, can’t remember his name, Ian I think, anyway — he could play the sax, another guy could play the guitar, and he turned to he and he said, ‘Bryan and you can play the drums can’t you’ and I said ‘Oh yeah’. I’d never played the drums in my life [laughs] but I think he’d seen me doing this with pencils on the desk. I certainly had the rhythm. By saying, yes I can, I was confident that with a bit of practice I could do it, master it, which we did.
A Blanckensee: So you played at the social.
B Butler: So we played at the socials and apparently we were good enough that some of the other school were then asking us to come and play at their place.
A Blanckensee: Someone heard you from a radio station or how did that link you to 2CA?
B Butler: No, Mathias the radio guy was talking to 2CA and Peter Carrodus who was the manager at the time and they were looking for an apprentice to start work there. He said to me — I was in my last year with the Leaving Certificate, as it was then, and he came to me and he said, ‘They’re looking for someone and I think you’d fit the bill, with your interest in radio, as well as interest in the electronic side’. He said, ‘Get in there and go from there’ which I did. I was pleased to become the first Apprentice of the Year in Canberra. I think it was about two and a half thousand apprentices across all the trades, which was exciting.
A Blanckensee: So what did that involve? Did you have — obviously you had on the job training. Did you have to go to Canberra Tech?
B Butler: Yes, to the Canberra Tech, one day per week and then you take that knowledge back and they would — fortunately we had a number of technicians at the station and they would talk about what I’d learned and then show it to me in practice. It was an electrical trades certificate so I could be a qualified sparky but I think branched out into the broadcasting side as well and got the Broadcasting Operators Certificate to enable to operate broadcast stations and things like that.
A Blanckensee: Okay. You’ve got a copy of the certificate, Bryan’s showing me the actual document.
B Butler: The Apprentice of the Year …
A Blanckensee: Fantastic.
B Butler: … which got me a trip for two. I was only just recently married, across to New Zealand for three weeks, and was feted by every Mayor of each town.
A Blanckensee: [laughs] And have you got a collection of photographs from the trip? I’m sure you have …
B Butler: Certainly have.
A Blanckensee: Local papers that you were featured in [laughs], fantastic.
B Butler: That’s right, yes.
A Blanckensee: Fantastic.
B Butler: So it was good, Barry might be interested in having copies of these. I don’t know, we’ll ask him when we finish. Alright, thanks, that’s great. When we were talking before we started recording you said, when you were at 2CA you basically had to do whatever was going and that included interviews. When would you have started doing those interviews? Towards the end of your apprenticeship, or was it early on?
A Blanckensee: I was one of these ‘can do’ type people. Sometimes got me into trouble but more often than not it was a case of common sense. I always had the stations business at heart that everything had to reflect professionally well on the station. Of course that also meant that, hopefully it reflected back on me as well with accolades from the boss or whoever it might be. So, if for instance, I remember one weekend there was a flood in one of the sponsors shops and he came knocking on the door and he said, I have this problem, I need to quickly advertise such and such. So I said, come in, I was the only one there at the time. So we sat down at a typewriter, the old manual typewriter, and thumped out some copy that he was happy with that covered the flood sale or whatever it was that he needed to do at the time.
Now that meant that he went away, and of course, on the Monday he then rang up the boss and thanked the station, and hence therefore me, for the terrific support and blah blah blah. It got money for the station, big tick all round.
I must say though I did have a boss on the technical side, the Chief Technician at the time, he was a very try old chap, lovely bloke, but he was old school and he said ‘Why would you worry about doing all that silly stuff for?’ [laughs].
A Blanckensee: Yes, you wouldn’t want to do anything outside of your job description, that would be very unwise.
B Butler: [laughs] No, that’s right, very unwise, stupid boy.
A Blanckensee: Okay.
B Butler: Likewise, to answer your questions, likewise with journalism, if something had to be done, something had to be recorded, someone had to be interviewed, then you raced out and you did it. If you were the person available. If things were a little bit light on in the station at the time or we had an extra bod, or I walked in — sometimes I’d — because I just loved the place I’d be there after hours as well, or before hours. If they needed something, ‘Yes, I’ll do it’. So off I’d go.
Mind you, as I said, that sometimes can get you into trouble because, although I was deeply interested by that stage in politics, I hadn’t put names to faces, with a lot of the Members at the time. I remember going — being asked to go and record Malcolm Fraser’s conference, Press Conference that he was going to give, a statement. All I had to do was record it and maybe ask some questions afterwards if he was going to allow any.
A Blanckensee: When are we talking — have you got an idea of a date that would have been? Was he a Minister, or was he still a Backbencher?
B Butler: No, he was Minister for Army, I think it was, or Defence.
A Blanckensee: He was Minister for Defence at one stage.
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: I don’t know whether he was actually …
B Butler: Yes, I think he was Minister for the Army.
A Blanckensee: He may have been Minister for the Army as well, so we’re talking probably it was …
B Butler: Mid-‘60s, yes. So I went over to his house to record him.
A Blanckensee: Was this the famous J.M. Fraser house that has just gone on the market in Deakin?
