Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Launch of the Biography of Stewart Cockburn

It is a great pleasure to be able to join you this afternoon, even if only virtually, from Government House, just across the way from St Mark’s College.

I am honoured to launch Jennifer Cockburn’s meticulously researched, and perfectly titled, biography of her father “Writing for His Life – Stewart Cockburn, Crusading Journalist”.

Born in 1921, shortly after the first recorded pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus, I doubt Stewart would have been surprised by COVID-19, had he lived to see it. He would not have been surprised, given his closeness to some of my predecessors, that his biography should be launched by the Governor, nor that she should find herself in isolation at the critical moment.

It has to be said, too, that Stewart was not averse to encouraging, possibly even orchestrating, a certain amount of drama and publicity around the launches of his own books. For those of you who were fortunate to know him personally and may be thinking along similar lines, let me assure you this is no such stunt!

Happily, though improbably in light of restrictions over the past two years, Jenny Cockburn and her husband Bernardo Frydman have been able to travel from the United States, and Stewart and Beatrice’s elder daughter Carol Cockburn, together with Don Dornan, and Stewart’s granddaughters Philippa Collin and Andrea Willis, from interstate. I look forward to seeing them once I am out of isolation.

Since I became Governor, hardly a day has gone by without someone asking to be remembered to the Honourable Jennifer Cashmore AM, Stewart’s widow and my mother. I am so grateful and full of admiration that you have been able to come today, Mum.

As John Scales has admirably set out – don’t you think editors make the best MCs?! – Stewart’s family, friends, colleagues and the wider circles within which he worked are well represented. I, too, acknowledge former Premiers the Honourable Mike Rann AC and the Honourable Dean Brown AO, as well as the Editor of The Advertiser Gemma Jones and the Head of St Mark’s College, Professor Don Markwell.

The unquestioned privilege of reviewers and launchers of biographies is to be the first readers of the completed, edited work, with the accompanying responsibility to think deeply about it and offer reflections, often from the vantage point of first-hand knowledge of the subject and his or her achievements and times.

I thank Jennifer Cockburn for bestowing the privilege and entrusting the responsibility to me.

Stewart was in his late sixties and I in my late twenties when we met in 1988, the year he and my mother, Jennifer Cashmore, married. I had known of him, of course, as a senior journalist at the The Advertiser and distinctly remember railing against some of his columns, while admiring others, when I was an undergraduate student in the Economics Department at the University of Adelaide.

And I had heard a great deal about him when my mother and sister Christine spent the previous Christmas with me in Hong Kong, my first diplomatic posting. Day after day was spent listening to Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” in recently released CD format, and hearing about Stewart, all about Stewart. The courtship, about which Christine, our brother Stuart, and I were happy, was well underway.

Stewart was the nearest thing to a polymath I had ever encountered and I found him fascinating, charming, generous and ever so slightly exhausting, since almost every discussion turned into a debate and occasionally from there into a full-blown argument.

I returned from Hong Kong full of the certainties given me by an Economics degree and four years spent observing the rise of labour-intensive manufacturing in the Pearl River Delta. I was convinced that comparative advantage was the only sensible foundation for economic policy and that “restructuring” was inevitable.

Stewart made powerful – and impassioned - arguments against –the dignity of work, unemployment, dislocation, the demise of our manufacturing industry, social policy. The debate raged, from his side at least, back and forth. He was right, of course, but it took me years to realise it and today gives me an opportunity to say so publicly.

Stewart also had vast experience of a world I was just entering, alongside my British diplomat husband Rod Bunten, and he was very generous in drawing from a trove of anecdotes when it came to politics, diplomacy, international relations, world leaders, media magnates and, of particular interest to Rod, physicists.

We came to the conclusion he wasn’t really name-dropping when he mentioned Menzies, Playford, Dunstan, Oliphant, Churchill, Kennedy, Nehru, Murdoch, or the Queen. To borrow a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, he had actually been in the room where it happened, as Jenny sets out so engagingly.

Don’t just read the text, by the way. Read the footnotes, all one hundred pages of them!

For this is a lively book about a very lively subject, with much contemporary relevance.

Jenny, the biographer, turns her attention to Stewart, the biographer, whom she quotes as saying “Your subject must be full of interest to other human beings. If biography is the literary illumination of character and personality, the ideal subject must be brimming over with character.”

How true, not just of Stewart’s acclaimed biographies of Sir Mark Oliphant and Sir Thomas Playford, but also in his own case.

