Impressed by Lot’s Wife, Gareth Evans, reading law at Melbourne Uni ,a former president of the Student Representative Council, urged Pete Steedman to come on over and jazz up Farrago, Australia’s oldest student newspaper, founded 1925 . Incidently, Steedman points out that Evans ,who became the Federal Attorney -General and Foreign Minister , was christened Gary, by his mother , a fan of the filmstar, Gary Cooper ; he later took the more impressive name of Gareth
While Evans added a few letters to his name , Steedman chopped one off , preferring to be just wee Pete.
Steedman made the switch to Melbourne Uni in 1967 to become the Farrago editor. His enemies said Monash was lucky to be rid of him. To mark his departure as editor from Lot’s Wife in August 1966, the incoming editors, Peter Price and Paul Marriott, ran a full page Q & A interview with Steedman, which gave an insight into the controversial individual. Under the heading AN IMPOLITE INTERVIEW WITH PETE STEEDMAN , it said it had been conducted with great informality , all the vulgarities excised.
His views, he said, had mainly been criticised by people who knew nothing about them.He did not follow any political party line and was completely against US involvement in Vietnam and conscription. Everybody knew the only reason Australians were in Vietnam was because the Americans were there . The Liberal Party was false, soft and had not done much for the country; the Labor Party was in a hell of a mess , tied up with old men and run by fools; the Democratic Labor Party was fanatical and a vicious minority ; Communists were the most reactionary of the lot , a sick joke left over from the thirties .
On the subject of his favourite writers, Steedman named Joyce, Swift ,Shakespeare-“all the usual crap.” His favourite at the time was the American Civil War writer, Ambrose Bierce, whose bitter cynicism and sarcasm was applicable to the world situation today. Contemporary American writers he liked were Terry Southern and Joseph Heller. A prolific reader of local and overseas magazines, Steedman said his room was “crowded” with them, giving him little room for clothes.
Melbourne University may have been apprehensive about the looming arrival of the notorious Steedman and the likely clashes that would take place. After all, his many right wing enemies had demonised him.
Frothing at the mouth, in something like a chorus , critics accused Steedman of being the “ chief pornographer” who had used Lot’s Wife to poison students. Monash University was referred to by one as Monash Soviet . In an article , STOOGES OF THE OLD RIGHT , Noel Turnbull, later chief of staff to the State Labor Leader, Frank Wilkes, now a leading Australian PR consultant and strategist , rejected these attacks .
Turnbull, perhaps tongue in cheek, wrote that while he found Steedman’s aggressive and overt heterosexuality a little obnoxious at times,it had to be realised that most students were more interested in sex than anything else. “Mr Steedman” catered for this interest with one “ remarkably beautiful naked woman in his paper “- a policy with which he could not disagree .
One of those who kept up a barrage , Ray Evans, went on to found ,with Peter Costello, and others, the right wing think tank , H R Nicholls Society, particularly influential in Liberal Party policies, which aggressively pursued a campaign to do away with arbitration , awards, basic wages . PM Bob Hawke described the Society as “political troglodytes and economic lunatics.” Evans also set up other right wing societies in which he was either president or treasurer, and founded the Lavoisier Group which opposed the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.
Merran Anderson handled advertising, later married Gareth Evans- no relation to Ray Evans- and today is deputy vice chancellor at Monash . An incongruous note in the paper was a double column display advertisement showing a successful couple with a snazzy limo being attended by a liveried bellhop , the product being the HARVARD three piece suit , offered at a 10 per cent discount to students , which hardly fits the stereotypical image of university students at the time as scruffy individuals intent on bringing down the capitalist system.
Steedman soon had the university in uproar...just like Alvin. The Age newspaper of September 21,1967 carried a large report headed THE BIGGEST CAMPUS RUMPUS in which editor Steedman was a central figure. It said his supporters regarded him as a "free thinking Angel Gabriel", while his detractors felt he was "Rasputin". There were rumours that he once carried a flick knife and rode with a black jacketed motorcycle gang. Readers were told his unbridled tongue ensured success in verbal duels.
A bare breasted Miss Farrago 1968 on the front page raised eyebrows. To raise money, Steedman wheeled and dealed from the Farrago office as he had at Lot’s Wife. Items which proved popular, delivered under plain wrapper, were birth control pills. Nearby licenced victuallers were made aware that Farrago believed in payola and that the office frig held four dozen .
In the 1960s , Steedman said a small number of students had focussed on other matters than the Vietnam War and anti conscription-such as assisting indigenous youth into the education system to move up the socio-economic ladder. Because there were no underground or alternative newspapers in those days , Steedman received correspondence from people feeling alienated or outside the mainstream political dialogue.