B Butler: That’s right, yes I think so.
A Blanckensee: In Deakin?
B Butler: Yes, I think so.
A Blanckensee: Interesting, and what happened?
B Butler: Well, of course I rocked up as bold as brass with my tape recorder, which was an old reel to reel and Sennheiser microphone and I went up to the chap who looked very official and I said ‘Mr Fraser, where will you be sitting, where can I set up the equipment?’ and he said, ‘Well, if you mean Malcolm Fraser, that’s him standing over there, and he’ll be sitting over here’.
A Blanckensee: So who were you talking to?
B Butler: I was talking to his Press Secretary [laughs].
A Blanckensee: [laughs] I thought you were going to tell me he was the gardener. Yes, okay, interesting. So, just harking back a bit — what’s your first memory of your first interview you did here? I think you said you did ten to twelve interviews over a certain period, what’s your memory of your first interview you would have done in this building?
B Butler: The interview, it was only a short one, was after the election of John Gorton as Prime Minister.
A Blanckensee: So we’re talking about ’67.
B Butler: ’67, yes.
A Blanckensee: And it was an interview with Gorton himself?
B Butler: Yes, on the steps of Parliament House, and that’s what appeared then in the Bulletin. Just he and I, and of course my mates back at 2CA covered up the — will Gorton make it, and they said, will Butler make it.
A Blanckensee: I’m sure Barry will be interested in a copy of that if he hasn’t already got one of those. So was that a door stop or was it pre-arranged?
B Butler: It was a door stop. I didn’t do any pre-arranged interviews, by that stage we were getting — Brian Minards was the journalist who — he was an announcer but he took on the news room and we established the news room. So he was the one who was doing all the official stuff and part of the Press Club etcetera.
A Blanckensee: So in terms of your technique for a door stop, what did you find the most effective way of getting your microphone, or your question in so that the politician actually responded to your questions?
B Butler: Well, as you can see from that photo, there is only a couple of mics there. I positioned myself on the steps of this Old Parliament House, in a position where I knew he’d be coming down to meet the crowd. So I positioned myself so that I could ask the questions and there’s a third person in this picture, not actually in the picture, but asking a questions. I’d ask the questions before that … what are you feeling …
A Blanckensee: So that was immediately before — was this after the announcement of the result of the ballot or was it before?
B Butler: This is after, yes, after and he came out.
A Blanckensee: Interesting, and do you remember what he said? Do you have any memory of his — obviously he was in a fairly buoyant mood by the look of things.
B Butler: That’s right, yes he was, and once again, in that situation he was quite willing to answer any questions. So I was asking him about how he felt at the time, what was his first decisions to make as Prime Minister.
A Blanckensee: And the response?
B Butler: He sort of battered that one off by saying that he had to have a lot of discussions with senior bureaucrats first to work out the way forward.
A Blanckensee: Interesting.
B Butler: Of course he had fought off his — I’m trying to think whether it was McMahon then.
A Blanckensee: Well the other candidates then would have been, Hasluck would have been a candidate, and McMahon would have been a candidate as well.
B Butler: Yes, and of course, there’s a story to that. We had a position just above the room where they met to — the Liberal Party met to vote for their new leader who would then automatically become Prime Minister.
A Blanckensee: So was it the government Party Room?
B Butler: Yes, and we had a position just above the — on the stairs and we had the radio and the mics open, back to Macquarie Broadcasting, and 2GB Sydney, and then out to the network. It was a big thing because this was as a result of the death of Harold Holt which I’ll cover as well. We had a senator who we had — being able to convince to come out — of course those days they wore their suits and his coat on. If you took the handkerchief from the inside pocket, it was Gorton, if you took it out of the front of his pocket, it was Hasluck, I think was the other contender. He came out, one of the first out of the meeting, and we saw him take it out of the inside, so we shot up the two stairs and went straight on air and said, the new Prime Minister is John Grey Gorton. Then, of course Tony Eggleton comes out about ten minutes later and says, ‘I’d like to announce …’ and we said, ‘yeah, yeah we know it’s Gorton’[laughs]. He was not impressed.
A Blanckensee: He was probably a little bit put off, was he?
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: Tony was — from memory was quite easy to read if he was in a good or bad mood …
B Butler: That’s right, yes.
A Blanckensee: … when he was in public.
B Butler: Well he wasn’t happy at that stage.
A Blanckensee: Alright, let’s hark back to the Harold Holt issue, because you’ve mentioned to me, when we were having email correspondence that you’ve got a particular link to the events around Harold Holt’s disappearance, do you want to background that and then explain what happened, your part in the communication of that news to Australia?
B Butler: I didn’t realize until later on how important that moment was because it was just all unfolding and happening so fast. You’ve got to think back to the ‘60s where the old telephone exchanges had those push cables, pull one out and put another one in.
A Blanckensee: Yes.
B Butler: That is what we also had for our broadcast lines to 2GB Macquarie, or 3AW etcetera. I was going to squirt — we had Frank Chamberlain who was a political broadcaster …
A Blanckensee: You said you were going to squirt?
B Butler: Squirt them down the line [laughs].
