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Sweeney, Basil (1925–2009)

by Malcolm Brown

When the Bogle-Chandler mystery rocked Sydney on New Year's Day, 1963, Basil Sweeney reported it for the Herald. When the detective Phil Arantz broke ranks in 1971 and provided accurate crime statistics to the Herald – totally contradicting official figures released by the police commissioner Norman Allen – he went to Sweeney.

Sweeney, with his gravelly voice and laid-back manner, was a doyen of old-style crime reporting. He knew detectives, knew criminals, knew their secrets. He was tough and worldly-wise, and editors turned to him to find out what was going on in Sydney's underbelly.

To his dying day he believed Gilbert Bogle and Margaret Chandler died of Teflon poisoning. According to Sweeney's theory, Bogle had been working on what was then a new product, Teflon. Teflon at normal or cooking temperatures was safe but heated to extremes could give off poisonous phosgene gas, which is tasteless, odourless and invisible.

Sweeney believed someone put Teflon into the external manifold of Bogle's Ford Prefect engine, that it heated to nearly 2000 degrees, and that phosgene fatally poisoned the couple as they drove for a late-night encounter at Lane Cove River.

The reporter worked for years on his theory – which, if established, amounted to an allegation of murder. He accumulated a solid body of evidence, including the fact that pulmonary oedema, a characteristic of phosgene poisoning, was present in both Bogle and Chandler. But it remained just one of several theories swirling around the case.

The Arantz story contributed to the declining faith in Norman Allen and damaged confidence in the NSW premier, Robert Askin.

Basil Sweeney, who died on Friday at 84, was born in Newcastle to James Sweeney, an outstanding detective who became metropolitan chief superintendent, and his wife, Ann McBride, a schoolteacher. Basil took his intermediate certificate at Christian Brothers College, Waverley and, at 16, drove a horse and buggy round the city delivering ice. In 1942 he joined the air force as an airframe fitter and electrician but was honourably discharged in 1944, suffering severe tinnitus after an explosion. He wondered whether to enter the priesthood or journalism. Cardinal Gilroy, archbishop of Sydney, interviewed him and decided that Sweeney could do God's work as a journalist.

Joining the Daily Mirror, he was quickly promoted. Because of his father's connections he rapidly gained entry to some police inner circles and, at 24, headed the Mirror's police rounds coverage. He came to know legendary crooks such as Joe Taylor and Perc Galea. In 1952 he was on the spot for the Berala train crash, which killed 10 people and injured 81. That edition of the Mirror broke all circulation records.

From 1955 Sweeney worked for the Mirror in London and New York, until joining the Herald in 1957.

When police invited Sweeney to join a manhunt for notorious escapees Kevin Simmonds and Leslie Newcombe in 1959, Detective Sergeant Ray Kelly gave him a pistol for his own protection. The reporter saw Kelly arrest Simmonds.

Basil Sweeney married Margaret Huxley in 1967, between covering the antics of master escaper Darcy Dugan, the Graeme Thorne kidnapping and the Wanda Beach murders.

In a memo in 1969, the editor's executive assistant, Alan Dobbyn, said the Herald was ''heavily dependent on Mr Sweeney's contacts at the highest levels of the police force''. Police friends would tell how Norman Allen would telephone drinking holes frequented by police and journalists, seeking Sweeney's latest news on a developing story. Sweeney, often drinking with Allen's subordinates, would be embarrassed when the barman called out: ''Baz, the commish is on the phone.'' He eventually asked Allen not to do it.

The reporter had a direct line to the premier, Robert Askin. Such a cozy arrangement was not to last. In 1971, Sweeney broke the Arantz crime statistics story, which produced a political crisis and revealed the degree of duplicity of which politicians and senior police were capable. The Arantz case, written with Gavin Souter, is the story most closely associated with his name. When Fred Hanson succeeded Allen as commissioner, he rang Sweeney at home and asked if he was going to treat him as he had treated Allen. Margaret Sweeney said: ''Basil's reply was if he was legit, he had nothing to worry about.''

Towards the end, Sweeney had become disillusioned by the police, believing that corruption was rife. His police contacts had dried up because of his criticism and he believed that Fairfax had not properly supported Arantz.

In 1973, he resigned from the Herald. In 1986 he worked for the ABC as corporate media relations manager, beside the then managing director David Hill, but left in 1988 after the two fell out.

Basil Sweeney is survived by Margaret; a brother, Noel Sweeney; a son, Matthew; a daughter, Danielle Poulos, and Danielle's daughters Adelaide and Amelia. His funeral service will be at Our Lady Star of the Sea, Watsons Bay, on Friday.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August 2009

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Sweeney, Basil (1925–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/sweeney-basil-16953/text28836, accessed 26 April 2019.

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