Like Leer, Blenheim, New Zealand-born journalist Francis Derek Devine had three daughters. Unlike the seriously demented Leer, Frank died with the claim that he’d become “Older and Wiser” (the title of a collection of Frank’s Quadrant essays, published just after he passed away, aged 77, in July 2009). For all that, Frank was still doubtless blinded to how his daughters - or at least one in particular - would turn out. Yet if ever a situation offered some credence to the idiom “turning in one’s grave”, it would be the work of Frank’s eldest offspring, New York-born Miranda, widely regarded as the Goneril of Australian newspaper columnists.
Miranda marked her 55th birthday last week with a story which must surely erase whatever credibility she had left, one so thoroughly exposed by Paul Barry on the ABC TV’s Media Watch tonight. It was a story devoid of any proper fact checking and balance; lacking, indeed, any of the ethics which defined Frank Devine’s lifetime in journalism, and which he would doubtless have hoped to pass on to Miranda.
When Frank passed on, it was written that “Australian journalism lost a true giant”, a man of talent and generosity, an editor, reporter, columnist and “intellectual giant”, and a “stylish writer with a love for words”. He had been editor of the national daily, The Australian, as well as The New York Post, The Chicago Sun-Times and the Australasian American editions of Readers Digest. Miranda is hardly destined to be so fondly remembered. Would Frank Devine have ever, for example, accused gay men of “rogering gerbils”. Or called a Test rugby union captain a “tosser” because he used Auslan sign language? Well, no, at least not in print, or online. Frank, like all good and real journalists, understood the great responsibilities that came with writing opinion pieces for publication.
In Miranda Devine’s writings, there can be found no trace of the once honourable craft that Frank Devine so enthusiastically embraced in 1948, as a cadet sports reporter on the Marlborough Express, under the caring guidance of Wairua-born Express editor Selwyn Isaac Vercoe (1904-1989).
As a journalist, Miranda Devine might believe she is being consistent with her father’s example. On one level, that would be a reasonable assumption on her part. Although Frank grew up the son of working-class parents – his father was a carpenter and chairman of the Marlborough branch of the New Zealand Labour Party and his mother (née O’Sullivan) was of Irish stock - he was to spurn working-class values. Indeed, Frank spun so far to the right that, as mutual friend and former colleague Maurie Carr would have described him, he was “further right than Genghis Khan”. Staying loyal to what became a family tradition of right-wing political thinking, however, is one thing – failing to heed the teachings of a father’s six-decade devotion to fair and honest journalism is entirely another.
I was reminded of Frank Devine’s consistently considered columns earlier this year when I read Miranda Devine’s Daily Telegraph blog post, in which she described the legacy of deposed Prime Minister Tony Abbott thus: “Abbott was like the soldier on D-Day who threw himself on barbed wire so others could go over the top. He did the dirty work that [Malcolm] Turnbull never would have been willing to do. History will be kind to him.” One thing we must accept about the digital age, for better or for worse, is that history is no longer the fine wine it once was, allowed to settle and mature over a number of years, so that its true essence may eventually emerge. History is these days settled upon in a relatively short period of time. To suggest Australian political history will be kind to Tony Abbott is clearly not a considered opinion, nor one that will ever be proven to even vaguely true. Abbott’s demise was inevitable long before it became a reality, simply because his acts of prime ministerial stupidity were bringing his government down. To suggest he did “the dirty work” and threw himself on barbed wire while others trampled over him is as silly an analogy now as it would have been as a suicidal act at Normandy on June 6, 1944. Miranda Devine may have savoured some fine old wines in the company of Abbott at Kirribilli House, but that is no excuse for letting the effects go so tellingly to her head.
