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Bennetts, Richard John (1925–1978)

by Jack Waterford

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Richard John Bennetts (1925-1978), journalist and intelligence officer, was born on 3 January 1925 at North Fitzroy, Melbourne, elder son of native-born Richard Bray Bennetts (d.1938), an employee in the boot trade, and his wife Dorothea, née Foster, from England. Educated at Northcote High School, John left at 15 to be the breadwinner for his mother and younger brother. He joined the Melbourne Herald as a cadet reporter, but in January 1943 enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces.

Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 13 April, Bennetts held posts in Australia, mainly with the Armoured Corps, until his arrival in April 1945 at Advanced Land Headquarters on Morotai Island. He was detached to the Allied Intelligence Bureau from July and served in Borneo. In December he went to New Guinea where he edited the army newspaper, Guinea Gold. Discharged on 13 September 1946 with the rank of staff sergeant, he resumed his cadetship at the Herald. In 1947 he won the Montague Grover prize and, on qualifying as a journalist next year, was transferred to the parliamentary press gallery in Canberra. Having visited Britain and Europe on a Viscount Kemsley travelling scholarship, he returned to Australia in 1950 and began part-time studies at the Canberra University College (B.A., 1956). He married Margaret Jeanette Feakes on 22 September 1951 at Scots Church, Melbourne.

In 1954 Bennetts joined News Ltd as chief of the Canberra bureau and political correspondent for the Adelaide News. Awarded a J. William Fulbright travel grant in 1957, he lectured on journalism at Michigan State University, United States of America. Next year he completed a diploma in journalism at the University of Melbourne. Back in Canberra, he was active in the Australian Journalists' Association. In March 1960 he was appointed head of the Melbourne Age's office in the press gallery. In addition, he subsequently became national-affairs commentator for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, local correspondent for Associated Press, Reuter and Agence France-Presse, president (1966) of the press gallery, and a part-time lecturer in political science (1965-67) at the Australian National University where he began a master of arts degree. In brief interludes he also acted as copy-editor at the Age's head office (a job he had filled at the Herald) and accompanied leading politicians on their trips abroad.

Sent to Singapore in 1967 to be the Age's South East Asia correspondent, Bennetts toured the region and saw combat zones in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and Laos. In 1968 he was appointed senior lecturer in political science at the School of General Studies, A.N.U. From January 1970 he worked as political correspondent for the Canberra Times, but later that year accepted an analyst's post in the Joint Intelligence Organization, Department of Defence. As the co-ordinator of current intelligence, he collated material for the daily digest given to the prime minister and other high-ranking officials. He was in Port Moresby in 1974-75 as Australian defence representative, before reverting to his former post in Canberra. Appointed J.I.O. attaché, Washington, in 1976, he exchanged information and liaised with American intelligence agencies. On his return home, in 1977 he was made head of current intelligence in the new Office of National Assessments.

As a journalist, Bennetts had been a sound reporter who largely excluded his attitudes from his commentaries. From the mid-1960s there have been allegations that he was the Australian Security Intelligence Organization's 'man' in the Federal parliament's press gallery. Although made explicit after his death, the claims were veiled during Bennetts's lifetime and he denied them vehemently. Discussion with former officers indicates that he had no formal links with security and intelligence organizations in his years as a journalist and casts doubt on his being an informant. In January 1974 the Australian Financial Review reported that, as an intelligence officer, Bennetts was suspected in Labor circles 'of being associated with newspaper stories damaging to the Government', but not a skerrick of evidence was advanced.

When the suggestions first gained currency Bennetts was older than most of his peers in the press gallery which seethed with intrigues and suspicions at the best of times; he was politically more conservative and had little sympathy for the Vietnam protest movement. The roots of the unproven claims may lie in mutual antipathy between an old and a new generation. Bennetts was a keen bushwalker, trout-fisherman, skier, swimmer and carpenter (who built his own holiday home). He died of subarachnoid haemorrhage on 3 July 1978 at Cooma, New South Wales, and was cremated. His wife, son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne), 22 Apr 1968
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 1968, 4 July 1978
  • Australian Financial Review, 2 Jan 1974
  • Canberra Times, 4 July 1978, 17 Feb 1991
  • National Times, 13 Oct 1979
  • information from Canberra Times and Office of National Assessments, Canberra
  • private information.

Citation details

Jack Waterford, 'Bennetts, Richard John (1925–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bennetts-richard-john-9492/text16703, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 12 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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