Peter Harvey: A life in journalism

Hal Crawford, ninemsn
6:34pm March 2, 2013
Peter Harvey as a younger man. (Nine News)
Peter Harvey as a younger man. (Nine News)

The first thing that Peter Harvey ever said to me was "get off my f---ing desk".

Delivered in the famous baritone, it was measured and carried a weight that not even Peter himself fully controlled. It was as if the medium of TV itself was frowning on me.

Not a good start for the digital infiltrator in a television newsroom. I shifted, thinking I had crossed one of media's old guard.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Peter didn't stand on ceremony and wasn't a cranky media dinosaur. Peter seemed free of the egoism that hamstrings many in the business. And Peter loved technology.

For the lost digital tribe of ninemsn stuffed in a corner of the Willoughby newsroom, he was a godsend. We spoke over the next few months and Peter was always an avid supporter, keen to help and to teach.

Several years after I so hastily got my bum off his desk (others of his stature would have insisted on an office, Peter sat in the newsroom like any other reporter) Peter agreed to my request to record an interview about his life. We set up a couple of cameras at a site away from the Willoughby campus and over the next hour I received an insight into this remarkable and remarkably humble man's life.

What strikes me now as I re-read the transcript is how Peter embodies the idea of respect for the mainstream, for thinking and doing the best you can, for finding the special in the everyday and never talking down to an audience.

You'll find, if you wade through this long interview, a good summary of the life and attitudes of "old whathisname from television". Peter was a friend, a teacher and an old-school journalist who embraced the future. I want to thank him and pay homage.

What follows is a partial transcript of our conversation.



Peter, let's start with the voice. Did you wake up one day with that rich baritone? In your teens perhaps.

You know i don't think I really realised that my voice was in any way distinctive until about a year or so after I started working for Channel Nine when what would seem to be an entire industry of people mimicking me grew up, led by Mike Carlton on 2UE, who had a thing called Friday News Review, which rapidly turned into one of the most popular news satires in the country. And apart from a slight touch of laryngitis, which I have now, the voice has been the same ever since. Rubbery Figures, radio sendups - people ask me do I mind, well when you look like I do and sound like I do you really can't object if people take the mickey, and 99 percent of it is friendly and affectionate, but the voice is the voice, and I've never had voice lessons, perhaps I should have. Apart from the thing I've got at the moment, a touch of laryngitis, it's served me well down the years.

It can be a dead giveaway, at times it's nice to not stand out in the crowd. The problem is that as soon as I open my mouth, people know "that's old whathisname from television".

Do you get sick of the constant reference to your Canberra sign off?

What I can't come to terms with is that it's now 12 years since I worked in Canberra, and I understand when people who are in their 40s and 50s and 60s say "Peter Harvey, Canberra", but when kids, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 actually do it and ask me to say "Peter Harvey, Canberra", it absolutely stuns me. The other thing that has really impressed me about kids of that age is the vast number of them who watch 60 Minutes. They'll come up to me in the street and they'll talk about 60 Minutes and they know I'm 60 Minutes. Sadly when I say to them "do you also watch the news" they say oh no, because they are getting all their news from organisations such as ninemsn. But they do watch 60 Minutes, which impresses me enormously. And for which I'm very grateful.

And the mailbag is one of the most popular?

The mailbag, thank God, is attracting a certain audience.

So Peter, not many people may know, but you've won a Walkley and a British Reporter of the Year Award, in the '60s I think that was.

The Walkley was certainly in the '60s, in 1964 that was. I was working for the Daily Telegraph, then owned by Sir Frank Packer, and the shift I was on was 8 at night to 3 in the morning. This was in the days before computerisation really helped newspapers and brought deadlines forward to about 6 o'clock. Back then you could get stories in the paper right up until about 3 in the morning, and one night there was a gangland shooting and myself and the photographer happened to be close and we got the story and we got the story in the paper and it was fast and quick and we beat the opposition, and I got a Walkley for that. The youngest person, I'm told, to have ever won a Walkley. Which is nice. If only because it reminds me that I was young once.

And then working for the Guardian in 1973 I did a series of stories, essentially about corruption in government departments, about how private detective agencies and anybody who really wanted to was able to access all sorts of information about people, their tax file numbers, their health records, their bank accounts and so forth, but getting into government departments. And my editor at the time was very skeptical about this story even though we presented him with a whole raft of evidence that we had got this and got that. And he said "well if you can get my details and tell me how much I've got in my bank account, and tell me what my national health register number is ... and we did. And we changed the law actually. The British government, after our exposure, then brought in laws tightening the confidentiality of information in government departments.

Obviously all the firms who were accessing this information had moles in the government departments who they were paying money to get this information, but there were also other ways of accessing it. Yeah, it was a good story and I won the Reporter of the Year for it, again for which I'm very grateful.

