Phil Charley: Those brilliant Papua New Guinea years

A tribute by Keith Jackson AM, Phil’s long-time friend and colleague

Phil already had 25 years of broadcasting under his belt when he and the family arrived in Papua New Guinea early in 1970.

Those New Guinea years turned out to be very good years for the Charleys, and the aura of that time - and the many friendships made - extend to this day.

Phil and I were recruited to the PNG Government Broadcasting Service at the same time: me from the ABC in Moresby; Phil from commercial radio in Deniliquin.

Phil was despatched to manage Radio Eastern Highlands, and his favourite PNG yarn comes from this time.

A large crowd had gathered for the formal opening of the new studio complex in Goroka. They included Phil’s office boy, Semena, at the time aged around 50.

Semena’s official role at the station might have been modest, but he was a man of influence. This was signified by the papier mache London Bobby’s helmet he wore at all times.

At the crucial point of the opening ceremony, Semena was instructed to smartly raise the national standard on the flagpole - “Semena, kisim plag, na putim igo antap!”

Whereupon Semena grabbed the flag, shinnied up the pole, tied the ensign to its rope and slid back to earth. The assembly greeted the act with thunderous applause and Phil always regarded this as a archetypal PNG moment.

During the early seventies, Phil and I found ourselves periodically despatched on assignments around the country and were frequently thrown together. We became good mates.

By 1973, independence was rushing in and our stations were placed in the hands of local managers. Phil and I were transferred to Port Moresby; to the headquarters of the new National Broadcasting Commission – an amalgam of the Government and ABC networks.

Our Tolai mate, Sam Piniau, was appointed to run the NBC but to our dismay was surrounded by senior colleagues who were pukka ABC types. They found PNG a bit of an enigma and very demanding, although they did appreciate the servants.

These ABC sahibs were displeased to be inundated by half-a-dozen roughneck bush station managers who preferred beer and tobacco to gin and valium. Phil was the only one with any elegance, and his father was Sir Philip, and they liked that.

But that didn’t save the two of us from being deposited in the ABC’s equivalent of Siberia– a small open-fronted booth opposite the men’s toilet.

We had little to do really, other than to plot our futures, and eventually Phil was made head of presentation and I became head of a think tank, designated the Secretariat but commonly referred to as the Gestapo.

During those pre-independence years, Moresby was a socially effervescent town and the Charley clan epitomised this - being full of flair, bursting with music and brimming with goodwill. Inexorably I was drawn into the family.

Phil’s love of jazz and his virtuosic clarinet playing quickly gained a place in the local music scene. Studio 903, the main production facility at the NBC, gave its name to a weekly jazz program with journalist Carolus ‘Charlie’ Ketsimur on guitar, Doug Fyfe on piano, and Larry Danielson, the man who was to become the Woolworths bomber, on drums.

Phil and Carolus, who was Bougainville’s infrastructure minister when he died earlier this year, shared a passion for jazz, jokes and radio. It was a great friendship that endured.

Meanwhile, my Gestapo was adopting a greater role in the NBC’s operations – including planning the introduction of radio advertising.

Phil was assigned to work with me on the project, which was to lead to his greatest challenge and greatest triumph in PNG.

The Somare government of the time had pretensions to socialism and vehemently objected to commercial broadcasting.

Frustrated in his efforts to stop us, Michael Somare wrote to chairman Sam Piniau describing Phil and me as arrogant, overzealous, unprofessional and disregarding of authority. I decided to quit and so did Phil, but subsequently changed his mind.

Somare decided to legislate to remove the NBC’s right to introduce advertising. But in a dramatic day in parliament, his bill was defeated and in March 1977 radio advertising was introduced. Phil had stuck to the job and guided the ship home.

It is worth noting that, in the lean years since, advertising has kept radio – and now television – afloat in PNG.

When Phil was awarded the Order of Australia in 2002, the citation read - “for services to broadcasting in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region". It could have added “and for winning friends for Australia wherever he roamed".

Phil and Marie returned to Australia in 1979, as did I, and we continued to collaborate.

There were projects in Indonesia, the Philippines and Fiji and the establishment of Radio New Dawn on Bougainville in the aftermath of the civil war.

We eventually finished our book, Manage by the Moment, in which a bottle of good wine was expended for each page we wrote. Much to Phil’s delight, it was later republished in Indonesian.

Phil’s New Guinea days, like his entire life, were accompanied by love, laughter and jazz.  By exceptional friendships.  And by a wonderful family.

It was a good life; it was fully lived. And I’m glad I got to share some of it.

I got to share some of it.