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Robert Henry (Bob) Milliken (1946–2023)

by Hamish McDonald and Max Suich

from Sydney Morning Herald

As a young reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald Robert Milliken covered the Yom Kippur war in 1973, went to the front lines in the Golan Heights and the Suez Canal with the Israeli army, the civil war that devastated Beirut and the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Stephen Claypole, then the Herald’s foreign editor, sent him to the Yom Kippur War in 1973 aware he had limited experience of such things. “He soon showed his worth,” Claypole recalls. “Bob befriended a tank commander who used his comms to patch him through to Sydney via the international exchange. Israeli soldiers were not permitted to contact their families while at the front. In return for help getting his copy out Bob guaranteed somebody in Sydney would phone the commander’s family to say he was all right. At Bob’s request that’s precisely what I did from the SMH newsroom.”

Yet he turned away from the addictive glamour of war reporting and foreign postings to look at his own country, in more and more depth, never intruding himself into the foreground. Robert Milliken, who died on May 21 from cancer, was a journalist’s journalist.

He was born in Wingham on the NSW mid-north coast, grandson of two early settlers: publican Harry Cross whose father had opened the Wingham Hotel in 1885, and James Milliken from Northern Ireland, who started a dairy farm near the coast at Darawank and later a butter factory.

James Milliken’s youngest son David married Thelma Cross in 1939. The next year Thelma and her sister Jennie took over management of the hotel, and Dave gave up his bank job. They ran the pub until 1955 when, with the ending of six o’clock closing, they could not face the prospect of evenings spent tending to drinkers. They sold it and moved to a dairy and grazing farm near Gloucester.

Robert, born in September 1946, had spent his early years observing the drinkers and diners, the “permanents” and other lodgers at the Wingham Hotel. In Gloucester he rode a horse several miles to a one-teacher primary school each day, then went off to board at Scots College in Sydney for his secondary years. He got himself a job as a copy boy with the Daily Telegraph. After a year, he enrolled at the University of NSW, living at Baxter College, graduating with honours in political science.

In February 1969, he was one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s first all-graduate cadet intake. The years of living in dorms had helped make him an unusually self-reliant, mature young man. “He was, I think, a year or two older than me, but he seemed 30 years older,” said David Dale, in the same cadet batch. “He had a calmness and a wisdom that was the envy of the other cadets, panicking that we’d never pass our probation periods. We knew Bob would sail through.”

Another fellow cadet, Hamish McDonald, recalls Robert being the first to get a by-line, for a piece about 2000 Weeks, an early feature film in Australia’s cinematic revival. “He picked out a mawkish bit of dialogue for note – ‘This thing is bigger than both of us’ – which impressed us with its sophistication.”

He was soon in the Herald‘s London bureau from where he covered the many sides of Britain at the time including the pop culture, the miners’ strikes, and the new investigative journalism pioneered by Harold Evans.

On return to Australia he gravitated to the National Times, a weekly in the Fairfax stable which, often to the alarm of conservative management, specialised in hard-hitting investigations. In 1979 he won a Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University, near San Francisco, joining an elite group of promising journalists from around other world for intensive exposure of big issues.

“He was always great company and very perceptive and intelligent in his world view, rather broader than most of our colleagues,” recalled Simon Walker, a fellow from New Zealand.

In Australia, Robert worked on diverse stories out of the National Times office in Melbourne. He broke a land scandal which ended the career of Coalition treasurer Phillip Lynch.

He went to Broken Hill to see filming of the second Mad Max movie, and around the outback with Midnight Oil on their Diesel and Dust tour.

His colleagues universally remember him as a dedicated and almost obsessively truthful story teller. “Bob’s journalism was perceptive, graceful and substantial, but always entertaining, and always self-effacing,” said David Dale. “Other feature writers were flashier, but he just got on with the job of informing and explaining.”

Milton Cockburn, later an editor of the Herald, recalls covering the Franklin Dam controversy in 1982 and 1983 with Milliken. “Rob had to head inland to rough it in the (protest) camps on the river,” Cockburn said. “He was, as usual, methodical, careful and balanced in his account” A prized possession resulted from a profile of the artist Euan Macleod, who joined the protests. The painting of a green, rainy landscape had a ghostly figure looking at it. That was Robert.

In the mid-1980s Robert went back to Sydney and became Australia correspondent for The Independent of London, a role that allowed him more freedom for longer research. Later he moved to the same role with The Economist, a position he kept until recent years.