You will each have your own vantage points when you read the book. I found myself reading from four; personally, as a former diplomat, as a South Australian, and, lastly, as Governor.

Stewart’s personal story is told in detail and will be of interest to many beyond immediate family and friends.

What I find striking, particularly in the current era where the projection of self-confidence is so ubiquitous in public life, is Stewart’s capacity for self-doubt and even anguish and his honesty in expressing this privately and publicly. It may not have served him well in all instances, but it undoubtedly anchored his integrity and is worthy of our reflection given broad community expectations in this regard.

As a young diplomat serving overseas, I often sought out journalists, particularly those just starting out, who were willing to exchange perspectives. They, too, were endeavouring to understand what was unfolding in Hong Kong, or Taiwan or China, or the UK. Like me, they wanted to develop reliable sources, to acquire deep expertise, to be in a position to weigh various influences and describe for government, or in the case of journalists, for public readership, what their implications were likely to be for Australia.

Stewart’s biography tells of how he developed deep tradecraft and quite quickly, actually, came to be respected by his peers, his seniors, his editors, proprietors, foremost his readers, and even, as a press secretary, his Prime Minister.

For his part, Stewart respected the power of his words and their capacity to inform thinking and change opinions.

A young cadet at The Advertiser in the 1970s recalled recently that his cohort was in awe of this “titan of journalism” and says Stewart was generous in sharing his expertise.

  • Here was a man who had won a prestigious Walkley Award.
  • Here was a man whose articles sparked a Royal Commission into the Splatt case.
  • Here was a man who had an enviable contact book built from personal connections, not emails and texts.
  • Here was a man who had travelled interstate and the world for his work.
  • Here was a man who had been personally chosen by Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies to be his Press Secretary.
  • turned his hand to radio and reading the news on television.
  • There was nothing in journalism that this man hadn’t done!

So, the diplomat in me has a huge respect for Stewart’s tradecraft, but also for what he wrote about, particularly during his time on Fleet Street from May 1947 to December 1949: post-war Britain, the Royal Wedding, the Berlin Airlift; and then later as Press Attaché at the Australian Embassy in Washington during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

At a time of growing threats to peace and stability globally, we are reminded of the value of leadership and statecraft, of diplomacy backed by military capability, of unity of purpose and resilience. And of a deep understanding of history.

As a South Australian, my third vantage point, there is much of contemporary relevance.

Our proud history re-told, our many “firsts”, all well known to this audience, the stories of our patriarchs, Oliphant and Playford foremost among them, and matriarchs, our self-belief and doubt in equal measure, what sends us out into the world and then draws us home again.

Stewart must surely be counted amongst the state’s most loyal, while at times most critical, sons.

I believe we can and must be loyal, constructively critical, and willing to be innovative if South Australia is to thrive in the face of current and prospective domestic, national and international challenges.

And, finally, as Governor.

Stewart considered that one of the most important roles of a journalist was to hold the government of the day to account.

As an editorial writer he was without fear.

When forming the newspaper’s position he would “grill” reporters who were working on a story on which the editorial would be based.

If a matter was before Parliament, he would sit in the Press Gallery to listen to debate.

As the author writes, Eddie Splatt’s pardon and release from prison was “a textbook case of the value of a robust and free press”.

In The Salisbury Affair, Stewart shone a spotlight on what he believed was an injustice and a misuse of power.

It would, indeed, be “fair to conclude”, as Jenny does, that Stewart Cockburn “fulfilled the highest purposes of journalism; to inform, to contribute to the common good and to help maintain the press as a pillar of a democratic society”.

At my swearing-in ceremony in October, I pledged as Governor to uphold South Australia’s Constitution and safeguard the institutions which are vital to its sovereignty, democracy and prosperity and which give expression to our values.

As Writing for His Life reminds us, a capable and courageous media has an essential role to play in achieving these objectives. It was a role Stewart took very much to heart.

Finally, let me, on behalf of all readers, thank Jennifer Cockburn for her skill as a biographer, her dedication to her task and her sheer perseverance over more than a decade.

Not for her the problem encountered by Stewart in writing Playford’s biography – “a dearth of personal writings” – in fact the very opposite, as she will no doubt tell us.

We often say “you can’t judge a book by its cover”.

In the case of Writing for His Life, with Stewart pictured engrossed in thought over his Remington typewriter, you most definitely can.

It is with the greatest of pleasure that I now declare this wonderful book officially launched!

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