“50 Shades of Red”: The ABC, the Communist Party and ASIO

Was the national broadcaster asking the Communist Party to organise telegenic protests against the Vietnam War? Documents suggest the security agency suspected as much, but the only thing of which we can today be certain is that the accusation was far from an improbable

spiesI happened to come across an Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)  file containing the info below.

SECRET: Report to Regional Director (WA) OF ASIO, 25/10/68
on “Communist Influence in the Information Media”.

15. “A somewhat unusual incident occurred in this media [ABC TV] in 1967 when  intelligence received from “Q”  sources indicated that ABC television operatives  had approached the CPA [Communist Party of Australia] and asked them to organise a demonstration on Vietnam which the ABC would televise. The demonstration was duly held on 3/11/67 and filmed by an ABC television unit, but no details were obtained  as to those persons  in the ABC  responsible for the approach to the CPA.”

The report says that four persons of security interest (though not directly associated with the CPA) were employed by the ABC in Western Australia in 1968. They were an education assistant, a secretary, and two journalists. The report says, “Potential for CPA influence in television would appear to be limited again to the national [ABC] network. However, apart from the incident mentioned in para 15, there has been no definite evidence of CPA influence.”

I sent off the queries below to the ABC ‘s hard-pressed media manager Nick Leys:

  1. Are the facts in Para 15 correct?
  2. The report says that the alleged facts were only “somewhat” unusual. Have there been other instances of the ABC organising Communist Party demonstrations? If so, I would appreciate details of when, where and why.
  3. Do current ABC reporting guidelines (in general) discourage ABC staff from organising Communist Party demonstrations? If so, which guideline(s) is relevant?

With commendable speed and courtesy, Nick replied,

Thanks but we won’t comment on something that allegedly happened almost five decades ago. However I will point out a central tenet of the ABC Editorial Policies, 1.3, which requires ABC staff to “ensure that editorial decisions are not improperly influenced by political, sectional, commercial or personal interests.

The ABC certainly covered the anti-Vietnam Moratorium in Melbourne in May, 1970, but I make no suggestion that the ABC organized it.

The ABC in Perth in 1967 was a public service monster of 700-800 people in myriad departments housed in a sprawling, 6300-square-metre complex occupying a whole block, from Adelaide Terrace to Terrace Road. Admin/management was concentrated on the Adelaide Terrace frontage, with the radio/TV people semi-isolated down on the river side.

Geoffrey Luck, who was Sydney chief of staff of ABC National News in 1967, says, “I would be absolutely certain this [ABC arranging a CPA demo] would have nothing to do with the News division.” News in those days abided by impartiality guidelines, but young staff, radicalised in their university days, were constantly wanting to put their personal views forward. As Luck puts it, “I had to tell a youngster, whose job was to interview celebrities arriving the airport, to take off his anti-Viet-war badge.”

“I can’t speak for ABC Perth but that demo episode sounds like something our This Day Tonight(TDT)  might have generated.  TDT was a  loose cannon on a bucking ship, hard to control and causing enormous problems for management, like pulling pollies’ whiskers just for the fun seeing how they reacted.  Maybe that Perth demo was just something they thought would be fun.”

One Perth ABC TV veteran says, “Absolutely nothing would surprise me  when it came to the ABC. There was tremendous tension then between the conservative Perth ABC News team and the irreverent and opinionated Today Tonight[i] staffers who set out to air provocative stuff.”

I trotted over to the State Library of Victoria and checked The West Australian (where I worked from 1958-69) for a next-day report of an anti-Vietnam demo on Friday, November 3.  Nothing was published. A Communist-led demo may still have happened, but gone unreported. As the ASIO report noted, “The West Australian pursues a conservative right-wing policy”.

