NOEL TENNISON, like elder brother Pat, was one of the great pillars that supported the Press Club and kept it going. He was passionate about it. He kept every notice he received and spent countless hours hunting down new members.
In 1972 Pat had talked him into coming down from Brisbane to Melbourne. He had a short run in public relations for Australia Post, then took his skills to work for the Premier, Rupert Hamer. In 1974 he left Hamer to form his own company, Media Relations Pty Ltd.
There was always a love-hate relationship between working journalists and PR men. Back in the 1960s, Cyril Pearl wrote a devastating article in Nation in which he said it was interesting how PR companies always had "associates". That was because they were the only people who would associate with them.
But the truth was journos and PR men were inextricably entwined and most PR men were journalists. They drifted backwards and forwards between the two occupations. There was another truth: without the PR members the club would never have survived. Invariably, they and their guests occupied most of the seats at every lunch. Noel Tennison filled whole tables with clients and friends.
In August 1990 Noel wrote a paper in which he said: “The proportion of working journos is small. PR members and others give their time and energy to the clubs yet do not stand for the presidency. This is, I think, unfair and in the long-term detrimental to the club because it discourages valuable members from active participation.
“My feeling is that it is time the distinction between PR and press members was abandoned."
On 1 May 1992, Noel did become president. He feared for the club's future. He found that the natural loss of members was exceeding the rate of recruitment. Only 10 to 15 per cent of members were responding to lunch invitations and, even worse, 40 per cent of members were unfinancial at the end of each year.
Noel set up special portfolios for committee members to look into membership, speaker selection and lunch venues. He wrote a letter to every club member asking each of them to recruit one new member before the end of the year. And to every member who had had not been to a lunch in the past 12 months he wrote a letter, asking why? At the end of the year he reported that his moves were a moderate failure. Only 24 new members were recruited in the six-month period to the end of 1991. So he decided on a shock tactic. At a committee meeting he proposed that the club go out of existence "due to lack of interest by the majority of members and lack of progress by the committee." His committee members were Judy Johnson, Col Brennan, Faye Kollosche, Corinna Hente, Barrie Dunstan, Krista Mogensen, Pat Hayes, Sally White and Beau Emerson, secretary.
The tactic worked. Nobody wanted to disband the club. The committee decided instead to send a questionnaire to all members asking for advice.
The result was middling successful, 194 papers went out and there were 75 replies. The responses showed that, in general, members were happy with the format of regular lunches and they believed the club offered a high standard of both meals and speakers. Oddly enough, price was not a real issue.
Some suggested they would like an occasional big dinner function with a big name speaker.
Noel certainly tried to get big name speakers. George Bush, the U.S. president, was coming to Australia. He tried to get him. No luck. Frank Sinatra was returning to Australia after describing Australia female journalists as “a bunch of hookers”. No luck there either.
He wanted Leo McKern, who was coming to Oz on a freighter because he couldn’t stand flying. McKern said he had already explained in an introduction to a biography that he didn’t give talks.
However, Noel did get Peter Ustinov for the second time. He did get Bill Hayden, when he was Governor-General. Furthermore, along came author John Mortimer, an ideal replacement for McKern, for after all, it was Mortimer who created Rumpole, the character who made Leo famous.
Ustinov was good value. Geoff Hook remembers walking up Collins Street with Ustinov, who was complaining bitterly about the awful heat and the overweight actor almost expiring as he climbed the Hotel Australia steps. Andrew McKay sat with him at lunch.
Andrew said: "Ustinov told me his novels were very popular in the USSR and sold well, but the miserable sods wouldn't expatriate his royalties. But they did continue to dribble payments into an account he had set up with the Moscow Bank. He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a passbook. 'Look,' he said, 'Millions of roubles! But, of course, I can't take them out of Russia. So I have to go there and spend vast amounts on the best caviar and vodka and get as much of it as I can — that which I cannot eat or drink back in England. Such a bore!' "
The Hayden visit was an experience for Noel. He remembered:
"The first time we had Bill Hayden was in 1973 when Pat was President. Hayden was Health Minister and he had been responsible for introducing Medibank.
