Chapter 26 – Becoming a Correspondent in Japan, 1969


A Brand-new Career

1. Apprentice Journalist
2. Rupert Murdoch
3. Preparing for Japan 
4. Viewing The Pilbara Miracle

Mid 1969: I have rebelled against the academic futility in Canberra. 

I plan to get back to Japan. 

From lofty academia I would descend to grubby pressroom journalism.

1. Apprentice Journalist 

I had visited Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd. Headquarters in Sydney’s Surrey Hills semi-slum district before, for my meetings with Menadue. 

But then I had been shown only the ersatz plush of the executive suites. 

Now I was in the newsroom of The Australian – a confusion of nondescript desks, grubby filing cabinets and un-swept floors. 

They had asked me to spend a month or two there learning how to be a newsperson before setting off for Tokyo. 

It was a very down-lifting experience. On one pillar of the room someone had tacked up a wartime headline – ‘three subs disappear mysteriously in mid-Pacific.’ 

‘Subs’ was jargon for sub-editors. The news-people clearly did not like the way their copy was hacked around by the ‘subs.’ 

Not that the news-people were much better. A semi-alcoholic old-timer who served as foreign editor was assigned to look after me. 

Day-time, he would throw uninteresting agency news items into a large basket. 

Evening-time, and after a few stiffeners at the local News Ltd. frequented pub just down the road, he would reach into the basket, pull out a fist-full of discarded items and throw them at the layout people to choose if they had to fill up any blank spaces on pages going to the print shop. 

If in those days the paper looked scrappy, that is one reason why. 

2. Rupert Murdoch 

I got to meet Murdoch only occasionally during my Sydney stay. 

He was busy traveling round Australia, and then the world, trying to get his fledgling empire together. 

But when we did meet he was unfailingly friendly and polite. 

He remembered how I had written for his paper back in 1965 on Vietnam and China. 

Murdoch was still fairly progressive in those days. 

But I remember well the moment when he began to cease to be progressive. 

His Sydney printing facility was plagued with wildcat strikes. 

They would usually be timed for 6pm, just when the paper was supposed to be going to bed (i.e. getting ready for printing). 

Even a delay of one hour or two would cause chaos since the paper usually had to be flown that evening or early the next day all around Australia to reach customers before midday the next day. 

Already it was facing circulation difficulties from not being delivered early enough in competition with local newspapers. 

So when hit by a wildcat strike, everyone on the administrative side would be rounded up to go into the print shop and help set the lead type – a very messy job. 

As he rolled up his sleeves to push the lead into the plates it was clear that the iron was being pushed deep into the Murdoch soul. 

The progressives could have their trade unions. In future he would be siding with the anti-trade union conservatives. 

His alliance with Madam Thatcher and the famous trade union lockouts at his Wapping plant in London were an early result. 

The world has been a different, and worse, place ever since. 

And to think that I might have been there at the beginning – powerless to do anything about it, of course.

3. Preparing for Japan 

Meanwhile I was trying to get my hand in as a Japan-based journalist.

First move was to try to interview Japanese firms with offices in Sydney. 

Some were interesting, some not. But all were invariably polite. 

It was my first lesson in Japan’s surprising openness to foreign journalists, even if the reasons for opening doors are not always clear.


Peter Robinson, the leading Financial Review Japan reporter, later rebuked me for seeming to mix journalism with PR, especially after an interview I did with Onoki, a leading executive of Nihon Keizai, Japan’s main economic newspaper, then in Sydney to publicize his newspaper. 

(Today it needs no publicity. It is known worldwide, and it is also very profitable.) 

But for an innocent like me at the time it was all a voyage of discovery. I would soon be off to Japan. I wanted to immerse myself in the people and their business even before I got there. 

(Robinson was clearly the doyen of Australian‘s Japan-watchers at the time. I can imagine he was slightly put out by an upstart like myself butting into his chosen field.  

(But he and his Japanese wife had always been very courteous to me earlier in Canberra when I was with the university there.

(He had spent quite a few years in Japan reporting for the Fairfax group and the Financial Review. But he did not speak Japanese. I always wondered how he got established in Japan. 

(Like many of the immediate postwar generation of Western journalists in Japan, Australians especially, he may have needed some help from government quarters to get himself up and running.) 

4. Viewing The Pilbara Miracle

Somehow the CRA (Conzinc Rio Tinto, Australia) people heard I was in Sydney planning to go to Japan. As large-scale miners doing a lot of business with Japan they were very sensitive to media attitudes. 

They had invited me down to their Melbourne headquarters for a company briefing. 

There I met Don Stewart who was in charge of their Hammersley iron ore operation in the Pilbara district of northwest Australia. 

Don invited me to go up and have a look in the company jet, which I did, after a five hour flight across Australia. It opened my eyes, wide, to the extraordinary scale and investment needed for these projects.


Stewart too had trade union problems – mainly with the tug boats needed to pull the massive 300,000 ton iron ore boats in and out of Port Headland. 

A strike by a dozen or so tug operators would leave a line several miles long of waiting ships outside the harbour within a week. The steel mills in Japan would have to pay a fortune in demurrage. 

I could see why he too had turned anti-trade union conservative.


(In later years I was to get to know Don well. I always admired the dynamism and scale of his thinking. 

(But just for those reasons he fell foul of the CRA bureaucrats – despite having done the ground work to turn Hammersley into the success it is today. 

(He ended up managing Peko Wallsend, a coal and copper miner, which later developed the Ranger uranium ore project and signed the first uranium ore contracts for export to Japan’s electricity companies. 

(Don pulled me into the uranium negotiations as adviser. By this time -1976 – I was fairly unemployed in Japan and keen to do anything. 

(He also wanted me to be involved with the Peko office in Tokyo. But the Japanese manager of the office resisted, strongly.