Read an extract from Cannon Fire: A Life in Print
In July 1969 I received an offer I simply could not refuse.
The Liberal government of Sir Henry Bolte, realising that there was no way of stopping the sale of tens of thousands of Sydney Sunday newspapers in Melbourne, acted to legalise the publication of Sunday newspapers in Victoria. Ambitious new publishers thought they saw an opening, and one small paper, the Sunday Post, quickly started up. But the newsagents’ monopoly refused to allow home deliveries on Sundays. The Post was on its last legs when another new entrant came from Sydney, looked into its pathetic sales figures, and declined to take it over.
The new arrival was John Crew, an ABC journalist who was acting as the front man for self-made millionaire Gordon Page Barton. Gordon had been forced to flee from Indonesia at the age of twelve with his Dutch mother when the Japanese invaded in 1942, leaving all their possessions behind. In Sydney, Gordon worked as a newsboy after school, swearing that one day he would control his own newspapers that featured his favourite colour comics. He bought a truck and started an interstate parcel-delivery service, which developed into a company, IPEC Australia, that operated hundreds of trucks. Barton then branched into various finance and property companies, becoming a takeover specialist in partnership with a financial genius named Greg Farrell.
On his arrival in Melbourne in mid-1969, Crew set himself up in a suite at the old Savoy Plaza Hotel in Spencer Street. Perhaps he and Barton had read my vigorous attacks on Australia’s Vietnam involvement, published in the Sunday Mirror as early as October 1961. Perhaps they had consulted Tom Fitzgerald and George Munster about the most suitable person to edit their Sunday paper— I meant to ask them but never did. Prompted in whatever way, John Crew rang me at MUP and, during an interview at the Savoy Plaza, offered to give me a free hand editorially as well as double my salary to $12,500 a year. I was delighted at what I thought was an unprecedented opportunity, one that was unlikely to occur again.
It quickly became obvious that Barton didn’t want to know about any of the real problems involved in starting a good newspaper. He assured me that Peter Isaacson’s printery in Prahran could handle the first issues, printing the colour comics separately and inserting them by hand.
The time of our first and only dummy run approached too quickly. A large telephone switchboard had been installed at Fishermans Bend, although few people knew our number. United Press teleprinters chattered away in one corner, spewing out vast amounts of paper but with no-one to clear them. I’d had no time to appoint subeditors and was forced to work on the old Radio Times theory that the editor could roughly lay out most pages, leaving the finer details to typesetting staff. But during that awful first Saturday, we discovered that the imported machine for setting large headings couldn’t work fast enough. We were forced to paste up the text and leave space for many headings to be set by our friends at Peter Isaacson, who had contracted to print the first issues. Even so, the dummy issue contained many blank spaces. It looked truly amateurish.
By the time the first real issue was due to be produced on 14 September, I had managed to find a couple of moonlighting subeditors to help straighten out the layout, and extra photosetting machines had been installed. But the production generally remained a shambles, not helped by the fact that Gordon Barton lurked near the make-up benches, reading the pages in progress and complaining to all in earshot that rebel forces in Vietnam were being described in United Press cables as ‘Reds’. I stared at him angrily and shook my head. He took the hint and disappeared from the editorial and composing room areas. His main contribution after that was to send me a handwritten note, which I have preserved, complaining that there weren’t enough crossheads and the columns were ‘sometimes very cramped’. This at a time when we were balanced on the edge of not appearing at all!
At 2 a.m. on the Sunday morning of publication, the last pages still had not gone to the printer, where platemakers and machine hands were enjoying large overtime payments while sitting around with sandwiches and keeping awake with much coffee. John Crew went to the Isaacson printery in Prahran to make sure that all possible plates were on the machine. At about 3 a.m. I wearily took the last sports-page paste-ups from the benches, put them in my car, and drove as fast as I dared to Prahran. Within a few minutes the presses were rolling, but even at maximum speed they could only turn out about 100 000 papers before breakfast.
I staggered home, asking my heavily pregnant wife to wake me after a couple of hours’ rest. At about 9 a.m. we drove down Bay and Church streets in Brighton, searching for our newsboys and posters—not a sign of one. About an hour later, the papers were delivered to a couple of local milk bars, and a solitary newsboy appeared, tying an Observer poster around a tree near the corner of New Street. The Sunday paper revolution had begun, even if it was about five hours late.
We were lucky with many of our news stories. The great dread of Sunday newspaper editors is that nothing will actually happen on Saturdays apart from sport, and in their worst nightmares a giant headline appears that reads ‘NO NEWS TODAY’. But the rapidly growing radical movement in the eastern states knew about our efforts and provided many leads for exclusive stories that were in tune with our editorial policies.
In our second issue, we were able to disclose shocking bastardisation by permanent army officers against national service trainees being prepared for the bottomless pit of an Asian land war. The minister for the army was forced, much against his will, to take action. Then, a new journalist, Michael Crewdson, joined our staff, bringing with him several sensational stories from his friend Dr Bertram Wainer, the pro-abortion crusader. In late September 1969, three days before the birth of my youngest son, we disclosed that a number of senior police officers were extorting bribes from the operators of illegal abortion clinics. Chief secretary Arthur Rylah tried to bury the issue, but the officers were eventually jailed and abortion laws greatly liberalised.
The Sunday Observer’s proudest moment occurred on 14 December 1969, when we published Ron Haeberle’s incredible colour photographs of the massacre of the entire population—men, women and children—of My Lai village in Vietnam. In the United States, Life magazine was not ashamed to publish the visual evidence of what some American troops were doing in Vietnam, but no Australian newspaper would touch it: local editors were too squeamish and cowardly. In our office, John Crew’s finest moments were spent buying the transparencies from Life and then arguing for hours with Customs officials who wanted to ban them on the grounds of extreme horror. John’s threats of High Court action won the day.
The pictures were rushed to Wilke’s, a printing firm paid large amounts to prepare an eight-page colour supplement at short notice. The pages were dramatically laid out by our new chief subeditor, David Robie, while I took the decision not to include the most sickening close-ups of babies with bullet holes through the middle of their foreheads. That Sunday we sold out our entire print run of 150 000 copies.
This is an edited extract from Cannon Fire: A Life in Print by Michael Cannon, published 1 November (MUP).