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Browne, Francis Courtney (Frank) (1915–1981)

by Gavin Souter

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

Francis Courtney (Frank) Browne (1915-1981), journalist, was born on 9 September 1915 at Coogee, Sydney, son of Courtney Browne, a tailor from New Zealand, and his Sydney-born wife Linda Veronica, née Heckenberg. Frank was educated at Christian Brothers’ College, Waverley. After failing to win a bursary for university, he entered the Royal Military College, then at Victoria Barracks, in March 1934. He later claimed falsely to have won a `gold pocket’ for excelling in athletics, boxing, swimming and Rugby Union football. In August 1935 he was discharged as `temperamentally unsuited to the military profession’, though he later hinted that the real reason for his departure was his `amorous activities’ with an officer’s wife. Events in Browne’s life often received more than one explanation.

He spent a year as a cadet journalist on Smith’s Weekly, then made his way as a ship’s stoker to the United States of America, where he worked part time on the Chicago Tribune and boxed professionally as the featherweight `Buzz Brown’. According to his own account, `Buzz’ fought twenty times for nineteen wins, losing only to Henry Armstrong, who later became world champion in three divisions simultaneously. Some have said that in 1937 Browne served with communist forces in the Spanish Civil War, was wounded, and received a Soviet decoration. Later in life he declined to confirm or deny this, but by then his political stance had become strongly anti-communist.

Between 1938 and 1941 Browne worked in Sydney as a publicist with film-distributing and advertising agencies, and as a greyhound racing writer for the Daily Mirror. Enlisting in the Citizen Military Forces on 23 January 1942, he served with anti-tank regiments and then, having been commissioned as a lieutenant in June, with the North Australia Observer Unit, a mobile group being prepared in Sydney for operational duty in the Northern Territory. Browne remained in Sydney and on 19 September 1942 at St Mary’s Cathedral married with Catholic rites Marie Katherine Ormston (d.1963), a musician. Declared medically unfit for military service, he was placed on the Retired List on 10 February 1943.

Turning to politics, Browne stood unsuccessfully for parliament three times—in 1943 as the United Australia Party candidate for the Federal seat of Barton against Dr Bert Evatt; in 1944 as the Democratic Party candidate for the State seat of Bondi; and in 1947 as an Independent Liberal for the State seat of Vaucluse. He had become a branch president of the new Liberal Party in 1945, and had formed a Young Liberals’ League which that party promptly disbanded.

These failures help to explain Browne’s growing antipathy towards most politicians, with the notable exception of Billy Hughes, of whom in 1946 he published a short, fulsome biography. Taller and heavier than his hero, Browne was bespectacled and prematurely balding, convivial and witty, but also bellicose. He was expelled from the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia after throwing a Soviet flag at the State congress platform in 1946. Later he was charged with assault on several occasions.

By 1946 Browne had taken up his main vocation: the purveyance of political, business and personal information in a weekly newsletter for subscribers entitled Things I Hear. Disrespectful and sometimes scandalous, it was a gleaning of news, analysis and gossip. (Sir) John Gorton referred to it as `Things I Smear’. Its gossip was sometimes maliciously unreliable, yet Browne could also be well informed and astute in political analysis.

Things I Hear managed to infuriate politicians of every party, particularly in Canberra, which Browne visited regularly. Thus it was not surprising, though the cause of some regret, that Federal parliament, in a unique exercise of its power under section 49 of the Constitution, called Browne and another defendant, Raymond Fitzpatrick, before the Bar of the House for breach of parliamentary privilege. The alleged breach had occurred in an article in a free advertising weekly, the Bankstown Observer, edited at the time by Browne and owned by Fitzpatrick, a wealthy haulage contractor known as `Mr Big’.

In May 1955 the Labor member for Reid, Charles Morgan, had drawn parliament’s attention to the offending reference which alleged his involvement in `an immigration racket’. The House of Representatives standing committee of privileges ignored advice from the clerk of the House, Frank Green, that parliamentary privilege should not protect a member against allegations concerning his conduct outside the House, and that the proper place to seek requital was a civil court. Reporting no evidence of improper conduct by Morgan, the committee found Fitzpatrick and Browne guilty of a serious breach of privilege by publishing material intended to influence and intimidate a member in his conduct in the House.

Both men appeared before the Bar of the House on 10 June. `Mr Big’ spoke briefly and apologetically, but Browne gave as little ground as he might have done at a different kind of bar, talking vehemently about freedom of speech. During the ensuing debate Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies termed Browne’s address `an exhibition of unparalleled arrogance and impertinence’, while the deputy-leader of the Opposition, Arthur Calwell (usually referred to in Things I Hear as `Awful Arthur’), described Browne as `an arrogant rat’ and Fitzpatrick as `an illiterate lout’. By 55 votes to 12 in the case of Fitzpatrick and 55 to 11 for Browne, the House resolved that both should be imprisoned for three months. And so they were, in Goulburn gaol, much to the disapproval of some press and public opinion.

On his release, Browne formed the short-lived Australian Party. In the 1960s he wrote a column for the Daily Mirror and exported sheep to Kuwait. He stood unsuccessfully for the Senate as an Independent in 1974. He produced Things I Hear until 1977, when he went to Rhodesia for sixteen months reputedly to fight terrorists and write speeches for the prime minister Ian Smith. Browne died of liver cirrhosis and meningitis on 14 December 1981 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was cremated. He had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • F. C. Green, Servant of the House (1969)
  • G. Souter, Acts of Parliament (1988)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 10 June 1955, p 1625
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Aug 1946, p 3, 11 June 1955, p 1, 16 Dec 1981, p 11
  • People (Sydney), 26 Apr 1950, p 18
  • Observer (Sydney), 5 Sept 1959, p 554
  • National Times, 24 Feb 1979, p 12
  • Bulletin, 9 Mar 1982, p 56
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 28 Feb 1984, p 20
  • series A6119, item 83 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Gavin Souter, 'Browne, Francis Courtney (Frank) (1915–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/browne-francis-courtney-frank-12259/text21999, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 31 October 2014.

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

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