So you were a successful newspaper journo, why did you make the switch to television?

Basically because I was offered a job. I'd come back to Australia in 1974 and I was working for Macquarie Radio Network, when Gerald Stone, who was then the very first news director of Channel Nine, well not the first news director, but had just been appointed news director, came down to Canberra and said would I like to join Channel Nine, and I said yes, and they haven't woken up to me yet, Hal.

So you were there for the dismissal in 1975?

I was. I joined Nine in March 75 and on November 11 1975 along came the sacking of Gough Whitlam by Governor General Sir John Kerr, probably the most significant event in Australian political history, certainly in my lifetime, and I can't think of any other ... mainly because no one knew that the Governor General could do this. Even people that knew that he could, never imagined for one minute thought that an unelected Governor General, especially one that had been appointed by the Prime Minister of the day would turn around and get rid of the prime minister. But he did, he had the powers to do it and he had, in his mind, the reason, in other peoples' minds the vindictiveness to get rid of him.

What did that day feel like? Did it feel like Australia could be going out of control?

Very much so, it was an extraordinary day. I worked with one of the finest journalists I've even known, Alan Reed, who was the chief political correspondent for the Packer empire for Channel 9, for the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and all the rest of it, and he was impeccably connected, and he knew, some days in advance that this whole crisis over money supply, which was what the Whitlam government was getting itself into, was building up to a head, and on the morning of November 11 1975, Alan said to me "Don't go too far" and I said "I'll just go out and get a breath of fresh air", and while I was out getting a breath of fresh air one of the blokes from the office, a cameraman, came out - this was before mobile phones, before pagers - came running down the lawns and said "Alan says get back in there now ... he says Gough Whitlam's about to be sacked". And he was. And it was an extraordinary day.

I think everyone's seen the pictures, the mobs outside Parliament House. The fury and the anger at Malcolm Fraser - he was blamed for orchestrating all of this - huge rallies in support of Gough Whitlam, and then the election, and it was a landslide win for Malcolm Fraser.

Is there a story you're proudest of? Can you pick one out among the hundreds?

I find it very difficult Hal, to think of one in particular, there are lots and there are lots for different reasons. I'm proud of the story I wrote for The Guardian about the confidentiality laws, that's changed peoples' lives. Like any reporter I'm proud of stories we've got first, or we've got better pictures than the opposition, I'm proud of my coverage of the first Gulf War, and the work I did for Newsweek in the Vietnam War. But these are all feelings of personal satisfaction. There are very few occasions, I think, in any reporters life, when he can say "that story is the pinnacle of my career".

Not so long ago myself and camera crew flew to Chad in Sudan to a story on the refugees coming across from Darfur, and if that helped focus attention on the plight of these poor people, I think that's terrific. I think the stories I love most are those which intentionally or unintentionally myself and the television network have been able to do some good. Stories about a Salvation Army drive to raise money. Stories about someone who's in strife for whatever reason and you can do something to help, these are the stories I think that really matter, and they are the ones that reach out and touch people. They may not be the glittering, Pulitzer Prize-winning yarns, but I think at the end of the day you've got to measure yourself against what good you can do to make this passage through life. Whether you can do something for somebody. If you can actually help somebody or make someone smile or laugh, great. They're the ones that give me the satisfaction.

That touches on something a number of people have mentioned to me about you - that you have rubbed shoulders with the most powerful people in the world and covered so of the biggest stories, but you're also very happy to cover small stories. What is it about you that allows you to cover the Easter Show one more year?

Well I don't think I'll be covering too many more Easter Shows but ... actually I won a Best in Show ribbon for covering the Easter Show a few years ago. They are good human interest stories, stories that you know the audience is going to watch. A nice colour story about dogs doing something. Or flying pigs jumping off a tower and swimming around in a pool. You just know that people are going to watch them. And I guess that's one of the most important things about the work that we do. Don't do it in isolation? What's the point in doing a story that no one is going to watch, that aren't going to entertain people, that aren't going to inform people? You can do a million stories about politicians in a backroom squabbling about something or other, and for the vast majority of people they go like that.

You do a story about dogs catching frisbees, or pigs diving into a swimming pool and people are going to watch it. Which is not to say that stories about great political events are no important, of course they are and people will watch those. But between the really important story and a really good colour story there's a vast desert of ordinary, run-of-the-mill yarns that may not attract the attention that they may deserve, if you follow me.

Yeah. There's a great shot, I think it's a still, I'm sure if there's video as well, of you at a strip joint doing a crossword puzzle that does the rounds every so often to much hilarity in the newsroom. Is that Peter Harvey's been on the road so long he doesn't care or he just loves his crosswords too much?

