Who Is The
Toni McRae is an Australian print and
broadcast journalist who has also spent some of her working career in
She has filed national and international scoops and been an integral part of the teams that have won three United Nations Association Media Peace awards, including the 2008 and 2009 Promotion of Aboriginal Reconciliation awards and three State and one National Media award for Older People Speak Out, including the Queensland Premier’s one-off 2009 Q150 award.
Her editors on
The Australian nominated her for the
inaugural Australian Journalist of the Year award after she risked her life
filing for the Murdoch group worldwide from
During the Iran-Iraq War she also wrote
and broadcast exclusive reports for
She has written five reference books and
for eight years was married to an Australian federal politician, Jack Birney,
formerly a criminal lawyer.
She now lives in
ARRIVED at my desk in the office just outside the editor’s, to begin my hard day’s night shift at the Fairfax-owned, tabloid Sydney Sun. It was around 6am on a sultry early December morning in 1974.
I opened the Sydney Morning Herald, our broadsheet sister paper that came out of the massive room next door, where at the Herald end, grey men sat with greyer beards and filled pontificating column inches that bore their names and made them gods.
And at the other end, the lesser mortals, the generally
untidily attired news hounds who worked for the
Sun and occupied the rows of shabby desks under the grubby windows
that overlooked the narrow side road off
That morning as always I scanned the Herald. There was a story about a stunning and sexy – that’s what the words amounted to – Filipino-born woman, Junie Morosi, being inappropriately given a Canberra house through the auspices of Immigration Minister Al Grassby who represented the Italian-led Riverina, centred around Australia’s drug trafficking capital of Griffith.
Who cared, I thought – except for one thing that leapt at me out of the page. Ms Morosi was the private secretary to the nation’s Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, Doctor Jim Cairns.
So this was looming as big-time stuff.
Tony Stephens wrote in the
Herald 28 years later, ‘the media had (thus far) kept a discreet
distance from the private lives of Australian political leaders. This policy was
soundly based on the theory that these private lives were not the proper concern
of the people unless they affected, or were likely to affect, decisions made for
or about the people.’
Well, at the time I read that
Herald morning edition about the Filipino beauty and the Whitlam
government’s pioneering politician, it did come to mind for a moment that former
Prime Minister John Gorton’s PA, Anslie Gotto, had, just a few years earlier had
the hormones of the male-dominated
Gorton once shared a school dormitory with Errol Flynn
until the future
The Sun’s craggy-faced, gangly, 50-something editor, Jack Tier, impossibly loped from his office into mine – impossibly, considering it was 6.15 in the morning and he was springing out of his office like a kangaroo.
Long-legged Jack was always energetic. Shame that, a couple of years on, he was to confide in me at the bar across the road that he had less than six months to live. And he was right almost to the day.
He had nick-named me Butch pretty soon after he pulled me from the women’s pages of the paper way down the corridor at the less important end of the building, where I’d been working under a kind and mothering editor Nan Javes, who had split from her air force husband and was soon to wed gregarious Sun sports writer Johnny Dwyer.
Years later – 2008 – across a Melbourne bar after our Fraser Coast Chronicle team had impossibly won the prestigious United Nations Association Media Peace Award for Aboriginal Reconciliation, 7.30 Report’s Kerry, who had been a firm family friend of Nan, her kids and Johnny Dwyer, confided Nan had encouraged him to call into the out-of-town university where Sue was studying, and say hello.
‘We went to dinner and just talked and talked and talked…and that was it,’ Kerry said. ‘But it meant Sue couldn’t fulfil her dream of becoming a fulltime, full-on journalist. Still, that’s life.’ Kerry had fallen madly in love, as they say, with Sue, they raised a family and Kerry’s career dominated not just their marriage but Australian broadcast journalism. It still does. For a while longer anyway as he recently announced his retirement from the program – to go on to fresher green fields within Aunty ABC.
Soon after I was transferred to the big room outside Jack Tier’s office. ‘You’re going to be a special writer for us now, Butch. Series and stuff like that. But we still want you to bring in the news stories.’
Around that time Kerry quit the Sun to join the ABC. I missed his quality immediately.
I felt then the Sun was losing a rare, finely honed journo to that dreadful creature that ate up newspapers and spat them into one line headline grabs…called television. But Kerry pioneered a change to a lot of that style.
And not long after I too would join the enemy.
Stylish fashion editor Helen Gordon also nurtured me in
those women’s section days, as did the women’s editor who replaced
For years we remained close friends, as did our copy
girl in those days, later Sydney and
One of my casual friends in that era was Robert Hughes, the talented muso and actor who in 2010 hit the headlines via a Channel 9 A Current Affair exposé on his Hey Dad TV days. I liked Robert. He was just a tad uptight but that I figured was down to his creative intensity. We once went on a car rally together and were doing extremely well until we stopped across a white line. That lost us the rally.
