Elisabeth Wynhausen was a battle hardened campaigning social justice journalist of the old school of whom in the end, despite our sometimes spirited disagreements, I became enormously fond.
In those final years, not long before I, too, departed that cesspit, Elisabeth was dismissed without ceremony from The Australian.
Owned by Rupert Murdoch, the paper’s management style and contempt for the working journalists who filled its pages had long been a source of angst amongst the reporters on the floor.
Like myself, Wynhausen had been fascinated by the underclass, by those to whom life had not always been so kind. And as a pioneering journalist from the days when there were few women on the city’s news floor she was tough as old boots.
Our particular falling out came over the Family Court of Australia.
Before family law fell into complete disarray, its reputation in the gutter where it belonged, the Court was regarded as a feminist icon.
As a separated father, I was writing from a different point of view, and knew just how deeply the court was despised by many of the people mangled by its processes, astounded by the arbitrary and often incompetent nature of its decisions, and shocked by the blatant corruption of its family report writers.
A lunar left legacy of the 1970s and the “all men are bastards” feminism of the era, the court should, in my humble view, have been abolished long ago. There were plenty of lawyers who felt much the same, believing the jurisdiction was bringing the entire profession into disrepute.
But for Elisabeth it was a progressive institution, and she did her absolute best to ensure that the story I was asked to write was not published.
She failed in her mission, and in her lobbying of the features editor of the time, but we weren’t on talking terms for some months.
And might have remained so, except that it was completely impossible to maintain a long term feud with her.
An old hand on news floors by that time, I wrote in public baskets. That is, everyone on the news floor could look over my shoulder, so to speak, and read every word I wrote, as I wrote it. And soon enough, despite the frost I was determined to sustain, she would be over at my desk giving me the full benefit of her views, suggesting contacts, or other ways of doing the story.
And so in the end, like many people who knew her, I just gave up trying to be angry over a matter of principle – that ideology should not prevail over truth.
Her interests put her at odds with the prevailing culture of The Australian which was obsessed with catering to their AAA demographic. One of their magazines was simply called Wealth. Their travel section assumed everyone stayed in five star hotels and travelled first class.
No room for peasants or the struggling middle class.
The ethos was all about success, business, the triumph of the few. Only suckers fell by the wayside.
One of Wynhausen’s last books was called Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the Job Market.
Although it was all original work, and should have been of concern to the company executives who scanned the paper each morning over their Bircher Muesli, or the doctor’s wives with their ever fashionable social justice cloaks, the paper only grudgingly ran an extract, and then failed to promote what should have been treated as a significant piece of work by one of their senior writers.
When she was fired, then Editor-in-Chief Chris Mitchell, who at that stage had never written a book or been shortlisted for any literary prize, couldn’t be bothered to emerge from his office to shake her hand, bid her farewell or wish her the best for the future.
It was typical behaviour in that terrible parody of a newsroom.
As the joke went, “Instant Asshole. Just add News Limited Management Course.”
You can rule by love or you can rule by fear. These people chose fear.
Mitchell was notorious for not deigning to speak to his journalists.
It was called “managing upwards”. He managed Rupert Murdoch very well. He knew each and every Prime Minister’s of the day, and considered himself a player in the political life of the nation. But on the newsfloor, that place where both I and Elisabeth dwelled, many if not most of his reporters hated him.
Wynhausen’s first book was Manly Girls, published by Penguin, a memoir of her arrival as a Jewish immigrant from Holland at the age of four and her engagement with Australia. With her typical style of disparaging humour she declared: “I’d confess to anything. It’s not in my nature to wait to be found out.”
Described as an “exuberant and engaging memoir”, as she propelled herself through one comic debacle after the other, she mused at the pedestrian eating habits of Australians: “The same scoop of mashed potato. The same subservient beans. The same lamb chop, as dried out as the Nullarbor Plains.”
Another of her books, The Short Goodbye: A Skewed History of the Last Boom and the Next Bust, published by Melbourne University Press, told the story of how ordinary Australians were affected by the global financial crisis. The work dissected the myth that Australia dodged a financial bullet by documenting the lives of those discarded on an economic minefield — from bankers to factory workers — and warned that without reform Australia could suffer a more terrible social and economic calamity from the next global rout.
