Down Memory Lane Part 1
By Geoffrey Lee Martin [1927 – 2011]
In mid-1985 a group of foreign correspondents based in Sydney — who regularly met at the old Tai Yuen Palace restaurant on Fridays for a long luncheon over dim sims, steamed rice and fried port with black bean sauce, washed down with, dear god, McWilliams Mount Pleasant Riesling – decided it was high time that we actively raised the profile of the foreign press in Australia.
Exasperated by the inability of Australian politicians to look over the horizon, we set about forming the Foreign Correspondents’ Association, Australia & Pacific. As Peter O’Loughlin, AP Bureau chief who was to become our founding president, put it: “Ministers and their minders truly believed that if they put their handouts in a box in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, then the world would be instantly informed”.
Many of us lunching then have now been put out to graze, often in distant lands. But prominent among those initial few were Carl Robinson, ex-Newsweek and proprietor of the Old Saigon restaurant, David Davies and, a little later, Ian Pedley of AFP, Reg Gratten, Reuters, S.K. Witcher, Asian Wall Street Journal, Tony Patrick, Dow Jones, Trevor Watson, Radio Australia, Russell Spurr, American Broadcasting Corporation, Takashi Murai, Kyodo News Service, Anna Gill, myself from The Daily Telegraph, London, and Maggie Scully, still with AP, who toiled mightily behind the scenes to keep our administration on course.
One of the first things we did was set up a monthly luncheon, to be addressed by some current “newsmaker” (as our luncheons came to be called), usually from Australia but often a visiting politician from our region. These were very successful in providing copy, even though Australian politicians still stayed away. Carl also began a regular newsletter. Our finances were always a worry and the first couple of years were not easy, but Australia’s bicentenary in 1988 helped raise our profile as we reported the events for our distant masters.
Our big breakthrough came early in 1989 at the Pacific Forum in Rarotonga when a small group of us – the Peters O’Loughlin and Mackler, Rowan Callick, of the Financial Review, and myself, as I recall – button-holed the then prime minister, Bob Hawke, and vigorously “sold” him the importance of the FCA.
The result was that shortly afterwards Hawke agreed to a luncheon before traveling on to meetings in London and Europe – we had emphasized to him that he would only get coverage if he addressed us before his visit; there was no news value after his return!
I had just succeeded Peter as president, and with Joe Parkes, our energetic secretary from Austrade, we organized the luncheon at the new Convention Centre in Darling Harbour, selling corporate tables for a tidy profit and attracting more than 200 guests. The result: a sudden jump in our bank balance to almost $10,000 and an equal jump in membership to around 130, including diplomatic and corporate members.
During that year the FCA also became an incorporated body in NSW with a brand new Constitution; we introduced membership identification cards and had a Club Tie manufactured – which was not a great success, sad to say, although we got rid of quite a few as “gifts” to our speakers, including Bob Hawke, who returned for a second luncheon later that year following the Budget. By then we had moved our monthly luncheons to the Hilton, when the Convention Centre, now a success, doubled its charges. Most encouragingly, the local media began attending our luncheons and reporting them. The luncheons became an important income source but all the administrative work of the FCA was still done voluntarily, without reward.
In April, 1990, we also began publishing The Correspondent in an eight-page magazine format, edited by Red Harrison of the BBC, made possible because the back page was bought by OTC (“overseas telecommunications corporation”, now long gone following the advent of email). OTC remained our prime advertising sponsor for several years, succeeded by Qantas in 1996. Joe also began organising splendid weekend excursions — Southern Highlands, Hunter vineyards, mid-winter “Christmas” in the blue Mountains and so on.
Our third president, elected in June, 1991, was Robert Holloway, AFP, and Maggie took over the secretaryship while Joe moved to the board. In February the following year Red relinquished The Correspondent editorship and I took over (Vol. 3, No. 1), for a long stint of more than ten years, relieved for a year or so around 2000 when I was in Italy, by Joelle Dietrich, of Le Figaro.
From the beginning we were continually seeking a “home”, many of us fondly hoping to create another Hong Kong press club.
We explored an ambitious development project, latching on to plans AAP had to move quarters and when that fell flat, attempted to negotiate a “press centre” with Nick Greiner, then State premier, along the lines of press centres overseas. When that also failed, we affiliated for a while with the Sydney Club from 1992, but it was not a success. Soon afterwards a small sub-committee, led by Peter O’Loughlin, began talks with Senator Garath Evans, the foreign minister, which eventually led to the opening of the International Media Centre in 1995.
Peter was back as president for one year in 1992-3, and then we had a rush of very welcome new blood in June, 1993 when Michael Perry, AAP, became president, Geoff Spencer, AP, vice president, Catherine Foster, Christian Science Monitor, secretary, and Joelle, Mariko Horikawa, Yomiuri Sbimbun and Ann Oakford, British Consulate General information officer joined the board. Another new face, Esther Blank, joined the board the following year.
Red Harrison became president in June, 1995, and Joe Parkes came back briefly as secretary, just before the opening of the International Media Centre in Westpac Plaza, by Senator Evans in August who called it “a new and very valuable window for Australia on the world”. Sadly it did not survive long after the advent of the Howard government.
Red stepped down the following April for personal reasons and Joelle, our vice president became acting president and was then elected president in June, 1996. Ann Oakford, who had retired from the British Consulate General, became our first paid executive secretary at the same time.
It was 1995, just eleven years after the FCA had been formed and at last we seemed well on the way to solid establishment. Alas, there were dark clouds on the horizon. Joelle has promised to continue the FCA saga in a subsequent issue.