The Dunleavy scoops
By Philip Harrison
I was working in Hong Kong on the South China Morning Post when Steve Dunleavy arrived in 1959. He was seeking new pastures after having worked on and been fired from three of the four Sydney dailies. Not, I hasten to add, for any perceived shortcomings in his journalistic skills, but for various escapades often involving alcohol and urination.
He had heard that the Post was looking for journalists, so he quit his last job at the national broadcaster, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) to try his luck. I had known Steve in Sydney and introduced him to the Post executives. He was hired and pretty soon had started to make his mark on the then colony.
Steve was put on the airport round at Kai Tak and came up with many exclusive stories from interviews with arriving and departing passengers. Reporters from the English-language rival Tiger Standard and the many Chinese-language dailies were in despair as they tried to follow-up the exclusive stories after bollockings from their news editors.
Funnily enough, the subjects of Steve’s stories were usually impossible to track down. The interviews typically referred to departing passengers whose aircraft left soon after Steve filed his story for the afternoon China Mail, the Post’s sister paper.
They included an American businessman who was going to spend millions opening a chain of espresso coffee shops throughout Hong Kong and Kowloon. However, efforts by various rival journalists to follow up the story were fruitless.
Another Dunleavy exclusive was an interview with a visiting American geological scientist whose research had proved that Hong Kong was sitting on a huge artesian basin containing so much water that, if bought to the surface, could supply Hong Kong for at least 100 years.
This was big news. Prolonged drought – and the refusal of China to make life easier for Hong Kong’s British rulers by building a water pipeline from the mainland – meant that for much of the year water restrictions were in force. Residents had two hours of water in the morning and two in the afternoon.
Again, though, the geologist was impossible to locate. According to Steve, this was because he had interviewed the man at the airport transit lounge and he had left for Europe.
But the most bizarre scoop of all was a story Steve filed just in time for the China Mail’s last edition for the day. It was 1960, only two years after Charles de Gaulle had been recalled to power and was struggling to try to find a way to end France’s Algerian war. Steve had discovered that a passenger on a flight which was in transit in Hong Kong had the same name as the French president.
It was a great interview. Mr de Gaulle, terrified of assassination attempts, told how he had to check-in at hotels under a false name and be constantly wary. Many assassination attempts had been made over the years. Now he was returning to France after a secret trip to China.
Unfortunately, his plane had left by the time the Post airport reporter saw Steve’s story in the Mail, but half an hour later, there was great excitement when the airport announced that the plane had turned back to Hong Kong because of engine trouble.
Reporters from rival papers swarmed around the arrivals bay. Amazingly, though, the aircraft’s passenger list showed no one named De Gaulle on board. Another uncheckable Dunleavy scoop. Steve did explain later that he had not mentioned that Mr. De Gaulle had persuaded the French authorities to issue him with a passport under an assumed name.
As one editor of a Melbourne daily once wrote on a rather bizarre story from a staff reporter: ‘Good story. Could be true.’