PM Literary Prize winners rags v riches tale, says Brian Toohey

The Spy Catchers
The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO, 1949-1963, Vol.1 by Professor David Horner

While I was busy being sick just before Christmas, I missed the announcement that two titles I’m familiar with in writing about military history books had shared the Prime Minister’s Literary Prize in the Australian History category for 2015:


Charles Bean by Ross Coulthart (HarperCollins Publishers)

The Spy Catchers—The Official History of ASIO Vol 1 by David Horner (Allen & Unwin)

Well done to both authors.

What alerted me to this was Brian Toohey’s article in The Australian Financial Review (23-28 December 2015) – ASIO’s official history has a $1.75m subplot

It is a revealing article in that it quotes the figures ASIO has reportedly invested in its three volume official history, not all of which ends up in the pockets of the authors, of course. However he does compare this with Ross Coulthart having to rely on author royalties from his publishers for any return on his effort in writing the Charles Bean book.

Toohey does make one mistake in the article. He suggested that given the size of the grants and the ‘paucity of sales’, it might be better to subject future literary funding [from government agencies] to competitive tender. The contract for writing the ASIO history was certainly subject to open tender. I remember remarking on it at the time.

If the benchmark was always to be commercial success, I suspect many important books would not see the light of day.

I know there have been several criticisms of David Horner’s The Spy Catchers, but that does not diminish, in my opinion, the value of having attempted to capture the history of the establishment and early days of Australia’s primary intelligence agency.


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