1918 - 1993 | NSW | Financial journalist & editor
Tom Fitzgerald was the outstanding financial journalist of his era. As Financial Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald for 18 years until 1970, he combined shrewd business and economic analysis with a nose for investigations into corporate shonks. His campaigning attracted a mixture of libel writs and jail terms for his targets. He had an equally strong influence on social issues after he borrowed 5000 pounds to launch Nation with George Munster. Nation gave voice to some of the leading progressive thinkers of the time. Its campaign against the Vietnam War and the White Australia Policy helped shape the debate about Australia’s independence and place in the world.
“Force of nature” is a cliché that has fallen into disrepute through inconsiderate and repeated usage but it readily applies to Tom Fitzgerald and his illustrious career. One definition of “force of nature” states, “a thing or person that exhibits qualities which appear to be beyond outside control”, and that embraces the professional and intellectual scope of Fitzgerald’s life.
V J “Vic” Carroll, a lifelong friend and former Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review editor, summed him up this way: “Tom was the most significant journalist since World War II for expanding journalism’s horizons through the quality and quantity of his work at SMH and through the magazine he started, Nation.”
Thomas Michael Fitzgerald was born in 1918 in Sydney’s inner-city working-class suburb of Marrickville, the eldest of six children of local milkman, Tom Fitzgerald, and his Irish-born wife Elizabeth, née Trant. He received a Catholic education from the Marist Brothers (Kogarah and Darlinghurst) and the Christian Brothers (Lewisham). He benefitted from his church schooling but not its absolutist faith: in his late teens he became a devout and lifelong atheist.
Searching for financial security he joined the Commonwealth Public Service in 1936 working for the Department of Defence at Paddington’s Victoria Barracks. The premature death of his mother in 1937 and his father in 1940 put an end to his public service career and his night studies at Sydney University but not his involvement in the local distribution and price of milk: he took over his father’s milk run and became chair of the neighbourhood milk-zoning committee where he developed his keen interest in marketing and pricing.
Fitzgerald joined the RAAF in World War II and transferred to Britain where he crewed RAF B-24 Liberators on bombing missions against German submarines. Back in Australia, Flight Lieutenant Fitzgerald married Margaret Ann Pahlow in November 1945 and simultaneously began a new career as a financial journalist on The Bulletin, a boisterous political and cultural weekly magazine founded in 1880.
Ever impatient for fresh challenges, Fitzgerald moved to the Fairfax family’s Sydney Morning Herald in 1950 as commercial editor on a salary of £1,000 a year. Two years later he was promoted to financial editor and in 1956 to financial leader writer.
Fitzgerald interrupted the cosy relationship between the Fairfaxes and the city’s banks, finances houses and brokerage firms with a series of stunning exposés of shonky business practices. As publisher Richard Walsh remarked: “Tom was a man of awesome integrity at a time before investigative journalism had properly begun.” (Years later he brushed aside the offer of an Order of Australia, saying that it would not be an honour to associate with people about whom he knew enough to put behind bars.)
When the Fairfax board started to exert tighter editorial control over its publications, Fitzgerald decided to take the learned advice of New Yorker erudite boxing writer A J Leibling, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”, and announced he was leaving to start his own fortnightly magazine. Fairfax management panicked, persuaded him to stay on and gave him permission to launch Nation, financed by mortgages on his family home.
Fitzgerald formed a highly creative partnership with George Munster and collected a dazzling group of writers, including Robert Hughes, Harry Kippax, Ken Inglis, Sol Encel, Maxwell Newton, Brian Johns, Eric Walsh, Sylvia Lawson, Kurt and Maria Prerauer (writing as C.M Prerauer) and Cyril Pearl. Many penned articles under pseudonyms but others made their debut in serious-minded politics writing on defence, education, health, broadcasting and foreign affairs.
With Nation, Fitzgerald secured his place as the intellectual avant-gardist of his generation, a title he would have loathed. The first issue appeared on 26 September 1958. He held court with writers and intellectuals at Vadim’s Restaurant in Challis Street, Potts Point, every Friday night commissioning articles and debating current affairs and new ideas.
In March 1964 Oz magazine enfants terrible, Richard Neville, Richard Walsh and Martin Sharp, were charged with obscenity. Their offending issue No 6 carried a front-page photograph of Neville and two accomplices pretending to urinate into a Tom Bass sculptural fountain outside the P&O headquarters in Hunter Street, Sydney, which had been recently opened by Prime Minister Menzies.
Fitzgerald agreed to give evidence for the defendants and Walsh, who later became CEO of Kerry Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press, said: “His face was like a moon rising within the witness box, dwarfed by his pressman’s hat, which sat atop the woodwork, and with the sunlight bouncing off his baldness. But his quiet sincerity was a show-stopper.”
Fitzgerald was the first to admit that one of the biggest mistakes of his life was to fall under the spell of Rupert Murdoch, leave Fairfax in 1971 and accept the job of News Limited’s editor-in-chief. When it all ended in tears, Fitzgerald told his trusted colleague Angus McLachlan that his decision to join Murdoch had been “a disastrous mistake”. McLachlan’s private diary continued: “He considered Murdoch a cheat and utterly unreliable and untrustworthy. Fitzgerald said that no-one working for Murdoch would have any editorial independence.”
In 1972 he sold Nation to maverick businessman Gordon Barton who merged it with his paper, The Review, to form Nation Review. Richard Walsh, the new paper’s first editor, recalled: “When Barton and I negotiated to acquire Nation, he refused to haggle over money but concentrated all his efforts on ensuring that his hard-working collaborator, George Munster, would be properly remunerated and respected. I had first read Nation when I was at school in the 1950s; Tom had been an inspiration for the whole of my working life.”
From 1976 until 1983 Fitzgerald worked as an economic adviser in NSW Premier Neville Wran’s ministerial advisory unit, aka the “mau mau”. He accompanied acting Premier Jack Ferguson to a Premiers’ Conference where Federal Treasury officials treated him with the utmost respect. Ferguson’s trusty press adviser Fred Smidt recalled: “Tom was a financial genius who had the ability to reduce the most complicated financial matters to something that even a politician could understand. A humble man, he always provided reasoned advice in a very low-key manner.”
Fitzgerald died in St Vincent’s Hospital on 25 January 1993 survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters. He was cremated at a private ceremony.
Alex Mitchell has spent 50 years in newspapers in Australia and the UK as a court and crime reporter, political writer, foreign correspondent, investigative reporter and columnist.
Tom Fitzgerald in 1990. Courtesy of Fairfax.
‘Fitzgerald, Thomas Michael (Tom) 1918-1993’, Australian Dictionary of Biography website, ANU, 2017.
Rediscovering Nation Review, David Olds, Flinders University Theses, 2016