1925 - 2008 | VIC | Foreign correspondent and editor
Burns was a Rhodes Scholar, academic, foreign correspondent and editor of The Age for eight years. He made the courageous decision to publish material from illegal NSW police telephone taps that exposed a sinister network of influence between criminals, members of the judiciary and lawyers. Burns defended his paper against ferocious political attack from the Federal and NSW governments and civil libertarians. The stories provoked seven separate inquiries, including a Royal Commission, two separate trials of High Court judge Lionel Murphy, the prosecution of dozens of crime figures and changes to the law on police phone tapping.
Creighton Burns, at 39, abandoned a stellar academic career to return to newspapers as a reporter. It was not an easy decision yet as a colleague observed years later, Burns possessed the qualities of a natural reporter: curiosity, courage and an ability to get along with others.
His father Crayton (sic), whom he greatly admired, had been a respected political correspondent in Melbourne and Canberra. On leaving Scotch College in Melbourne, Burns had become a cadet journalist at the Sun News-Pictorial but left the paper in July 1942 to join the wartime Royal Australian Navy. He was 17. His navy service – as an ordinary seaman and able seaman in a cruiser, a corvette and a destroyer – lasted for almost four years and proved an education in itself; it led to another education, as an undergraduate at Melbourne University.
Burns completed an honours degree in history and was awarded the 1949 Rhodes Scholarship for Victoria. After three years at Oxford he returned home to academic appointments, first in Canberra and then in Melbourne where his mentor was the legendary Professor ‘Mac’ Ball.
When the editor of The Age, E.K. Sinclair, offered him the paper’s Singapore post in 1964, Burns was Reader in Politics at Melbourne University. He took a year’s leave of absence from the university but never returned. In this first posting for The Age he distinguished himself as a foreign correspondent during three years of turbulence and violent change in South East Asia.
Burns returned to Melbourne in the early stages of the editorship of Graham Perkin and what would turn out to be another golden era at The Age. He played a major role in the revival and transformation of the newspaper and was promoted to assistant editor and later associate editor.
Perkin died suddenly in 1975, only days after Roy Macartney, The Age Washington correspondent. Burns was the natural candidate to fill the U.S. vacancy and by early the following year was filing for the paper from Washington. He spent five years in America and covered three U.S. Presidents – Ford, Carter and Reagan.
The truth is that Burns would have been happy to spend the rest of his career in America. He enjoyed being a foreign correspondent, particularly the camaraderie, the out of town assignments and the relatively easy access to high level policy specialists and academics. In the end he came back to Melbourne for the big prize – “dragged home” he liked to claim. In July 1981 he succeeded Michael Davie as editor of The Age.
Nobody with the intellectual equipment or the contact list that Burns brought to the job had edited The Age before. In fact there was some early suspicion of his academic background and qualifications in the newsroom. But not for long.
Mike Smith who was Burns’ news editor for four years, and his assistant editor for another four, followed him as editor of the newspaper. In a tribute published after Burns’ death he wrote: "Creighton Burns was intellectually brilliant. He gave new meaning to our work by identifying issues and principles that we never knew existed in our daily essays. When he felt strongly about those issues and principles, he fought for them with formidable force, power and passion.”
Burns was a firm and committed believer in the role of the newspaper as a watchdog for the community – particularly in the monitoring of powerful interests and individuals. As editor he championed the newspaper’s Insight reporting team; together with The Canberra Times, it was The Age led by Creighton Burns that pioneered Freedom of Information (FOI) activities in Australia.
But the defining story of his eight years as editor [the longest time in the chair of any editor since Graham Perkin] was his decision, in 1984, to publish details of the illegal NSW Police telephone recordings that became known as “The Age tapes.” The tapes exposed corrupt connections among criminals, lawyers, judges and the racing industry. Burns and the newspaper came under ferocious pressure from the Federal Government and others determined to discredit the story. But he stood his ground, defending the story and his reporters, and was vindicated when a Royal Commission confirmed the authenticity of the tapes.
Several inquiries and dozens of successful prosecutions followed. High Court judge Lionel Murphy was prosecuted and convicted, a conviction quashed on appeal. In December 1984, Burns was the recipient of the Graham Perkin Award for the Australian Journalist of the Year, the first working newspaper editor to win the prestigious prize.
Late in his editorship Burns again demonstrated steely leadership in holding his editorial team together during the turmoil sparked by the takeover play for the Fairfax newspapers by the young Warwick Fairfax.
With his second wife, Anita, gravely ill, Burns retired in October 1989. In the active years which followed he looked after his two younger children and returned to academic life as the first Chancellor of [the then] Victoria University of Technology. He was appointed an Officer in the general division of the Order of Australia in 1991. Creighton Burns died in January 2008. He was 82.
John Tidey was a journalist and executive at The Age from 1965-1994.
Creighton Burns. Courtesy of Fairfax.
Creighton Burns in 1972. Courtesy of Fairfax.
Creighton Burns with Bob Hawke. Courtesy of Fairfax.
China Expedition, 1979. L-R: Chang Ching Ping, Jack Beverley, Cameron Forbes, Creighton Burns, Michael Richardson, Michael Davie and Shi Chengxun. Courtesy of Fairfax.
Creighton Burns addressing The Age Independence Committee at Newman College, Melbourne University. Photo by Jerry Galea, courtesy of Fairfax.
Class Act: A Life of Creighton Burns, John Tidey, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2012.
Breaking News: The Golden Age of Graham Perkin, Ben Hills, Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2010.