A Blanckensee: So that’s a bit of jargon.
B Butler: Jargon.
A Blanckensee: A bit of radio jargon.
B Butler: Feed the sound down the line. It was to be the Frank Chamberlain program to be broadcast later on.
A Blanckensee: So when are we talking, is this December ’66.
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: It was immediately before Christmas, or just after Christmas? I’m not exactly sure. I know it was around about Christmas time.
B Butler: I can’t remember.
A Blanckensee: You’re not sure, we can actually check that. It’s easy enough to check historical — so you were preparing a program …
B Butler: Yes, to send it down the line to 2GB.
A Blanckensee: You can use squirt now, I know what you mean by squirt.
B Butler: [laughs] So to do that we would plug ours in, from the studio, or the tape recorder, whatever it might be, into the line going out of the station and then we’d ring up on the old wind-up phones the PMG as they were called in those days, Telstra now. The chap came on the line after a while and he said, ‘Oh sorry, I’m really busy, can I ring you back?’. I said, ‘Yes, what’s the problem?’. He said ‘Harold Holt’s gone missing, I’m just patching it into Cheviot Beach, a line so that we have connection’.
A Blanckensee: And Cheviot Beach, of course was the beach near Portsea where Holt had been …
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: … he had a house down there and he used to go there quite regularly didn’t he.
B Butler: Quite regularly, he was a great swimmer and loved his swimming, and a bit of a dare devil which was a bad concoction in this case.
A Blanckensee: So you heard that there was a need to patch the line?
B Butler: Yes, and I said to him, ‘Can I broadcast that?’ and he said ‘Oh God no’. I persisted and I said ‘How about I say a senior minister?’ and he paused for a while and he said ‘Yeah I suppose’ because that didn’t identify. So I raced in and Steve was on, Steve Liebmann was on the Sunday afternoon program at the time. I said, ‘Quick, give me a mic’. He was always fairly cautious and he wasn’t too sure, but we went ahead and I remember saying, ‘A senior member of the Holt government had gone missing off Cheviot beach, feared drowned’. And then, of course, all hell broke loose as the other networks got wind of it.
A Blanckensee: So do you remember what happened. I mean you were deluged with phone calls or did they then contact — they would have then made contact with government, ministerial …
B Butler: They made contact direct.
A Blanckensee: … whatever, network contacts.
B Butler: They had their own contacts, but we have a news flash alert system that goes off and it went off.
A Blanckensee: So would that have been the announcement on radio across the country that you made?
B Butler: No mine was just for 2CA.
A Blanckensee: So it would have just gone on — would it have been networked anywhere or just would have been local?
B Butler: Not at that stage, no, because at that stage my first thing was to get it on air and then to send it down the line but by that stage Macquarie in Sydney had got the information or Melbourne, one of the two.
A Blanckensee: So you had the local scoop?
B Butler: Well yes, that’s right, I was the first in Australia to announce that …
A Blanckensee: A senior minister …
B Butler: A senior minister …
A Blanckensee: What did you say, senior minister or senior member?
B Butler: Senior minister, no I even got down to the cabinet, senior minister.
A Blanckensee: Well saying Cheviot beach you didn’t have to be a genius to work out.
B Butler: That was my point that — yes, people just very quickly added two and two because the many photos as you know of Holt on the beach at Cheviot with women and his daughters, or whoever it might be and fishing.
A Blanckensee: I was down there a couple of years ago and I didn’t realize quite how rugged that beach is.
B Butler: Yes, I went down myself just to …
A Blanckensee: It’s a pretty exposed beach.
B Butler: It’s very exposed and you can see the seaweed swirling around, you can see how that sort of thing could happen.
A Blanckensee: Absolutely, so was there any immediate follow-up to that? Did you get kudos from your superiors for doing that, or was that just expected that was an opportunity and you took the chance.
B Butler: No, Peter thought it was terrific. Of course my mates took the, they just did the Aussie thing and just chopped me down to size [laughs].
A Blanckensee: Cutting down the tall poppies.
B Butler: It was like when another one I covered was the arrival of President Johnson and that was ’66.
A Blanckensee: ’66.
B Butler: With Harold Holt, it was a busy year. He stayed at the Hotel Rex, the Ainslie Rex, not the Ainslie Rex, the …
A Blanckensee: Canberra Rex.
B Butler: … the Canberra Rex, thank you. So I was position there to cover his arrival and blow me down — I later found out that was the sort of bloke he was. He marched up the stairs, took one look at me with the microphone, walked straight up and shook my hand. Now days of course you can’t get within cooee of a President.
A Blanckensee: Do you remember what the exchange was with LBJ?
B Butler: I said, ‘Welcome to Australia’
A Blanckensee: You didn’t ask him what he thought of Australia did you? [laughs]
B Butler: No [laughs] I was always very careful after hearing a colleague do that and I think it was an artist who said, well the tarmac looks nice, because that’s all they had seen of Australia at that stage.
A Blanckensee: It’s a very astute question really isn’t it.
B Butler: Yes [laughs].
A Blanckensee: So what did he say, do you remember?
