1905-2000 | Queensland | Editor
Under Bray’s 26-year editorship of The Courier-Mail, the Brisbane paper became Queensland’s powerhouse media outlet. Daily circulation climbed from 90,000 to 260,000, more than the broadsheet dailies in Sydney and Melbourne. Bray maintained high editorial standards and in 1965 set the tone for other Australian editors to revive the Fourth Estate mission of the Press by defining its purpose as providing news, background, opinion, commercial information and entertainment while acting as the reader’s last court of appeal, protector and champion.
Ted Bray had a remarkable journalist's life. He edited Brisbane's daily newspaper, The Courier-Mail, for 26 years, was once threatened by a Prime Minister with a charge of treason and he threw a young fully-clothed Rupert Murdoch into a lake.
And in retirement he founded a university that now has five campuses and 50,000 students. He also spent three decades on state and national boards of the arts.
When he died in 2000 at the age of 95, former Governor-General Sir Zelman Cowen wrote: "As an editor he was insistent about the maintenance of high standards, and he stressed the importance of achieving a wide understanding of the community his paper served. Sir Edward Pickering, one of the greats ... of the British press, wrote to me about him: 'Ted Bray is not just a great Australian, he is for many people throughout the Commonwealth an inspiration .... he has been a determined upholder of high standards in journalism, a defender of Press freedom, and an advocate of learning and education on which to give all young aspiring journalists a firm foundation on which to build their careers'."
South Australian-born Theodor Charles Bray - son of a market gardener from Campbelltown, now in suburban Adelaide - rose from working as a printer at the Adelaide Register at 15 to become one of the longest-serving capital city daily newspaper editors in the country. He stood astride his paper like a colossus.
When he took over The Courier-Mail in 1942, Bray lifted the paper from its local roots as the Moreton Bay Courier and made it a genuine state-wide daily with sales of 260,000 Monday to Friday, more than either The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age at the time. He went on to be appointed editor-in-chief of both the Courier and The Sunday-Mail in 1954 and controlled both titles until 1968 when he retired from the editor's chair and was appointed joint Managing Director of Queensland Newspapers.
Having been chief sub-editor of The Argus in Melbourne from 1929 to 1937, he was appointed chief sub at the Courier in 1937. Coming from a production background, Bray was not a hands-off editor in the Fleet Street mould. Indeed, he came back to the office every night after dinner and went through all the galley proofs himself before heading home at midnight. For 26 years. Bray retained an unfailing interest in the paper up until his death in 2000.
Ted used to take me to lunch once a year from 1995 and after our meal each time - always at the Queensland Club where the staff jokingly referred to him as “Young Ted” - we would adjourn to the veranda for coffee. A piece of note paper would come out. “Mr Mitchell”, he would say: “These are my thoughts on your papers since our last lunch.” You could not help but respect him and I grew to think of him as a real friend, and the only one who really understood how tough the job was.
A great raconteur, Bray delighted in telling the story of throwing Murdoch into a Canadian lake in 1950. Bray recalled: "He (Rupert) was then a student at Oxford. He came to a Commonwealth Press Union conference in Canada with his father, Sir Keith Murdoch, who was leading an Australian delegation. A friend from Adelaide and I one morning got a bit tired of Mr Murdoch's conduct and pushed him off a jetty into an ice-cold lake."
Murdoch never mentioned the prank in the many times they met in following decades until another CPU conference in 1988. "We met at a CPU conference at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Rupert was opening the conference and because of my age and standing in the CPU I was given the chance to question him first. He said he would welcome questions from me but would ask that I treat him with more respect than when we had first met at CPU," Bray recalled. The full story was then retold to the audience.
Bray had another quite distinct career after his retirement from journalism. In 1970, Queensland Minister for Education Sir Alan Fletcher asked him to lead a project to establish a second university in Brisbane. The university opened in 1975 and Bray was its first chancellor, a position he held for a decade until his retirement aged 85.
Long an internationalist through his work with the CPU, Bray drove two of Griffith's pioneering national courses: Modern Asian Studies and Australian Environmental Studies. He was knighted in 1974 for his services to education.
Throughout his life, Bray was also a passionate supporter of the arts and campaigned for major state -based companies to tour regional Queensland. He saw this a crucial in the most decentralised state in the Federation.
Then prime Minister John Gorton appointed him to the Australian Arts Council just before his retirement. He also remained a board member of the Queensland Arts Council for 25 years after his four-year term with the national body.
Bray was a strong supporter of the idea of accountability journalism. While the notion of the Fourth Estate was not accepted in the early years of his editorship, Bray firmly believed the media owed its allegiance to its readers rather than to governments.
In a speech on the issue in 1965, Bray said: "To survive a newspaper has to serve in a unique way. This is as a guardian of the people's fundamental right to free expression of opinion. It has to be a watchdog of civil liberties and a protector against the petty tyranny of bureaucrats ... readers ... still think of their newspapers as the ordinary man's last court of appeal, as his protector and champion. Newspapers clearly have a function beyond mere reporting ... a function of probing behind the straights news, of interpreting and explaining and sometimes of exposing."
Bray's advocacy for his paper - and for the rights of Queenslanders against Canberra - did cause him trouble, and even once forced a prime minister to use the threat of treason charges against him.
Said Bray: "Ben Chifley, as post-war Prime Minister, was desperately appealing to the country for funds to get the place going. He summonsed me to Canberra to tell me that he could charge me with treason because I was telling Queenslanders not to put any money into Commonwealth bonds. After our chat we became firm friends."
Former Queensland Newspaper managing director Sir Keith McDonald said of Bray after his death that he had been an editor who gave his staff great loyalty and received great loyalty in return. "What a man he was. We may never see his like again," McDonald said.
Chris Mitchell is a media commentator and a former editor-in-chief of Queensland Newspapers and The Australian.
Courtesy of the Griffith Archive, Griffith University
Oral History of the University - Sir Theodor Bray, Griffith Archive, online
Sir Theodor Charles Bray interviewed by Mel Pratt for the Mel Pratt collection, National Library of Australia