A shorter work, also published by Melbourne University Press, On Resilience, was described as “an inspirational memoir that delves into family life and the immigrant experience”.
Prior to arriving at News Limited Elisabeth had a distinguished career working at many of the country’s leading outlets, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. She had also worked on the two now defunct but in the history of Australian journalism, significant, ground-breaking publications, The Bulletin and The National Times.
This was the person the Editor-in-Chief, and thereby the newspaper itself, was treating with complete contempt.
She had been at the newspaper for the same period of time that I had, fifteen years or so since the 1990s, one of those characters necessary for any vibrant newsroom. And while a slow writer by contemporary standards, young reporters are now often expected to shovel out three stories a day, usually stories of little consequence or simply regurgitated press releases, Wynhausen’s copy was deeply felt and deeply worked. It read well, broke ground.
Journalism was in her blood and in her psyche.
As The Sydney Morning Herald described her: “Elisabeth Wynhausen could be a pain in the neck. She was raucous. She wouldn’t let up. Her default setting was full throttle. And she had an unwavering confidence that she and she alone knew how the world worked.
“But her loud mouth and sharp eyes were attached to a great heart. She had insight and was endlessly funny. Her friendships were deep. Her sympathies sound. All the restraint she lacked in life, she brought to bear on prose that was sparse and true. Her taste was impeccable.
“She was forgiven everything by her friends and a lot by her editors. Getting a story out of Wynhausen was an all-of-paper operation: endless talk and cigarettes and missed deadlines as she taste-tested each paragraph rolling slowly out of her typewriter. She ignored advice and took applause in her stride.”
Ultimately, getting her stories out was not something Mitchell was prepared to indulge.
After her peremptory, just plain rude dismissal, News Limited protocol was that she should have emptied her desk, been escorted out of the building and not allowed back in.
Wynhausen ignored them. No one had the heart or the gumption to sick the security guards onto her.
Throughout that final day a gutless Mitchell stayed cowering in his office; not emerging to say goodbye, to apologise or express regret at the circumstances which had led to her departure, to thank her for years of service.
Mitchell knew the news floor hated him. He didn’t care. He still got paid his stratospheric salary for doing bugger all no matter how much he decimated the paper’s personnel, or what fake economic or managerial justification there was for the latest round of sackings.
I had seen it all before, time after time after time, on Sydney’s hyper competitive news floors.
Sooner or later, I knew perfectly well, I too would become the victim of the same pogroms that had destroyed so many other talents and careers.
It didn’t matter how many years you had served The Great Rupert or his henchman Mitchell. You were instantly dispensable.
The newspapers paid in their discernible lack of character or depth. And the nation as a whole paid because its major newspaper became so callow, so shallow, so beholden to the ruling elites. The wags called it the Liberal National Party Gazette, after the governing party, and they weren’t far wrong.
After I too had left the paper, although rarely in Australia at that point, I would serendipitously run into her in odd places: walking along Bondi Beach, in the Blue Mountains. She seemed lonely, lively, still full of ideas, curious takes and opinions on just about everything, but lost.
Wynhausen could not live, could barely breathe, outside newspapers. It wasn’t long before she curled up and died, keeping, until the final days, news of her illness secret from even her closest friends.
Back in Australia in 2013, I was saddened by news of her death and went to her funeral, attended by many of the city’s best known journalists.
Mitchell did not even bother to accord her the basic courtesy of attending. Or perhaps he knew he would not be welcomed.
Only days after her death, conservative alter boy Tony Abbott became Prime Minister.
The standard joke, even at the funeral, was that she simply couldn’t stand the thought of living in a country run by Tony Abbott.
She would have been caught in a lather of furious words, in a determination to make his Prime Ministership as miserable as possible.
As it turned out, in the years that followed Australia lurched ever further to the right, into a totalitarian mindset which would have appalled her; as the people of Australia were utterly betrayed by their political class, both left and right.
Not just a pioneer in her day, Elisabeth was one of the last crusaders of a style of journalism which she believed could affect societal change, and make the world a better place.
Journalism became entertainment or government propaganda, social change became a rigor mortis grin captured by diversity apparatchiks, and Australia, and Australian journalism, was a sadder place without her.
This is extracted from the upcoming memoir Hunting the Famous by John Stapleton.