B Butler: Something like thank you very much and he shook my hand and went past.
A Blanckensee: A bit of Texas drawl.
B Butler: Yes, but that was — because at the time we had Harold Holt which was Sir Robert Menzies’ prodigy who spoke very well and on the other side of politics we had Arthur Calwell who was a bright person but wasn’t very eloquent speaker and he, of course, was waving the anti-Vietnam flag at that stage and was giving a Press Conference in the Canberra Rex. So had to race in. I was being too polite and the guy beside me said, no, just charge up there and shove it under his nose whilst he’s talking. So I learnt a lesson that you …
A Blanckensee: Shove the microphone under Calwell’s nose or LBJs?
B Butler: Calwell, no LBJ just went straight to his room.
A Blanckensee: So, we’ve dealt with the interview with John Gorton. It might just be worth going through any memories of interviews you had the building. So we’ve had Gorton, we’ve had the LBJ, that wasn’t in this building, but it was in Canberra. Have you got memories of other interviews you did in this particular building because that’s of significant interest to the museum, interviews you did in this building.
B Butler: Yes, I was trying to think of the names of them. As I say they weren’t interviews per se they were doorstops.
A Blanckensee: Anything with Hasluck or with McMahon?
B Butler: I tried with McMahon but he was always very aloof and just brushed us aside.
A Blanckensee: John McEwen?
B Butler: Yes, he was one that I did …
[End of part 1]
Interview with Bryan Butler part 2
A Blanckensee: Any memories of that?
B Butler: Having been a country boy myself, because as I said earlier, I grew up in Bilbul near Griffith and then my parents moved to Gunning and then further promotion dad went out to — we went out to Temora so I’ve — and my mates, of course, lived on farms and so I was really a bushy myself, because that’s all I knew, was that sort of life; certainly country town life. That’s how he came across and I had an immediate connection with him as a very strong powerful man. At times he would want to pull out of the Coalition and would threaten to do so. Of course the McMahon one was the classic one.
A Blanckensee: That was just about to ask you, do you have any insight into that period where he allegedly, I think he made it fairly clear that if the Liberals selected McMahon as their leader he’d take the Country Party, as it then was, out of the Coalition.
B Butler: Well that certainly was what was going around parliament at the time.
A Blanckensee: So you don’t think it was explicit, it was just a fairly well known indication. I thought I actually read somewhere that he basically …
B Butler: He actually said it …
A Blanckensee: … made an announcement.
B Butler: No I think he — because that was the sort of man he was, he didn’t shilly shally, he didn’t beat around the bush. He just came straight out.
A Blanckensee: There was apparently quite a strong animosity between McMahon and McEwen.
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: Do you have any insight into that, any evidence or anything you came across …
B Butler: No, just the asides that he would say that made you realise that he was not in favour of McMahon.
A Blanckensee: McEwen.
B Butler: Yes. I must say, I couldn’t blame him, quite frankly. McMahon was not a person who made friends easily.
A Blanckensee: I heard a story that I think is possibly true about McEwen having a window bricked in because it stopped him having to look at McMahon having high tea everyday on the veranda in front of Old Parliament House.
B Butler: [laughs] I don’t remember that, oh dear.
A Blanckensee: So that does indicate there was a fairly strong antipathy there.
B Butler: Yes, that’s right.
A Blanckensee: Alright, any other doorstops that spring to mind?
B Butler: No.
A Blanckensee: Okay.
B Butler: Unfortunately, too long ago.
A Blanckensee: Okay, no drama.
B Butler: I know we did one with a senator but I can’t even remember, he was a minister and push comes to shove, I think it was Senator Wright.
A Blanckensee: From Tasmania?
B Butler: I think so, but what I remember from that …
A Blanckensee: He was really a long serving senator so it’s highly possible that you would have.
B Butler: What I remember from that was the small office that he had, including the receptionist. We were all squashed into this small area and I thought, my God. I’d go back to my space at the station and it was twice the size.
A Blanckensee: I think most parliamentarians had to share an office with their admin staff, or sometimes, I think they had to share with another parliamentarian.
B Butler: Another parliamentarian, that’s right.
A Blanckensee: Right, okay, what about technology. We’ve scooted a bit around some of these questions. What sort of technology — you talked about reel to reel and a Sennheiser microphone.
B Butler: Yes, they were UHER recorders in those days. Everything was slice edit, where of course now it’s all digital and you do it on the computer, but in those days we would do the splicing and still get some nice clean edits.
A Blanckensee: You might have a look, on your way out, if you go into the Prime Ministerial area, in the media room they’ve got some slightly later, the Nagra but they do have some editing machinery there that you might be interested in having a look at.
B Butler: Yes, I used — we had Ampex back at the station to do the editing on and then later on when I went to Aboriginal Studies or AIATSIS as it is now, and the War Memorial we used the Nagra, stereo Nagra.
A Blanckensee: Okay, what about other parts of the building. You mentioned you went into some of the offices to do some — where there parts of this building that you were able to go into occasionally, regularly, what areas did you have access to as a 2CA employee?