The front-page of The West’s November 3, 1967 issue was chock-a-block with  controversy over President Johnson’s then-current campaign to bomb North Vietnam to the negotiating table, Johnson insisting  that it “was the right thing to do.”  Whitlam was accusing Prime Minister Harold Holt of letting “thousands of Australian, American and Vietnamese soldiers die to prove a political point”, and on page three there was Paul Hasluck was saying there was “no doubt at all that South Vietnam and its allies would win the war.” Bad call.[ii] I figured that if anything could provoke Perth’s Communists onto the streets that day, Pages 1-3 of The West would suffice, with or without guidance  from the ABC’s Today Tonight.

Now, back to ASIO’s secret report. Comprising three typed and single-spaced pages it seems a response to a demand from Canberra HQ for an update on Reds in the Perth media. Putting it together in only nine days for the WA Regional Director  J.M. Gilmour was a good effort. It covered all print, even including the student paper Pelican and the ALP’s Western Sun,  plus all radio and TV stations. I totted up 17 persons named as “of security interest”. The print pinks ranged from a staff printer on The Sunday Times to a talented and charismatic reporter on The West (a certain Anthony Paul THOMAS), along with a hotbed of security risks on The West’s afternoon stablemate Daily News, where one suspect was the assistant chief of staff.[iii]

I would be surprised if the ASIO report’s author was sloppy enough to include sheer fantasy about the ABC organizing a CPA demo on November 3. From the coding  around the summary, it seems the ASIO author had drawn on four internal files about the matter. The ultimate source is described as a “Q source”,  meaning an agent run by an ASIO staffer. These Q sources were scattered throughout the media at that time — spotters operating much like the IMs[iv] in East Germany (but less plentiful of course). For example, in 1966 someone advised ASIO that reporter Anthony Thomas had applied for and been granted two weeks leave from The West to go to Darwin. ASIO went into a flurry of checking airline ticketing but concluded he never went.

A Perth ABC source says, “I was told that embedded in the ABC were ASIO spotters; we never found out who they were.  They could have been ex-military who were then  in ABC administration. The message was to behave yourself, if you don’t you will be on report or something. Maybe the ASIO report about the demo was based on scuttlebutt overheard around the ABC coffee pot.”

ASIO intense scrutiny of ABC staff and programs at the time makes it even more mysterious that the demo deal was done under ASIO’s nose.  For all the ABC’s professed independence, ASIO could promote conformity by denying security clearance to individuals.  Historian David McKnight says,

Overall, at least throughout the 1950s and 60s, a security watchdog was peering over the shoulder of the ABC and regularly querying employees’ background and program content.

For example, in 1955, ABC Assistant General Manager Arthur Finlay asked ASIO to search ABC Radio’s kids’ show The Argonauts for subversives.

Finlay was worried “that dangers lie ahead” (as per The Argonauts theme song). Subversives in the Children’s Session could disguise their views and gradually exert their influence to put a pink slant on kiddies’ fare, Finlay thought. In 1958, the compere of Kindergarten of the Air, Joyce Hutchison, was a person of interest to ASIO. Finlay also asked ASIO to do a careful check on Children’s Session compere   Leonard Teale, who went on to to play Senior Detective Mackay in Crawford Productions’ long-running Homicide .

The programs aired were also monitored by ASIO, alert for any left slant.  The mere mention of Prague in an ABC radio travel serial was enough to generate an ASIO report (the show was  found not guilty). ABC manager and writer/historian Clement Semmler  in the 1960s had this on his ASIO file:

It is reported that Semmler, described as a strange, highly strung temperamental person, is a close friend of Frank Hardy, a CPA member and author and that Hardy has often called to see Semmler at the ABC.

ASIO applied a doctrine of lese majeste, literally. Disrespectful references on- or off-air to the Royal Family were followed up and the author’s file checked. An artist, Jack Child, wanted a job at the ABC but an informer deposed that Child had been overheard to make “scathing” remarks about the visit of Princess Alexandra. That was the last straw for ASIO, given that Child had a left or Communist past, although one operative suggested that Child was “not a communist” while observing “all artists were ‘queer people’ “.

sam aaronsPerth’s Communist Party offices were on the fourth floor of the southwest corner of the twee-Tudor London Court. Across the wall a fake Big Ben chimed on the quarter hours. Three floors below, Sir Walter Raleigh stood guard in plaster with London Mayor of history and legend Dick Whittington. The CPA State Secretary  in 1967  was Sam Aarons (left),  father of Laurie and Eric, Eastern States party stalwarts (Laurie became National Secretary).

