Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harris, William Stewart (1922–1994)

by Patricia Clarke

This article was published online in 2018

William Stewart Harris (1922–1994), journalist and Aboriginal rights advocate, was born on 13 December 1922 at Woking, Surrey, England, younger son of English-born Henry Harris, retired banker, and his Victorian-born wife Katie, née Hay. Stewart visited Australia with his family on several occasions as a child. He was educated at Marlborough College and then Clare College, Cambridge (BA, 1944; MA, 1948), where he was awarded Blues in cricket and golf. Joining the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in August 1944, he was appointed as an acting sub-lieutenant in March 1945, allocated to the Special Branch, and trained as a naval air intelligence officer. He served briefly in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and at naval air stations in England before being demobilised in September 1946. At the end of World War II he also began studying at the London School of Journalism.

In 1947 Harris visited Australia on a working holiday. He was employed in several labouring jobs including as a cook at a Northern Territory mustering camp. While there, he observed the living and working conditions of Aboriginal people, an experience that influenced his career. He was to become one of the earliest mainstream journalists to write about racial discrimination and Aboriginal land rights. Returning to England seven months later, he spent some time as an insurance broker with Lloyd’s of London, freelanced as a journalist, and presented talks for the British Broadcasting Corporation. In 1949 he joined the London staff of the Yorkshire Post. During the next year he moved to the Times and briefly served with the 21st Special Air Service Regiment (Artists). In 1951 Sir Keith Murdoch, chairman of the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd newspaper group, invited him to work in Australia. He spent eighteen months at the Brisbane Courier-Mail, before leaving Murdoch and moving to the Sydney Morning Herald to write features. In 1954 he made an adventurous overland journey through Afghanistan to England. On 8 October 1955 at St Paul’s Church of England, Knightsbridge, he married Burmese-born Mary Orr Deas, daughter of a Scottish company director, whom he had met while travelling.

The couple settled in Melbourne, where Stewart had been appointed assistant correspondent for the Times. In 1957 he became its principal correspondent and was based in Canberra. Over the years that followed, he helped to expand and shape the extent and depth of reportage of Australian news. As foreign correspondent he covered South-East Asian events, the Vietnam War in 1967 and 1968, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, which he reported from the Egyptian perspective, a decision influenced by his support for Palestinian liberation. The Times regarded him as an ideal reporter: ‘observant, critical, and possessed of a rare sensitivity to the ideas and feelings’ of others (1994, 21). An outspoken opponent of apartheid, he covered demonstrations against the 1971 Springbok South African rugby union tour of Australia. As recounted in his book Political Football (1972), during these protests he was arrested and charged with hindering police, but acquitted and awarded costs.

That year Harris reported on and became involved in the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. He also published This Our Land, in which he described the background to the struggle for Aboriginal land rights. In 1973 he resigned from the Times to take up a senior research fellowship in anthropology in the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University. During an extended period in the Northern Territory in the late 1970s he was an honorary advisor to the Northern Land Council and ran the media campaign for the Aboriginal land rights claim at Borroloola. His work helped change public and government attitudes towards Indigenous people. From 1978 he was closely involved with Dr H. C. (‘Nugget’) Coombs, the poet Judith Wright, and others in the formation and work of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee. His book ‘It’s Coming Yet …’ An Aboriginal Treaty within Australia between Australians was published by the committee in 1979.

As senior editorial writer (1980–84) for the Canberra Times, Harris adopted clear and forthright positions on a range of subjects, including Palestinian self-determination. In 1982 he came to the defence of the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation which was under attack for its militant industrial actions and its campaigns on environmental and social issues. The union published a compilation of his articles, The B.L.F. A Personal View. In retirement he moved to Braidwood and conducted a series of oral history interviews for the National Library of Australia. Happy when outdoors, he celebrated his seventieth birthday by climbing Mount Kosciuszko and in 1993 competed in a cross-country skiing race from Perisher Valley to Charlotte Pass.

After contracting bacterial meningitis, Harris died on 6 December 1994 in Woden Valley Hospital, Canberra, and was cremated. His wife, and their two sons and two daughters survived him. A charming, kindly, and passionate man, with a horror of injustice and racist attitudes, he identified strongly as Australian and had been naturalised in 1965. He was like a convert, he told an interviewer, ‘a bit keener on it than the bloke who was born to it’ (Juddery 1968, 21).

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Clare Association. The Clare Association Annual, 1994-95. Cambridge, England: The Association, [1995]
  • Harris, Alistair. Personal communication
  • Juddery, Bruce. ‘A Bit Like a Converted Catholic.’ Canberra Times, 14 February 1968, 21
  • National Library of Australia. MS 8882, Papers of Stewart Harris
  • Riddell, Elizabeth. ‘Foreign Correspondent.’ Australian, 5 September 1970, 15
  • Times (London). ‘Stewart Harris.’ 10 December 1994, 21
  • Waterford, Jack. ‘A Gentle Radical to the End.’ Canberra Times, 8 December 1994, 8

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Patricia Clarke, 'Harris, William Stewart (1922–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-william-stewart-27208/text34726, published online 2018, accessed online 19 November 2019.

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