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HomeBook extractsA Life in Journalism and PR: 2

A Life in Journalism and PR: 2

Telephone booth

Geoff Holden is a Life Fellow of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, a former journalist and former PR agency head. In his book A Life in Journalism and PR he charts his career from copy boy to owner of his own PR firm in South Australia. We’ll regularly publish extracts of Geoff’s book here – this is the second extract. Catch up on the first here.

Part two: On two occasions, I was sent to Melbourne, each time for a month, to relieve somebody who was on holiday. Our Melbourne office (one journalist and one teletype operator on most nights) was based at the Melbourne “Sun” office (also the base of the afternoon newspaper “The Herald”) and was responsible for collating news from every Australian state, reducing the length of the stories while retaining accuracy, and sending it to Adelaide.

On my first stint, I stayed at Dene’s Court, a bed and breakfast place directly opposite the main entrance to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where most of the interstate journalists stayed when working out of the newspaper offices in Flinders street. It was a reasonably pleasant walk to and from work, with a start at 5 p.m. and a finish about 1.00 a.m. Dene’s Court was demolished some 10 or so years later.

” … the hotel staff phoned me to say that
two detectives wished to interview me”

There was a good staff cafe where we ate our evening meals.

On the second occasion, I stayed for a month at the famous old Occidental Hotel in Collins street (where Dame Nellie Melba used to stay). It was pulled down years ago.

One night, a new representative for the “Launceston Examiner” and the “Burnie Advocate”, Tasmania, started in the shared office we used. During the evening, we went for a meal in the newspaper cafe, and as I recall we both had curried sausages.

When we finished for the evening we walked up Russell street to Collins street and he went to his hotel and I went to mine.

About 9 o’clock the following morning, the hotel staff phoned me to say that two detectives wished to interview me.

Apparently, my colleague was prone to sleep walking when under stress, and he had walked through a plate glass door and over a balcony, killing himself in the process. Needless to say, I never ate curried sausages in that canteen again!

South East Representative

In 1957 (as a graded journalist) I was sent to Mount Gambier as the South East representative to write any major stories and to supervise local “paid by the line” correspondents. I also wrote news bulletins for radio station 5SE (then part of the network owned by the newspaper).


“… the operators were listening in and possibly called
the Postmaster to listen – we knew what was happening
because of the many clicks on the phone line”

It was an interesting and responsible position. I enjoyed it, except for the separation from Barbara, whom I would ask to marry me later that year.

At the time, the telephone system in Mount Gambier was still run by telephone operators who connected the number requested (and then eavesdropped on calls). They were also slow to answer calls, particularly if they disliked callers. Despite many requests, the Postmaster General’s Office which then controlled the system, had refused to introduce an automatic exchange – or so the local Postmaster claimed.

The Deputy Mayor of Mount Gambier, Stan Elliott, a furniture store manager, ran a sporting show on 5SE, and one evening, we discussed the problem. We each had examples of where callers had been told the numbers were not answering, when people had been waiting for those calls. There were constant complaints about poor service.

Just before Stan came off air, I had tried for 20 minutes to get an operator to answer so I could phone a story through to Adelaide. We decided to run a campaign (it was to be the first of many in my later career). I placed a call to Adelaide and dictated a story about the shocking telephone service (the operators were listening in and possibly called the Postmaster to listen – we knew what was happening because of the many clicks on the phone line).

The story received excellent coverage in the following day’s paper, and also on 5SE radio news (how could it not?) and the local ABC representative with whom I often shared stories, also took it up.

The Postmaster abused me the following day. I took a shorthand note of what he said, and suggested it would make a good follow up story. He spluttered! Then apparently, he telephoned the SA head office of the PMG. Within 10 days of starting the campaign, the PMG announced an automatic exchange would be provided for Mount Gambier. It was operational soon after I left Mount Gambier some four months later!

In the next instalment: 6pm to 2am sub-editing shifts, and moving into the world of public relations. “… there were some poor and unscrupulous practitioners about.”