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Hughes, Richard Joseph (1906–1984)

by Prudence Torney-Parlicki

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

Richard Joseph Hughes (1906-1984), journalist, was born on 5 March 1906 at Prahran, Melbourne, eldest child of Victorian-born parents Richard Hughes, salesman, and his wife Katie, née McGlade. Educated at Christian Brothers’ College, St Kilda, Richard worked briefly as a poster artist before joining the Victorian Railways as an apprentice shunter. The articles he contributed to the Railways Magazine and his skills as a debater were noticed by (Sir) Harold Clapp, chairman of the Victorian Railway Commissioners, who appointed him to his personal staff as a public relations officer. On 29 September 1930 Hughes married May Lillian Bennett at the Collins Street register office. Their marriage ended tragically when May committed suicide in July 1933.

In 1934 Hughes joined a short-lived evening paper, the Melbourne Star, and in 1936—leaving his son in the care of his parents—he moved to Sydney, joining (Sir) Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph and later becoming chief of staff (1939) of the Sunday Telegraph. Remembering a promise he had made to Clapp to concentrate on Asia rather than the more traditional focus on Europe, in 1940 he took leave and travelled to Japan, from where he filed reports warning that it was likely to enter World War II against the Allies. A trip to the United States of America followed before Hughes returned to regular reporting in Australia.

While covering Federal parliament in Canberra in 1942 Hughes wrote an article, satirising a Senate debate, that was deemed a breach of privilege: he and other Telegraph representatives were banned from the parliament for four months. In 1943 he went to North Africa as an accredited war correspondent but returned prematurely after developing rheumatic fever in Cairo. An interest in Asia remained, and when the war ended he seized the opportunity to cover the Allied occupation of Japan.

Thus began Hughes’s long and happy but often financially insecure career as a foreign correspondent. Having always endured poor relations with Brian Penton, his editor at the Telegraph, and to some degree with Packer himself, Hughes resigned from the paper after reluctantly accepting recall to Sydney. Returning to Japan, he was appointed manager of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo—a poorly paid and difficult job from which he was soon sacked. In 1948, with the help of Ian Fleming, then foreign manager of the London Sunday Times, he was employed by the Sunday Times and the Economist. Over the following years these newspapers provided his main income, although in 1953 he rejoined the Packer organisation on a regular retainer, an arrangement lasting over a decade until he transferred to Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd. His contacts were extensive and included (it was later suggested) British and Russian intelligence agencies. He wrote with a sharply analytical, open mind and keen sense of anecdote and was seen as the doyen of Asia’s foreign press corps. In February 1956 he achieved an international scoop when he obtained an exclusive interview in Moscow with the British diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, who had defected to the Soviet Union in 1951.

Tall, solidly built, and imposing, Hughes was described by the journalist Pat Burgess as `fleshy and pale with a big head and a noble dome with thinning silver hair’. His second wife, Adele, née Redapple, whom he had married on 17 November 1945, died in Tokyo in 1950. Hughes moved to Hong Kong, where, from 1971, he also wrote for the Far Eastern Economic Review. Generous and tolerant, he became a fixture in the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club and Hilton Grill, dining and conversing with friends. His trademark was the ecclesiastical language he affected. Titles such as `Your Grace’ and `Monsignor’ and other episcopal terms of expression peppered his conversation and correspondence. His third wife, whom he married in a Hong Kong registry office on 7 October 1973, was Oiying (Ann) Lee, the daughter of a Chinese general who had served in Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army.

Appointed CBE in 1980, Hughes inspired characters in novels by Ian Fleming and John le Carré: `Dikko’ Henderson in You Only Live Twice (1964); and `Old Craw’ in The Honourable Schoolboy (1977). He wrote several books, including The Chinese Communes (1960), Hong Kong: Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time (1968), and his autobiographical Foreign Devil (1972). On 4 January 1984 Richard Hughes died in Hong Kong. He was survived by his third wife and a son from his first marriage, Richard (Dick), who had become a renowned jazz pianist and author.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Macswan, The Man Who Read the East Wind (1982)
  • P. Burgess, Warco (1986)
  • D. Hughes, Don’t You Sing! (1994)
  • New YorkTimes, 5 Jan 1984, 'section II', p 14
  • R. Hughes papers and D. Warner papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Prudence Torney-Parlicki, 'Hughes, Richard Joseph (1906–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hughes-richard-joseph-12665/text22825, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 12 December 2018.

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

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