Suburban spies: all in the family

  • With My Little Eye, by Sandra Hogan. Allen & Unwin, $29.99.
Journalist Sandra Hogan (right) shares a laugh with Sue-Ellen Doherty. Picture: Supplied

Journalist Sandra Hogan (right) shares a laugh with Sue-Ellen Doherty. Picture: Supplied

It's more 10 years ago now that Sandra Hogan received an unusual tip-off.

A woman, Sue-Ellen Doherty, wanted to tell a journalist the story of how she and her siblings grew up with spies for parents. A mutual friend suggested Hogan meet up with her. And so, she did.

It was, Hogan says, a surreal first meeting in a Brisbane cafe. She was mostly dubious about the things Doherty was telling her at first - about how, growing up, she and her siblings helped out their parents in their day-to-day work as ASIO spies. They learnt how to memorise numberplates, notice unusual behaviour, and follow people undetected.

"It was just incredible," Hogan says.

"I didn't believe it at first, because it just seems like an unlikely story."

The Doherty patriarch, Dudley, had been recruited into the fledgling spy organisation in 1949, and worked as a spy until his death in 1970. His new wife, Joan, was also recruited around the same time; wives of ASIO officers were considered good spy material as they were, usually, already sworn to secrecy.

The two of them worked, if not side-by-side, then with a common purpose. In ASIOs's first headquarters near Sydney Harbour, Joan listened to intercepted phone conversations and transcribed the dialogue that seemed important. Back then, the organisation was focused solely on Soviet spies.

Dudley, meanwhile, became a man about town who travelled constantly, and had all kinds of friends in all kinds of places. Even after Joan stopped working officially for ASIO to raise their three children, she kept up the facade of an ordinary suburban mum primarily as a way of infiltrating the kinds of "respectable" organisations that might well be sheltering Russian agents.

And, most importantly, the couple trained up their kids in espionage, even when they were too young to properly understand what was going on.

It's not surprising that Hogan could barely believe what Sue-Ellen, the couple's second child, was telling her in a Brisbane cafe decades later. Apart from the sheer improbability of it all, it was the kind of story that Hogan, an established journalist, felt sure she had no hope of confirming.

"It just didn't really make any sense," she says.

"But, but at the same time, it was such a gift. It was so fascinating, I couldn't let it go, and I kept talking to her."

It was only a year or two after their first meeting that Sue-Ellen Doherty's gift to Hogan - a cracking yarn with all the hallmarks of a real-life thriller - became something they could work with.

ASIO decided to publish an official history of the organisation, and started gathering interviews, records and real-life accounts around 2011.

When they came knocking on Joan's door - by this time, Dudley had been dead for decades - Sue-Ellen was astonished to learn how integral her own mother had been in 1950s espionage. She and her siblings had always understood that Joan had been involved in clerical work, and that Dudley had been the real thing. But Joan, like her husband, had been involved in some extraordinary events in Australia's post-war history.

Not least of these had been their role in sheltering the Petrovs - the couple at the centre of Australia's biggest Cold War drama. They had dramatically defected in 1954, and when the Melbourne Olympics rolled around two years later, the government, concerned for the Petrovs' safety, arranged for them to spend a long holiday on the Gold Coast with the Dohertys, posing as grandparents.

The fact that ASIO had recorded Joan's account, and that her story would be out in the open, was both a source of relief for the Doherty children, and a breakthrough for Hogan.

She says she had already begun to believe everything Sue-Ellen was telling her, but knowing the story would be part of an official account, complete with historical details of ASIO, gave her own book about the Dohertys, With My Little Eye, a solid grounding.

The result is a cracking read, told via flashbacks and from various perspectives. What could have been a straightforward chronological history instead reads like a novel, and in this way, Hogan is able to tease out the story to an unexpected denouement.

Dudley Doherty was friends with Sydney crime boss Abe Saffron. He had affairs while his wife was at home, keeping their life on an even keel and their kids on constant lookout. The family ate dinner with informants and spent time with "people of interest." The kids would wake up with strangers sleeping in their rooms, and often went on stakeouts with their parents.

Could they have been the only family living this way in the Australian in the 1950 and 60s?

"One of the things we're kind of excited about with the book coming out - when I say we, I mean Sue-Ellen and I - is whether or not some people will put their hand up and say they did the same thing," Hogan says.

"[But] I have a feeling that that was an unusual thing to do."

While the Dohertys did not have a normal childhood, all three adult children maintain it was a happy one.

Hogan was privileged to be present - and taking notes - when Sue-Ellen, Mark and Amanda Doherty opened up to each other for the first time about how their childhoods had affected them.

And the results - borne out in large part by the publication of The Spy Catchers, ASIO's official history from 1949-63, were unexpectedly heart-rending.

The family ate Chinese food, and entertained all kinds of people. They learnt not to unpack their bags in a hotel in case they had to make a quick getaway. And they also lived in a kind of fearful shadow that none were able to articulate until they finally started talking about it.

"There was excitement, but ... they were afraid that if they did anything wrong, something really terrible would happen," Hogan says.

"[Youngest sibling] Amanda said it - she didn't even know what it would be, whether it would be something that would happen to her or to the family or to the world, but a little misplaced word... something like that could bring down some sort of absolutely terrifying consequence.

"So, I think that, finally, although they emphasise the interest, and in some ways, the richness of that life, and I get that they're not making it up, I felt that sadness of them being brought up in that way with fear and necessary repression.

"And also the saddest thing to me was that up until then, they hadn't been able to talk about anything."

Hogan says it took her some time to understand this lifelong effect herself, even as she was writing the family's story.

"I did feel the sadness, really, from the beginning," she says.

"But when you hear Sue-Ellen talking, she emphasises what a good childhood she had, that she was happy.

"All of them agree that they had a more interesting childhood than perhaps some of the kids around, and it was a pretty dull old time in Australian history."

This story Suburban spies: all in the family first appeared on The Canberra Times.