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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Farrelly, Alan (c. 1940–2009)

by Alan Hirst

Three weeks ago, an assembly of journalists gathered at a Melbourne restaurant to pay witness to our collective failure. It was the 20th anniversary of the founding of The Sunday Herald, a newspaper that lived high, shone for a moment, but died. We were remembering, dare I say, a candle in the wind.

Its death was not the fault of those assembled, nor of the man who was missing, Alan Farrelly, whose job it had been to build a newspaper. We tried to put a call through to Farrelly; all involved wanted him to be party to the party. None of us understood that he could not make it to the phone or to any parties. He had resumed treatment for leukaemia.

Farrelly, who has died of a heart attack at Cooma Hospital, near his property at Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains, aged 69, had gathered us together a little more than 20 years ago to declare war on The Sunday Age.

He had to construct a newspaper from the floor up while short of both bricks and mortar. I had been summoned from the US, mainly because I knew a few souls in the Labor movement and had a knockabout relationship with Jeff Kennett.

If the venture was going to have a chance of working, it would need an editor not only of quality and skill, but someone who knew the town. Instead, we had Farrelly, from Sydney. The prospects were grim. He had been my editor on The Australian and, as even the tribute to him in that paper implied on Tuesday, he was a hard man. We would take on The Age with a motley crew, and an editor who had but a vague idea that problems existed between Carlton and Collingwood.

Football was not Farrelly's strong suit, but Steve Foley had been pinched from The Age as deputy — one player that might have a clue as to what was coming down. Another newspaper war was afoot. A few days before the first edition, airline pilots went on strike — and stayed out. It was a good time to launch a newspaper.

Farrelly, the son of Winfreda and Terrence, a coalminer, started his career at The Newcastle Herald in 1957, and discovered his humanity in Melbourne. He ditched the Sydney hard man approach and embraced his staff as friends and accomplices. He created a spirit, a sense of unity, a belief system and pride. He let people write and gave rein to the mostly young men and women who had been drawn into what became something of a cause. Soon, all who worked at the paper thought they were working for something of international stature.

Farrelly's newspaper grounding was solid. In 1972, he switched from his first newspaper to become news editor at the Newcastle Sun, and two years later moved to the Fairfax stable to become assistant editor of The Sun in Sydney.

An interlude in magazine publishing followed, in partnership with ''the human headline'', Derryn Hinch, before Farrelly returned to newspapers in 1978, this time as night editor on The Australian.

Promotions followed as editor of The Sunday Telegraph, editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph, and then he had two stints as editor of The Australian, in 1984-85 and again in 1987-88.

In between, in 1986, he edited Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, and in 1989 went on to become the founding editor of The Sunday Herald in Melbourne.

Farrelly assumed the pretence of an intellectual in Melbourne and was apparently reflective. The paper got better every week. Confidence is like that. The financial backing helped.

Farrelly never turned the paper to an anti-ALP rag. The state Labor government was set for a kicking, but he never drove the paper against premier John Cain. That happened after his time. The Sunday Herald was straight, not ideological, which helped with morale, as most of the staff were of the left. Kennett and his future treasurer, Alan Stockdale, were treated kindly but the paper never showed disrespect to the state government.

Farrelly came to discover that he actually liked Melbourne and the city almost came to like him. But it was a fairytale and the Sydney boy — he was actually from Newcastle — was never going to make it in the windy city. He couldn't comprehend the footy. Sometimes, it seemed, he thought he could cure Melbourne of its addiction. On Sundays, in 1990!

Ian Moore, a former colleague and editor, said of Farrelly: ''Alan was a ball of energy, jumping from one idea to another … he got the [content] mix right for Melbourne, but he didn't have a love for football.''

About 19 years ago I can recall Farrelly saying, "Mate, look at all these invites'', as he displayed invitations to social events across the city. "I'm getting on good here," he added with a touch of pride that wasn't based on head kicking.

As the other newspaper tribute noted, "he returned to Sydney with a newfound gentle nature that surprised those who had previously worked with him". Someone will no doubt write a book on the war between the Sunday newspapers in Melbourne and explore these things. They say it cost Rupert Murdoch $25 million. I think Farrelly earned something far greater than the dough.

He is survived by his wife Anna, sons Josiah, Bryn and Benjamin, and stepchildren Katie and Nicholas, and six grandchildren.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Alan Hirst, 'Farrelly, Alan (c. 1940–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/farrelly-alan-32396/text40159, accessed 8 August 2022.

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