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Farquharson, John Mayo (1929–2016)

by Tony Stephens

John Farquharson witnessed three of the most dramatic Australian news stories of the second half of the 20th century – the defection in Australia of Vladimir Petrov, the Russian spy, the collision of the destroyer HMAS Voyager and the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne, which killed 82 sailors, and the sacking of the Whitlam government by the governor-general.

Farquharson, then head of the Australian United Press' Canberra bureau, was the journalist who broke the Voyager story. Acting on a late night tip, he telephoned Tony Eggleton, then in Navy public relations, at home. Mary Eggleton said her husband was at work. The reporter found him, gleaning enough information to write a story. Hearing the news on ABC radio next morning, Prime Minister Robert Menzies was furious that Navy authorities had not alerted him.

John Mayo Farquharson was born in Wollongong on September 7, 1929, to John Farquharson and his wife, Agnes (nee Findlay), both of Scottish descent. John snr was a painting contractor and singer who loved the Salvation Army band. Agnes was a hardy woman. The couple already had a daughter, Jessie.

As a schoolboy, John Farquharson wanted a career at sea; later, he thought about being an historian. But journalism lured him and drew him to Canberra. "You feel history here," he said.

He attended Wollongong public school and The King's School, Parramatta. Poor eyesight stymied any seagoing career. Instead, he was captivated by the work of Philip Gibbs, a British World War I correspondent, whose books included The Street of Adventure, about Fleet Street, then the centre of British journalism. At King's, Farquharson listened to a talk by Neville Cardus​, the English writer on cricket and classical music, and was particularly influenced by the Australian author and war correspondent George Johnston.

Farquharson thought that King's had given him discipline, fitness and a sense of responsibility and duty. Johnston offered ideas about a career. He became a journalist on the Evening Post, Goulburn, riding a pushbike to the stockyards for the market report. He also covered local government and football.

He joined AUP in Sydney in 1951, covering state politics and industrial rounds, notably Laurie Short's successful campaign to win control of the Federated Ironworkers' Association from communists. He went to Canberra in 1953.

It was the height of the Cold War. Farquharson was in the House of Representatives when Menzies stunned members in April 1954 by announcing that Vladimir Petrov, an officer at the Soviet Embassy, had defected. His wife, Evdokia​, defected 16 days later when the flight taking her home stopped to refuel in Darwin and her bodyguards were disarmed. The entire embassy staff went home. The Labor Party split and Menzies' ascendancy was caused largely by allegations that Labor was soft on communism.

Farquharson was there, too, when Raymond Fitzpatrick and Frank Browne, respectively owner and editor of the Bankstown Observer, were brought before the bar of the House in 1955 and jailed over a report alleging corruption by Charles Morgan MP.

In 1961, Farquharson travelled with Paul Hasluck​, Minister for Territories, to look at two colonial administrations – in Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea, now Jayapura, Indonesia, and in what is now Papua New Guinea, which had been run by German, British and Australian administrations. Hasluck, later Australian governor-general and usually a retiring fellow, played bongo drums at a ball in Madang; Farquharson developed an enduring interest in the East Indies.

He went to Port Moresby in 1965 to edit the South Pacific Post. The United Nations was exerting pressure over colonialism and Farquharson, keen to see a new democracy at work, encouraged moves towards independence, even though unsold returns from newsagents were sold by weight as cigarette papers.

He had married Celia Coffey in 1963, with Allan Fraser, Labor MP for Eden-Monaro, proposing the wedding toast. They were the days when many journalists fraternised with politicians, drinking and playing tennis. Arthur Calwell, leader of the Labor opposition, gave Farquharson a lift to a meeting.

The reporter joined some public servants and politicians, including Kim Beazley snr, in Moral Re-armament (MRA). Celia's health suffered in the tropics and, in 1966, Farquharson joined The Canberra Times, where he became news editor, deputy editor and editorial manager. He also wrote on politics for The Sun-Herald. He left newspapers in 1988 to become a research officer with Wal Fife, a Liberal minister.

From 1992 he conducted interviews for the National Library of Australia's oral history program, including several with Dame Elisabeth Murdoch​, wrote entries for the Australian Dictionary of Biography and obituaries for The Canberra Times and the Herald.

John Farquharson is survived by Celia, sons James, John and Duncan and their families, and sister Jessie Holcombe. A fourth son, Andrew, predeceased him.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 July 2016

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Farquharson, John Mayo (1929–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/farquharson-john-mayo-25212/text33665, accessed 19 September 2017.

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