B Butler: Well we had fairly free access to most of the place. You’d occasionally see a security chap there, but that was to stop you walking into parliament itself, or into a minister’s office, but even then, if you just said you were going to see Senator Wright. You weren’t escorted you were told to go up there.
A Blanckensee: So did you go upstairs to the Press Gallery? Did you have an association with anyone in the Press Gallery upstairs?
B Butler: Only a couple of colleagues, but just to see them as colleagues, but not on a business sense.
A Blanckensee: Okay, working conditions — you said you used to come in early and stay late.
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: So obviously fairly committed employee, so you’re working hours were set but you would have extended them sometimes.
B Butler: Oh yes.
A Blanckensee: Quite regularly?
B Butler: Yes. I guess I’ve done that all my life mainly because I went into industries and organisations that I loved. I had a passion for the work. So I just loved radio. I loved production work. I put my hand up and did extra time. I didn’t get any overtime, didn’t even think of that.
A Blanckensee: So was there overtime provisioned?
B Butler: There was but I rarely — a lot of the time I was just there on my own bat anyway.
A Blanckensee: I can see why they loved you as an employee.
B Butler: But it meant then, for instance, I was given the opportunity to do the production of Terry Dear and Bobby Limb, they had a joint program on and — so to be doing that, you know, with these, what we regarded as Gods of radio, back in those days.
A Blanckensee: So are we talking about ‘60s still?
B Butler: Yes, early ‘60s.
A Blanckensee: And was that an entertainment show or was it …
B Butler: Yes, entertainment show, it was held at the Monaro Mall as it was known then. It was just the two floors.
A Blanckensee: In Canberra or Queanbeyan?
B Butler: In Canberra …
A Blanckensee: So where was the Monaro Mall remind me.
B Butler: It’s now the Canberra Centre. Monaro Mall was just a very small building, two flights and a big atrium in the centre and we were position up the top there and people could see us doing the broadcast. Bobby Limb and Terry Dear did this co-production. I was the one that was putting it all together.
A Blanckensee: Fantastic.
B Butler: There live with them. [laughs]
A Blanckensee: So were you ever a member of the AJA, a member of the trade union?
B Butler: No. Some of the equipment too back at the station, of course, was quite antique by today’s standards. We used to cut our own commercials and cut them onto disk, onto a vinyl disk. There was an aluminium base with a lacquer over the top and we had this old disk cutter and we’d either record it on tape and then put it on the disk and then take those into the studio. You’d have a thirty second ad about six different cuts, different types on the one disk, you’d have to quickly line it up, cue it up and then play that for thirty seconds and then the next one. Hence we had four turntables, two cassette machines …
A Blanckensee: It sounds pretty labour intensive in getting that transition right when you cue the LPs, quite tricky.
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: You learnt to be good at it.
B Butler: And these were 45s and of course 78s back then too.
A Blanckensee: I used to …
B Butler: So you’d have to make sure you had the right gap on that one and then give it the spin because it had to get up to 78. The boss I was telling you about, when the station broke down one time he went out to the transmitter and he went on air there because the line had been cut between the station and the transmitter. In this very dry voice he said ‘He’s a 78, ‘Take me out to the ball game’’. He plonked the needle on and then started it and it went [mimic the noise] and of course it hadn’t been used for ages. I don’t think it ever quite got to 78 [laughs]. The old RCA turntable.
A Blanckensee: How long was he on air there?
B Butler: Peter Carrodus said to me, ‘For God’s sake, grab some albums and get out there fast’ [laughs].
A Blanckensee: It was excruciating.
B Butler: It was, because this was peak time at 12.30 in the morning, at midday.
A Blanckensee: Okay — I think we’ve covered a few of those things already. We’ve covered Fraser, McMahon and Gorton, so you said you only occasionally would go up to the Press Gallery if there were one or two colleagues.
B Butler: Just a social thing.
A Blanckensee: It was really just to say hello.
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: So you didn’t have any ongoing relationship really in the area?
B Butler: No, Brian, the ones I worked with were back at the station and that was Brian Minards, Steve Liebmann, John Kerr, Ron Hughes. It’s Ron Hughes and Bruce Lansley they were the old school that were — they retired whilst I was there but they were the ones who said to me ‘Brian, you’ve got a voice use it’. They taught me how to broadcast, to modulate, to add some passions into the voice and so forth.
A Blanckensee: Sure a bit of colour into how you were presenting it.
B Butler: And so that I did and they encouraged me and put me on air.
A Blanckensee: Great.
B Butler: So I’m forever grateful to them.
A Blanckensee: Right, do you want to make any comments about how doorstops or journalism generally has changed since the ‘60s? It’s a very broad question.
B Butler: Yes, I think — if I could generalize I think in that period we were more respectful of the politicians. That didn’t mean that we didn’t question at great length but we were more polite. We treated them with the respect that we felt was due to them where — that’s why, for instance, when Arthur Calwell had already started speaking I was not keen to just march up there and poke a microphone under his face whilst he was talking.
A Blanckensee: Tell me a bit more about that press conference because we got a bit side tracked there. This was a press conference that Calwell was giving at the Canberra Rex.