Through Farrago Steedman took a growing interest in the plight of Aboriginals and came to the conclusion that the assimilation policy meant cultural genocide. Making contact with sacked NT Aboriginal Welfare Officer, Bill Jeffery, Steedman commissioned him to write a series about conditions in the Northern Territory. "His stories of exploitation were paramount to slavery , and the arrogance of organisations such as Vesteys horrified me and demanded answers," said Steedman.
After publication of the second Jeffery article , Federal Police arrived at the printer and seized the material under a D-Notice , preventing any further publication. Astoundingly, the government considered the articles a threat to the security of Australia.
As part of the final year at Melbourne University in 2001, students had to write a book , Chiaroscuro, and in the part ,Characters and Controversies, the contribution by law /arts student Jeremy Sears was headed STEEDMAN’S FARRAGO –BOOZE,GIRLS AND BATTLES WITH THE ANTI-COMMUNISTS . It featured a composite photo of Steedman on a motorbike in sunglasses , jeans and T-shirt , a student,Lyndall Hobbs, on the back. Hobbs went overseas at the age of 20 and became a renowned film director and producer in the UK and Hollywood, working with many of the top musical groups, Rowan Atkinson, and for seven years had a relationship with Al Pacino.The illuminating contribution by Sears succinctly, and colourfully, set the scene , opening thus -
When the notorious former editor of Lot’s Wife , Pete Steedman, took over running Farrago in 1967, it was not just the style of the paper that changed . He was the laconic sixties rebel bloke–black leather jacket, sunglasses,motorbike, beer and women , and he was going there to do battle with the sons and daughters of the establishment in their academic gowns . It was an acrimonious fight between the anti-war, free-love, student activists, and the Cold War Warriors...and Steedman’s Farrago was the battle-ground .
It was a hectic period in Steedman’s life, both politically and socially. Zooming about on his motorbike , he was drinking heavily , attracting a lot of female attention and doing very little study . One of his many enemies , the Democratic Labor Party’s Senator McManus went so far as to say Steedman was a student of beer and sex at university and demanded to know why the Commonwealth was spending money on his education . How was Steedman , who had a poor academic achievement at Monash University, after six years , able to sign up at Melbourne, his opponents asked.
Shop, organ of the radical Melbourne Uni Labor Club (not to be confused with Ray Evans and his group) , responded with a spoof -
The off campus sheet, Critic, edited by Ray Evans, Bob Browning-later described as a security expert, and Kelvin Devine, of the RAAF, continued the Senator's line of attack on Steedman in a three page blast which called for him to be sent down and linked Farrago with "Nazi thugs."
Farrago ran several exclusive reports about the Indochina conflict from a female journalist which revealed the true situation in the war, contrary to the information being fed to Australia through the news agencies. Steedman’s involvement in the anti- war, anti conscription movement brought him into contact, sometimes physical conflict, with many people from all walks of life.
One of the more unusual bedfellows in the Vietnam struggle was the flamboyant Francis James , son of an Anglican priest, manager of Sydney’ s Anglican Press , his wife, Joyce, the editor . In 1964 James had printed Oz at the Anglican Press,when most other printing houses had refused to handle the magazine,and was fined 50 pounds($100) for publishing an offensive publication .
In an amazing event given much media coverage, James had managed to thwart and eject members of the Packer media family after they physically occupied the Anglican Press premises when it got into financial difficulties. The ejection, James explained, was achieved through fisticuffs, the use of rubber headed mallets and very hot printers' metal.
James, like Steedman , also tried to change the world in his own way. From 1962 to 1969, he addressed more than 200 public meetings and wrote many articles in the Anglican opposing the war. On two occasions he flew to North Vietnam , the second time in 1968 soon after the Tet offensive, the beginning of the end for the Allies in South Vietnam. ASIO kept a file on him.
James was present at an August 1967 Melbourne University Union debate on the war,the topic for discussion, “That every Australian has the democratic right to send aid to the National Liberation Front ". At the dinner before the debate got underway, Steedman and Melbourne University psychology professor, Dr Frank Knopfelmacher, a strong anti Communist , had a fiery exchange, described as a “conflagration”. Dr Knopfelmacher , at one stage , shouted that Steedman was too good for the gas chamber and should be exterminated .
James, for the motion, wrote a colourful article about the evening and the clash between the two for the Nation , introducing Steedman as “ a reformed ex-member of one of Melbourne’s more deadly bicycle–chain gangs ”; James upset the good doctor calling him “my friend Knocher ”. The article went on to say Steedman was a rather self conscious bohemian, employed four letter words and sick turns of phrase in mixed company and encouraged exaggerated stories about his sexual and drinking exploits... a bit tiresome.
