Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Commins, John Bede (Jack) (1913–1987)

by Patricia Clarke

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

John Commins, n.d.

John Commins, n.d.

image privately sourced

John Bede (Jack) Commins (1913-1987), political journalist, was born on 10 June 1913 at Parkes, New South Wales, second child and only son of Francis Bede Commins, solicitor, and his wife Nora, née Byrnes, both born in New South Wales. His father was killed in action in France in 1917 while serving with the 53rd Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. The family moved to Sydney and Jack was educated at Christian Brothers’ High School, Lewisham. At the age of 21 he joined the Sydney Morning Herald, later moving to the Daily Mirror. In December 1941 he was appointed to the news staff of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Next month he was transferred to the parliamentary press gallery in Canberra. He took over as head of the ABC’s Federal parliamentary bureau in 1945, becoming one of the pioneers of the ABC’s independent news service which began on 1 June 1947.

During thirty-five years in the Canberra press gallery Commins gained a reputation, according to the politician Fred Daly, for 'impeccable honesty, trustworthiness and impartiality'. He reported on major events under prime ministers from John Curtin to Malcolm Fraser, mingling with and enjoying the friendship of a number of political leaders. Curtin he regarded as 'a superb wartime leader' and Ben Chifley as the 'greatest of Prime Ministers'. He believed that (Sir) Robert Menzies despised the press: he 'thought we were on a lower intellectual level, and in the end he didn’t think he needed us. Well, let’s be frank, he didn’t'. But on trips away with a relaxed Menzies, journalists 'couldn’t have had better company'. Commins was a member of the press contingent on several prime ministerial visits overseas.

When he retired in June 1977 Commins was the second-longest-serving member of the Canberra press gallery, yet his name was little known outside Parliament House. His reputation among his peers had developed when the ABC, in keeping with the impersonal style of its news bulletins, did not use reporters’ names. Anonymity suited him. He saw his job as getting the news and getting it to the public quickly. When Curtin died in the early hours of 5 July 1945, Commins ran from Civic to Parliament House to get the story. In those days he was never off the job: he recorded picking up a lead to an important story on the links at the Royal Canberra Golf Club.

Commins remained an old-style journalist steeped in the habits of radio. His tall figure was visible at televised news conferences but he never became a 'talking head'. At the beginning of 1966 the ABC gave him a chief of staff, Ray Aitchison, part of whose brief was to increase the ABC’s television coverage of political events and issues. According to Aitchison, in Commins’s last decade as chief of bureau, 'rarely did he find a news story that hadn’t been obvious' and he did not develop new contacts. However, his skill in smoothing the way for executives visiting Canberra to meet ministers or give evidence at parliamentary committees ensured that he remained an asset to ABC management. Throughout, he ran the ABC’s parliamentary news room with a light hand, confident that reporters would work well without obtrusive supervision. He was appointed MBE in 1977.

Jack Commins lived at Braddon with his wife Joan, née Raven (d.1982), whom he had married with Catholic rites on 2 August 1941 at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. They had no children. Both were devoted to their dogs and were enthusiastic golfers. He died between 5 and 7 August 1987 at his home and was cremated. Fred Daly described him as a 'quiet man', 'compassionate and gracious'.

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times, 12 Aug 1987, p 7
  • Journalist, Sept 1987, p 7
  • Canberra & District Historical Society Newsletter, Oct 1987, p 10
  • M. Pratt, interview with Commins (typescript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • Ray Aitchison papers (National Library of Australia)
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Patricia Clarke, 'Commins, John Bede (Jack) (1913–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/commins-john-bede-jack-12340/text22169, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 10 December 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 17

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