Des Keegan was a member of the thinning ranks of Australian journalists who owe their start on newspapers to Max Newton, the launch editor of The Australian.
Newton was a hard-drinking extrovert whose blood alcohol level was topped only by a restless intelligence.
These days, men like Max Newton would be “managed out” of a newspaper by departments called “people and culture”.
Newton knew all about people. Culture could wait. He was aggressive, abusive, loud, profane and unforgiving. His staff loved him. He started each Monday morning by sweeping all the correspondence off his editor’s desk and in to a bin. “If it’s important, the bastards will write again,” he would say. No one ever got a job by writing to Max Newton.
Walter Kommer was typical of Newton’s unorthodox hirings. At a conference in 1960, Newton heard a speech by Kommer – he’d been in the Dutch defence forces, had fought the Japanese and had then trained as an economist and hired him as a reporter. Kommer succeeded Newton as editor of The Australian.
Newton hired Jules Zanetti (later The Australian’s first news editor) and Alan Wood and, as editor of The Financial Review, a phalanx of writers – Max Walsh and Vic Carroll were there – that would dispense with the notion that politics and economics were separate disciplines.
One recruit was Keegan, a former merchant seaman with dodgy hearing and given to deep refreshing draughts of ale and economic rationalism – only one of which was popular back then.
Back on land, Keegan had studied economics and accounting at Sydney University, graduating with honours, and wished to become a finance journalist. It is said that he bumped into Max Walsh in a pub and, having expressed the desire to write for a newspaper, was advised to speak to Newton.
Soon he was reporting for an AFR finding its feet under the mercurial Newton: sales rose steadily as it went from weekly to biweekly and then daily.
Keegan’s reporting style, like the popular columns he would write for The Australian throughout the 1980s, was direct and made up for what they might lack in flourish with robust analysis written at a speed that astounded his colleagues.
Finance commentator Terry McCrann said Keegan popularised not just financial reporting, but his conservative ideology.
“If people didn’t like high taxes he didn’t regard them as idiots because they didn’t realise they should be in favour of redistribution of income,” said McCrann. “He was connecting with small businesses and people who were unhappy with the Canberra view of the world.”
Bob Gordon worked with Keegan on Melbourne’s Sun News-Pictorial. Asking his new boss about the daily schedule he was told with a wink: “We run it to suit ourselves, matey.” Gordon often ran proofs to the Phoenix Hotel in Melbourne’s Flinders Street where they would be solemnly approved.
Gordon remembers Keegan as a superb journalist. “He had an uncanny news sense and he could summarise the most complicated departmental press releases about economics in a minute flat.
“He used to pound it out on a typewriter — bang, bang, bang,” he added, rekindling memories of Keegan’s robust approach to computer keyboards in later decades.
News Corp Australia columnist Piers Akerman also met Keegan in Melbourne. “Des had a capacity to put fairly complex economic theories in to basic language which the layman could understand,” Akerman recalled.
“He had an enormously loyal following across Australia, among small business people, miners (as a young man, Keegan had been a cadet surveyor in the Hunter Valley) from Kalgoorlie to Karratha and up to Queensland.
“The people he appealed to were self-employed, small businesses, trying to find their way. Determined individuals. He and Max Newton used to have long and esoteric economic arguments.
“But he was also a (Richmond) Tigers fan and could recite in detail the records of the players, including their criminal records.”
Former secretary to the Treasury and one-time National senator John Stone, a good friend, believes Keegan helped Australians understand finance and the economy. Stone also sought to defend Keegan’s role in the infamous 1987 Joh Bjelke-Petersen-for-Canberra push that saw the contentious, high-profile Queensland premier touted as a possible prime minister.
He described Keegan as being sympathetic to Bjelke-Petersen’s policies at the time. “(He believed) Joh was talking a lot of sense and that Canberra was in an absolute mess and maybe Joh could sort it out … not by becoming prime minister, but by bringing pressure to bear (on federal politics).”
“I always enjoyed (Keegan’s) writing. He was very blunt. He was never equivocal. He always had a clear opinion — and stated it clearly. And sometimes it wasn’t a popular opinion, which I admired, even if I didn’t agree with him.”
Matt Keegan, one of Des’ much-loved twin nephews, described his uncle as being married to his job. “He loved being around people and talking – the markets, stock prices,” he said. “He was responsible for giving a lot of people their start on the papers – and some fairly big names.”
Keegan was born in rural NSW, the son of a mounted policeman who moved “all over the country” and as a boy won a scholarship to the esteemed St Joseph’s College in Sydney.
“He was very bright,” said Matt, adding that Keegan displayed his capacity for numbers early, being expelled from St Joseph’s for running a book on the races.
Keegan’s father died prematurely and Mrs Keegan took her five children to Newcastle. A young Des saw the ships and was hooked.
As a finance editor in his second career, Keegan adopted Newton’s hiring ethic and was equally adept at spotting talent in unlikely quarters. At the Sun News-Pictorial, Keegan hired a keen university graduate, Terry McCrann, and grabbed Bob Gordon from the newsroom and recruited Trevor Sykes from Adelaide.
And he also saw potential in another young fellow he hired as a reporter. They might have been Christopher Skase’s most productive years.
Alan Howe is a former editor of The Weekend Australian Magazine, Melbourne’s Sunday Herald and Sunday Herald Sun, and has been a senior editor on The Australian, London’s The Times and Sunday Times and the New York Post. This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.
For more news from The Newspaper Works, click here.