Steedman replied to this unsolicited testimonial by saying "old James " was a rather self conscious ageing rebel; fairly intelligent, but no more; a quite calculated exhibitionist , who encouraged exaggerated stories about himself , but on the whole , a bit tiresome. On the face of the unflattering things Steedman and James said about each other, it would be reasonable to think they had no further contact. But no.
The relationship between James and Steedman grew, Pete being invited to his book- filled Sydney home .
James was actively involved in sending money to North Vietnam and banks refused to handle the cash channelled through him. On a second trip to China , James was locked up by the Chinese in 1969 for his dubious claim to have spied on their top secret facilities , released due to representations by PM Gough Whitlam in 1973.
The audacious nature of James is revealed by the fact that during World War 11 he pretended to be a squadron leader when shot down by the Germans on Anzac Day 1942, suffering burns to his body and face , and received special privileges because of his bogus high rank .
Many moons ago , when this writer was playing cards in the Police Rounds room at the Sydney Morning Herald, anecdotes flowed about James when he had worked on the paper as a special correspondent and education and religion reporter. While being driven in a Herald office car, James ordered the driver to stop at a school, went inside, presented himself as the Minister for Education, and gave the pupils a holiday . He also instructed a police officer on traffic control duty at a busy Sydney intersection never to stop the SMH car in which he was travelling.
Parked outside the SMH in his Rolls Royce , sitting in the back typing out a story on a drop down desk , a large sombrero to protect his eyes from the sun, because of his war injuries, James looked up and saw a person admiring his vehicle. “Go away, peasant !” he instructed the startled onlooker.
A former SMH religion reporter told Cyclops the only person who could control the theatrical, irrepressible James had been the former Archbishop of Sydney, Sir Marcus Loane, who said Francis had been a born entertainer, a complete extrovert, and a real mischief maker who revelled in controversy. At James’ funeral he was likened to the author Graham Greene- a man of secrecy , ambiguity, and paradox, a person who believed deeply in the Christian faith but declared his support for Asian communist governments.
During the Vietnam War period there was a strong anti war movement in Darwin, activist Rob Wesley-Smith playing a leading part, along with Brian Manning , strongly backed by the NT News editor, Jim Bowditch. ASIO kept a watch on all involved. Bowditch took the cudgels to the Darwin City Council when it tried to block Wesley-Smith holding a moratorium vigil in a city park, Councillor Ken "Slippery " Slide in particular coming in for criticism. The event took place and ASIO reported that Bowditch attended and got into an altercation. A study is said to have revealed that there were more anti war people per capita in Darwin than any other capital city.
Another dynamic and charismatic person that Steedman had dealings with was the politician, Dr Jim Cairns, the most prominent anti war leader in the land, later to become the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer . In 1968 Dr Cairns decided to challenge Gough Whitlam for the leadership of the ALP. Four days before the event, Steedman was informed of the proposal to oust Whitlam as the necessary letters to be sent out to Caucus announcing the challenge were typed up in the Farrago office one weekend . “Here was I, a journalist, sitting on the hottest story going , and could say nothing ,” he told Little Darwin. The letters were mailed out Monday and the Press started to run the news on Tuesday . Whitlam survived the vote, 38 to 32.
As chair of the Vietnam Moratorium,Dr Cairns, the first Victorian policeman to have a tertiary degree, in 1970 led a huge sit down demonstration in Melbourne with an estimated crowd of 100,000. It was regarded as the biggest demonstration in Australia until the anti-Iraq invasion protest in February 2003.
In a twist of fate , that close relationship between Steedman and Dr Cairns would later place Steedman in a situation where he would warn PM Gough Whitlam that Dr Cairns could bring down the government over the Junie Morosi affair . In Canberra to discuss his extensive report on Cyclone Tracy and how to better deal with future natural disasters (See Little Darwin’s The Cyclonic Newspaper ), Steedman conversed with Cairns and it became abundantly clear that an explosive political situation had developed.
*Because of his strong opposition to the war and conscription,Steedman was often accused of being a supporter of the Chinese communists, even called Peking Pete. The cartoon at the head of this story was meant to symbolise the fact that America’s might far exceeded that of China ,with its recent upheavals, hence Mao on crutches . It also incorporated some of LBJ’s known quirky behaviour when he was down on the ranch swinging dogs around by their ears, pausing now and again to urinate on tumbling tumble weed. NEXT EDITION .- What happened when two whiz kids supposedly met over claret in Carlton.