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Reid, Alan Douglas (1914–1987)

by Stephen Holt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Alan Douglas Joseph Reid (1914-1987), journalist, was born on 19 December 1914 at Toxteth Park, Liverpool, England, son of New Zealand-born Scotsman William Douglas Reid, steamship officer, and his wife Margaret, née Senar.  The family migrated to Sydney in 1927 and Alan attended the Christian Brothers’ schools St Francis of Assisi, Paddington, St Patrick’s College, Goulburn, and Waverley College, Sydney.  A period of unemployment during the Depression turned him into a disciple of the New South Wales Labor Party leader J. T. Lang.  Starting at the Sydney Sun as a copy boy, in 1937 Reid joined its Federal parliamentary reporting team in Canberra where, for a time, the pro-Lang politician J. A. Beasley was his main source of news.  On 5 October 1940 at St Brigid’s Catholic Church, Coogee, he married Joan Kathleen Drummond, a stenographer.

In 1941-45 Reid was one of the select band of pressmen who received confidential briefings on wartime developments from Prime Minister John Curtin.  He had a similarly close view of events under Curtin’s successor Ben Chifley; Reid was one of the journalists who kept in the 'good books' of the prime ministerial press secretary Don Rodgers by letting him win at poker.  A member of the ALP, Reid considered standing as a Labor parliamentary candidate but turned down an offer after consulting Chifley.  He preferred to work behind the scenes trading information with Labor insiders, notably P. J. Kennelly, who in 1946 had been elected the ALP’s federal secretary.

Reid’s attempt to write about politics for a daily newspaper while being a member of a political party put him in an awkward position.  Politicians from both camps detected conflicting loyalties.  Following Labor’s defeat in the 1949 Federal election its future leader Arthur Calwell complained that Reid was an 'unworthy and disloyal' party member, who had written articles that portrayed both himself and his colleague H. V. Evatt as if they were 'just ordinary Liberal Party-Country Party political gangsters'.  Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies accused Reid of exhibiting 'known pro-Labor sympathies' in 1954 when, in a story about the Soviet defectors Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov, Reid suggested that Menzies had orchestrated their defection to disadvantage Evatt, now Labor’s leader.

In September 1954 Reid wrote a newspaper article that highlighted the political influence of the anti-communist campaigner B. A. Santamaria, thereby helping to precipitate the Labor split.  Soon afterwards he moved to the Daily Telegraph, owned by the anti-Labor businessman (Sir) Frank Packer.  His relish in writing colourful stories about the ALP’s internal divisions under Evatt annoyed the Labor faithful and in 1957 his party membership was terminated.  He also wrote for the Bulletin, acquired by Packer in 1960.  Editorial policy favoured using damaging stories about union officials as 'good election material' and Reid complied by investigating nefarious labour practices on the waterfront.  Inspired by Machiavelli’s The Prince, he wrote a novel based on the struggle between Evatt and Santamaria; the printer, however, rejected it on the grounds that the book was libellous.  A court case was brought by the publisher in 1961 but it upheld the printer’s decision.

As befitted a Packer journalist Reid mended his fences with Menzies.  In the 1961 election campaign he advised the prime minister on how best to handle the problem of unemployment.  Menzies won the 1963 election partly on the issue of Calwell’s supposed subservience to Labor’s 'thirty-six faceless men'.  Reid had published photographs of Calwell and his deputy Gough Whitlam waiting in a Canberra street during a special party conference while delegates decided what defence policy he must follow.

Reid also provided thoughtful advice to Harold Holt after he succeeded Menzies.  In 1969 he published The Power Struggle, an account of how (Sir) John Gorton, an unlikely candidate, became prime minister in 1968.  It was an instant bestseller.  As internal discontent with the headstrong Gorton increased, Reid had many private chats on tactics and prospects with the prime minister’s critics within the Liberal Party of Australia, Edward St John and Peter Howson.  After Gorton was challenged as leader following the 1969 election, Packer made it clear that he did not want Reid to run any more 'vitriolic' articles against Gorton.  The proprietorial ban on perceived efforts to destabilise Gorton did not unduly prolong his prime ministership.  After Malcolm Fraser resigned as minister for defence on 8 March 1971 in protest against Gorton’s style, Reid alleged on TCN-9 television that Fraser would be 'a puppet' if he 'meekly accepted' Gorton’s attempt to 'assassinate' him.  The next prime minister (Sir) William McMahon was Packer’s preferred candidate.  In August Gorton denounced the account of his prime ministership published in Reid’s The Gorton Experiment (1971); he later observed that, while he was a bastard by birth, Reid had become one by his own efforts.

Unlike many of his younger journalistic colleagues, Reid did not welcome the advent of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972.  Following its dismissal three years later he tracked opinion polling in a bid to ply Whitlam’s internal foes with harmful ammunition.  His dissection of the Labor government’s woes in The Whitlam Venture (1976) attracted a defamation suit from the former prime minister.

Reid covered politics for Packer and then for his son Kerry until ill health forced him to retire in 1985.  Lean, gimlet-eyed and with nicotine-stained fingers, he haunted King’s Hall in the Old Parliament House, where he loved to scrutinise the passing political parade.  Although seen as cynical and hard-boiled, he was invariably encouraging and helpful to newcomers to the press gallery.  In many an unflattering article in Packer publications he dwelt on the power of Labor’s faceless men, even though he was at crucial moments something of a Svengali-like figure himself, influencing events as well as reporting them.  He was known as the 'Red Fox'.  Survived by his wife and their daughter and two sons, he died on 1 September 1987 at Bayview, Sydney, and was cremated following a Catholic service.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Fitzgerald and S. Holt, Alan ('The Red Fox') Reid, 2010
  • Quadrant, March 1969, p 29
  • Sun (Sydney), 13 September 1949, p 12
  • Sun (Sydney), 20 September 1949, p 12
  • Sun (Sydney), 21 September 1954, p 26
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 25 April 1954, p 53
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 22 March 1963, p 5
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 8 March 1971, p 13
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 May 1982, p 5
  • Canberra Times, 3 September 1987, pp 1, 11
  • Canberra Times, 18 November 2003, p 11
  • M. Pratt, interview with A. Reid (ts, 1972-73, National Library of Australia)
  • D. Connell, interview with A. Reid (ts, 1987, National Library of Australia)
  • papers of A. Calwell, H. Cox, A. Reid and R. Menzies (National Library of Australia)
  • D. Horne papers (State Library of New South Wales)

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stephen Holt, 'Reid, Alan Douglas (1914–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/reid-alan-douglas-14435/text25519, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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