Robert had started his working life as a copy boy for
the Sun newspaper, which is where we
met. He was almost a couple of years younger than me. We used to hang out at
Taffy Davies’ parties in Taffy’s and then partner Dorothy’s
Robert shot to the top of the Australian entertainment
industry with the hip band The Flying Circus but this was short lived and he
began working in the theatre as an actor, in
We lost contact after his Flying Circus entrée. Robert
had been among the more intelligent friends of my young
Taffy Davies was an enormous influence on my career. He
once took me to have dinner with one of the sexiest men in show biz, Tom Jones.
You think that guy has all the moves now? Let me tell you, in the early 70s he
was the best hip swiveller on the planet. Taffy and Tom came from Pontypridd, a
small town about 10 miles north of the capitol city of
I liked Tom and there was a spark between us. Later
Taffy confided the singer had asked him in the men’s loo ‘is she available?’
Taffy apparently told him in no uncertain terms I wasn’t. Pity, I thought at the
time, that Taffy hadn’t thought to consult me on that one. I was available.
In those early
Sun years Kamahl, the Tamil singer who is still wowing audiences at age 75
as I write, gave his first
Kamahl and I caught up again 40 years later on the Fraser Coast and we sat down to tea and memories. It was just a bit special.
The next day part of this story appeared in the Fraser Coast Chronicle where I am now chief reporter.
‘Yesterday morning four thousand people sat and stood on the Scarness foreshore as Kamahl hit his basso profundo straps in Love Is In The Air – and 40 years flashed past in just a couple of booming rolling bars.
Four decades back was when this reporter last sat down with the legendary entertainer who broke the ignorant Aussie mould of ‘Blacks don’t make it big time unless they’re Satchmo or Bassey’.
Yesterday proud Tamil, Kamahl and I shared tea for the
first time since I interviewed him and stunning Indian wife Sahodra in their
tiny Paddington flat in
‘I’ve never stopped struggling, Toni,’ he confided yesterday. ‘If life hands you a lemon you make lemonade and I’ve had lots of both.’
It was a 1969 phone call from entrepreneur Harry M Miller when I was a new reporter on the Sydney Sun that led me to Kamahl.
‘He has a voice like the depths of the ocean rolling into shore,’ Harry told me. ‘You have to meet him, Toni. He’s special.’
That 34-year-old quietly spoken man who sat next to
Sahodra in their broom cupboard apartment – ‘we’ll have been married 44 years on
June 29’ – helped change my attitude to life in
‘Being black in a white society is not an advantage,’ he said then and he repeated it yesterday.
‘When I came from
‘For years, Toni, I was physically and metaphorically bruised.’
Kamahl said his life could well have been ‘one of a
singing tour driver in
‘People do change your life. Another was Bill Schneider, an immigration officer here who for some reason refused to accept my deportation notice in 1958. I still speak with Bill’s grandchildren.’
Now a grandfather of Isabelle by his daughter Rani, Kamahl admits to ‘earning $100 and spending $100’.
‘I’m not good financially. Never have been.
‘But in spite of all the charity work I have done and do I still want to set up a scholarship for young performers in the arts. I want to help gifted young people.’
Ironically, Mayor Mick Kruger was on stage to greet Kamahl yesterday and Mick was a glassie in George Kotis’ Tattersall’s Hotel in Maryborough in the 70s, picking up glasses the night Kamahl was the headlining act. George died recently in a horrendous weekend car crash. I was Chronicle duty editor on the Sunday morning after and it wasn’t the first time I fought back tears over putting together a front page announcing the death of a friend.
The singer says it’s my perception that at 75 he looks so good. ‘I have aches and pains and the rest. A surgeon, Professor Leigh Delbridge, saved my voice a few years ago. I could have been vocally crippled. I was so frightened I almost turned white.’
It’s 50 years since Kamahl did his first TV show and in a few weeks he’ll feature on Spicks and Specks.
‘I guess I am overcoming the ravages of getting old and gradually replacing my vitamins with preservatives.’
But in spite of that protestation, when Kamahl stood up to say goodbye it was just like the 40 years had never passed us by.
And off he strode along the Hervey Bay Esplanade to wow another few thousand people at the festival.
‘Break a leg,’ I called back to him in that age-old show biz line of good luck. He waved and laughed.
That was our own version of his 1969 hit Sounds of Goodbye.
Hope it’s not another 40 years.’
