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Russo, Peter Anthony (1908–1985)

by Kim Torney and Prue Torney

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

Peter Anthony Vasquez Russo (1908-1985), journalist, commentator and educator, was born on 26 June 1908 at Ballarat, Victoria, second of four children of Italian immigrants Giuseppe Russo, fruiterer, and his wife Concettina, née Vasquez.  Although baptised Nini Pierino, he was known as Peter Anthony Vasquez from an early age.  Educated in Ballarat at St Francis Xavier primary school (1915-19) and St Patrick’s College (1920-22, 1925), and later at Xavier College, Melbourne (1923-24), Peter displayed early the linguistic brilliance for which he became renowned.  He also became fascinated by Ballarat’s Chinese.  In 1926 he enrolled in dentistry at the University of Melbourne, but changed to arts in 1929 to pursue languages, studying French, Italian and Japanese.  He did not complete a degree, but in 1930 he won the university’s Mollison travelling scholarship in Japanese.

Russo spent the next decade in Japan, first as a student, then from 1934 as a lecturer in modern languages at the Tokyo College of Commerce.  He was a news addict, but his interest went beyond that of a consumer.  As war approached in the Pacific, Russo developed a compulsion to interpret the political situation to his compatriots.  Journalism was his vehicle.  He submitted articles to the Melbourne Herald from 1937 and broadcast-scripts to the Australian Broadcasting Commission from 1939.  When World War II broke out he seriously considered going to Europe as a war correspondent, but his preference was to return to Australia.

Early in 1941 Sir Keith Murdoch invited Russo to join the Herald as a special writer on Asian affairs.  Since 1935, when he served as personal adviser to a Japanese diplomat visiting Australia, Russo had developed ties with Japan’s political leaders.  Increasingly outspoken in Japan’s defence, he had also accepted an Italian decoration in 1940 for promoting cultural relations between Japan and Italy.  For these reasons he attracted the attention of intelligence officers from both the army and the Commonwealth Investigation Branch.  Murdoch’s offer not only gave him a legitimate excuse to return to Australia, but also the opportunity to pursue his long-standing interest in journalism.

Russo stamped his individuality on the job from the outset, refusing Murdoch’s offer to assign him a `rewrite man’ and making it clear that he detested editorial intervention.  Over the next four years his Herald column fulfilled a voracious demand for historical and cultural information about the Japanese enemy.  Almost inevitably, however, he fell out with his employer after Murdoch refused to publish his sympathetic analysis of the Indonesian independence leader Sukarno in December 1945.  The disagreement saw Russo join the rival Melbourne Argus as its `Far Eastern Editor’.  He spent 1946 and 1947 based in Hong Kong as the paper’s China correspondent before returning to write a regular column on international affairs entitled `Behind the News’.

Russo’s years at the Argus cemented his reputation as a commentator of formidable intellect and rhetorical skill.  He constantly challenged Cold War orthodoxies, especially conservative theories of communist expansion in Asia, stressing the importance of anti-colonial motivations in Asian politics.  After 1949, when the paper was taken over by the London Daily Mirror group and moved editorially to the left, some critics attributed the shift to Russo’s authority and independent views, especially his opposition to American foreign policy.

By the early 1950s Russo was at the peak of his influence as a journalist, yet he took every opportunity to distance himself from the profession.  The first public manifestation of his antipathy was a provocative A. N. Smith memorial lecture in journalism in 1948, which he titled `Honourable Information’.  His chief targets were former Australian war correspondents, particularly those who had covered the war in the Pacific:  the analysis of postwar international relations provided by these `talented amateurs’ was based on superficial knowledge acquired in theatres of war.  He argued that journalists in Asia needed to study comparative history and learn at least one foreign language.  Russo’s characteristically imperious approach might have masked his growing insecurity, for his skills were not as rare as they had been before the war.

Russo continued to take furtive swipes at his profession and repeatedly stressed his expertise in Asian affairs.  He projected an aura of intellectual superiority and distanced himself from office politics, although he was convivial with colleagues and some of his closest friends were journalists, including Clive Turnbull, John Hetherington, Geoffrey Hutton and Brian Fitzpatrick.

When the Argus closed in 1957, Russo sounded out Japanese contacts about returning to the Tokyo College of Commerce (now Hitotsubashi University); he also considered applying for an academic post in the United States of America, but his attempts were half-hearted.  The London Daily Mirror retained Russo’s services as its Asia correspondent and in 1960-61 he was a columnist on Rupert Murdoch’s Sydney-based Sunday Mirror.  He also maintained his long-term association with the ABC.  Russo’s `Notes on the News’ and `News Commentary’ broadcasts gradually replaced his newspaper columns as the main public forum for his controversial views.  His analysis of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, in which he accused both the Soviets and Americans of lying, precipitated a meeting in Canberra of the ABC Chairman (Sir) James Darling, Postmaster-General (Sir) Charles Davidson and (Sir) Robert Menzies.  Throughout this period Russo also attracted the attention of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, which monitored his phone conversations with, among others, the communist novelist Judah Waten.

The final and longest chapter in Russo’s career saw his return to the classroom.  From 1963 until his death in 1985 he taught a popular but idiosyncratic course for the Victorian Council of Adult Education.  Predictably entitled `Behind the News’, the course started as a conventional offering on international relations but was soon modified to suit Russo’s real obsession:  the deficiencies of foreign affairs journalism.  From the late 1960s, amid controversy about the media’s role in the Vietnam War, there was a burgeoning interest in communications issues such as opinion polling and propaganda that Russo tapped with great success.

Urbane and charming, yet also haughty, acerbic and cynical, with more than a touch of malice, Russo was a gadfly, a provocateur.  A private and enigmatic man who remained reticent about his personal life, he was married twice, first to the artist Juanita (Mitty) Lee-Brown on 27 November 1944 at a Sydney registry office; they divorced in 1949.  On 7 January 1951 in Melbourne he married the glamorous German actress (Anna) Vera Bergmann.  Neither marriage produced children, although he had a daughter from an earlier relationship.  Predeceased by his wife (1971), Peter Russo died on 6 November 1985 in East Melbourne and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Torney-Parlicki, Somewhere in Asia (2000) and Behind the News (2005).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Kim Torney and Prue Torney, 'Russo, Peter Anthony (1908–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/russo-peter-anthony-14870/text26059, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 November 2017.

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

View the front pages for Volume 18

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