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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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Warner Gregory Russell (1938–2023)

by David Jones

Warner Russell was a larger-than-life figure to younger reporters in a newsroom where cigarette scorched cork floors were emblematic of a time in Sydney of an intense circulation war between afternoon newspaper rivals, The Sun and The Daily Mirror

Warner Russell was a commanding presence in The Sun’s police rounds room where copy boys competed for a cadetship, the first stepping stone in a reporting career. They hoped he would look favourably upon their efforts in monitoring and logging the activities of police, ambulance and fire brigade services via radio receivers mounted in a cubicle in a corner of the room. 

While they waited for their career break, Russell regaled them with tales and sage advice from his own exploits as a reporter. He would regularly write job applications to the editors of many of the world’s most famous newspaper mastheads. 

Not because he expected job offers but merely for the experience of receiving the inevitable rejection letters typed on letterheads carrying the names of those illustrious newspapers. Following mentor Russell’s example, I wrote to a number of august journals only to be shocked to receive among the rejection letters a job offer from The Press in Christchurch. 

There was an air of mystery about Warner Russell, who died on February 21, 2023 aged 85. In failing health and eyesight, he used his social media account to recall chapters of his career as a journalist covering landmark domestic and international news, and as a military intelligence officer with the Australian Army Reserve. 

Russell made clear that his view of the world certainly came from a perspective well to the right of centre, but they were attitudes based partly on his personal experience of reporting on totalitarian regimes in China, Eastern Europe and the Middle East at the height of the intrigue of the Cold War. 

However, his most memorable coup was in uncovering an alleged IRA plot to assassinate Prince Philip during a royal visit to Sydney in March 1973. It was only in recent years that Russell was able to tell the story because at the time a D Notice had been applied to suppress his story. 

“The alleged assassination attempt on March 15, 1973, was at the height of the IRA bombing campaign in retaliation for the Bloody Sunday massacre in Ireland [in January 1972],” Russell recalled. “Two explosives were found in the city, one at Central Station, only minutes before Prince Philip’s motorcade was due to drive to Kirribilli House. 

“In 1992, I received a letter from the governor-general advising me of a request from Her Majesty The Queen to meet with her and the Duke of Edinburgh. It was a memory I have always cherished. She was an extremely pleasant woman who shook my hand in gratitude. We spoke for several minutes and I was very thankful for her kindness.” 

Russell gave an interview to the Herald Sun in 2014 on the publication of his book Shadow of a Spy. He said he was monitoring police radios as the bombing drama unfolded. 

“The Special Branch and the royal protection team ordered the approaching vehicles and the police motorcycle escort by radio to take evasive action,” the paper reported. 

“The crudely made explosives were secured by an army bomb disposal team and later taken to a Commonwealth forensic laboratory for examination. But information obtained from components of the devices did not shed any light on the identities of the bombers.” 

Russell’s reporting career involved many of the biggest stories of the time including the kidnapping murder of Graeme Thorne, the Bogle-Chandler mystery, the establishment of US bases at Pine Gap and North West Cape, the disappearance of prime minister Harold Holt, and the activities of Soviet spy trawlers in Australian waters. Russell saw many of these events through the lens of espionage at home and in the wider world. 

There were numerous colourful episodes in his life including meeting Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi, with a background accompaniment of distant gunfire, while escorting RSL president Sir Colin Hines as Hines represented Australia in an inspection tour of Commonwealth war graves. 

Russell interviewed an elderly German woman who had been a personal assistant to Adolf Hitler, also revealing that she had been a regular visitor to Australia to see a sister. He was in East Berlin just weeks before the Berlin Wall came crashing down as the Soviet Bloc collapsed and Mikhail Gorbachev made clear he wouldn’t save the despised East German regime. When President George H. W. Bush visited Australia, Russell was in the presidential entourage. 

Warner Russell was born on January 7, 1938 at Ashgrove, to parents George Bruce Russell, a racing car driver and hill climb champion, and Mabelle Olive Cohen. His father, a regular driver at the then Maroubra Speedway, was left with permanent injuries after a near death racing crash. Warner Russell met his wife at work. Betty was a receptionist at the Fairfax building. He was devoted to her and missed her terribly when she died in 2014. 

Russell rose to captain serving in the Army Reserve from the 1960s to 1980, a journalist by day and an Intelligence Corps officer by night. Working in such a milieu probably helped explain his belief that espionage was at the heart of many episodes in his reporting life, including the Bogle-Chandler case, of which he wrote: 

“The deaths of Dr Gilbert Bogle and nurse Margaret Chandler remain one of the great unsolved murders of our times. Their bodies were found on the banks of the Lane Cove River at De Burghs Bridge, Chatswood, on New Year’s Day (1963). I attended the scene a few hours later and was taken to where their bodies were located. No cause of death could be established.” 

Sydney Sun contemporary and fellow Intelligence Corps Reservist, retired lieutenant colonel Christopher Holcroft, remembers Russell as a trusted journalist who came across some extraordinary stories. 

Russell was still breaking big stories in his later years at The Sun, including managing to almost get arrested at the joint Pine Gap facility in Central Australia. His lasting legacy will be as a mentor to the young journalists whom he set on a path to their own accomplished careers. 

Russell’s combination of journalism and military intelligence no doubt helped explain his “scoops” in the subterranean world of espionage. But, until his passing, his proudest possession was the ornately printed invitation from the Governor General to attend the thank-you audience with the Queen and Prince Philip. 

Russell was among a special breed of news breaking journalists happy to help the next generation following in his career footsteps. 

Warner Russell is survived by his children, Mark, Christopher and Lauren, and his beloved dog Belle.

Original publication

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Citation details

David Jones, 'Russell, Warner Gregory (1938–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/russell-warner-gregory-33262/text41505, accessed 23 July 2024.

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