“ Never trust a journalist,” warned the proprietor, “ even ones from around here.” I thought of this when I saw the letter from Sir Robert Menzies’ daughter, Mrs. Heather Henderson, in The Australian on 25 November, 2008. It was headed "Two reputations damaged."
The essential question is surely this. Would Sir Robert have believed his confidence had been betrayed by the publication of his conversation with David McNicoll?
Mrs. Henderson is a lady of great dignity and wise judgement. Her public statements are few and far between; but when she intervenes it is to bring depth and context to some allegation or some story about Sir Robert which has just surfaced or, as is so often the case, resurfaced.
Not so long ago it was the improbable story that Sir Robert had ambitions to take over from Churchill.
More recently it was the conversation in 1974 with David McNicoll in which Sir Robert is reported as severely criticizing his successors, saying “They break my heart.” This extended to personal criticism of the then leaders.
In his opinion piece on 20 November, 2008 in The Australian , Tom Switzer predicted John Howard in retirement would be more discreet even than Sir Robert had been. He then referred to a report published by David McNicoll after Sir Robert’s death.
John Howard is a remarkably forgiving and a discreet man. He will no doubt be very careful not to make life difficult for his succesors.
Mrs Henderson writes:
“Tom Switzer’s article ("Former PM with manners of steel”, Opinion, 20/11) quotes from a conversation that the veteran journalist David McNicoll had in 1974 with my father Sir Robert Menzies when he was a very old man. May I add some background.
“McNicoll and my father had known each other for many years and were on good terms. McNicoll rang Hazel Craig, my father’s secretary, and asked if he could come and see ‘the Boss’. My father agreed but said ‘no tape recorder’.
“McNicoll duly arrived at my father’s office with a tape recorder. Hazel said ‘No’ and McNicoll indicated he wouldn’t switch it on. My father was unaware of the tape recorder. He and McNicoll sat and had a chat between friends, in private.
“After my father had died McNicoll published some of the more sensational recorded parts from that ‘private’ conversation, including the bits quoted by Switzer.”
Mrs Henderson says there were “two sad consequences.”
“ First, my father’s reputation for never interfering in the work of his successors or making public criticisms of them personally was undoubtedly damaged. He had always been meticulous about saying nothing in public that might hurt them or their families.”
“Second, McNicoll had succeeded in damaging his own reputation as well.”
…DD McNicoll to the defence…
The day after the letter appeared, in “Ming taped with assent,”DD McNicoll took up his pen to defend his father against the charge that he had recorded the conversation secretly. He said his father had borrowed a cassette recorder “the size of a briefcase” for the interview.
Further, he said, you had to use “large buttons and circular dials” to turn it on, and could not be used discreetly.
He said the original tape of the conversation is with the State Library of NSW. It begins with his father saying "You've seen one of these before?" To which Sir Robert says "Yes."
David McNicoll was an admirer of Sir Robert and kept a bust of him in his office. But consenting to a recording, if he in fact did, is not necessarily consenting to publication.
This is done all the time, although such record as is kept is usually in writing only. We shall never know the conditions on which the recording was made.
Both were admirable, honourable men. Each played a considerable role in the public life of this country. They both radiated a patrician but not identical style, the sort of style now frowned upon. David McNicoll was the debonair man about town, a description which does not in any way fit Sir Robert.
They both spoke with great authority. Sir Robert has had no equal as a public speaker, and David McNicoll had a rare ability to communicate across the political and social spectrum.
I do find it hard to believe that Sir Robert would have wanted the conversation published. He was too big a man to have allowed that.
But I suppose that David McNicoll could well have believed that, as with a confidential source, the obligation for secrecy was at an end when the source left this mortal world.
I expect that Sir Robert, a magnanimous and measured man, has probably forgiven him.