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Peter Dunstan Hastings (1920–1990)

by Gavin Souter

This article was published:

Peter Hastings, c.1950s

Peter Hastings, c.1950s

Peter Dunstan Hastings (1920-1990), journalist and editor, was born on 1 October 1920 at Wahroonga, Sydney, only child of Roland Hastings, Melbourne-born secretary and later barrister, and his wife Olive Mabel, née Waters, born in Tasmania. From the age of 7 Peter grew up at Manly, the beach suburb to whose sultry ambience he partly attributed his fascination with Melanesian and Indonesian regions. Another formative influence was a geography honours course at Sydney Grammar School that concentrated on the economic and human geography of the Pacific basin, including the Netherlands East Indies. He matriculated in 1941, and attended the University of Sydney without graduating.

In May 1941 Hastings enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces and on 26 January 1942 transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. As an acting sergeant in intelligence, he served in Brisbane and Melbourne with the Central Bureau, a code-breaking signals unit, and with the Far Eastern Liaison Office, which disseminated propaganda in enemy-occupied territory. In the course of his work he heard for the first time such resounding Indonesian nationalist names as Sukarno and Hatta. On 3 July 1944 he was discharged from the AIF as medically unfit.

Hastings was, however, singularly fit for journalism, already surprisingly well read and a natural writer. After the war ended he joined Consolidated Press Ltd and in 1948 was posted to New York. His Scottish-born wife Jeanette (Jan) Duncan England, whom he had married on 7 March 1946 at Harbord Presbyterian Church, accompanied him. In his dispatches to the Daily Telegraph during the next six years, Hastings paid particular attention to the United Nations. His main contact there was Gordon Jockel, a member of Australia’s UN delegation.

Back in Sydney, Hastings held some uncongenial editorial posts on the Sunday Telegraph. But he also kept abreast of Australia’s changing relations with colonial neighbours such as the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, and the newly independent Indonesia. That interest was deepened by his visit to the latter during a lengthy tour of South-East Asia in 1961. After the colonial order of Malaya and Singapore, he wrote, Jakarta was like `a blow in the face’. But he was soon intrigued by Indonesia, especially by what he came to see as the new `clash of civilisations’ between Indonesian and Papuan ways of life in Irian Jaya (West Papua). From 1961 his attitude towards Indonesia changed from instinctive suspicion to pragmatic acceptance of Indonesia’s claim to West New Guinea as advocated in Australia’s diplomatic and academic communities. To an extent unrivalled by any of his journalistic peers, Hastings became a respected figure in both those communities.

As editor of Consolidated Press’s Bulletin (1962-64), and foreign affairs writer for News Ltd’s Australian (1966-70) and John Fairfax & Sons Ltd’s Sydney Morning Herald (1970-74, 1976-90), Hastings enjoyed convivial access to Asian government officials, and to friends at various Australian embassies and in Canberra. He played `the telephone like a virtuoso’, and charmed his Indonesian contacts with such exotic vernacular as `mate’ and `hooroo’. Although regarded by some as too tolerant of Indonesian aggrandisement, and sometimes rumoured to be an intelligence operative, Hastings was in fact always his own man. Banned from Indonesia for exposing its military preparation for the 1975 invasion of Portuguese Timor and again in 1984 for reporting the murder of the anthropologist Arnold Ap in Irian Jaya, on both occasions he was soon readmitted.

To the Joint Intelligence Organization Hastings was a valued but never contracted source of information and opinion. Nor was he immune from surveillance. His telephone was tapped and his Australian Security Intelligence Organization file, while containing `nothing to his detriment’, noted a talk by him on `Colonialism—White or Brown’, and his `slight speech impediment’. The latter, a residual consequence of a cleft palate and lip, had been largely overcome by juvenile surgery and an adult moustache which gave him the appearance of a lean, safari-suited kaiser.

Between 1964 and 1977 Hastings combined journalism with other activities: he was the executive officer of the Council on New Guinea Affairs, a `think tank’ which he and (Sir) John Kerr had helped to found, editor of the council’s influential journal, New Guinea and Australia, the Pacific and South-East Asia, and author of New Guinea: Problems & Prospects (1969). Joshing his way into the confidence of people like (Sir) Michael Somare, the first prime minister of Papua New Guinea, he devoted as many of his newspaper columns to that evolving state as he did to Indonesia.

From 1974 to 1976, during which time East Timor was invaded by Indonesia, Hastings was senior research fellow at the strategic and defence studies centre, Australian National University, in Canberra. Rejoining the Sydney Morning Herald, he was in 1979 appointed associate editor with responsibility for foreign affairs. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1980; he married Jolika Barbara Tie, née Bartsch, a Czechoslovakian-born public servant and divorcee, on 28 March 1981 at the registry of births, deaths and marriages, Sydney.

One of Hastings’s best-remembered articles, published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 13 February 1985 under the heading `Corruption as an Art Form’, left him harassed, though not subdued, for the rest of his life. It alleged the squandering of the equivalent of $US 9 billion of public money by the Filipino president, Ferdinand Marcos, and such `cronies’ as the coconut tycoon Eduardo Cojuangco. The latter tried, through legal process in Australia, to make the Fairfax company and Hastings reveal his sources and notes. Both refused. In court after court the case ran for five years, an inconclusive landmark in the history of Australian press freedom. Hastings died, after years of emphysema and ischaemic heart disease, on 7 August 1990 at his home at Manly shortly before the case was resolved. Survived by his wife and the two sons of his first marriage, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered in Manly’s part of the Pacific basin. Earlier that year Hastings had been appointed AO and Griffith University, Queensland, had published his Indonesian memoir, The Road to Lembang.

Select Bibliography

  • Inside Indonesia, no 24, Oct 1990, p 11
  • Asian Studies Review, vol 14, no 2, 1990, p 185
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Nov 1984, p 3, 9 Aug 1990, pp 2, 11
  • series B883, item NX85718, and series B884, item N109887 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Gavin Souter, 'Hastings, Peter Dunstan (1920–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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