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: During LBJs visit.
B Butler: Visit.
A Blanckensee: And it was basically an anti-Vietnam press conference.
B Butler: Yes, rant.
A Blanckensee: What memories have you got of that? It was a rant?
B Butler: Yes, it was a rant and, of course, his problem was at that time it was all the way with LBJ with the public. I forget what the figure was, I think it was in the ‘70s, or even higher the approval to go to war with the Americans in Vietnam.
A Blanckensee: Well Holt had just won a very successful, substantial majority in an election hadn’t he?
B Butler: Landside, yes that’s right. So he was really going against the wind at that stage but, of course, as we know the tide turned later on. He just couldn’t get through the message because, I think, sadly, partly because the tone of his voice — it was just a shrill. The cartoonist used to show him as a parrot, squawking, and that’s how he came across unfortunately.
A Blanckensee: And he had a very strong vernacular, Australian twang too didn’t he?
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: The recordings I’ve heard of him.
B Butler: Mind you, I’m not being biased politically because we also had that with McMahon. The difference between McMahon and Gough Whitlam who was eloquent in his speech and could really capture the imagination of the public where McMahon just came across, can I say it, a fool and that’s how we regarded him as with the journalists.
A Blanckensee: Sure. Okay, did you come to admire any particular politicians — we’ve covered one that you didn’t particularly admire but where there any that you greatly admired?
B Butler: The ones I admired were Sir Robert Menzies. I was working and recording some of his speeches, quite often luncheon speeches he was giving. We used to always leave the microphones open and have the headphones on in the hope that he might say to the person beside him, this will be my last one of these or something like that, but he never did.
A Blanckensee: So did you have a book on predicting on when he might be going to retire?
B Butler: Well, it was all a buzz at that stage as to when he would but no one had any insight as to when he was going to.
A Blanckensee: That would have been, I guess, the whole period from when you started up until he actually announced, which was, what in ’65?
B Butler: Yes, ’65.
A Blanckensee: And do you remember where he — you weren’t involved in the announcement? You weren’t broadcasting when he made the announcement?
B Butler: No, I was back at the station and I heard him make the announcement.
A Blanckensee: We can check the date as well but it would have been ’65 because it was before the ’66 election because Holt went to the ’66 election.
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: Right, any other politicians you admired, other than Menzies?
B Butler: Well, of course, we can go back to Johnson, not an Australian obviously, but that was getting me interested in the politics. I remember being in my bedroom getting ready to go to high school and hearing his voice come on, talking about the Cuban Crisis.
A Blanckensee: Kennedy or Johnson?
B Butler: Kennedy, did I say Johnson, sorry I meant Kennedy.
A Blanckensee: JFK.
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: He had quite — I mean he was quite telegenic but he also had quite a — I don’t know whether he had radio training but he came across well on the radio as well.
B Butler: Yes, he was — I guess when you say who I admired, I tend to admire, being radio, I tend to admire the voice and the way they presented it.
A Blanckensee: And the performance on radio I guess.
B Butler: And the performance, and so like Sir Robert Menzies, like President Kennedy, like Gough Whitlam. Gough was an amazing man. He had an amazing memory. Of course you may not know that Peter Carrodus, the manager of 2CA at the time, was married to Doc Evatt’s daughter.
A Blanckensee: I didn’t know that.
B Butler: Yes, and so Peter and Gough Whitlam knew each other well, through the families. There was that lovely time — I was out at the reception at 2CA, talking to the receptionist, a young girl, and she got this call and of course being the radio station I’ve received them myself, these crank calls from young teenage girls wanting to go off with you and all this sort of thing to just strange people with strange ideas. This person rang up and she said ‘Yes and I’m father Christmas, who are you really and who do you want?’ and then I saw her face just go red and then ashen and then red again. She said ‘One moment’ and she put him through and she hung up. I said, ‘What happened there’ she said ‘That was Gough Whitlam’ and he’d just rung straight through. He didn’t worry about secretaries getting him the phone, he just wanted to ring Peter and he had the station number. Of course she thought it was a crank call and said that she did so yes, I’m Santa Clause, who do you really want, and of course Gough saying, this is Gough Whitlam [laughs] oh dear.
A Blanckensee: So you never interviewed Gough when he was a Backbencher? You didn’t doorstop Gough when he was a Backbencher here?
B Butler: No, but he remembered me, funny enough. He came in then and spoke to Peter and I met him there at the station.
A Blanckensee: He would have become Deputy Opposition Leader during your period ’67 I think he became Deputy Opposition Leader.
B Butler: That’s right.
A Blanckensee: So do you have any memory of that period and was there a feeling that what you said about Calwell not cutting through, was there a feeling amongst your radio contemporaries that this was someone who might be able to cut through?
B Butler: Yes, it was like a breath of fresh air into politics because — we don’t want to see one side so lop sided as it had been up to that stage. Then suddenly this chap was coming in and of course at the same time the National-Liberal Coalition was starting to fray at the edges and look tired and old. Remembering they had been in for twenty years, I think it was, nineteen-twenty years by that stage and suddenly this fresh visionary was coming in saying, he could change the world. We thought ah wow, we’ve got a fight on our hands.
