Australian journalism lost a giant this month. Alex Mitchell pays tribute to Phillip Knightley, a true “old school” journo whose scoops included KGB master spy Kim Philby and thalidomide.
Phillip George Knightley was a newspaper reporter of the “old school” who learnt his craft in Sydney and practised it with formidable success in London’s Fleet Street.
He checked facts not once but twice before committing them to print, he kept copious files of letters, documents, cuttings and photographs, he pursued contacts relentlessly, corresponding with Soviet double agent Kim Philby for 23 years before interviewing him in Moscow, and he drank soda water or coffee while trawling bars and cafes, methodically listening to conversations that might yield a story worth further investigation.
In his final days at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, west London, just down the road from the Frontline Club for war reporters and photographers which he helped to found, medical staff awarded him the accolade of “our most popular patient”.
All times of the day and night a procession of people came to visit — editors, journalists, columnists, cartoonists, photographers, lawyers, politicians, diplomats and spooks.
They came to pay tribute to “one of the most accomplished reporters of his generation whose craftsmanship underpinned some of the 20th century’s most memorable scoops and campaigns”, as Ian Jack, a fellow journalist, Granta publisher and Guardian columnist observed. (Guardian, 8 December 2016).
His record speaks for itself. He was twice named Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards (1980 and 1988) and Reporter of the Year by Granada Television (1980).
His authoritative book on journalists as wartime propagandists, The First Casualty, was awarded by the Overseas Press Club of America while his 1986 book on the history of espionage, The Second Oldest Profession, sits on the curriculum at all international spy schools.
He was a member of the Sunday Times Insight team. It unravelled the duplicitous career of Kim Philby and exposed the Whitehall network, which covered up the Cambridge spy ring of Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt. Knightley then pursued the Philby story producing a biography entitled Philby: KGB Master Spy.
As Sir Harold Evans, the great former Sunday Times editor, remarked: “Phil became so fascinated by the psychology of betrayal, he devoted 30 years of his writing life to the study of espionage and patriotism and the reporting of war.”
His other passion — which he shared with Australian expat journalist Murray Sayle — was the pursuit of public service journalism. His most celebrated work was the exposure of thalidomide, the horrific baby-deforming drug that was marketed to pregnant women all over the world as a “cure” for morning sickness.
Knightley’s relentless pursuit of “big pharma”, the medical profession, investors and money-grubbing advertising agencies reached its moment of triumph when Harold Evans defied a Supreme Court injunction and published the Insight team’s dossier on the killer drug. How many of today’s editors would place themselves in contempt of court to defend journalism and the public’s right to know?
His book exposing the Vestey meat and cattle empire, with its substantial interests in Australia, is a model of journalistic investigation. The titled family with vast hunting estates in England and Scotland paid no tax in Britain for 40 years. Did they ever pay any tax here?
Knightley was born in Sydney on Jan. 23, 1929, and went to school at Sans Souci Public School and Canterbury Boys’ High School. He dedicated his autobiography, A Hack’s Progress (1997), with the inscription: “To the late A.F. Osborne, my master in English and History at Canterbury Boys’ High School, Sydney, who taught me to distinguish what is important in life.”
After high school he took a copy boy’s job on Sir Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph, followed by jobs on The Northern Star in Lismore and then Fiji.
Back in Sydney, he joined Ezra Norton’s Daily Mirror before heading overseas to Fleet Street to join his friend, Murray Sayle. They brought with them a spirit of inquisitiveness, persistence, irreverence and intrepidity, universal characteristics of the sacred role of independent journalism.
Official recognition came late but it was generous and heartily welcomed. In 2005, Knightley was made a member of the Order of Australia (AM) and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney, after which his friends started to call him “Dr Phil”.
Knightley died in London on Dec. 7, 2016, aged 87, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
He is survived by his partner, Yvonne, née Fernandes, their three children, Aliya, Kim and Marisa, and four grandchildren.
Alex Mitchell, a former state political editor on The Sun-Herald, worked with Phillip Knightley, Murray Sayle, Bruce Page, Tony Clifton and Nelson Mews (“the Aussie Mafia”) on the London Sunday Times Insight team in the 1960s. Mitchell’s autobiography Come the Revolution: A Memoir, was published by NewSouth Books in 2011.
Photo: Sunday Times Insight team (left to right): Alex Mitchell, Wendy Hughes (researcher), Nelson Mews and Phillip Knightley.