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Copyright Ian D. Richardson. Email:

First published in the BBC's Prospero newspaper for retired staff, August 2008:

OBITUARY: "Mahogany Voice"


                     Red Harrison, journalist

A. L. "Red" Harrison, the BBC correspondent in Sydney for more than 20 years, never set out to be a broadcaster, but it was what gave him international recognition. And if it hadn't been for a traumatic event in WW2, his distinctive lived-in mahogany voice may well have had more than a touch of Geordie.

Born Arthur Leslie Harrison in South Shields in 1932, his father was a merchant seaman assumed lost when his ship was sunk by a Japanese torpedo. Red and his brother, Walter, were sent as boarders to the Royal Merchant Navy School (now Bearwood College) in Berkshire, established for the sons of those who perished at sea. It was there that the masters drove out all trace of his regional accent.

American servicemen stationed nearby taught the boys to play baseball and gave young Arthur Harrison the nickname Red because of his flame-coloured hair. He hated the name Arthur and was delighted to be known as Red for the rest of his life.

After the war ended, just as his mother was about to re-marry, the family was stunned to discover Red's father was alive and in Changi prisoner-of-war camp. His parents resumed their married life and the family emigrated to Australia as "Ten Pound Poms".

Red, then in his mid-teens, lied about his age so he could join his father working on an oil rig in Papua-New Guinea. His mother told the company and he was ordered back home.

Red later won an ABC News cadetship, but after a few years become a jackaroo in outback Queensland, before working for several provincial and Sydney suburban newspapers. He also became a reservist in Australia's One Commando Unit and did more than 100 parachute jumps. While in Sydney, Red caught the eye of Rupert Murdoch, who appointed him editor of the Perth Sunday Times, then the Sydney Sunday Telegraph.

Red is one of the few Murdoch editors to have left of his own free will, rather than be fired, and while working as a freelance features writer and indulging his passions for sailing and flying, he became the BBC's contract radio stringer. Later, he combined this for five years with being presenter of ABC Radio's flagship current affairs program AM.

Red, who died aged 75 in hospital near Sydney, is survived by four children and his second wife, the former Pamela Macarthur-Onslow, a horticulture writer and direct descendant of John Macarthur, founder of the Australian wool industry.

-- Ian Richardson

RED HARRISON -- Newspaper editor and radio star

A. L. "Red" Harrison, the broadcaster and newspaperman who died in Sydney on June 20, 2008, aged 75, was a journalist with a total dedication to factual accuracy and elegant, unambiguous English.

Born Arthur Leslie Harrison in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, on August 18, 1932, to a merchant seaman, William "Bill" Harrison, and his wife, Alexandra, he detested the name Arthur. When he was given the nickname of "Red" due to his flame-coloured hair, he gratefully adopted it as his personal and professional first name. Few people knew he was Arthur, and those who did, were sworn to secrecy.

During WW2, Red Harrison became a boarder at the Royal Merchant Navy School (now Bearwood College) in Berkshire, set up for the sons of those who had perished at sea. His father was assumed to have been lost when his ship was torpedoed by the Japanese. But after VJ Day, it emerged that Bill Harrison had been held all along by the Japanese in Changi prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore. The family's joy at his survival was muted by the embarrassing fact that Alexandra Harrison was, by then, engaged to be married to another man.

Despite this family trauma, Bill and Alexandra resumed their marriage and a few years after the war, emigrated to Australia with sons, Red and Walter, as "Ten Pound Poms". By this time, Red Harrison's strong Geordie accent had been driven out of him by the masters at the navy school and it had been replaced by the rich mahogany tones that helped make him such a distinctive broadcaster for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC.

Soon after he arrived in Australia aged 16, he went with his father to work on oil exploration rigs in Papua-New Guinea. To do this, he had to lie about his age, but when his mother found out, she demanded his return to Australia.

Red Harrison started in journalism as a cadet reporter with the ABC, but left after a few years to work as a jackaroo on a cattle station in outback Queensland. He then took jobs with a series of small newspapers before joining the Daily Telegraph in Sydney. He was a contemporary and colleague of Rupert Murdoch and through this, spent two years as editor of the Western Australian Sunday Times, and a further period as editor of the Sunday Telegraph in Sydney. He is reputed to be a member of that small and exclusive band of News International editors who were not fired by Rupert Murdoch, but left of their own accord.

Red Harrison's prominence in broadcasting began when he was commissioned by the ABC to broadcast commentaries on contemporary news events. His "lived in" voice and his conversational microphone style made him a "must listen", and it was during this period he was contracted to the BBC as their radio correspondent in Sydney. He later combined this during the 1980s with presenting "AM", the ABC's version of the BBC's Today Programme.

In 1987, he was sent by the BBC to cover a coup to oust the Indian-dominated government in Fiji. He awoke one morning in his hotel room in Suva to find his bed surrounded by armed soldiers who roughed him up, wanting to seize his broadcasting equipment. But he convinced them that his insignificant-looking Mutterbox transmitting device was of no consequence and they left it with him. Thus, he was able to continue broadcasting to the outside world in good quality.

During Red Harrison's coverage of the Queen's Golden Jubilee tour of Australia in 2002, he was very surprised and immensely flattered to be told that she wished to speak to him at an official reception at Admiralty House in Sydney. Immediately on her arrival, she went to him to express her appreciation of his reports from Australia and in particular, the quality of his daily coverage on her tour. "I look forward to my Red every morning," she said.

Red Harrison continued as the BBC's radio correspondent until he turned 70 when he was upset to discover second-hand that he had been replaced by a young reporter from London. As a kindly and courteous man, he was seriously aggrieved that his bosses in London had not bothered to tell him. However, he did continue to attract occasional commissions from sympathetic editors at World Service and some other BBC outlets, and for many years he was a regular book reviewer for The Australian.

Red Harrison's love of adventure led him to volunteer as a reservist in the Australian Army's 1 Commando Company in the mid-1950s, and the sailing skills he learnt at the navy school allowed him to make extended yachting expeditions. He was also a keen amateur pilot and in the 1980s he bought a vintage Beechcraft 18 "Twin Beech" aircraft in the United States and co-piloted it to Australia via Greenland, Europe and Asia.

There were also contrasting skills, not least as a classical pianist and as a keen chess player.

Red Harrison was married twice. His first marriage, in 1952, was to Mary "Mickey" Wall, who bore him four children before the union was dissolved. His second, in 1971, was to the former Pamela Macarthur-Onslow, a horticulture writer and a direct descendant of John Macarthur, founder of the Australian wool industry.

He and "Pammy" as she is universally known, lived happily at Camden, just outside Sydney, on a property adjoining the original Camden Park estate granted to John Macarthur in the early 1800s. In recent years, his love of travel and adventure was curtailed by a series of debilitating illnesses and he finally succumbed to emphysema at Campbelltown Hospital near Sydney.

Red Harrison is survived by two daughters (Alexandra and Kathleen) and two sons (Michael and Robert) from his first marriage and by wife Pamela and her two sons (Kirk and Christopher). -- Ian Richardson

Commissioned by Daily Telegraph, London