More featuring Max Newton»

Peter Samuel, “Cauldron-Journalist,”
Quadrant, January-February, 1994, pp. 110-11.

Review of Sarah Newton’s Maxwell Newton: A Biography (1993).

When I first worked out of the Parliament House press gallery for the Bulletin back in 1966, Alan Reid, a veteran of the Daily Telegraph, was a close colleague. At his typewriter he was about two feet away. As reporters we’d grouse about subeditors and the awful things they did to our copy. Reid’s advice: “Son, your job is finished once your copy goes to the telex operator. What they do with it in Sydney is out of your control. You don’t even want to know what they do with it up there. My advice is: never read yourself in print. You’ll sleep easier in the crazy game if you forget about your story once she’s filed.”

Max Newton’s perspective was quite the opposite. He told me that “subs” were called subs because they are of sub-normal intelligence: “Only thickheads will do that kind of donkey work, measuring the galley with a ruler, inserting commas in your copy, and counting the letters in a headline.” Slowly emphasising each word, he’d say of subs, “They [pause] are [pause] dumb.” I told him of idiot things that had been done to my copy, and he told me, “You can’t let those silly fools do that to you.”

He recalled that once, when he’d been the Financial Review’s correspondent in Canberra, and he’d had his copy messed up by an “idiot-sub,” he decided to “teach the bugger a lesson he would never forget”. Without warning of his visit he’d drive up to Sydney that night, timing his arrival at Broadway for the hour when the journos at their favourite Fairfax pub would be well tanked. He’d burst through the pub door, loudly pronounce the offending sub a moron who was incapable of handling copy more sophisticated than the classified ads, and beat the bejesus out of him in a good bar-room brawl. That was the plan.

“Well, how did it go, Max?” I asked.

“Oh, mate, I got to Goulburn. Drove like a maniac to Goulburn. All fired up. Less than an hour that far. But at Goulburn I had a l’il thirst. Thought I’d better have a glass. Had a couple. A few yarns there up on the barstool. Relaxed a bit with the fellas. And then yer know, mate, then I couldn’t remember why I wanted to go to Sydney. For the life of me I just couldn’t think what it was I had to do in Sydney. So I slept the night in Goulburn, and drove back down to Canberra the next day. Never got to punch the bugger’s nose. Should have. It’s the only thing the morons understand.”

So much for a personal recollection of one of the great characters of twentieth-century journalism. The daughter of such a man, writing of her father, might be expected to do a puff job. This is no puff job! Indeed, in trying to avoid the suggestion of family favouritism, Sarah Newton may have gone too far in highlighting her father’s failings.

Sarah Newton’s book gives the impression that for most of his life Max Newton was afflicted by a manic depressive state of mind, and that he was a helpless prisoner of addictions to alcohol and pharmaceuticals. That wasn’t the Max Newton I remember. I was very close to Max — within a circle of perhaps half-a-dozen of his best friends and closest colleagues — at least during the second half of the 1960s when he was running newsletters out of his garage, then out of the house next door that he bought as an office in Kent Street, Deakin, ACT. At least during those years he was a huge bubbling cauldron of good cheer. He had more enthusiasm for his work, more stories he was dying to tell and write, more smiles and laughter than a score of other journalists combined. He was loving the journalistic life. He had his occasional “down” times, but they seemed to me quite normal. He always seemed to get a joke out of his adversity. And to bounce back. I was around immediately after the famous Commonwealth Police raid on his offices in May 1969, and spent several hours in his company. Sarah Newton pictures her father as having been “scared stiff”. Rubbish! He loved every second of it. He revelled in the knowledge that his arch-enemy Jack McEwen as acting Prime Minister had grossly over-reached himself by sending in the police. And in how the cops had been outwitted by his staffer Peter Kelly.

Sarah Newton describes her father as having afterwards lain “quivering” under a sheet, asking plaintively if they were coming to get him. She was “had” by her Dad. It was obviously an act. Max was playing an under-the-sheets game with a little daughter, making fun of the cops, pretending fear. What Sarah Newton describes as a psychological low point in Max’s career was in fact a great high. McEwen, his long-time adversary and big villain, had made an utter fool of himself and of the Government by that silly little police raid, and Max Newton was suddenly centre-stage nationally as the little battler-journalist heroically fighting bumbling, corrupt government.

Sarah Newton’s claim that Max’s life was “filled with suffering, with depression, an agony of mind that seemed to reach down into depths that were infinite” (p. 12) is plain nonsense. As well as being very close to Max in the late 1960s, I saw a lot of him in the last ten years here in America. We talked on the phone many times, and I visited him in Darien, Connecticut. I knew his last wife, Olivia, and his best friend, economist David Meiselman. We talked often about Max. He had a wonderful relationship with Olivia, he loved his work too and was successful — both financially and in gaining recognition as a commentator and speaker on economic policy. I think he felt fulfilled. He was doing what he loved doing — making life miserable for those he saw as the dolts and villains of government. Of course he had his downs. At times he had trouble handling alcohol. Many great people do. Many journalists especially get great pain as well as great pleasure and relief from the grog. Most of the time I knew him Max had control over alcohol.

