Veteran federal political reporter David Barnett, who headed the Australian Associated Press’s first official Canberra bureau more than 50 years ago, has died aged 90.
Barnett became the national news channel’s first bureau chief in 1971 supervising two reporters at what is now Old Parliament House.
It 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 at Calvary Hospital in Canberra on Saturday after a short stay.
His journalism career began in 1949 as a copy boy at the Sydney Sun, before spending 13 years overseas starting on London’s Fleet Street.
He worked for several international wire services, including Reuters, before returning to AAP, where he first worked as a sub-editor in 1966.
Barnett later served as Malcolm Fraser’s press secretary for seven years from 1975, including during the political upheaval that led 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 Fraser’s 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 very 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 the 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 then-leader opposition 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] they were to sit at the top, with chairs reserved for ALP members.
“I took a shorthand note of every word between the two leaders for what seemed like a couple of hours.”
After finishing, Barnett settled into the telegraph office of the Peking Hotel and began writing his story on his portable typewriter.
“My colleagues went to his room. Every time the lift went into operation, I would type “mtc” (more to come), pull the page out of my little Olivetti laptop and hand it to the operators, effectively blocking the lines.
“The AAP story flooded the papers and also ran through the Reuter wires.”
Soon after, Barnett was approached by a Chinese caretaker and got the scoop on the first exchange of recognition negotiations between China and Labour.
“If the Chinese could use me to deliver a message, I could send a message on behalf of my country,” he wrote.
Barnett is survived by his wife, Pru Goward, former NSW MP for Goulburn and social housing minister in the Berejiklian government until her retirement in 2019, two daughters, Susan and Alice, and two grandchildren .
He was also stepfather by marriage to Goward’s daughters from his previous marriage: Penny Fischer and Tziporah Malkah, formerly known as Kate Fischer.