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David Frederick Barnett (1931–2022)

from Guardian

Veteran federal political journalist David Barnett, who spearheaded the first official Canberra bureau of Australian Associated Press more than 50 years ago, has died aged 90.

Barnett became the national newswire’s first bureau chief in 1971 overseeing two journalists in what is now called Old Parliament House.

He was just in time to report on one of the most seismic shifts in Australian politics — the 1972 election of Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam.

Barnett died in Canberra’s Calvary hospital on Saturday after a short admission.

His journalism career began in 1949 as a copy boy on the Sydney Sun, before spending 13 years overseas starting in London’s Fleet Street.

He worked for multiple international wire services, including Reuters, before returning to AAP, where he first worked as a subeditor in 1966.

Barnett later served as press secretary to Malcolm Fraser for seven years from 1975, including during the political upheaval that lead to Whitlam’s dismissal and Fraser’s elevation from opposition leader to prime minister.

Former Liberal prime minister, John Howard, who was a member of the Fraser government, said Barnett, who wrote his 1997 biography, was an invaluable adviser to Fraser.

He had been a very effective press adviser in every way and his death had removed a highly significant figure from the ranks of the national media, he said.

“I counted him as a good friend.”

In a 2010 book published to mark AAP’s 75th anniversary, Barnett tells the story of being assigned in 1971 to cover the visit of an ALP mission to China, which included the then-opposition leader Whitlam, with other journalists from News Ltd and the ABC.

“We were taken to the Great Hall of the People, which had been arranged in a horseshoe,” he wrote in ‘On The Wire — The Story of Australian Associated Press’.

“Whitlam and [then-Chinese premier Chou En-Lai] were to sit at the apex, with chairs reserved for the ALP members.

“I took a shorthand note of every word between the two leaders over what seemed like a couple of hours.”

After it was over, Barnett set up in the all-night telegraph office in the Peking Hotel and began writing his story on his portable typewriter.

“My colleagues went to their room. Every time the lift clanked into operation, I would type ‘mtc’ — more to come — pull the page from my tiny portable Olivetti and hand it to the operators, thus effectively jamming the lines.

“The AAP story swamped the papers and also ran on the Reuter wires.”

Soon after, Barnett was approached by a Chinese minder and got a scoop on the first exchange of recognition negotiations between China and Labor.

“If the Chinese could use me to get a message across, then I could send a message on behalf of my country,” he wrote.

Barnett is survived by his wife, Pru Goward, a former New South Wales MP for Goulburn and minister for social housing in the Berejiklian government until her retirement in 2019, two daughters — Susan and Alice — and two grandsons.

He was also stepfather by marriage to Goward’s daughters from her previous marriage — Penny Fischer and Tziporah Malkah, previously known as Kate Fischer.

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Citation details

'Barnett, David Frederick (1931–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 June 2024.

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