Well, I certainly do care. A good looking woman is a good looking woman. But what had happened that morning, was it was 8 in the morning in a lap-dancing or a pole-dancing club in Sydney. Elle Macpherson was launching a range of underwear, and Channel Nine had sent me down to a story about Elle Macpherson, and while I was sitting there waiting to interview Elle Macpherson a man who I thought was a trusted colleague from the Sydney Morning Herald banged off that picture and it's been the source of great hilarity ever since.

Peter, you covered the Vietnam War, and I've noticed observing your career you've done a lot of war stuff and war means something to you. Why is war and the remembrance of war important to you?

Well I guess there are two issues there. War is probably the ultimate television story. It's serious, human conflict, it's death and destruction and disaster, it's heroism and hope and perseverance. It's change of governments, it's watching young men and women change their lives. Every imaginable human condition is played out in war and by war. It's a superb story. And usually the war themselves are very important stories. Some of the little ones, say guerilla war in the Philippines, aren't all that important, unless you happen to get caught up in and killed, then you'd probably consider it important. But most wars are a combination of all those human attributes and conditions that make an interesting story.

And why do I care about the people who take part in wars? I think we owe them a great deal. I think we owe the Vietnam vets, and we're still making up for the appalling way in which so many of them were treated by some people in this country and in America. It took a long time for people to wake up to the fact it wasn't the soldiers we should be criticising, it was the politicians and the governments who had sent them to war, and there were some really nasty and stupid things done to the Vietnam vets which have been corrected after the great homecoming parade of 1998, but it took an awful long time. And before that an awful lot of Vietnam vets were damaged. Seriously damaged. I mean recently for 60 minutes I did a story about the Battle of Long Tan (16:00) which was an enormous battle

So Peter, more than 30 years in television, you must have knocked up against some pretty big egos. You don't appear to have big ego, you don't force that upon others, you take others under your wing. How have you remained isolated from that temptation to view yourself as a big star?

I think the temptation is always there but there's one very good example of exactly that situation, how to avoid it. When Roman Emperors used to come home after a great triumph, after conquering yet another section of the world they'd come back to Rome with all their booty and their prisoners and their legions, and there'd be what they called a Triumph, a parade through the centre of Rome, where the Emperor would be in a chariot, crowned with gold and garlands, surrounded by thousands of his heroic troops, all the people of Rome were through roses and petals at him, worshipping him, and the Emperor would be riding through the centre of Rome. But there was always somebody else standing in the chariot with him, usually a slave, who would simply say every now and then: "Remember Caesar, you are but human." That's the truth of it. Whatever fortune deals you in the way of position and fame and notoriety, at the end of the day you're just another human being. Just like the Emperor. Except you haven't got a slave to remind you. You have to remind yourself.

I was about to ask you, who's your slave and what is he whispering?

I've made enough mistakes in my lifetime to bring myself up short now.

What are those mistakes? What are your regrets?

For a long time I had serious battle with the grog. Thanks to my wife, who is a wonderful person, I finally realised that alcohol was taking far more out of me than I was taking out of it, and so I gave it away. And that's one battle. The other battle was smoking. I was smoking two-and-a-half packets a day. What are we talking about here Hal? An addictive personality, I guess that's true. I was smoking two-and-a-half packets a day and I had to stop that. Drinking too much, had to stop that. Both serious mistakes.

I've undoubtedly hurt people as I've gone through life, never maliciously, I'm pretty sure of that. It's hard now as I look back, but I think never maliciously. But by omission, by a sense of vain glory, you do harm to others as you go through life. You may not be aware of the harm you are doing to others, and I deeply regret the harm that I have caused, and I'm sure I have. Taking people for granted, for instance. Making assumptions about people. Being jealous of people. All these human frailties, that I've got in abundance. You've got to deal with it.

That culture of drinking, that journalism culture of drinking that existed in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, is that part of the reason you became a heavy drinker?

I suspect it was. When I started work at the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, my main job was to be sent downstairs to get Mr So-and-So to come back because the chief sub wanted to see him. When people weren't actually sitting and writing a story, they were in the pub. This went on day in, day out, year in, year out. In the old parliament house in Canberra there was a non-members bar open virtually 24 hours right next to the press gallery, and there was a tremendous amount of drinking that went on there too.

That's one of the big changes. When we moved into the new Parliament House, they provided a non-members bar, but it got so little use they closed it down. The distances in the new Parliament House, together with an awakening sense that the grog culture had pretty much run its day changes things, which is not to say that the bureaus in the new Parliament House didn't install fridges, which contained grog, but this habit of heading to the non-members bar whenever you weren't actually doing something ended.

