Farewell Ron Tandberg, Fairfax’s ‘smiling assassin’

A constant star in the sky is no longer there. It is forever gone, not merely hiding in the daylight to reappear at night, but extinguished. There is no light. There is no star. It is gone. It no longer exists.

Such a constancy in your life leads to the suspension of knowledge, holds back your reasoning, that all things must pass. You know the nature of life is, ultimately, death. And yet here it is: the death of a star. Despite the reality, it is still being processed by you because even knowing that this moment would come, you never thought it would. The light was too bright to fade.

Now a black hole has replaced that source of light and you keep thinking: this can’t be true, this can’t be true. Yet, it is. A stunned emptiness lives within you. It pushes out what you think should be the deep grief from the loss. That will come, you acknowledge to yourself, but right now when you look to the future you cannot imagine the heavens without this star.

This star was Ron Tandberg. My connection to Ron, through working at The Age in Melbourne began in 1987. We had last spoken just before Christmas and wished each other well. This had a more profound meaning to Ron who had been diagnosed with cancer several weeks before that and had undergone a series of radiation treatments. He talked about the treatment, but mostly he talked about the world. He was fascinated and curious by it. He hated the corruption of power and the bullying of the powerless by those in power.

He saw the absurdities of the actions and words of men and women, particularly those in the power, and he saw through them. He could strike at the heart of an issue with a razorlike wit. He was, in essence, the smiling assassin, wielding only a pen. And the pen, in his hand, was mightier than the sword.

Yet it was not in his nature to wear a cloak of despair. He saw beauty in people and nature. He loved life, which sharpened his pen in holding to account those he felt trammelled over it, who made it ugly.

“Basically I believe in being unfair to everybody” – Ron Tandberg

And Ron did it week in, week out, for what seems like forever – actually for about 45 years. This longevity at a heightened benchmark of excellence is the mark of a legend in their field. Ron won 11 Walkley Awards, including two Gold Walkleys and numerous other titles. Astonishingly, he had told me recently that he only felt like he was in complete mastery of his art in the past 10 years. All others would take the previous 35 years as the pinnacle, not a learning curve.

One of the professional joys of working with Ron was the discussions of news stories and of being ringside to see the Tandberg mind at work. It worked swiftly. It rarely if ever missed the mark. If he knew either the image or the words were not right, his brow would crease, and he would concede ‘’needs more work, it’s not quite there” and return to his desk, only to return later, mission accomplished. I like to think I coined the phrase, Ron’s done a good Tandberg, but it’s such an obvious observation I’m sure I was not the first.

As I write this beside me is his 1984 book Tandberg’s Age of Consensus. It makes me laugh and say yes, spot on Ron, in dissecting the politics, and main players, of the day – Hawke, Hayden, Fraser, Kennett, Howard, Bjelke-Petersen, for instance – and internationally, the Pope, the Soviet Union and all points of the social compass from big business, the unions to white-shoe skivs to sexual politics. A quote from Ron on the back of the book says, “Basically I believe in being unfair to everybody.” It is accompanied by a cartoon of Bob Hawke saying, “I’m agnostic.” Two other people are beside him, one of whom says, “He’s not sure if he’s God or not.” Classic Ron.

Above my desk are two treasures. They are Tandbergs. One is of John Howard and George Bush on a red carpet of blood that trails back to war. I won it an auction at a press freedom dinner. There is no humour in it, only an acute insight into the human condition.

The other is purely personal. When distant shores beckoned and I left The Age for a while, Ron drew a pocket cartoon. It was during the ill-fated attempt by young Warwick Fairfax to become a media baron. It shows a desk and a computer, and departing the frame to the right is a leg (my leg). To the other side of the desk are three people. One says, “The wrong Wokka’s leaving.”

And now Ron has left the building. There will be no return. I can’t believe the world has lost this star in orbit around our daily lives; no more phone calls to a newsdesk or editor, and a voice saying, Hello, it’s Ron here. I’ve got a thought . . .

Warwick McFadyen is a freelance writer and editor. He worked with Ron Tandberg, off and on, for 30 years.

7 responses to “Farewell Ron Tandberg, Fairfax’s ‘smiling assassin’

  1. I was delighted and incredibly excited when Ron drew a cartoon to accompany a short comment I sent into The Age – and then he drew another a few days later! Tanberg cartoons – what an honour!

  2. a beautiful tribute to Ron – we will all miss him. He was one of a kind and we were the lucky ones to have worked with him.

  3. Ron Tandberg was a giant star in the news firmament. A star so bright he dwarfed his subject matter. Vale Ron T.

  4. we will all miss his sheer brilliance and incisive mind. To be able to sum up the daily ills in just a few lines drawn so clearly beggars belief. His archive should be required viewing by all politicians each day: they might learn something!


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