Below is an edited version of Roger Coombs’ eulogy to Brian Gallagher, delivered at Binalong Catholic Church on Wednesday, July 20.
I had the fun and privilege of working closely with Brian for about 20 years during the time he was our in-house legal counsel at the Sydney offices of The Daily Telegraph, The Australian, The Sunday Telegraph and earlier, The Daily Mirror newspapers.
Brian Aloysius Gallagher was born on November 26, 1934, in the country the town of Orange, not a long way north of where we sit today, the youngest by a long way of four children.
As a youngster, he took to tennis, he learned to ride at the family’s historic property of ‘Guntawang’ near Molong, he was keen on cricket, he loved swimming; he seems to have been a pretty good scholar. At Riverview, where he was sent as a boarder for his secondary education, he excelled in English, he won the senior debating prize, he was vice-captain of the First XI, and he won the prize for religious knowledge in his final year.
As a resident at St John’s College Sydney University, Brian studied law and, as was the regime in those days, worked simultaneously as an articled clerk. At that time, his big sister Joan and her husband Harold were a reliable backstop for the bush boy in the big city and Brian and Joan remained close until her death, aged 97, just last year.
In 1959, Brian was admitted as a lawyer and began a period as a ‘jobbing solicitor’, working locally at Molong, and in Sydney before embarking overseas, to London where he worked for a number of legal and financial firms in the city. Back in Sydney in the 1960s, he worked in a joint practice in Castlereagh St in the city before lining up with News Limited in the early 1970s.
I venture to suggest it was at the newspaper office that Brian really found his natural home as a lawyer, working in a role that seemed an ideal match for his temperament and his professional expertise. For media law – where, as Brian put it succinctly, ‘nobody went to jail, nobody suffered anything worse than name-calling and the only thing at stake was the boss’s money’ – seemed to be second nature to him and in no time, he had completely revolutionised the way journalists and editors went about their work.
Not that it wasn’t a serious business. Brian had been employed to try to cut back on the scandalous amount of money the company was spending on defamation payouts and costly legal cases, and quickly – to the delight of the company management – the costs began to fall as Brian’s influence began to take effect. But what Brian brought to the company was not the usual lawyerly tactic of banning from publication anything that might look a bit contentious, the usual staid safety-first policy of avoiding risk at all costs. What Brian understood clearly was that it was his job was to help editors publish, not to thwart them, and in no time, the papers’ editors came to realise that Brian could be an invaluable partner in their publishing endeavours. So – win, win. Bosses happy, editors happy – peace on earth, goodwill to mankind.
But so much for the serious side of things. Brian brought about a revolution in the way journalists went about their business, no doubt about it, and we’re all grateful for his cost-savings strategies. Those things were serious and important, and they should be remembered and they will be. Brian’s victory in the case of Nationwide versus Wills in 1992 made new common law about our implied constitutional right to freedom of political speech, a legal change from which – arguably – newspapers and the public still draw a benefit to this day.
But Brian’s friends at News, remember him for other things; for the funny things that happened on his watch, for his impish sense of fun, for his infectious laughter, for the cheeky turn of phrase he put to such good effect in telling potential litigants that their ‘bumptious complaint was without merit’, for his understanding of the side-show nature of the business of newspapers, the overall comedy of life in general.
Some of the stories are legendary; how Brian and a certain Sunday Telegraph editor once exchanged blows in a Surry Hills wine-bar, resulting a in a broken nose (the editor’s) and broken hand (Brian’s), thereby cementing a lasting friendship; the sign outside his door at News saying: “Don’t feed the solicitor”; his advice to incautious reporters and editors to ‘Pack your toothbrush’ if they thought about going against his sage advice; long sessions with Brian in various late-night watering holes rehashing the day’s absurdities. All the while, we newspaper people benefitted enormously from Brian’s insights and expertise as he sought to keep us out of trouble.
And I have just one little story of my own which I’d like to share. Brian as most of you will know was a pretty snappy dresser. His suits were well-made, his shirts tailored, his shoes smartly polished. Usually a colourful handkerchief fell elegantly from his breast pocket.
Well, late one night in a pub not far from our office, Brian decided I needed a lesson in personal presentation. My suit, he said was ill-fitting and not the least behoven of a newspaper person. My tie, he declared was soup stained. My shirt, he judged, was a cheap rag better suited to the garden than the office. And my shoes; well, they were a joke really. It was all a matter of great mirth as others joined in the merriment – and I must say, I was somewhat downcast to have my sartorial standards so critiqued – until I looked down at Brian’s shoes to compare them with my own inferior loafers .
Whereupon I discovered Brian’s shoes were polished and well-made, gent’s shoes to be sure – but sadly, they had one over-riding fault; they didn’t match, they didn’t even seem the same size!
So suddenly, as you can imagine, the boot was on the other foot, as it were, and hilarity unbounded. As I think about that funny night, and lots of others besides, I can still hear Brian’s peals of laughter, and that’s a memory I shall cherish.
But there was much more, I know, to Brian Gallagher than the professional newspaper lawyer I knew so well and like so much. He was a keen sportsman, a voracious reader, a wine-maker, as some of you will know, a traveller, a thinker and a philosopher. His cast of mind was inclined towards inventiveness, fresh ideas and originality. He invented commercially successful board games and he was always on the lookout for something new. And all of that added up to make him the most magnetic of personalities; the sort of person always surrounded by a laughing crowd apparently enjoying the time of their lives.
Sadly, the final decade of his life was spent battling the lasting effects of a catastrophic stroke, but for all that enduring difficulty, he and his wife, Gay, continued their lives of active engagement here in Binalong, continued to make regular trips to Sydney, stayed true to their shared philosophy that life is for living, that being miserable was simply not an option. And there’s an example surely worth following.
We used to sum up people such as Brian in a pithy aphorism – he was a gentleman and a scholar. But that is to say way too little. He was witty, he was charming, warm-hearted, open and generous, insightfully intelligent, a boon companion, a blithe spirit if ever there was one, and consciously, he made a positive difference in the lives of all of us with whom his own life’s trajectory intersected.