"One of those present on the day was Ila Vanrenen, prominent in the Liberal Party. Her husband was a doctor. Well, she gave Bill a hectic time. Bill sweats a lot and she really put him under pressure. I was helping Pat so it was my job to look after him. When I went downstairs to see him off, his car didn't turn up and he was getting worried. I said: 'I'm parked just round the comer, can I drive you?' Bill said certainly, very good of you. But I'd forgotten I had also offered to drive Ila Vanrenen and there she was sitting in the back seat. She greeted the Minister with the words, 'Now Mr Hayden, as I was saying' ..."
Noel, as he introduced the Governor-General on the fateful day, was able to ask forgiveness for what he did in 1973. Noel also had an interesting experience with Andrew Peacock, the Foreign Affairs Minister.
"There had been a big story about the Australian Embassy in Moscow being bugged. I wasn't president then, but I suggested we invite Shirley Maclaine, who like Andrew, was here in Melbourne. There was some conservative resistance around the committee because they thought it might be embarrassing to Andrew. We decided against it. At lunch I said to Andrew, 'I wanted to ask Shirley to the club today but the committee thought you might be embarrassed.'
"'No' he said, 'she would have been delighted.'
"I said, 'I suppose you have been embarrassed by what has been going on at the Embassy.'
“He said, ‘As a matter of fact Shirley summed it up admirably. She said, 'Thank Christ they only bugged your fucking Embassy'."
Noel wanted to do other things apart from having happy lunches. He introduced forums to discuss the ethical problems that confront journalists.
There was a forum on whether journalists should be licensed. He had a spectacular discussion on "grief intrusions". On the panel were Jane Faulkner, deputy media director, Victoria Police; Wendy Tynan, mother of one of the policemen gunned down in Walsh Street, South Yarra, in October 1989; John Silvester, investigative reporter for the Herald Sun, and Piers Akerman, editor-in-chief of the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd.
Noel said: "Piers was his usual self. He didn't like the term grief intrusion. He said stories of human disaster in any form were always human-interest stories; therefore people were entitled to know the reactions of the victims. You seldom had a chance to talk to the perpetrator. The only way to find out the effect of these things was to talk to the victims.”
Jim Clarke took over as president after the annual meeting 1992. Jim had been an amazing club supporter. He was on the committee when Ranald Macdonald took him away from The Age to be editor of the Warrnambool Standard. He left that job, returned to The Age and the Press Club committee. Ranald then sent him back to Warrnambool to be general manager. He came back in 1991 and returned to the committee for the third time. He also acted as treasurer.
Jim remembers that his best-attended lunch was for Victoria’s first female Premier, Joan Kirner, when they had 200 people to hear her speak. But the occasion that sticks beautifully in his memory was the lunch for Piers Akerman.
"It was a terrible day. Joan Kirner was Premier, Labor was in Government and the Herald Sun was being accused of being anti-Labor. Akerman was very unpopular, and there was a full-scale protest outside, all carrying on because of the alleged bias of Akerman's newspaper. The lunch was at the Melbourne Hilton and when it was over the only way we could get him out was to sneak him through the kitchens.
"During the lunch there was a journalist from Channel 7. He asked a question and Akerman answered. The rule was, you put one question. Another chance might come later. The Channel 7 man went on, asking more questions. I moved on but he kept talking over the next questioner. I ordered him to sit down. He refused. In the end I said, 'if you don't sit down you will be removed.' That night in the ABC news it was billed as an example of how the media ganged up to support its own."
Jim and his committee were concerned the club was not achieving enough and in particular was not appealing to anyone under 40. In 1993 the club dug deep into its scant resources and gave a Young Journalist of the Year Award. The entrant had to be 25 or younger, and had to present material printed or broadcast during 1992. The prize was good — $2000 given by the club; a trophy worth $500 given by Noel Tennison and his company Media Relations Pty Ltd in memory of Patrick Tennison; business class travel to New York donated by Qantas and American Airlines; attendance in New York at the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) national conference; two weeks' work experience, and billeted accommodation at Newsday in New York.
The first winner was Michelle Coffey from the Herald Sun. Nearly 20 years later the award was sponsored by the estate of David Wilson, editor of The Age Insight team for 10 years and the first Australian working journalist to attend a conference of the IRE. He had died after an unsuccessful liver transplant in 2008.
This is an excerpt from Informed Sources, written in 1991 by former Club president and legendary columnist Keith Dunstan.
The online version has been updated by Rick Swinard, a former corporate affairs manager of the Herald & Weekly Times, chief of staff of The Herald in Melbourne and Managing Editor of the Christchurch Star.