Remembering Gough Whitlam: the man who gave Double J life

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Gough Whitlam has passed away at the age of 98. We remember his legacy, particularly that of establishing a youth radio network.

The wide-reaching legacy of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam is being celebrated across the country today, in the wake of his passing away overnight.

One of the initiatives that Whitlam implemented in his short term was the beginning of Double Jay in 1975, a radio station that would appeal to Australia's youth. Almost 40 years later, triple j has grown enormously and is heard on radios all across the country. Whitlam's vision for the network to be a national concern is long complete.

Marius Webb was one of the co-ordinators of Double Jay's birth and has fond memories of the drive our then-Prime Minister showed.

"Gough was the person who spearheaded it all," Webb told Myf Warhurst this morning. "His reputation and his thinking and his personality was such that we were all just inspired by him. Media reform was a hugely important thing. Media in Australia was dull, there hadn't been any change for years. For young people it was ridiculous.

"Gough came in in the '70s and Australia suddenly joined the rest of the world, it was fantastic. Suddenly we woke up – Australia had been asleep for 25 years.

"Gough was the supremo, if you like. He was the one who was encouraging and who wanted to see these things happen. Australia had enormous talent but had been a little bit dull."

The reason we were interesting and successful as a radio station was that we reflected in some ways that attitude of Gough.

Marius Webb

Webb believes that Whitlam's positivity was what set him apart in the time he held office, a trait that Webb himself tried to replicate when Double Jay began.

"Gough set the standard for how a leader should be. A leader should be open and communicative and positive. One of his enormous things was that he was positive. We've had some much negativism for the last 20 years in Australia I just feel constantly depressed about it, it's constantly no, no, no.

"One of the reasons I was quite successful in terms of what I did in the media was because my attitude was generally 'yes'. If people came to me with a creative idea I'd generally say 'alright, let's try it, let's do it'. And we did."

Gough Whitlam's influence was all over the operation of Double Jay in those early years.

"The reason we were interesting and successful as a radio station was that we reflected in some ways that attitude of Gough. Which was to give things a go. We opened up both our professionalism and or abilities.

"He opened things up in a way that no conventional politician could have done. He was not a conventional politician and he wasn't, crucially, part of any faction and I suppose that's perhaps what Kevin Rudd might have thought himself to be. But it's a very difficult role to play. Gough had the intellectual ability to be able to manage it and that's where he was a giant in political terms."

"There was always this very great consciousness that it was a Whitlam experiment."

Host of ABC radio's PM program, Mark Colvin, became a part of the Double J team not long after it began in 1975.

"I started working at the ABC in 1974, funnily enough one of my earliest memories as a journalist is of sitting in the press gallery taking shorthand notes while Gough Whitlam answered questions in Question Time. He was very funny, very dominant and extraordinary to watch in Question Time. In a way it spoiled me for the rest of my life, I thought it was all going to be like that.

"When Double Jay started up in 1975 I was just finishing my cadetship at ABC news. I wasn't allowed to join Double Jay when it started, but after a few weeks somebody left and my cadetship had finally formally finished and they let me come over."

While no one was to know that Whitlam was to be dismissed as Prime Minister in such a hasty fashion, Colvin says there was always a sense that Double Jay might not survive for long.

"There was always this very great consciousness that it was a Whitlam experiment. That first year of Double Jay, that '75, was an absolute frenetic one. There was that sense that you had to do as much as you could in a short time because it might not last."

The political turmoil that led up to Whitlam's sacking was covered in depth by Double Jay at the time, but just as importantly, so were other issues that were impacting Australia's youth.

"Nobody really saw November 1975 coming and the dismissal, but one way or another it was an extraordinary year politically, it was a year of enormous turmoil.

He was very funny, very dominant and extraordinary to watch in Question Time.

Mark Colvin

"Double Jay reflected that sense of turmoil, plus it reflected that sense that was there in those years, that it was a kind of release for young people. Young people were able to have a voice and have a say after a very long time when I guess older people, mostly ex-wear servicemen and so forth, had been the dominant voice. Suddenly it was, what you would now call the baby boomers coming up and having their say."

The changing media landscape gave journalists such as Colvin an opportunity to shape the direction of a whole new kind of news service.

"It was absolutely incredible for a journalist who'd just finished his cadetship," he says. "It cemented my wish to be a journalist because it gave me and Jim Middleton and Nick Franklin and a couple of other people the chance to do whatever we wanted to do. To shape the news and documentary and current affairs output of that radio station. Even though there were so few of us, there was nothing in the way of resources but we worked incredibly hard."

Following Whitlam's shock dismissal in 1975, many were concered about the future of the newly underway youth station under new governance.