A few days later Kamahl sent me an email with a picture
of him and Bo Derek, the gorgeous Ten
star of the 70s. He’d met her that week at the races in
Over the years I have met up again with a handful of the famous I got to interview all those decades ago.
But never with Junie Morosi.
So Sun editor Jack Tier made the decision to deposit me in the midst of lots of blokes in the room outside his editor’s office.
Somehow dubbing me Butch was his way of dealing with me, the young blonde, who wasn’t too shy at bringing in scoops either.
For the record I wasn’t then, am not now and never have been – Butch, that is.
‘Butch, you’re on the mid-morning plane to
Thank God, I’ve just seen Morosi’s name in the
Herald, I thought. Otherwise I
wouldn’t have known her from a Harry de Wheels meat and gravy pie up at
‘But, Jack, what about our
‘Needs a woman, Butch. That’s you. Go home, get a bloody toothbrush and some clean knickers and go get this Morosi bird. You’ll be overnighting. Iris will fix the accom. Need the stuff for front page tomorrow.’
I wanted to throw up. I was sick at the realisation of
the impossibility of the assignment. The two times I’d been to
I grabbed a new notebook, a couple of pens, my dreadful desktop typewriter with the M key that stuck and produced Z instead and raced down the five floors into Jones Street where I already had collected $300-plus of parking tickets (unpaid) and into my trusty white Renault 10. That natty little car had been given to me by Bob Ackerman, one of Jack’s loyal Jewish supporters – who just happened to be in love with me and Jack shamelessly used him, a trait employed not for the first or last time.
Well, Jack was one of four significant Jacks in my life
then. Jack Tier, Jack Plummer, the Sun’s
assistant editor and Jack Rooklyn, the Bally poker machine mogul, close friend
of Jack #1. Jack #1 was Reginald John Birney, known as Jack, JB and Black Jack –
also as The Basher. He was a handsome high-profile criminal barrister, 19 years
older than me, who one Tuesday morning wooed me at
After we bedded and almost wedded he became the Liberal
Party pre-selected candidate for the dicey seat of Phillip, taking in Coogee,
We married on November 28, 1972 – to appease the
Christian component of the electorate and the high rollers in the party. That
ceremony was whipped through in my Sydney
Sun lunch hour, with Helen Gordon as my witness, and Jack’s gregarious
engineer friend Norm Bowers to see Jack sign the vows for the second time. Jack
had been married to a
It gets even more tacky. Jack never told me he had two
more kids with Shirley beyond his first three, Kathleen, David and Chris Birney.
I found out when
‘He’s a dreadful liar, Toni. You deserve better.’
Too late. I was at the stage of forgiving JB anything and everything, including the odd whack he threw my way. The Basher was an appropriate nickname.
Norm Bowers later married Joy Nason, an escapee from
the Exclusive Brethren – a really interesting lady who still wore thick
stockings, flat shoes and didn’t cut her hair. I liked Norm. I grew to like Joy.
Years later I saw her on national TV saying she still feared for her life and
the life of her son by
‘Which way goes Phillip so goes the nation’ was the across-Australia tout for this crucial seat of Phillip that Jack won preselection for.
Jack, a former Labor Party stalwart, deputy mayor of Coolah, chose to switch allegiances to knock off Gough Whitlam’s likeable Housing Minister, Joe Riordan, to take Phillip in what became the unpredicted December 13, 1975 election.
Fat chance, I quietly thought at the time. And that’s how little I knew of the major bombshell that was going to strike Australian politics – and I was destined to be a large part of its dropping right on Gough Whitlam.
Meanwhile I drove into our Coogee cliff-top house
In 10 minutes I’d packed a bag, left JB a note and sped
out again towards
I threw my car into a friend’s close-to-airport driveway, caught a cab and checked in just in time, clutching that Sydney Morning Herald story, my new notebooks and a pen in my hand.
How the #@*+%$^ was I going to pull this one off – and for tomorrow’s front page? I felt sick all over again.
And then I dived into my roots. I had started
journalism as a kid on an
I’d also failed handwriting at school – twice. They thought I was backward because of my lack of ability in doing os and ms and held me back a year.
So as the stewardess plonked lukewarm coffee and a stale biscuit on my tray, I pulled the new pen out of my green blazer pocket and opened my Sydney Sun notebook and wrote…paraphrasing.
‘Dear Ms Morosi
I am a woman and a journalist.
I think maybe I know a bit of what you are going through.
I have been assigned to get to you.
But if you have decided to talk to a journalist about all this then we need to talk.
I will not let you down.
I am aiming to get this note to Senator Doug McClelland and hoping he will agree to pass it on to you.
I feel somehow we will meet very soon.
If we don’t good luck and my heart goes out to what you are going through.
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