Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rivett, Rohan Deakin (1917–1977)

by K. S. Inglis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Rohan Deakin Rivett (1917-1977), journalist, newspaper editor and author, was born on 16 January 1917 at South Yarra, Melbourne, elder son of Australian-born parents (Sir) Albert Cherbury David Rivett, university lecturer, and his wife Stella, née Deakin. Alfred Deakin and Albert Rivett were his grandfathers. Rohan pronounced his surname Rivett. At the age of 13, while a student at Wesley College, he visited England with his father and wrote a book-length narrative about the Australian cricketers' 1930 tour. Like other students at Wesley who became writers, he learned a lot from his English master A. A. Phillips. Entering the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1938), he lived at Queen's College, and studied history and political science; he graduated with first-class honours, as did his classmates Manning Clark and A. G. L. Shaw. Clark remembered him as 'an enthusiast'.

He and Clark both embarked on study at Balliol College, Oxford. Just before sailing, Rivett had acted in a Queen's College production of the American dramatist Clifford Odets's anti-capitalist and pro-Soviet play, Waiting for Lefty; his brother Ken recalled that he was 'very involved, emotionally as well as theatrically'. The radicalism of the master of Balliol, A. D. (Baron) Lindsay, attracted him. In October 1938, his first month at Oxford, he helped Lindsay campaign as the Independent, anti-Munich candidate at a by-election in which the Conservative majority was nearly halved. Rivett's interest in international affairs, aroused earlier in Melbourne by W. Macmahon Ball's lectures in political science, became intense, and remained so. When World War II began, he and Clark returned to Australia without completing their courses.

Unable to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force because recruiting had almost ceased, Rivett joined the Melbourne morning daily, the Argus, as a cadet reporter. On 2 January 1940 at St John's Church of England, Camberwell, he married Gwyneth Maude Terry, a student. He eventually enlisted in the A.I.F. on 7 June, but in August was released on loan to the Federal Department of Information to prepare news bulletins in Sydney for an overseas radio service run by Ball. In 1941 he broadcast news commentaries for this service from Melbourne. After Japan entered the war in December, he volunteered to work with the Malaya Broadcasting Corporation in Singapore. He was discharged from the A.I.F. that month.

On 9 February 1942 Rivett told the world that Japanese forces had landed on Singapore. Although the British surrendered the island on 15 February, he was not captured until 8 March, in Java, after harrowing journeys by sea and land. His experiences were described vividly in Behind Bamboo (Sydney, 1946) by 'Rohan D. Rivett, War Correspondent Prisoner of War on the Burma-Thailand Railway'. The book, 392 pages long, was written in October-November 1945 while its author was recovering from the rigours of captivity; reprinted eight times, it sold more than 100,000 copies. The years of imprisonment left him with an enduring respect for ordinary Australians and an enhanced awareness of Asia.

Rivett had returned to the Argus, but in January 1946 was recruited to the Melbourne evening Herald by Sir Keith Murdoch, chairman of the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd. He had also returned to a marriage which soon ended in divorce. His ex-wife Gwyneth was to marry the journalist and academic Hume Dow. At South Yarra on 17 October 1947 Rivett married with Methodist forms Nancy (Nan) Ethel Summers, an actress. They were to have a twin daughter and son, Rhyll and David, and another son Keith. David was named for his paternal grandfather, Keith for Murdoch.

At the Herald Rivett worked among other able and literate young men chosen personally by Murdoch. Having sent him to China in July 1947 to report on the civil war, Murdoch asked him to work in his London office from 1948. Rivett's dispatches impressed the proprietor, who invited him in 1951 to be editor-in-chief of Adelaide's evening daily, the News, almost the only paper in the group which Murdoch personally controlled. Murdoch had become vehemently anti-communist; he was satisfied that Rivett, though radical, had no sympathy with communism.

In late 1951 the Rivetts moved to Adelaide. Rohan was 34, and carried with him a sense of mission which marked him as both a Deakin and a Rivett. Murdoch died in October 1952, leaving the News to his 21-year-old son Rupert, then studying at Oxford. He and the Rivett family had been friends in England and became still closer in Adelaide. The young proprietor and the youngish editor shared a radical liberal view of the world and a Melburnian urge to liven up Adelaide. Rivett was allowed a freer hand than any other editor in Australia.