In an interview with Double Jay just after his dismissal, Whitlam discussed the newly implemented youth station and whether it would survive under Malcolm Fraser's government.

"Double Jay actually is a very economic investment, it's run on a shoestring," he said.

"All I can say is Senator Greenwood who is ideologically very close to Mr Fraser has questioned the propriety of all these new radio stations. 2JJ and [Melbourne ethnic station] 3ZZ could be closed just by taking their transmitters from them and making them standby transmitters once again. You could be closed down at the whim of an executive, the parliament wouldn't have any say in it at all.

"But as far as we're concerned your guaranteed existence is sure."

"He was like this knight in shining armour that suddenly appeared in Australian history."

Tim Freedman loved Gough Whitlam so much that he named his band The Whitlams, after him. While the news is sad, Freedman admires the way in which Gough held on for so many years.

"One feels like one's been preparing for this for years, but he just kept going and going and going," he says. "He gave us all time to read his two-part biography that came out the past few years and reflect on his life's work.

"When it happens it's still a shock, the phone lights up and you realise how much people loved him and how much he influenced people and how much he changed the country."

Freedman remembers his parents' joy at Whitlam winning office in the early '70s and has great respect for the way in which such a learned leader could be so down to earth.

He would allow me to escort Margaret to concerts when he became immobile. I'd take her to classical concerts and he'd joke that he'd have to get a young girlfriend if this kept up.

Tim Freedman

"He was like this knight in shining armour that suddenly appeared in Australian history," he says. "He had the learning and the bearing of someone who you would have thought came from the conservative side of politics, but he had all these progressive ideals and he was happy to live in a modest family home in Blacktown or Cronulla and be a good local member. 

"The way he dragged the Labor party from the rabble that it was in the early '60s into a position where it could actually govern the nation was an unbelievable achievement that could only be done by someone with such talent and energy."

The name The Whitlams just seemed to sum up what the band were going for musically and thematically and Gough and Margaret supported the band's decision to use the name.

"When they realised we were naming the band after him out of respect and not out of taking the mickey, they were very supportive.

Whitlam was not a rock music fan, but did see the band perform at a club show in Sydney a few years back.

"At first he would say he was more into Chopin and Gilbert & Sullivan, but we were the only rock band that he and Margaret ever saw," Freedman tells. "He saw us about eight years ago at The Factory in Marrickville."


It was the beginning of a warm friendship which Freedman clearly cherished.

"I would sometimes take him lunch in his office when he became a bit less mobile and he would allow me to escort Margaret to concerts when he became immobile," he says. "I'd take her to classical concerts and he'd joke that he'd have to get a young girlfriend if this kept up.

"They were very funny and down to earth. They were everything you could imagine from meeting your heroes. Time always went really quickly when you were with them, wonderful stories from the past, great anecdotes, great humour. Margaret really was probably the boss in private. That was always surprising to see."

"He had this constant, relentless intellectual life."

ABC political journalist and host of ABC TV's Kitchen Cabinet Annabel Crabb only briefly met Whitlam on a couple of occasions and is too young to recall his reign as Prime Minister, but has a great respect for the former Labor leader.

"An extraordinary man in anyone's estimation," she says of Gough Whitlam.

"Whitlam entered as the hope of the Labor side, and had brought them back from so many years of opposition. When he won that election in 1972, and it was one of those really rare change elections that we have in Australian politics where you can feel the ground moving, there's this real groundswell for change."

Whitlam was unwilling to wait to make some of these enormous changes and set to work almost immediately.

"He was so eager to make these incredibly sweeping changes to the Australian landscape that he couldn't even wait to swear in a proper cabinet," Crabb explains.  "He and Lance Barnard, who was his deputy, became a two man cabinet for a series of weeks where they abolished conscription and did all sorts of things that they couldn't wait to do."

It was Whitlam's fierce intelligence and curiosity that Crabb respected most.

"I think the thing I really like about him – and his government was obviously flawed and it ended in this massive mess – but the thing that I respect for him as a leader was that he had this constant, relentless intellectual life," she says.

"He drew from the classics, from his studies, from his reading, from the arts, from science, he had this irrepressible curiosity and quest for wisdom in his life. And I think having a life of the mind is such an important thing for great leadership."

Colvin fondly remembers Whitlam's advanced sense of humour and his joy of bamboozling people with his use of it.

"He was just this really strange, unusual figure in Australian politics because he was a classicist by training. I remember him calling Billy McMahon 'Tiberius with a telephone'. That was a really, really funny joke if you knew a bit of classical history, knew who Tiberius was and what a manipulator he was and so forth. But half of the press gallery didn't get it and I think he kind of knew that."

Read tributes from musicians, such as The Preatures' Isabella Manfredi, Urthboy and Bluejuice's Jake Stone over at triple j.