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Brooks, Walter Stevenson (Wal) (1925–2003)

by John Farquharson

It is generally agreed that with Wal Brooks at its head, the Australian Information Service - Australia’s international public affairs agency – had its greatest days. Under his stewardship, in the words of one of the agency’s former officers, ‘Australia was never more able to fight above its weight in public diplomacy’.

This bears out the consensus among former AIS officers that after Brooks it was ‘nearly all downhill’, due mainly to interference orchestrated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which wanted to see the agency shut down. In bringing AIS to that pitch of professionalism, Brooks had built upon the foundations laid by his predecessors, particularly Ian Hamilton, as well as drawing upon his experience in daily newspaper journalism.

His other achievement as a public service journalist was to win and retain the trust and confidence of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery. This was no mean feat. But Brooks, who has died of cancer in Canberra, aged 77, had a head start. He had spent nearly 12 years in the gallery for the Sydney Sun and Melbourne Herald, before being approached by a then comparatively young Commonwealth departmental head to run the public relations side of the very complex Department of Interior.

That departmental head, Richard (later Sir Richard) Kingsland, has never regretted his decision. He says that appointing Wal Brooks was ‘one of the best things I have ever done’. Rating Brooks an ‘outstanding journalist within the Public Service’, Sir Richard added that Brooks’ great strength was not only in educating him about the media, but also ‘the trust and confidence he commanded among his former Press Gallery colleagues’.

His former gallery and AIS colleague, John Malone, who said at Brooks’ funeral service ‘what made him a fine journalist was his great capacity for work and attention to accuracy’, echoed this. He brought those attributes, plus his instinctive gut feeling about people, to bear later when Dick Kingsland in 1972 moved him, within the Interior Department, to ‘ginger up’ what was then the Australian News and Information Bureau.

In those days ANIB was very much a closed shop, hostile to outsiders. But Brooks managed to breach the barricades and exert an influence. This was most evident in recruitment. Handling most of the interviews and selection process for new staff himself, he broke new ground by employing men and women without previous print or even journalism experience. Three years later, upon the retirement of Ian Hamilton in 1975, Brooks took over as director of the bureau, which had been renamed the Australian Information Service.

His recruitment techniques may have been crude, but they worked and never more so than during his term as director. The proof of that was in the outstanding overseas information careers of most of those he selected and the success of others who moved on to the private sector. The professionalism he displayed as a journalist was ever evident at AIS, where he supervised all the elements – print, radio and television. With his special affection for the printed word, he devoted great attention to AIS publications, encouraging writers, editors and artists. That same attention to detail surfaced again in later years when he worked on the editorial committee supervising a publication to mark the 75th anniversary of Royal Canberra Golf Club.

At work and leisure, he was a team player. This probably stemmed from his war service and his earlier years when he played cricket for the Sydney suburb of Mosman, as well gaining a reputation as a baseball pitcher. Later he became an outstanding golfer at the Royal Canberra. 

Born in the Sydney suburb of Mosman on May 11, 1925, he finished his schooling at North Sydney Boys High, and then embarked almost immediately upon a newspaper career. He joined the afternoon Sydney Sun as a copy boy with the aim of becoming a journalist. One of his earliest jobs was to get the latest prices for fruit and vegetables at the Sydney markets. More responsibility was coming his way when, on reaching enlistment age World War II and the RAAF beckoned. He volunteered for aircrew in 1943 and, after training as a navigator, was commissioned as a Flying Officer and saw active service throughout New Guinea, flying mainly Beaufort bombers with No 6 squadron and later with No 15 squadron.

After discharge in 1946, he returned to the Sun and was graded as a journalist. In the early 1950s, he was transferred to the Sun’s Canberra bureau then headed by Alan Reid. He remained with the Sun until it was taken over by the Sydney Morning Herald in 1955, when the Melbourne Herald recruited him. The journalistic skills he had honed in Canberra also interested News Limited, which headhunted him in the 1960s. The offer was to head up the Canberra bureau of the Daily Mirror. He was tempted but declined, not wishing to return to the fierce competition of Sydney afternoon journalism.

However, he did not hesitate when approached to take on public relations at the Department of Interior where he quickly established himself. At that time too, he became something of a personality presenting sports commentary and results on ABC radio and TV. His last appointment with AIS was a two-year stint at the Australian High Commission in London from 1985 to 1987, before retiring in 1988.

As his friend and deputy at AIS, John Malone was well aware that Brooks had his faults and flaws. These, however, seem to have been subsumed by his innate professionalism, and sense of fairness. Always aware of life’s ironies, he was in Malone’s words ‘dismissive of pomp and pretence, sceptical in outlook, laconic in humour and intensely loyal to those he loved and trusted’.      

His second wife, Barbara, two daughters and two sons, and two stepchildren and all their families survive him.

Walter Stevenson Brooks, born May 11, 1925; died March 21, 2003.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 11 April 2003
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 April 2003
  • Canberra Times, 16 May 2003

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Brooks, Walter Stevenson (Wal) (1925–2003)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/brooks-walter-stevenson-wal-156/text157, accessed 13 December 2017.

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