Careless whisper to front page news


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On Monday night 500 plus subscribers of this august news outlet descended on the Seymour Centre to hear Walkley-award winning investigative reporter Kate McClymont, Thee Sydney Morning Herald‘s editor Lisa Davies and little old me discuss a topic with particular resonance for these pages: When Gossip Becomes News.

Indeed the term “gossip” has long been greeted with a combination of derision and sneering by some of the more lofty members of the Fourth Estate, but there is no denying that behind just about every fabulous scoop lies a seed of tittle-tattle which has been nurtured, verified and thoroughly scrutinised by a reporter to go from careless whisper to front page news.

Throughout the Herald‘s 186 year history, there have been many columns in the vein of Private Sydney, written by a long cavalcade of characters and in styles which befit the times.

From social dispatches recording the goings on at Government House nearly two centuries ago to fawning over who dined at the Hotel Australia throughout the early part of the 20th century, the Herald has always documented how Sydney’s social luminaries lived.

The paper responded to the launch of The Australian Women’s Weekly in 1933 by publishing a weekly insert 24-page “women’s supplement” every Thursday. 

Teams of predominantly female journalists were charged with filling the “women’s pages”. Many of them were accomplished reporters, banned from covering “hard news” rounds. Indeed for many decades these women worked in entirely separate offices to their male colleagues.

One of the early women’s editors was Jean Hamilton, a formidable figure who during the 1930s was known around the Herald offices as Machine Gun Kate, a moniker which would no doubt be apt for today’s Kate McClymont. 

Hamilton was replaced by Connie “Sweetheart” Robertson, a daughter of A.G. Stephens, the former literary critic and editor of The Bulletin‘s Red Page. 

Robertson became something of an institution, staying at the Herald for 28 years until her retirement in 1962. 

According to her biographer, former Herald journalist Valerie Lawson, Robertson would famously “stand at the top of the stairs at Romano’s looking down on the crowd, tapping her teeth with her pencil, and choosing the favoured ones for portraits”.

In the 1940s the Herald would report at length on individual divorce cases, with “adultery” often cited in headlines, while the story would often contain the couple’s full names and addresses. 

Instead of the Ibrahims and the Obeids, it was Sydney’s great families which would be regularly feted in the Herald, including the then owners of the paper the Fairfaxes, with the second wife of Sir Warwick Fairfax, Lady Mary, taking a particular interest in how such matters were covered in “her paper”, and largely eschewing any hint of the feminist movement happening around them.

Rather it was Lady Mary’s glamorous house parties at Fairwater, where she would often entertain international celebrities and heads of state, which were covered in great detail, from the guest list to her famous kangaroo ice sculpture, the pouch of which would be overflowing with the finest Beluga caviar.

Just as social media and smart phones have impacted on journalism in the 21st century, two world wars and 20th century technological wizardry like flash photography and the Telex machine re-shaped how Sydney’s social fauna was covered in the Herald.

The pace of news quickened and desire grew for more salacious gossip beyond fawning coverage of Lady So and So’s new hat.

The Herald reported with particular glee Sir Frank Packer’s boys, Clyde and Kerry, starring in bloody street brawls. Fifty years later his grandson James was afforded similar attention over his Bondi Beach biffo with his former best mate David Gyngell.

Heaven knows what the readers of yesteryear would make of today’s crop of Private Sydney fixtures, but they can rest assured the tradition of gossip becoming news lives on.

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