If the ASIO story of the ABC approaching the ACP is true, Sam would have approved the broadcaster’s request for a demo. All important party decisions had to come from the top. Hence Sam’s personality is germane to my story (plus an opportunity to sex-up my dull narrative).

ASIO described Sam as “of sallow complexion, black curly hair, brown eyes, looks very Jewish”. Sam  had been a truck driver for the Republicans in Spain — no comfy task as trucks were the prize targets of hostile aircraft.

esmeFond of purging dissidents and a Stalinist to the end (1971), he also spent a life in fertile pursuit of Communist women, the more beautiful the better. Ironically, he was, pre-war, on the party’s three-man Control Commission for moral disciplining of members. He concurrently embarked on a torrid affair with a young party woman Esme Odgers (right), “one of four beautiful sisters”, in the prose of Aarons family chronicler Mark Aarons.   (“Esme Odgers” is not a pretty name but we’re talking real life here).

Party president, the oafish ex-lift driver Lance Sharkey, was also vying for Esme’s hand and other parts, so Sam lost his moral enforcer job and Esme had to write a Soviet-style grovelling self-criticism[v], despite which she was back in Sam’s arms within a month. Sharkey exiled Aarons to some remote post, but Sam had the second-last laugh when he and Esme went off together to fight for freedom in Spain.  There, Esme dumped Sam for a wealthy Spanish husband and disappeared to Venezuela.

Sam arrived in Perth as new WA boss about 1948, once again under a cloud in the party over an affair with a young and married woman, according to poet-playwright Dorothy Hewett.[vi] “I find him totally irresistible,” she wrote, “A passionate, highly intelligent, charismatic man with a glamorous history.” London Court headquarters had a Marx & Boon quality or maybe 50 Shades of Red quality. “He bends me back on the desk in his office, but before we can consummate our affair we are interrupted by the old Party caretaker, locking up for the night…”

Sam tells her, “Sharkey has already told me that if there’s any more gossip about me and other women, I’ll be on the outer. He’s had it in for me ever since I stole his girlfriend in Spain.”

They live in a ménage a trois with Sam’s unwitting wife, until Dorothy finds another lover while Sam is on Eastern States party business.  Sam threatens to blacken her name in the party all over Australia. Dorothy reports that, eventually, most of the WA State Committee went east  “to escape the heavy hand of Sam Aarons.”

I’d have to say that Sam was an unlikely collaborator with ABC provocateurs, unless they were beautiful females.

Next question is whether the ambience and culture of ABC Current Affairs, circa 1960s, was compatible with sponsoring a CPA Viet demo? I’d have to say ‘yes’. Weirder things happened in that era. For example, Prime Minister Billy McMahon in April, 1971,  told Parliament that the government wouldn’t permit  reporter John Penlington to  go to China for Four Corners unless he was first positively vetted by Ted Hill, then secretary of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). Penlington didn’t go.[vii]

The tone at ABC Current Affairs in the 1960s had been set by Talks supervisor Allan Ashbolt, an ex-AIF commando turned actor and film-maker who led a coterie of aggressive ABC talent. He had been inspired by New York (so-called) intellectuals towards “democratic socialism”. In 1963 he took over Four Corners, and created a political storm with an unconventional take on the RSL. Though fairly mild, this program included as a talking head one Alec Robertson, editor of the Communist Party newspaper Tribune, opining that the RSL was thwarting citizens’ desire “to build for themselves a secure and peaceful future”. Though qualified for the program through his wartime service as an officer, Robertson looked shifty on the box, “a filling in a front tooth glinting under the lights”.[viii] Ashbolt  was sacked from Four Corners but reinstated in 1964.