His daughter’s book has its strengths. It is an extremely useful compilation of data about the life of an extraordinary journalist, and it puts together an interesting set of interviews about him. For that alone it is a contribution to the literature of Australian journalism. It has great weaknesses, however. As a personal biography a lot of it is speculative psychobabble. A constant theme is that Max’s character weaknesses (and he had plenty that weakened his strengths) were the product of lack of parental love as a child. For example: “All Maxwell wanted was to hear his parents say one simple priceless sentence: we love you Maxwell. But they didn’t say it …” How would Sarah know this? How could anyone? There is not a jot of evidence for the theme, yet it recurs throughout the book.

Finally the book is absurdly hyperbolic in its assessment of Max’s work, in characterising him as an “extraordinarily gifted economist, a highly respected financial mastermind, a scholar … the enormity of his influence in economics, both in Australia and in America, cannot be overestimated …” As Max would say, “Come off it.” Max had no influence whatever on economics and would never have claimed any. He was an economic journalist writing about economic policy for non-economists. In Australia he probably had a major influence in undermining both protectionism and the government planning of manufacturing industry that was attempted by the Department of Trade and Industry. But that planning was so incompetent, so infested with the seeds of its own destruction, that it would have collapsed anyway eventually. Moreover the Tariff Board under Alf Rattigan and the Treasury were extremely weighty opponents of McEwenism inside the government. Max helped enormously to mobilise outside political support for the assault on this corrupt and irrational species of socialism and probably helped hasten its demise.

In America it is very difficult for one journalist to have an enormous influence, so many and diverse are the sources of information and ideas. Max did gain a significant if small following here for his pure-monetarist line, and he probably eroded somewhat the reputation of the Fed — which he attacked with all the verve and assurance with which he had attacked [the Department of] Trade and Industry in Australia.

Max’s great strength as a journalist lay in his enthusiasm and his energy. His output was stupendous. In sheer number of words he produced on his keyboard and spoke for tape or lectures he had very few peers. But inevitably his quality suffered. Much of what he wrote was shrill, illogical and poorly based in facts. He wouldn’t acknowledge — in print anyway — that in some matters there simply is great uncertainty. No-one really knows. In some matters there are two strong sides to an argument. Max always had to have a position.

He was above all a terrific muckraker, and we need terrific muckrakers because in politics and public policy there is always a lot of muck that needs raking. He single-handedly opened newspaper doors to young men with economics degrees — including myself. He demonstrated with great drama that higher education needn’t produce boring writers. Or boring people.

(in order of appearance on Economics.org.au)
  1. Advance Australia fascist: The forces that make Australia a fascist country
  2. The Economic Guerrillas: A lecture in honour of Maxwell Newton
  3. Maxwell Newton Audio at Mises.org
  4. Max Newton on Video at first Mises Institute Conference (1983)
  5. Up the Workers! Bob Howard's 1979 Workers Party Reflection in Playboy
  6. Max Newton stars in Ron Paul video
  7. Bunny of the Welfare State
  8. The Crumbling Oligarchies
  9. Is Australia So Bad That It Can't Get Worse?
  10. Max Newton: Cauldron-Journalist
  11. Max Newton: a muckraker makes good
  12. An open letter to Bob Hawke, B. Litt., Oxon; from Maxwell Newton, B. A., Cantab.: In black and white
  13. Welfare Creates Poverty
  14. Welfare State a National Disgrace
  15. A "spy" replies
  16. Ron Manners on the Workers Party
  17. Josh Frydenberg vs Maxwell Newton on Sir Robert Menzies
  18. The traumatic birth of a daily
  19. The Bulletin on Maxwell Newton as Workers Party national spokesman on economics and politics
  20. Menzies: A Legacy of Lies and Legislation Limiting Liberalism
  21. Max Newton: Maverick in Exile
  22. King Leonard of Hutt River Declares Defensive Just War Against Australia the Aggressor
  23. Crying in the wilderness
  24. State aid and the privileged
  25. Maxwell Newton on Reg Ansett
  26. How to stop Labor running wild
  27. 1975 Max Newton-Ash Long interview on the Workers Party
  28. The Working Journalist in Public Administration
  29. Max Newton: controversy is an asset
  30. Maxwell Newton chapter of Clyde Packer's No Return Ticket (1984)
  31. The "irresponsible" way is the only way
  32. Maxwell Newton on Moral Hazard
  33. Maxwell Newton on Handout America and unbridled Welfare Mania in 1980 New York Post
  34. Tony Dear on Paul Krutulis, the Workers Party and murder
  35. Max Newton on the gold standard
  36. Maxwell Newton on ideas for cutting government waste
  37. Maxwell Newton on Bureaucracy
  38. Maxwell Newton measures bullshit tertiary schooling
  39. Australia's biggest newspaper insider on manipulating the media
  40. Never put your faith in politicians
  41. Profiting from propaganda
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