What Miranda Devine needs to comprehend – although it may now be too late - is that her increasingly irrational, ill-reasoned and irrelevant right-wing columns are making her as much of a national joke as Abbott’s directionless prime ministership made him. Her columns have long since lost any semblance of objectivity, and that is the worst criticism that can ever be levelled at any journalist, in any form of the media. Devine allowing herself to be bundled in with Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and Ray “Bo” Hadley is, like diving on barbed wire at Normandy, sheer journalistic suicide. It simply means that, among the nation’s political journalists and commentators, she no longer counts. Instead, in the absence of any impartiality, she has become overtly offensive and the object of widespread derision. She simply cannot be taken seriously. But I, for one, am offended that she continues to hold such a high profile, and that’s why I do give a damn about her ongoing rants.
I knew her father – not well, but as a casual acquaintance. I worked with Frank Devine in various parts of the country, from Sydney to Western Australia. I sometimes chatted with him as he sat at his desk behind his pale green Remington International standard typewriter on Holt Street in Surry Hills. We shared an unshakable passion for the New Zealand All Blacks rugby union team. At least one of my 1970 sports columns in the national daily, The Australian, in which I raised points about the politics behind the selection of a multi-race team to tour South Arica that year, had earned Frank’s considerable interest.
Born in Blenheim a week before Christmas 1931, Frank attended St Mary’s Primary School, where he was an altar boy. A keen rugby union player, he was a 1st XV forward at Marlborough College and so excelled at cricket that he toyed with the idea of a career in flannels. But like me, at age 17 he had had to give up any dreams of higher honours in rugby and cricket when he started a career in newspaper journalism, working for the Marlborough Express. Like me on the Greymouth Evening Star 17 years later, he had found a skilled and compassionate mentor: in his case Vercoe, in mine Russell William Nelson. Vercoe took Frank under his wing, giving him books to read, such as Richard Brinsley Sheridan's libretto for the comic opera The Duenna. Russell Nelson gave me a Webster’s Dictionary, considerably heavier and equally heavy going.
In 1954 Devine set off to see the world and got as far as Perth, where he joined The West Australian and met Jacqueline Magee, a women’s page reporter who had grown up on a farm at Kulin on the Eastern Wheatbelt of Western Australia. They married in April 1959 and the next year Frank embarked on a decade of foreign postings. A family story told how Norman Kirk, later to be a Labour prime minister of New Zealand, visited their modest family home in Blenheim and helped dry the dishes: nobody was permitted to use the tea towel thereafter, and it hung on a wall in pride of place.
As New York correspondent for the now defunct Melbourne Herald, Devine covered John F. Kennedy's presidency, the Cuban missile crisis, civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, and got to know Martin Luther King. He worked as a foreign correspondent in New York, London and Tokyo. He was a sports fanatic (he had a bookcase full of dog-eared Wisdens), a film buff and a stylish writer with a love for words. He wrote a column in The Australian about English usage which became a book, The Quick Brown Fox.
Frank Devine would not have enjoyed being labelled a right-wing ranter, a senile fascist or a CIA agent (though PM Paul Keating's "Old Fart" jibe did amuse him). But he was able to take comfort in the knowledge that he was at least ethical in what he wrote. Furthermore, he was sacked as editor of The Australian by Rupert Murdoch for supporting pilots in their 1989 strike and opposed Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s use of military aircraft and crews to break them - hardly the acts of a fascist. Nor was it reactionary of him to insist on American ideas of the independence of editors. His Quadrant tribute to “Bradman the Liberator”, described The Don as a “major figure in Australia’s decolonisation”, a man who “helped free us from an inhibiting awe of the Motherland and its splendours”. These would not be sentiments shared by Tony Abbott, the John Howard-inspired PM so admired by Frank’s daughter, the man who gave Prince Philip a knighthood.
Frank Devine became an Australian citizen in the 21st century. Like all good New Zealanders, he had been raised to think of Australians as “ill-educated, spendthrift, technologically backward, uninventive, racist, sexist, fat and drunk”. But over time he overcame those innate prejudices. It’s such a shame his daughter cannot beat hers.