In 1967 Four Corners was joined by a kid brother, This Day Tonight, which began in April, 1967,  seven months before the alleged ABC/CPA Perth demo in November. Historian Ken Inglis wrote, “The TDT approach was not merely to report events but to create them, especially by having people confront  each other…both news and a kind of sport.” Shades of Q&A, circa 2015. Compere Bill Peach wrote,  “There was no jealousy more intense than the jealousy between the different program divisions of the ABC.” TDT sometimes even paid interviewees to appear on TDT rather than News.

TDT set out to upset applecarts, and succeeded. An example was its second broadcast, which apart from speculating on ABC board appointments,  featured author Frank Hardy, live to air, telling yarns. Hardy said overseas tourists loved Australians: “They all said the same thing. Finest people in the world, and the most generous too. They said the Australians would share anything they had, even give you the coat off their own back. The salt of the earth. There was just one thing to watch, they all said.”

“What’s that?” Bill Peach asked.

“They all said you have to watch out for those white bastards.”

The Perth version of TDTToday Tonight,  at the time of the demo was run by New Zealander Bruce Buchanan, who later went on to become Executive Producer of  TDT in Sydney. There he became a thorn in the side of ABC top management over what they called “errors of judgement” and what staff called lively TV. Buchanan shook things up in WA with stunts like greeting random people in Albany, “G’day, you old bastard!” to see whether the term still caused offence.

The program’s Vietnam War coverage was provocative. Peach wrote that TDT was happy to give anti-Viet-war people a platform:

“We thought it was our job to pursue the truth, including the truth that many intelligent and loyal citizens believed that we were on the wrong track in Vietnam. It was TDT’s hottest potato, and the source of most accusations against us of bias.”

Historian Inglis instances TDT devoting an interview segment in 1968 to Communist journalist Malcolm Salmon, fresh from North Vietnam. In that same year, Bill Peach on TDT mistakenly claimed that two companies of Regular Army troops were standing by to quell an anti-war demo outside the St Kilda Road consulate of the US embassy. In November, 1971,  TDT interviewed a draft-resister student on the run from police.

Sadly, despite all my verbiage above, we are not going to resolve whether rogue elements of the Perth ABC organised and filmed a CPA anti-war demo in 1967. The files show ASIO was in no doubt about it. Mad things did happen in those days, but the likelihood that Perth Communist supremo Sam Aarons would kow-tow to ABC journos is low. On the other hand, the gung-ho culture of ABC Current Affairs was amenable to such stunts, but ASIO informers in the ABC were a threat to anyone wanting to liaise with CPA headquarters. We have no newspaper evidence that the November 3 demo happened, but it was a propitious day for such a rally. So is the ASIO story true? I’ll give it a definite ‘Maybe’.

Tony Thomas blogs at No BS Here (I Hope)


[i]  Not to be confused with Channel 7’s later Today Tonight.

[ii] Two months earlier, ABC General Manager Talbot Duckmanton had been personally assured by President Johnson during a White House meeting that the war “was both just and winnable”.  Ken Inglis, This is the ABC.

[iii] Several Daily News journalists, including the senior one mentioned, had in earlier years moonlighted from the Daily News at weekends putting together the WA page of the national Communist weekly Tribune. Justina Williams, Anger & Love, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993, p157

[iv] Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter – unofficial cooperators

[v] “My behavior (sic) over the past 12 months has been such that it has been necessary for certain organizational measures to be taken against me, and has also necessarily called forth serious criticism of my actions…My renewal of the association with Comrade Aarons is indicative of the fact that I was willing to place my own personal inclinations and desires before the prestige and good name of the party…”

[vi]   Wild Card, McPhee, S.Yarra, p138

[vii] Ken Inglis, This is the ABC.  1932-83, Black Inc. Melbourne, 2006

[viii] Rob Pullen, Four Corners, 25 Years.  ABC, 1986.

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