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Alexander, Joseph Aloysius (Joe) (1892–1983)

by Stephen Holt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Joseph Aloysius (Joe) Alexander (1892-1983), journalist, was born on 27 June 1892 in Melbourne, son of Ernest Alfred Alexander, a labourer from Tasmania, and his Victorian-born wife Nelly, née Fitzsimon. From 1896 the family lived at Burnie, Tasmania. Joe entered St Patrick’s College, East Melbourne, in 1905 but two years later his family’s material circumstances (`straitened’ at times) forced him back to Tasmania. He trained and worked as a journalist at Burnie and Launceston before returning to Melbourne, where, in 1923, he became a reporter for Sir Hugh Denison’s Evening Sun. In 1925 he gained a valuable patron when the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd, increasingly dominated by (Sir) Keith Murdoch, acquired Denison’s newspaper interests in Melbourne.

Having conducted part of his research in Los Angeles, United States of America, in 1928 Alexander published a biography of the irrigationist George Chaffey. On 29 January 1929 he married with Catholic rites Frances (Katherine) Broadwood, a café manageress, at St Patrick’s College chapel. Three days later he took up the post of bureau chief for the Herald in Canberra where, within a decade, he was to own an impressive residence in Mugga Way, Red Hill.

In the hothouse atmosphere of Australia’s infant `bush capital’ Alexander covered the fall of the Bruce-Page government. From October 1929 the impact of the Depression on the Labor government of James Scullin was a source of dramatic news stories. As well as reporting on events, Alexander was involved in them. Following Joe Lyons’s resignation from the Scullin cabinet, he attended meetings between Murdoch and Lyons which preceded the formation of the United Australia Party.

Alexander was responsible for the publication in March 1931 of the text of cables, sent by Scullin in London, which criticised a restive Labor caucus. He refused to disclose his source and in April the Speaker barred him from the House of Representatives. A privilege motion questioning the Speaker’s power to do so was defeated only on the casting vote of the Speaker himself. The Senate repudiated the ban, enabling Alexander to continue to solicit information from its half of the parliamentary precincts. He was readmitted to the House in September.

When the UAP assumed office in January 1932, the ambitious Alexander exulted in a diary entry: `Everyone is saying at Canberra that I have put Lyons in as Prime Minister. It is more than half true’. During the early years of the Lyons government, senior ministers and public servants kept him supplied with inside information. He wrote the news story announcing Stanley Melbourne (Viscount) Bruce’s mission to the Imperial Economic Conference, Ottawa, and his appointment to London as resident minister in 1932 before Federal cabinet had officially considered the matter. Alexander accompanied him to Ottawa as the Sun-Herald Cable Service representative. His elation at being at the hub of events ebbed as the intimacy between Lyons and Murdoch faded. Journalistic arrangements were also strained by the entry of (Sir) Robert Menzies into the Lyons cabinet. According to Alexander, the imperious Menzies complained in 1936 that `the Herald has clearly shown that it is opposed to the present Commonwealth Government—was indeed its worst enemy’.

While Alexander felt threatened by Menzies’ `towering ambitions’, Canberra’s long parliamentary recesses were also increasingly frustrating. He varied his workload, taking on the editorship (1937-44 and 1948-67) of Who’s Who in Australia. His exemplary editorial vigilance guaranteed the publication’s status as an invaluable and permanent work of reference. Alexander’s uneasy relationship with Menzies never improved. In August 1941, on the eve of Menzies’ resignation as prime minister, he was excluded from all interviews and press conferences with him. He was to rejoice when UAP candidates in the pro-Menzies National Service Group were seen to do poorly in the 1943 Federal election.

Alexander’s strong private opinions did not detract from his personal and professional integrity. John Curtin, after becoming prime minister in October 1941, included him in the inner group of trusted senior journalists to whom he gave confidential wartime briefings. However, Alexander was too close to him to be an uncritical admirer. During the 1942-43 conscription controversy he wondered if the prime minister had the strength to overcome internal party opposition. He did not appreciate being sandwiched between Curtin and Murdoch, whose mounting public criticism irked the prime minister.

In 1944 Alexander, who relished nineteenth-century Russian literature, was named first secretary (public relations) to the Australian legation in Moscow. He admired the Red Army but felt uncomfortable with the Soviet political system during the three years—interrupted by a stint at the 1946 Paris Peace Conference—that he spent in the Soviet Union. After being relocated to Murdoch’s head office in Melbourne, he published In the Shadow (1949), a book full of adverse observations on Soviet communism. Anxious to return to Canberra, he applied personally to Menzies for a position as a press secretary following the coalition’s electoral victory in 1949. He proffered loyalty and hoped that `personal difficulties’ would be forgotten. Menzies disdained the offer.

On his retirement from the full-time staff of the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd in 1957, Alexander was able to return to Mugga Way. Revering the abiding religious faith that he had seen in Russia, he became a generous benefactor when the Russian Orthodox Church of St John the Baptist was constructed at Narrabundah. Canberra’s bracing winters forced Alexander and his wife to move to Buderim, Queensland, in 1967. He died on 7 January 1983 at Oxley, Brisbane, and was buried with Russian Orthodox rites in Canberra cemetery. His wife survived him; they had no children.

A `brisk, short figure limping indomitably round the Canberra he loved’, Alexander was Australia’s top political journalist at the height of the Depression. Younger journalists later looked back on his news-gathering skills with awe, endowing him with near-miraculous powers of perception. They did not grasp the full extent of his heady intimacy with leading politicians, the key to his early sensational success in Canberra, which was later curtailed by the rise of Menzies.

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Historical Journal, no 29, 1992, p 10
  • Canberra Times, 16 Mar 1967, p 3, 8 Jan 1983, p 6, 28 Aug 1997, p 9, 4 Mar 2002, p 12
  • Canberra & District Historical Society Newsletter, Feb 1983, p 11, Mar 1983, p 9
  • M. Pratt, interview with J. A. Alexander (typescript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • autobiographical recording by J. A. Alexander (typescript, 1977, National Library of Australia)
  • Joseph Alexander papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Billy Hughes papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Robert Menzies papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Keith Murdoch papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Stephen Holt, 'Alexander, Joseph Aloysius (Joe) (1892–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/alexander-joseph-aloysius-joe-12128/text21727, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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