A Blanckensee: So you’d moved out of your 2CA job by the ’69 election, you’d gone onto another job?
B Butler: Yes, I’d moved on to Aboriginal Studies.
A Blanckensee: So you probably didn’t have any contact with politicians except in that role?
B Butler: No.
A Blanckensee: Okay.
B Butler: Fred Daly was the other one that I admired as a politician.
A Blanckensee: Do you have any Fred Daly stories for the oral history collection?
B Butler: No, not personal ones, but yes, he was just a great ball of fun to be around. If you had drinks he was always …
A Blanckensee: He was Member for Canberra wasn’t he? What was his electorate? I’m just trying to remember? Maybe he wasn’t Member for Canberra, it was Grayndler or something like that.
B Butler: No he lived in Canberra when he retired and so became the, sort of, Mayor of Canberra, sort of thing.
A Blanckensee: Yes because he used to have Fred Daly’s secret unauthorised …
B Butler: That’s right.
A Blanckensee: … political tours around Canberra which must have been amazing. I actually really should have taken the chance to go on one of those because he was still doing them in the early ‘90s.
B Butler: Yes, and of course, the one I disliked intensely was Billy McMahon.
A Blanckensee: And it was because of his demeanour …
B Butler: Demeanour mainly.
A Blanckensee: … or because of his — you said you tried to door stop him once but he just wasn’t, he was very dismissive, or he wasn’t …
B Butler: A couple of times tried to yes and he was just very dismissive. When Gorton was elected he just couldn’t stand Gorton and, of course, plotted to — for his downfall which he did in the end.
A Blanckensee: Yes, that was a very tumultuous period really in this building.
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: So any stories connected with that, that you were involved in with the plotting, or it’s all just stories you heard around …
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: … the traps.
B Butler: Yes, around the traps but they became public and so.
A Blanckensee: Okay, we’ve covered the day of disappearance. Is there anything else you’d like to add that relates to this building or — before I ask you how you feel coming back after — only coming back from time to time.
B Butler: Well, of course, my first trip to Parliament House was, going way back when my parents were in Gunning and dad organised a trip for a couple of the senior classes to come over to visit the War Memorial and Parliament House.
A Blanckensee: So when would that have been if it was a senior class?
B Butler: Probably ’54-’55 for me.
A Blanckensee: Okay, so it was just around about the time of the Labor split, which you wouldn’t have had any real memory of that?
B Butler: No, I was only very young. I was only eleven but I’d just been — that same period I’d been to the radio station in Goulburn and then I’m coming over here to parliament. Maybe I’m a person who is impressed very easily but to me it was just an amazing place. Especially to get in, dad knew the local member who brought us in to the private gardens here to have lunch or afternoon tea or something. I forget what it was.
A Blanckensee: So you probably went into the Members Dining, probably into the Members Dining Room I suppose.
B Butler: I think it was outdoors at the time, because there were a lot of school kids.
A Blanckensee: Okay, and did you go to Question Time?
B Butler: Yes, and so to see all that, to me as a young impressionable eleven year old.
A Blanckensee: So you would have seen Menzies in full flight in the ’50s I suppose, at Question Time.
B Butler: That’s right.
A Blanckensee: And I guess it would have either been Evatt or, well it probably would have been Evatt if it was mid-’50s as the Opposition Leader.
B Butler: Yes, and to then, for instance, with Evatt to then — later on in my career I worked in Foreign Affairs and Trade and to be walking the corridors there where Evatt was so heavily involved with the Petrov Affair.
A Blanckensee: Sure, well and also as the — when he’d been involved with the UN. He had a very significant role in the foundation of the UN.
B Butler: The foundation of the United Nations, that’s right.
A Blanckensee: Which is often forgotten, didn’t he Chair the first assembly?
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: Yes, he was a very significant international politician.
B Butler: Yes, it looked like at one stage that Rudd was following in his steps, in that same style but there seems to be a bit of a hiatus there at the moment.
A Blanckensee: Well there is some discussion that he may be involved in different things in New York at the moment, but we’ll wait and see.
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: Now, the dismissal, you mentioned in our email exchange that you had been — where were you on the day of the dismissal in November ’75 because that was after your period here …
B Butler: Yes.
A Blanckensee: … did you come to the building on that day?
B Butler: I came to the building a couple of days beforehand when Fraser was giving a speech outside. I didn’t know at the time, we just came to see what was — to take in the ambience.
A Blanckensee: So literally a couple of days before the 11th?
B Butler: Yes, and Fraser was giving his speech out there to the public still locking, or deferring supply. Then when we heard at lunchtime that — on the 11th that the dismissal was on we then came here, and were sort of part of that crowd.
A Blanckensee: Did you hear the famous reading of the proclamation …
B Butler: Yes, that’s right.
A Blanckensee: … the dissolution of the house.
B Butler: It was just amazing times, yes.
A Blanckensee: So what’s your estimation of the crowd?
B Butler: In numbers you mean?
A Blanckensee: Yes.
