Tough nuts who became legends

It is a yarn that has long passed into newspaper folklore. It is said that the reporter, enraged by the machine’s meagre payouts, cried:

“You’ve got everything else from me, you bastard. You might as well have my lunch as well”.

Nobody has ever nailed down the identity of the angry scribe, but the incident has often been attributed to the redoubtable Ron Saw, a reporter and columnist who was long on talent but short of temper. Saw, who hailed from the west, was one of the standout wild men of Sydney newspapers in the 1960s. And that says a lot because the sixties gave birth to some grand tearaways.

Those of us who were around at the time believe they were a product of the times; products of the cutthroat competition between the two Sydney afternoon newspapers: The Sun, owned by the Fairfax organisation and The Daily Mirror, owned by Ezra Norton – one of the true Wild Men of Sydney – and later Rupert Murdoch.

When I first walked into the premises of The Daily Mirror, as a rosy-cheeked copy boy in the late 1950s, it was like walking into a scene from The Front Page. Everybody seemed to be yelling at each other. Reporters chain-smoked and some even wore hats.

Frank Crook olympics team

Frank Crook (second from left) in 1984 with fellow Australian Los Angeles Olympics coverage team members (L to R) Richard Sleeman, Peter Bowers, Russell McPhedran, Jim Webster and Bill Casey

Copy-takers clattered away on manual typewriters as reporters dictated their stories. The place was packed with legendary newsmen and others who were on their way to legendary status.

Bill Jenkings, beefy, buffed and tanned, was the chief crime reporter.

His deputy was Dave Dixon, quiet and unflappable. Bill was a Bondi lifesaver, while Dave was a rock fisherman – which pretty well summed up the difference in their personalities.

Dave brought sandwiches to work each day and Bill would habitually devour them before Dave got a chance to unwrap them. One day Dave removed the roast beef filling from his lunch and replaced it with blotting paper. Bill scoffed the lot.

“How were my sandwiches today, Bill?” asked Dave.

“A bit dry, mate,” replied Bill.

A young Bill Mordey was a general reporter before moving to the sports desk and Steve Dunleavy, who today is something of an international legend, was king of the cadets. Dunleavy was handsome, dapper and would stop at nothing to get a story. His father, Steve senior, was a photographer on The Sun and the two Steves sometimes met on assignment. Young Steve once let down the tyres on The Sun staff car carrying his father.

On another occasion he locked him in an outdoor toilet. There were no hard feelings. It was all part of the great game.

Those were the days of hot metal and hard copy; when computers and mobile telephones were the stuff of science-fiction. Reporters on tight deadlines would sometimes come to blows as they battled for the lone public telephone that actually worked.

It was also an era of great yarns: the Simmonds and Newcombe jail break and the manhunt that went on for weeks; the Graeme Thorne kidnapping and murder; the Mutilator Murders that held Sydney in the grip of fear. Crime sold the afternoon tabloids and both afternoon papers threw all their resources into the coverage.

The Sun had its share of tough nuts as well. Noel Bailey, beefy and bellicose, led the paper’s crime coverage. The Mirror’s Bill Jenkings, in his memoir As Crime Goes By, relates how he had trouble sleeping at night until he made a phantom 2am phone call to Bailey, to ensure his great adversary was comfortably tucked into bed.

As a young reporter, I watched much of it from the periphery, helping out the seasoned characters, getting to know the police and practising the art of talking with a lit cigarette in my mouth.

Today, copy boys no longer exist, which is a pity as the best reporters I have ever encountered came from the ranks of the kids who ran messages and made the tea. It was part of the business of learning on the job – like talking with a cigarette in your mouth.

Frank Crook worked as a reporter for both Sydney afternoon newspapers, The Daily Mirror and The Sun, and spent four years as editor of TV Week. He also worked as a foreign correspondent and has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, the National Times and the Hollywood Reporter. For the past 24 years he has hosted talk-back programs on various Sydney radio stations.

2 comments

  1. I believe Frank Crook wrote the column ‘Man On The Hill’ when I worked as a sports reporter at The Mirror under sports ed Pat Farrell and his deputy Simon Galvin.
    Great memories with Ozzie Imber, Bert Lilly, Ken Callender covering the gallops with Harry Pearce on the trots n Peter Muszat, Bill Mordey, Ken Irvine n myself covering rugby league.
    I also covered the surf life saving n wrote the ‘Surfriders’ column.
    At first I started on the Sunday Mirror with ed Ian Shaw, Brian Hogben as news editor and Barry ? n Tom Ramsey feature writers. IVeritas was the TV writer but hard-man Hogben wouldn’t let me disclose his real name.
    Truly great memories.

  2. Of course I left out ‘Fish and Chips,’ Peter Fringilos, who was later shortened to ‘Fishy.’
    I also did the provincial races with John Novak.
    My mate, who I went to school with in kindergarten, Peter Brennan, also was a feature writer when I was at the Sunday Mirror. I’m told Brennan is the brains and executive producer and writer of the ‘Judge Judy’ TV show.

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