Prue Torney-Parlicki, Behind the News: A Biography of Peter Russo, University of Western Australia Press, Perth, 2005
Behind the News by Prue Torney (formerly known as Prue Torney-Parlicki), published by the University of Western Australia Press, is a meticulously researched and engagingly written study of Peter Russo, journalist and commentator, linguist and Asian specialist. As one of the most controversial media figures of twentieth-century Australia, Russo proved an ideal subject for very intriguing biographical study. To quote from the biography: 'Urbane and charming, yet also haughty, acerbic and cynical, with more than a touch of malice, Russo was a gadfly, a provocateur'. Fluent in eight languages and with an abiding interest in Asia, Russo interpreted events in Japan, Korea, Indo-China, Malaysia and Egypt in a confronting and unorthodox manner, during the most trenchant years of the 'White Australia Policy' and the Cold War. His expertise in this field, especially his knowledge of Japan, meant that he played an important, though unacknowledged role in Australian politics and foreign policy. The book succeeds admirably in bringing back into the spotlight a leading public intellectual whose contribution to building links between Australia and Asia and to making Australians more conscious of their Asian neighbours was clearly very influential.
Drawing on exhaustive archival research in Australia and Japan, Torney documents Russo's life with a deft hand, integrating the complex backgrounds of world history, foreign affairs and the Australian media with impressive scholarship, while never losing sight of the main focus of her biography, Russo himself. Particularly significant is her engagement with Russo's experience in Japan and his interpreting of Japan to an often hostile Australian audience. Although the chief emphasis of the biography is on Russo's public career, Torney does not ignore the complicated private self, offering a nuanced and layered portrait of this complex, difficult and fascinating man.
As Richard Broinowski writes in the Foreword to Behind the News, we are doubly indebted to Dr Prue Torney for producing a highly readable and credible account of Peter Russo, his life, his motivations and his contributions to Australian understandings of Asia and how we fit into them. 'Her investigations are especially valuable because coverage of world events in the Australian media is now timid, selective and lacking any kind of scholarship. There are no more Russos to enlighten the arid media scene.'
A fine example of a scholarly, archivally-based biography which is also an absorbing and compelling reading experience, Behind the News makes a significant contribution to Australian history, the history of Australian-Japan relations and media history.
Behind the News is the second of two important books on Australia's relations with Asia by Prue Torney (1956–2006). In Somewhere in Asia: War, Journalism and Australia's Neighbours 1941–75 (UNSW Press, 2000) she explored the role of war correspondents in shaping the attitudes of Australians to neighbouring countries in Asia. Prue Torney had an abiding interest in the history of journalism in Australia. She contributed an entry on war reporting to the Oxford Companion to Australian History (OUP, 1998), and her book chapters were included in several edited collections on the history of journalism. Her articles were published in such journals as Australian Historical Studies, Australian Journal of Politics and History, the Journal of Australian Studies, War and Society, and Overland. Prue Torney had a long association with the History Department at the University of Melbourne. She returned to study as a mature-aged student in the 1980s, and completed combined Honours in History and English. She was awarded the Gyles Turner Prize in Australian History in 1990, the Kathleen Fitzpatrick Exhibition in English and History (Combined Honours) in 1992 and the Brian Fitzpatrick Prize in History (Honours) in 1992. She went straight on to doctoral studies on the role of war correspondents in educating the Australian public about Asia, and this was the basis of her first monograph, Somewhere in Asia. She maintained a close association with the History Department, as a tutor, lecturer, research assistant and research associate. In 2005, she was appointed to a Research Fellowship in the History Department to work on her project on column writing in Australian newspapers.