You've been at Nine, you've been at a single station for more than 30 years. Why Nine - you must have had other offers - why haven't you accepted them?

Because I've been happy at Nine. Simple answer. I found with Kerry Packer, that if you give him loyalty, you got it back. There were times when the man could also terrify you but by and large, he was an extremely good employer, and I'm grateful he employed me. The same thing applies to David Gyngell and Ian Law. They are the same sort of men. Given them loyalty, you get it back.

Were you a friend of Kerry Packer?

No. Very much an employee.

What's an example of a time that he terrified you or other staff members?

The one that affected me most was that many years ago, Kerry wanted to launch a satellite. He wanted to get into the satellite television business. There was an enormous amount of lobbying going on, pressure being put on certain communication ministers, and one night a report came out at about 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon that was extremely important. It was basically the government's attitude to what it was that Packer wanted. He wanted that report. I phoned his office. His secretary Pat Wheatley said you had better get that report up to us as soon as you can. This was back in the olden days. Parliament wasn't sitting. The last flight to Sydney went at about 5pm. I didn't know what to do. After about half an hour the phone rang and it was Pat. I could hear a voice in the background saying words to the effect "Where is he? When is this thing arriving?" Pat said: "Peter, it doesn't matter what you do. Just get this thing up to Sydney. Now."

So I said to my colleague Alan Reed, what do I do, and he said "rent a plane."

I phoned Canberra airport and chartered a plane, flew up to Sydney, and as the plane taxied in there was Kerry Packer's car waiting, with his chauffeur. Straight into Park Street, up in the elevator, through the door, before I could say a word this giant figure burst out into the lobby. "Where have you been? When I say I want something now, son, I mean now." And with that the door slammed. It shook. I shook. Everything around me was shaking. Pat Wheatley the secretary came out and said "just sit down".

I thought to myself, this is it, I'm going to get sacked. Half an hour later he came out and said "What are you doing tonight, son?". I said "Basically, whatever you want me to do, Mr Packer."

"You going back to Canberra?"

"I can't, there aren't any planes."

"No, we've booked the suite over the road at the Hilton. Go an stay there the night and get yourself back to Canberra in the morning."

It's at that point your knees go. I booked into the Hilton, phoned my wife and said "I'm still alive."

There are other stories about Kerry. One of our executive producers was involved in a meeting with him one day. Huge argument about something or other. Kerry was getting angrier and angrier and at one point opened his desk drawer and pulled out a revolver. He held it on the table and said "Son, you're driving me up the wall." The bloke on the other side of the desk went ashen. He didn't of course, get shot. Kerry could be terrifying, and he could be monumentally kind. He's missed by all of us.

The future of television. Things are changing, advertising is down. What's going to happen?

The future of television is where we are right now, on ninemsn. It's delivering content to where people want it. You can't dictate to people anymore. You can't say to them, go home and watch the news at 6pm.

What about religion - has that played a part in your life?

I was sent to a Church of England boarding school in the Blue Mountains in the 1950s and it left with distinct dislike of organised religion. But I believe in God, I pray, I find it hard to deny, not that I wish to ... all you've got to do is look at the stars at night - "where did all this come from?" - to my mind, the answer's a Supreme Being of some sort.

You've spent most of your life telling stories, telling other people's stories. What's the essence of a good story?

I suppose there are many essences. Is the story interesting, entertaining, informative, does it make you laugh, cry ... I suppose the essence of a good story is one that entertains ... whether it brings you to laughter, whether it brings you to tears ... when it draws out an emotion, that's when I suspect it's a good story. It comes back to something I was saying earlier about great stories and this enormous desert of stories that just go by and don't really mean much. But there are stories of great national significance, there are stories of great human interest, and all of them I think reach out and touch an emotion. If there's a story about changes in taxation, certainly that can reach out and touch a lot people, just as much as a story that makes you laugh. I think - a story that touches people.

Your family life has been happy ... am I right in thinking that?

With good will on both sides of the fence, you can fix most problems, or shut them off, and decide never ever to go back to them. But you need both sides ... to be able to play that game ... [] most of the people I worked with at the old Parliament House, their marriages have collapsed. Grog at the bottom of most of it. Far too much drinking, far too much travelling. The guys in Canberra don't travel that much anymore, not as we did ... they'll send a pool crew ... for 25 years we travelled with them , we went everywhere. Which I think is good, the Prime Minister should never be allowed to run around by himself - too much of news source, too valuable.

I've been very fortunate in that my wife and my family - my son and daughter - have been extremely tolerant and understanding ... of the dashings away at the last minute, the being away from home, the ending up in strange and dangerous places. My wife has always understood what a big story means, and I've been very fortunate.

Thanks for talking to me today. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I think I may have said too much already.

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