The News was an evening tabloid. It offered opinions on domestic and foreign matters (such as the gerrymander which ensured victory for the anti-Labor government of (Sir) Thomas Playford in election after election, the White Australia policy, and the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt) different from those of the broadsheet morning Advertiser, a Herald & Weekly Times publication which seemed to Rivett and Murdoch to be an instrument of an Adelaide Establishment. Kingsley Martin, editor of London's left-wing New Statesman and Nation, judged the News 'the one genuinely liberal daily in the continent'. In the estimate of David Bowman, one of Rivett's protégés who later edited the Canberra Times and the Sydney Morning Herald, Rivett and J. D. Pringle were 'the only men of real consequence and capacity for thought' who edited Australian newspapers in the 1950s. 'I thought the sun shone out of him', he said of Rivett.

Listeners to the Australian Broadcasting Commission's radio programme, 'Notes on the News', were familiar with Rivett's earnest and lucid voice. The commentator himself made news when the A.B.C. prevented him from saying on 1 November 1956 that Britain was 'regarded throughout most of the world as an aggressor' against Egypt.

In 1959 the News was largely responsible for forcing Playford to set up a royal commission into the conviction for murder of Rupert Max Stuart, an Aborigine. Stuart's counsel J. W. Shand walked out of the commission after complaining that its chairman, Chief Justice Sir Mellis Napier, was impeding his cross-examination of a former policeman. The News reported the event in headlines which provoked an astonishing prosecution of the paper and its editor, not only on the unusual offence of criminal libel, but on the practically forgotten one of seditious libel. Beginning on 7 March 1960, the trial lasted for ten days. Cross-examination revealed that Murdoch and Rivett had worked together composing the headlines in question. The jury found the accused not guilty on all but one charge, on which it could not agree. With Rivett on bail, the remaining charge hung in the air for almost three months before being withdrawn on 6 June. Many people believed that Playford dropped the last charge in return for an undertaking from Murdoch that the News would go easy on his government.

Two weeks earlier Murdoch had moved from Adelaide to Sydney, where he had bought the Daily Mirror. By 1960 the News's circulation and profit were both much higher than they had been before Rivett arrived. In that year, however, Murdoch dismissed him. Murdoch was certainly unhappy with some editorial decisions taken after he had left for Sydney. He said privately that he needed to be on the spot in order to give a steadying hand. 'Headstrong' was his word for Rivett. Even friends and admirers could describe Rivett as over-enthusiastic, or as courageous but unstable; he himself owned up to a 'fairly volcanic' nature, and said later that he had not expected the relationship with Murdoch to last forever. His replacement as editor was announced on 12 July 1960. Murdoch offered Rivett more generous terms than contractually required. He would later do the same to others in his long line of dismissed editors, but he appears to have remained singularly uncomfortable about the first.

Rivett never edited another paper and never overcame his sense of loss at having to leave the News. Between 1961 and 1963 he worked at Zurich, Switzerland, as director of the International Press Institute. The experience was not altogether happy, partly because he was not suited by temperament to serve many masters, but he drew satisfaction from steering help towards battling editors in Africa and Asia. He and his family returned to Melbourne. From that base, often travelling overseas with his wife, he worked as freelance journalist, broadcaster, public speaker and author, at every opportunity encouraging Australians to be aware of their Asian and Pacific neighbours. For the Canberra Times from 1964 he wrote on Victorian politics, international affairs and cricket; later he contributed to the radical weekly, Nation Review. He wrote several books, including a life of his father that shone with filial love and admiration, and a life of Herbert Brookes, Deakin's son-in-law. Rivett was 6 ft 1 in. (185 cm) tall, fair-haired, handsome and affable. He died suddenly of a coronary occlusion on 5 October 1977 at his Camberwell home and was cremated. His wife, and their daughter and two sons survived him; his estate was sworn for probate at $100,996.

Select Bibliography

  • K. S. Inglis, The Stuart Case (Melb, 1961)
  • Adelaide Review, Oct 1995
  • P. Gifford, Aspects of Australian Newspaper Journalism and the Cold War, 1945-1966 (Ph.D. thesis, Murdoch University, 1997)
  • H. de Berg, interview with R. D. Rivett (transcript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • Rohan Rivett papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

K. S. Inglis, 'Rivett, Rohan Deakin (1917–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rivett-rohan-deakin-11533/text20575, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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