B Butler: No, I’m absolutely hopeless in numbers.
A Blanckensee: It’s a bit hard to tell from the photos just how many people were there on the day.
B Butler: I’d say a couple of thousand, though as I say I’m not good on that, but the mood of it was amazing. I was in the camp at that stage of, thank God, we can now go to an election and sort it out, but there were a lot more in the camp that were saying, this is a democracy gone out the window, etcetera, etcetera. In fact I had a bet with my boss that I was working for AIATSIS at that stage and the principal was a very strong Labor man and he said that Whitlam will get back in and absolutely thrash Fraser. So I had a ten pound bet [laughs] and December, when was it, the 6th wasn’t it, I think it was the election.
A Blanckensee: Yes about then.
B Butler: He came in and threw the ten dollars on my desk [laughs].
A Blanckensee: Choke on it.
B Butler: Choke on it, yes [laughs] oh dear.
A Blanckensee: Yes, very interesting. Okay, so — some of these questions I don’t think we’d get much out of — any secrets you had to keep, any controversy with many of the interviews. Maybe you could just tell me, the collection I suppose, when and why you came to leave 2CA? Did you have something else that came up at AIATSIS? You said you often had been headhunted, is this another example of that?
B Butler: Yes, once again I was asked to put in an application but I found out later on it was a foregone conclusion apparently, they wanted me over there. By that stage I was not only a recording but announcing and doing technical work and they needed a person who was a curator of their sound and photograph — sound collection mainly but there were a few photographs. I very quickly saw the need for a photographic collection as well. So set up my own photographic lab and assisted in some of the publications in producing some print material and from that we then I proved my point and we got a qualified photographer to head up the photographic. Then they asked me to transfer the film unit from Sydney down to Canberra as well. Then it was being run by — no I can’t think of his name, that was in Sydney and he was retiring, or resigning or something. So they moved it down to Canberra and set that up. This was all with, of course the change of government where Aboriginal studies jumped from fifteen to seventy-five in a bit over six months.
A Blanckensee: Are we talking about ’73-’74?
B Butler: ’72 …
A Blanckensee: There was a change of government at the end of ’72. It would have probably been in ’73.
B Butler: ’73 …
A Blanckensee: It went from fifteen to how many, fifteen to how many?
B Butler: Fifteen to seventy-five, it was just an explosion. The minister …
A Blanckensee: Was it Bryant.
B Butler: Yes, Bryant, thank you, he rang up Peter Ucko and said, ‘How many staff do you need?’, and Peter said, ‘I’ll ring you back and talked to our seniors’. We said, ‘Maybe five’ and so he rang back and he said, he always thought big and so he said, ‘Get ten extras’, and Bryant said ‘Ten, I was going to offer you twenty-five’ and Peter said, ‘We’ll take twenty-five’ [laughs] which was good. Of course, as we know the country couldn’t afford it but it set Aboriginal Studies up as an international body. We had international conferences. I was in charge of the audio-visuals to ensure that everything ran smoothly. We ran one of the best international conferences in the world.
A Blanckensee: Fantastic, yes fantastic.
B Butler: That was the vision. I got sucked into people who had these visions and Peter Ucko certainly had that.
A Blanckensee: Fantastic, okay, so coming back today for the interview, what did you feel about returning to the building, even though you’ve come back, you said, every six months. Coming back to reflect on doorstops. The period at 2CA in particular that, I guess, four to five year period, how do you feel thinking about that period and thinking about the building now?
B Butler: It’s just an amazing place. To me it’s almost like a shrine, that’s for me personally. Each time I walk up those stairs, even though they’ve got scaffolding there at the moment which takes the shine off it a bit. Yes, I just think back to that wonderful time that I had. I’ve had a wonderful career at Aboriginal studies, at the radio station, I then went to the Australian War Memorial …
A Blanckensee: Oh yes you did plenty of other things after that but I haven’t focused on that, yes.
B Butler: … curator, and DFAT, all wonderful jobs and this period was just fabulous. If I had my time over I’d certainly had jumped into it earlier onto the broadcasting side and the journalist side. I just found that so fascinating.
A Blanckensee: Yes, very interesting. So can you think of anything else that you’d like to add, that we haven’t covered, that you’ve thought about when you’ve been preparing for today or anything that’s come to mind now?
B Butler: No, only I guess that it has reached that stage now where this organisation will always be here. There were times at first where it had a rocky existence, where now it’s come of age and can only grow from there. I applaud that because this is our history. It’s only, well it’s less than a hundred years but that’s Australia’s history and it’s all encompassed in the democracy, as rough and as raw as it was, and still is at times but that’s Australia’s democracy. To be able to — I have two Chinese boarders, international students and I bring them here. I bring them to the new one as well but I bring them to the old one because this is the best we’ve got and it is great. It’s a great building. They can see from the majesty of the building that it’s something to cherish.
A Blanckensee: Alright, thanks very much, that’s fabulous. Alright we’ll leave it there I think.
B Butler: Pleasure thank you very much for having me.
A Blanckensee: Okay, cheers.
This history has multiple parts.1 2
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