Phillip Knightley, one of Australia's greatest journalists, has died, aged 87

Writer and journalist Phillip Knightley in 1986. Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images

One of the greats of 20th century journalism, Australian-born Phillip Knightley, has died. He was 87.

His name may not be known to younger generations raised on digital news compiled from celebrity tweets, but his influence on global affairs during his time as an investigative journalist at London’s Sunday Times was profound.

His most important work was a collaborative effort that was also social justice journalism, campaigning for greater compensation for children damaged by the drug thalidomide. The anti-morning sickness drug caused birth defects in 8000 children and the manufacturer was eventually forced to increase its compensation tenfold, but the efforts of Knightley and his colleagues cost the paper more than £2 million fees as it fought manufacturer Distillers Company.

His name is linked to some of the great scandals of the last 50 years, from British double agent Kim Philby to more recently, Julian Assange, which cost him dearly after Knightley posted £20,000 towards his bail and the Wikileaks head skipped it to hide out in the Ecuadorian embassy.

Born in Sydney’s south at Sans Souci in 1929 to a working class family, Knightley’s media career began as a copy boy in 1946 at Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, then owned by Sir Frank Packer.

He learnt the trade as a cadet at The Northern Star in northern NSW, briefly left the industry to work as an islands trader, got into trouble with authorities for writing a salacious gossip column for a Suva newspaper and returned to Australia in 1952.

He worked for several papers and covering Elizabeth II’s coronation tour before heading to London as a foreign correspondent in 1954. He moved permanently to the UK in the early ’60s and spent 20 years at the Sunday Times, making his mark as part of the Insight investigative team.

His own career highlight was revealing the (legal) tax avoidance schemes of Britain’s richest family, the Vesteys, over more than 60 years. The Sunday Times investigation revealed in 1980, that the complex arrangements of the beef barons, who had an extensive property portfolio in Australia (most notably Wave Hill Cattle Station, birthplace of the Aboriginal land rights movement), meant they paid £10 tax on a £2.3 million profit from the Dewhurst butchers chain. It led to changes in UK tax law, the decline of the family’s fortunes and the stripping of their status in English society.

He found a letter that brought down Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe in the mid-70s, while his hunches about some of the darker aspects of the Profumo poltical sex scandal involving Christine Keeler would ultimately prove true. He was also prescient in warning Rupert Murdoch not to publish the Hitler diaries without further investigation. His advice was ignored and Knightley left the Sunday Times two years after the hoax.

Ironically, Knightley didn’t believe journalism was a major force of change, a subject he mused on in several books, including his autobiography, A Hack’s Progress. It also contains some amusing anecdotes of his times with a young Rupert Murdoch.

His seminal book The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Mythmaker, published in 1975, post Vietnam War, unpicks the myths perpetrated by war correspondents. It’s considered a classic that was subsequently updated to include the Falklands and Gulf wars, including Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. He argues that as governments became better at media management, their manipulation, including “embedding” reporters, alongside media complicity in uncritical patriotism ended “the age of the war correspondent as hero”.

His patience for stories was remarkable. The Thalidomide case took three years. He spent 20 years corresponding with Kim Philby, the MI6 double agent who fled to Moscow in 1963, rocking an establishment that did not believe he was part of a ring known as the Cambridge Five, a group of British-born Russian moles. Knightley interviewed Philby just months before his death in 1988.

That scoop won him Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards for the second time, having previously received the accolade in 1980. He’s just the second journalist to win twice after fellow Australian John Pilger.

He wrote literary criticism after leaving The Sunday Times, and several books, including one, co-written with Colin Simpson, debunking the mythology around Lawrence of Arabia. He also lectured on war, journalism and espionage, having impeccable contacts in the senior ranks of British spying.

A keen tennis player, he continued to live in London, but returned to Australia annually, as well as spending time in his wife’s home town of Goa, India. In 2005, Knightley was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his work as a journalist and author. A staunch republication, he only accepted the award after concluding it was an Australian honour.

And with the keen eye of an expatriate still heavily invested in his birthplace, Knightley could write both passionately and excoriatingly on Australia and any perceived shortcomings with clarity and insight.

Phillip Knightley married Yvonne Fernandes in 1964. They had three children, Aliya, Kim and Marisa, and have four grandchildren.

The Australian has more on his remarkable career here.

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