Communist journalists in Australia: meet Rex Chiplin

After my claim to having been the only Trotskyist to have worked as a journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery was recently  doubted by Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute, I thought I might see if it is possible to compile a list of potential competitors.

I know of only one Trotskyist (who could, by now, be an ex-Trot) who worked as a sub-editor on The Herald Sun in the 1980s. I don’t know if he’s still there or working elsewhere in the industry. I am not going to name him just in case.

This post is a work in progress and I would appreciate any help you can give me in that regard.

One contemporary who I know was, at some point, a member of the Communist Party of Australia and who has worked as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald and on the ABC’s Four Corners (howls of outrage from the dribblejaws) is David McKnight. However, what I am reasonably certain that David was NOT still in the CPA when he was working for Fairfax. He wrote several pieces for the Herald in 2005 and 2006, so perhaps he was no longer a communist by then.

The Communist Party of Australia dissolved itself in 1991 and David McKnight was the editor of the CPA paper Tribune for some time before the party closed up shop. The CPA rump became the New Left Party for a while and David may have been associated with that. One day I might ask him.

He too has been mentioned in Henderson’s Media Watch blog. This entry from July 2011

David McKnight has come a long way from his position as a young Communist Party hack working for the revolution on the Communist Party weekly newspaper Tribune in the 1970s – to his current position as Associate Professor, Journalism and Media Research Centre, University of New South Wales.  It’s good to see that, in middle age, Dr McKnight – for a learned doctor he is – enjoys a comfortable lifestyle per courtesy of the Australian taxpayer.

David writes a blog called Beyond Right and Left. He has also written a book of the same name. It may also be an indication of his current political state of mind.

The blurb from his book contains the following questioning statement:

Do Right and Left still mean anything in politics? Are environmental issues always ‘left wing’? Is it only ‘right wing’ to worry about the family? In fact these traditional connections have broken down, but what is taking their place?

______________________

There are two very well known communist journalists in Australia’s past. One is the often villified, but extremely important Wilfred Burchett; the other is lesser-known, but equally important Rupert Lockwood. Burchett was hounded out of Australia and accused of being a Chinese spy. I think that charge is unfair and that he should be remembered more for his fantastic reporting from Hiroshima after the American atomic bomb attack.

His famous front page scoop began with the line

I write this as a warning to the world…

It continued:

In this first testing ground of the atomic bomb I have seen the most terrible and frightening desolation in four years of war. It makes a blitzed Pacific island seem like an Eden. The damage is far greater than photographs can show.
Wilfred Burchett

Rupert Lockwood gained a cadetship with the Melbourne Herald in 1930 — a job he would have no chance at today given his politics. But it is this entry in Rowan Cahill’s short biography that most grabbed my attention:
By 1933 his cadetship period was behind him, and he served his first term as a galleryman, reporting Federal Parliament in Canberra, taking over from the senior Herald galleryman who defected to the newly launched rival evening daily Star.

Lockwood joined the CPA in 1939, but his membership was secret until 1942. It seems he also suffered ‘the treatment’ at the hands of his bosses at the [Kieth] Murdoch papers (sound familiar anyone?)

Cahill’s piece ends with this impression of Lockwood.

Lockwood became one of Australia’s best known communists, not only as a journalist, but as an orator, a prolific pamphleteer, intellectual, author, and a key figure in the Royal Commission into Espionage in Australia, 1954-1955. He remained a member of the Communist Party until he allowed his membership to lapse, and dropped out in 1969, following a long disillusionment which culminated during the Prague Spring with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

He deserves to be remembered as a hero of engaged, public interest journalism; but I think it’s safe to say he was not a Trotksyist and worked in the Canberra Gallery before he became a communist.

Dr Henderson would have to concede me that one.

___________________________________

In Henry Mayer’s excellent The Press in Australia (1964) I can only find one mention of a communist journalist, Rex Chiplin on page 184, but it does not give details of where comrade Chiplin worked. According to some sources he was a reporter on the CPA paper, Tribune; so does that count? I’ll have to check with the chief judge (Dr Henderson).

I doubt though that Chiplin was a Trotskyist. If he was a member of the Communist Party of Australia in the mid-1950s he would have had to display absolute loyalty to the party line which was very much oriented to Stalin and the USSR a that time. This is an image from The Hobart Mercury, it shows Chiplin being escorted from a court during proceedings of the Royal Commission into Espionage.

I was able to find one reference to Chiplin, ironically in a piece written by David McKnight:

One unusual piece of exposure journalism was the pamphlet, Facts Behind the Liquor Commission, printed by the Communist Party of Australia at its underground printery which set out to expose capitalism in the shape of the ‘brewery barons’. Written by a journalist (probably Rex Chiplin) who had a racy turn of phrase (‘Bottled beer was as rare as a bankrupt Vice Squad sergeant’) the pamphlet incidentally exposed corruption in the labour movement. It accused the then Governor General, Sir William McKell, of corruption.

[The post-war roots of investigative journalism in Australia]

Chiplin would later be summoned to appear before the Royal Commisison, which was, in effect a copy-cat of the McCarthyist witch-hunt.

According to John McLaren, other communistic journalists who were also required to attend the star chamber were Rupert Lockwood and Clive Turnbull.

In John McLaren’s book, Writing in hope and fear (1996),  the Royal Commission into Espionage is described in unflattering terms as a failure because it could not distinguish fanaticism from reasoned debate and therefore it implicitly assigned ‘all of [the] Marxists to the ranks of the fanatical and the exoneration of all their opponents’ (p.119).

One could argue that this is a familiar and current attitude among some.

I am certain there are other communist-sympathising journos lurking in the past, including, I think, at least one secret CPA member who worked in the Canberra Press Gallery.

Unfortunately, my reference for that, Clem Lloyd’s two books on the history of Australian journalism, are still packed in cartons from my recent move. I can see 12 book cartons from my desk, but they are not catalogued, so finding what I want this morning is not going to be easy.

I will come back to this topic: Rupert Lockwood deserves a post to himself, as does Wilfred Burchett.

I will also have to do a bit more research on John Fisher, the son of one-time Labor Prime Minister Andew Fisher. According to Cahill’s piece on Lockwood, his friend Fisher was active around the Spanish Civil war. He could have come across anti-Stalinists and Trotskyists in that context, like George Orwell did.

Another to watch is Lockwood’s friend from the Herald days, Douglas Wilkie. According to Rowan Cahill, he left Australia in 1934 with a letter of introduction from the CPA in one pocket and one from Joe Lyons in the other.

One Response to Communist journalists in Australia: meet Rex Chiplin

  1. steve lewis says:

    Hi Martin…enjoyed reading this. Re Wilfred Burchett, saw an exhibition of his photos and stories in Hanoi recently organised by his son…some photos on Facebook…was in the Ho Chi Minh museum and a major event…Madame Binh at opening who was lead negotiator at Paris peace accords..

    Greetings
    Steve

    [EM says... so very nice to hear from you Steve. Do you remember when we used to #occupy the VC's office?
    I will do a longer post on Burchett. His autobiography At the barricades is one of my favourite books. I have a first edition and also the longer updated and unexpurgated version published after his death.]

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