He was an ideal correspondent, says the magazine’s Asia editor, Dominic Ziegler, speaking for many colleagues: filing to length, style and deadline. “He did all the really important stuff, too, spotting the good stories and writing them in lucid, elegant prose.Though one suspects he heartily disapproved of the politics of the last government that he covered —Scott Morrison’s—what you got in both conversations and his prose was measured appraisal backed by fact or telling insight.  One thing that sticks out among colleagues about his reporting is how strongly he felt about Aboriginal issues. One illustrative piece comes from 2018, when he literally went back of Bourke to report it. It is typically reasonable, understated and sensitive.”

For the domestic audiences he wrote about many of the same topics in long-form pieces for the monthly journal Australian Society, and after it folded, for the website Inside Story.

He travelled the regions with photographer Lorrie Graham for their book On the Edge about the struggles of farmers. “His words in the book are wonderful, well researched accurate and empathetic, our access to the subjects in the book made possible by Bob’s good manners and grace,” she recalls. “A road trip was not deemed successful, by Bob, however without a boot full of jams, relishes and chutneys sourced at the Country Women’s Association.”

He covered the royal commission under Justice Jim McClelland into the British nuclear tests in Australia, resulting in his 1986 book No Conceivable Injury, a phrase from Robert Menzies’ public assurance the bombs could not possibly do any harm in Australia’s “vast spaces”. The nomadic Aborigines of the plutonium-strewn desert did not count. Then it was the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, called after the death of 16-year-old John Pat in a violent police arrest in Roebourne, WA.

As a child, he’d been driven past the settlements like Purfleet where the Manning’s surviving Aboriginals had been pushed. Now, for the rest of his life he investigated the causes and potential remedies for the atrociously high rate of Aboriginal incarceration. His deep reporting on it was the highlight of his work for Inside Story, says its editor, Peter Browne. “Robert became very interested in innovative Aboriginal-led ways of dealing with truancy and crime among young Aboriginal people,” Browne said. “His reports on ‘justice reinvestment’ projects in Bourke and Moree were among the best pieces we’ve published —sensitively researched and beautifully written.”

Way back in 1970, he’d been at the Herald office when Lillian Roxon reported on the first women’s march, throwing down a challenge to the Herald‘s sub-editors’ desk in her lead paragraph not to treat it with any sneers. The Herald ran her story unchanged, including that lead.

Robert met Lillian in London two years later and they had a long and funny talk. Her character and life as counter-cultural figure – she’d written her Rock Encyclopedia – stayed with him. In 2002, long after her early death from an asthma attack in 1973 aged 41, he wrote her biography, titled Lillian Roxon, Mother of Rock.  “His book was terrific and became an authoritative source for that era,” says Anne Summers, the writer and feminist who worked with Milliken at the National Times.

At his death he was working on a memoir of his early life in his parents’ country pub and the influence that had on him, which he planned to make a good read and perhaps a screenplay. He would start the day among the colourful clientele at the Tropicana coffee lounge in Kings Cross, then move to the State Library, which he called “my office.”

While he lived alone, he kept up a wide circle of friends, going back to Wingham days like the author Di Morrissey and others he’d met at university and work. Nancy Austin met him when she did public relations for the Melbourne Theatre Company in the 1970s, and they kept in touch after she returned to the United States. “The last time I saw him in London, I told him I should have married him (giving him no say in the matter!),” she said. “I was crazy about him, admired his professional abilities and believe we shared an ongoing curiosity about the world, politics and the arts.”

And although he cut a reserved figure, Robert felt passionately about big issues in Australia and beyond. He hated John Howard’s refugee policy and his undercutting of the republican movement. He loathed any racism and intolerance. He strongly supported the constitutional Voice for first nations.

“Robert was not only a distinguished journalist, he was uncompromising in his belief in fairness and justice,” said Greg Barns, the senior lawyer who has crusaded against offshore detention of refugees. “I first met him at a debate on refugee policy over 20 years ago and we became great friends. Robert was compassionate and principled. He inspired me.”

Robert is survived by sister, film producer Sue Milliken, and the extended Milliken family.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Robert Henry (Bob) Milliken

  • Inside Story, 24 May 2023, by Robert Milliken and Peter Browne

View the list of obituaries written by Robert Henry (Bob) Milliken

View the list of ADB articles written by Robert Henry (Bob) Milliken

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Hamish McDonald and Max Suich, 'Milliken, Robert Henry (Bob) (1946–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/milliken-robert-henry-bob-33575/text41974, accessed 15 June 2024.

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