josh rosner

PRESSMAN ON THE TROT

In Book Review, Journalism on December 1, 2011 at 2:40 am

I recently reviewed Alex Mitchell’s memoir, Come the Revolution, for the Canberra Times. It is, without resorting to overstatement, a cracking good yarn. Alex is an old-school journalist. He learned by doing, as a cadet at the Townsville Bulletin. He smoked, drank (still does), swore (still does) and produced his copy by banging away at a typewriter. The young journalism students who come into my classes could learn a lot from Alex Mitchell.

On 21 November 2011 Alex gave a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra which left the audience in stitches of laughter. He’s a natural storyteller, and my god, he has many stories to tell. From Rupert Murdoch’s transition from old-style newspaper owner to meglamaniac to travels in Tibet with Mike Willissee. After the speech I joined Alex and other veterans of Australian journalism, include the amazing Eric Walsh (one time presser to Gough Whitlam and Parliament House Bureau Chief at the Daily Mirror), and I listened to tales of the good-old-days of Australian journalism. It was an amazing experience just to be in the presence of this old hacks. If their oral histories have not yet been recorded, it should be done soon, before their knowledge and experiences is gone forever.

It was an honour to be able to sit with Alex and talk journalism and politics and listen to tales of the past. Take the time to read his book. You won’t be disappointed and you just might learn a little about our nation’s past.

COME THE REVOLUTION. By Alex Mitchell. NewSouth Publishing. 536pp. $39.95

Imagine this is your life: You were born in Townsville in 1942. At 16 you are injured when your homemade bomb explodes. Your first job is as a cadet on the Townsville Bulletin. You join Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, the Daily Mirror, reporting out of Sydney and Canberra. You travel to London to work on Fleet Street’s Sunday Times where you investigate and publish big-ticket stories such as Soviet double agent Kim Philby and corrupt publisher Robert Maxwell. Any reasonable person could retire at this juncture, content with their achievements.

Not Alex Mitchell. In his memoir, Come the Revolution, he writes with immense passion and great humour about his childhood in far north Queensland and his long, eventful life as a journalist – and Trotskyist – in Australia and the UK.

Come the Revolution is dripping in nostalgia for the good old days of journalism; a time when newsrooms across Australia were the exclusive domain of men and cigarette smoke, and long lunches were boozy, daily occurrences.

Sydney Daily Telegraph

There are few occasions when one might wish to be older, but I sometimes lament not being old enough to have experienced the old Canberra Times offices in Mort Street, Civic. Some public servants who now inhabit the building told me the ghosts of journalists past can still be heard banging away at their typewriters.

Recalling the good-old-days of noisy printing presses, Mitchell writes, “I miss the clattering sound of rows of linotype machines setting type on metal lines to fill the columns of the paper; the smell of the stone room where the comps worked; the foundry and the pressroom and the tremendous roar of the presses in full production.”

There could never be enough column inches available to do justice to Come the Revolution in this review, but two periods in Mitchell’s life stand out as life-defining, if not life-changing, and are worth highlighting.

The first involves Mitchell’s extraordinary 1971 interview with Uganda’s new president, Ida Amin, for Granada Television’s flagship current affairs program, World in Action. Mitchell was the first western journalist to interview Amin, only three weeks after the bloody military coup that overthrew President Milton Obote. Getting Amin to agree to the interview was the easy part. Mitchell let him win in a swimming race. But he needed every last ounce of journalistic training and instinct in order to compile the research needed to grill Amin. The film, The Man Who Stole Uganda, went to air on 5 April 1971 and, as Mitchell puts it, “[exploded] the conventional wisdom of the Foreign Office and Fleet Street that Amin, the genial giant, had restored order and economic prosperity to Uganda.”

The second involves Mitchell’s extraordinary withdrawal from mainstream – capitalist, he calls it – media to edit Britain’s first Trotskyist daily newspaper, Workers Press, later renamed, The News Line. Immersing himself entirely into the Workers Revolutionary Party, which coincided firstly with the heady era of Edward Heath’s prime ministership in which the role of the courts, the police, the army and prisons were significant, followed by Thatcherism and the miners’ strike.

Mitchell and his fellow Workers Revolutionary Party leader, the actress Vanessa Redgrave, travelled the Middle East to show the Party’s film, The Palestinian. They met leaders such as Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, now all dead.

Although I’ve never felt the lure of Trotskyism myself, Mitchell’s near breathless recounting of those fifteen years inside the Workers Revolutionary Party left me at times infuriated at his naïveté and blind faith he placed in people, and at other times in awe of his tenacity and focus in the face of numerous obstacles.

Alex today

When it all finally, and somehow inevitably, came to and end in 1986 and Mitchell returned to Australia with barely a penny to his name, an overwhelming sense of relief greets the reader. Mitchell’s final chapter, On Reflection, is a stirring defence of the struggles of workers – particularly prescient given the current industrial unrest in Australia – one suspects the Trotskyist in Mitchell will remain until his final breath.

Come the Revolution offers a damning indictment of the current state of anti-intellectualist, divisive, celebrity-driven, trivia-laden journalism and the eroding of the ‘free press’ in the face of corporate interest. Mitchell pulls no punches when describing his old boss, Rupert Murdoch. “As a student at Oxford, ‘Red’ Rupert kept a bust of Lenin in his room; today it’s a cut-out of the animated cartoon character Homer Simpson, inventor of the word ‘d’oh’, whose ratings are gold-plated. The man is an utter disgrace – Rupert, that is, not Homer.”

Come the Revolution will be required reading for my first year journalism students next year.

Advertisements
  1. I’ve been reading the book and it’s a fascinating insight into the radical politics of the 1970s and 1980s, but there are some minor errors and a lot of omissions and not that much reflection. For example Mitchell claims the Communist Party of Australia supported the USSR’s actions in 1968 and that it was only a few branches that opposed the invasion of Czechosovakia when in fact the opposite was true- the Party opposed the action and some branches supported it, leading them to split off in the 1970s. A minor point, but it made me wonder if all his other assertions about politcal rivals and those he differed with at the time were also accurate. Similarly the WRP and SLL had a reputation for thugishness and violent action against opponents, but this isn’t really addressed in the book. I wasn’t around then and don’t know exactly to the extent to which violence was employed, but Dave Douglass talks in his memoirs about SLL members roughing people up in Newcastle in the 1960s and a friend was beaten up in Brixton in the 1980s by WRP members who were supporting Lambeth mayor Ted Knight against local squatters. Perhaps Mitchell’s position in the party meant he wasn’t aware of such activities, but given the party’s rough treatment of opponents and “defectors” who opposed their line during Healy’s time perhaps it wasn’t so surprising that the party imploded in the way it did. Lastly, the lack of reflection and insight into things such as why the party aligned itself with Gaddafi and Hussein (misguided anti-imperialism, money?) and what Mitchell made of their downfall along with other questions about Healy’s legacy, the nature of authoritarian partys, etc make the book feel somewhat shallow.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: