1912-1999 | NSW | Editor
Scottish-born, Oxford-educated John Pringle was a standard-setter for leader writing in England and Australia. He edited the Sydney Morning Herald twice. His first stint as editor of the Herald ended in resignation and frustration at limits to his authority. Pringle returned in 1965 for a second stint with what he thought was a guarantee of editorial power and independence. He modernised the Herald’s appearance, broadened its conservative outlook and boosted coverage of books and the arts. He promoted women to reporting positions previously the domain of men. It was the first stage in the rejuvenation of the Herald, completed later by Vic Carroll and others.
In 1952, when Britain was still in the throes of post-war austerity, John Douglas Pringle received a mysterious invitation to meet an Australian newspaper executive at the Ritz Hotel in London. Pringle found a “small, slight, dark man who seemed to be almost extinguished by the opulent furniture of the hotel lounge”.
Rupert Henderson, then managing director of the Sydney Morning Herald, spoke in a “low, hoarse voice with a marked Australian accent but with an intensity and concentration which is hard to describe”. He invited Pringle to move to Australia and become the Herald’s editor.
Pringle was a Scot, born in Hawick on the Scottish borders. He had taken a first-class degree in Greats at Oxford, before joining the Manchester Guardian. When he was summoned to the Ritz he was working for The Times, where he was known as the finest leader writer of his generation.
For someone of Pringle’s background, Australia of the 1950s was remote in every sense. But the prospect of escaping a cold, drab country for a warmer climate (he had suffered from tuberculosis), generous pay and the challenge of editing one of Australia’s most distinguished newspapers made the offer irresistible.
Pringle arrived in Sydney in September 1952. The Herald’s circulation was then 300,000; its classified ad revenue made it one of the richest papers in the world. The Fairfax family of Sydney had owned the paper since its founding in 1831. It still stuck rigidly to old-fashioned conventions: news had appeared on the front page for less than a decade, and nearly all the paper’s journalists were anonymous.
Pringle served two terms as the Herald’s editor. When his five-year contract expired in 1957, he returned to Britain and became deputy editor of The Observer. His second, and most turbulent, editorship from 1965 to 1970 also marked the end of an old Fairfax tradition of importing Herald editors from Fleet Street. Gavin Souter, the distinguished Fairfax historian, and a Herald writer through both of Pringle’s terms, considers him “by far the best editor the paper had ever had in all its hundred and thirty-nine years”.
Pringle’s capacity to inspire his staff was crucial to that. His conversation, encouragement, lucid prose and grasp of issues stimulated them. Evan Williams, another Herald writer from that time, recalled how Pringle brought a “refreshing blend of humanism, old-fashioned liberal values and a scholarly erudition both deeply ingrained and lightly worn”. After decades of stuffiness, the Herald “won a reputation for forward-looking attitudes and inquiring journalism”.
For his part, Pringle was stimulated by Australia’s wildlife (he later wrote Shore Birds of Australia, a reference book), its emerging modern art movement (he wrote Australian Painting Today in 1963) and by the political upheavals of the Labor Party split of 1954, and the Catholic Church’s influence through the newly-formed Democratic Labor Party.
Sydney’s rumbustious character, and its larger-than-life newspaper barons, also fascinated him. When Pringle first arrived Warwick (later Sir Warwick) Fairfax, the Herald’s chief proprietor, was “wrapped up in the production of his latest play”. Pringle recorded in his diary: “I have not seen it yet but was amused to hear a man on the tram ask a friend whether ‘it was as bad as the papers didn’t say’!”. At the other end of town, Frank (later Sir Frank) Packer, publisher of the rival Daily Telegraph “rolled through Sydney in those days like a genial but slightly dangerous baron in medieval Europe”.
Pringle’s main frustration stemmed from an archaic tradition at the Herald that then confined the editor’s power just to the leader and opinion pages. Others controlled the news pages, “by far the most important part of any paper”, and the look of the paper. To Pringle this was humiliating, and “responsibility without power”.
After a few years back in Britain, though, Pringle started feeling nostalgia “for the hot sun, the brilliant light, the crackle and glitter of the Australian bush, the warm, aromatic air and starlit nights”. So when Rupert Henderson invited him in 1963 to return to Australia, he accepted.
Pringle spent a year as managing editor of The Canberra Times, then a small title that Fairfax had bought from the Shakespeare family. He built it into a stronger paper in a circulation war with The Australian, that Rupert Murdoch had just started in Canberra.
Angus McLachlan, who succeeded Henderson as managing director of John Fairfax Limited (as the company was then called), asked Pringle in 1965 to return to Sydney and edit the Herald again. This time, Pringle insisted that he have control over the whole paper, not just the leader page.
With the fresh look and approach of The Australian, Murdoch had sparked a revolution in Australian journalism. It shook the staid Fairfax titles. Pringle took on the challenge by modernising the Herald’s appearance and broadening its coverage, particularly in foreign affairs. Up to then, women journalists had been confined largely to the social or “women’s pages”. Pringle liberated their talents and gave outstanding women more challenging roles. He appointed Margaret Jones as Washington correspondent. And he encouraged other staff simply by giving them bylines.
But as the social and political upheavals of the 1960s started changing Australia, Pringle’s liberal instincts brought him into conflict with the conservative Fairfax management, especially Sir Warwick Fairfax, by then chairman and managing director. An editorial that approached Easter in a humanist rather than a religious way enraged Sir Warwick. So did another suggesting that Australia one day would become a republic.
Pringle’s personal dilemmas over the Vietnam war brought him the most turmoil. The Herald supported conscription, the war and Australia’s role in it. When I interviewed Pringle during his retirement in 1998, in his small flat high above Sydney Harbour, he described this “very distressing period”. He had promised to support the Fairfax board’s view on the case for the war before he returned to the Herald from The Canberra Times. But as he grew “increasingly appalled” by the war, the discord over this commitment “made me quite ill in the end”.
“I still felt that communism was a serious threat in Asia,” he told me. “But I increasingly saw Vietnam as not the way to oppose it. It was an absolute disaster. To some extent it was the Vietnam War which destroyed my self-confidence. I did feel [as editor] I was on the wrong side. And I was ashamed of it. But editors have a difficult time, one way or another.”
His relationship with Sir Warwick ruptured, Pringle abruptly retired from the Herald in April 1970, eight months earlier than planned. He continued to contribute elegant book reviews and columns to the paper.
Over the 20 dynamic years spanning his Herald editorships, Pringle wrote three books of memoirs (most of his quotes in this article are from one of them, Have Pen: Will Travel). All contain incisive observations of Australia, its people, customs and newspaper life.
Since the Fairfaxes lost control of the Herald in 1990, after more than 150 years, issues that caused ructions for Pringle now seem like ancient history. The Herald is staunchly republican, and women have as much editorial power as men. For sowing these and other progressive seeds, perhaps John Douglas Pringle can take some credit.
Robert Milliken is a former journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald and the National Times, a correspondent for the Economist and the author of three books.
J.D. Pringle in 1981. Courtesy of Fairfax
Australian Accent, John Douglas Pringle, Chatto and Windus, 1958
On Second Thoughts: Australian Essays, John Douglas Pringle, Angus and Robertson, 1971
Have Pen: Will Travel, John Douglas Pringle, Chatto and Windus, 1973