Vic Carroll

1924 -        |    NSW    |    Editor

Carroll would get a podium finish in the quest to identify Australia’s greatest 20th century editor. No-one had a greater influence on more quality publications. During a 30-year career at Fairfax, he led The Australian Financial Review when it became a major influence on the national economic policy debate. He launched The National Times which for years set the pace in investigative reporting and national security issues. He edited The Sydney Morning Herald during its revival as a great newspaper in the 1980s. Above all, Carroll identified, nurtured, encouraged and promoted reporters and editors who became industry leaders for decades.

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Biography

V.J. 'Vic' Carroll
By ANDREW CLARK

V.J. (Vic) Carroll is the giant of Australia’s post-war journalism. Whether it was as editor, or through his technical skills, knowledge of Australian politics, economics and business, grasp of world history, ability to pick and nurture talent, curiosity, capacity to ask the right question or ramrod integrity, Carroll leaves behind a unique editorial legacy.

He infused Australian journalism with intellectual punch, business savvy, scepticism, and flair. Irrespective of formal roles, Carroll was the real head of an editorial triumvirate with Max Suich and Max Walsh that helped generate a freer, more stimulating space in Australian journalism from the mid 1960s to the late 1980s.

Others who played prominent roles in that process included Graham Perkin, who edited The Age for nine years from 1966; Adrian Deamer, who edited The Australian for three years before being summarily dismissed by Rupert Murdoch in 1971; and Richard Walsh, who edited the irreverent Nation Review weekly in the 1970s. But it was the friendly yet stern, enlightening yet remote, steel-trap-minded Carroll who was the most significant influence.

In a life spanning more than nine decades of school, war service, stockbroking, acting as a company secretary, financial reporting, editing, and family triumphs and tragedy, Vic Carroll never lost his laconic Australian ways, quietly wicked sense of humour or warm interest in the lives of friends.

Carroll was an original. Instead of a Hollywood-style editor barking orders down the phone, he was a man of few words and long silences. Indeed, a mini Kremlinology developed on the editorial floor intent on interpreting the meaning of those long silences.   ollhywood-style image of the editor barking orders down the phone, or theatruically dressing down reporters, Carroll was the man of a man of few words. But his staff quickly learned to listen to each word, because non

His understanding of the last half century of Australia’s economic history is heightened by the fact that Carroll, and the paper he edited, The Australian Financial Review, were key players in not just recording, but making, that history, and changing Australia from a prematurely sclerotic economy to one that opened up to the world.

Born on 22 July 1924, Vic Carroll was brought up in a pub and newsagent-owning family in Mackay, north Queensland, and attended boarding school in Charters Towers. He joined the Australian Army in 1942, and saw action as a gunner in New Guinea and Borneo. Demobilised at war’s end, he studied commerce at the University of Queensland and in 1950 joined the Brisbane stockbroking firm of Corser, Henderson and Hale.

In 1952, Carroll joined Brisbane’s Courier Mail as a financial journalist, and was company secretary for two years. After making some money on the stock market he travelled to England on the SS Oronsay in 1955 and met the resident nurse, Janet White. Five years later the by now married couple moved to Sydney.

Carroll worked as financial editor for The Sun-Herald, and also wrote for the then bi-weekly Australian Financial Review. In March 1964, five months after the ‘The Fin’ became a daily, the obviously able Carroll was appointed editor. In 1971, he became editor-in-chief of the AFR and the fledgling National Times, which he founded.

Around that time, Australia was suffering from the premature hardening of its economic arteries, resulting from stifling protectionism. Business, stock markets and regulation were regarded as “state matters,” according to Carroll. The AFR stood alone in encouraging a national approach.

While pressing for change, Carroll recruited a formidable group of journalists. They included Trevor Kennedy, foundation editor The National Times, then editor of The Bulletin and later Kerry Packer’s right hand man; Maximilian Walsh, a gun political correspondent who later became the AFR’s editor; Peter Robinson, who pioneered lively coverage for the paper out of Tokyo and succeeded Carroll as editor of the AFR; Max Suich, who was the AFR’s Tokyo correspondent, became editor of The National Times and was later appointed chief editorial executive of Fairfax; John Gilmour, who later became proprietor of a shoe retailing business; Trevor Sykes, who inaugurated the Pierpont column; Robert Gottliebsen, who launched the Chanticleer column; John Edwards, who later became a member of the Reserve Bank board; and Valerie Lawson, who reported on the marketing and advertising industry for the AFR, became the foundation editor of the Good Weekend magazine, was the last editor of The Times on Sunday before it folded in 1988. Lawson became Carroll’s second wife. His first wife, Janet, died after a long illness.

Working with this remarkable editorial team, Carroll changed The Financial Review from a loss-maker with a stocks-and-bonds focus to a profitable, broad business and economics daily.

Inside the old corporate structure of John Fairfax and Sons, however, the paper was treated like an editorial outrider of The Sydney Morning Herald with its “rivers of gold” classified advertising. Carroll changed that lowly status. He inspired his staff to write lively, original coverage of the nation’s affairs, ran pointed, often iconoclastic editorials, and in the process elbowed out the broadsheets to lead the national debate.

Carroll later recalled that when state premiers returned from Loan Council meetings “they were hailed as heroes for what they had won for their state”. The AFR looked at what these meetings had done for Australia as a whole: “This led to tensions in the Fairfax group, where all of its publications had been expected to follow The Sydney Morning Herald's line. Eventually the Fairfax board came to acknowledge that decentralisation of style, content and opinion was most profitable and invigorating for the company as a whole, which then entered its most prosperous years.”

The AFR became, as Vic Carroll once put it, the "intermediary" for change. Abstruse academic papers arguing for tariff reduction went through the editorial mix-master and re-emerged as the page one splash.

A stickler for detail and accuracy, he could also be mulishly independent. In his history of Fairfax – Company of Heralds – Gavin Souter records occasions when publisher Sir Warwick Fairfax reprimanded Carroll over issues such as tariff reform, and The AFR’s questioning of Australia’s military commitment to Vietnam. Carroll referred to these sessions as “getting the cuts’’ and stood his ground.

Once an enraged senior business figure rang Carroll and threatened to sue the paper for “millions” over some alleged slight. “You must do what you must do,” was Carroll’s succinct retort, before putting down the phone.

In 1970, he conceived the idea of a weekly newspaper specialising in politics, the environment, the arts and business. The National Times soon developed a reputation for breaking major stories out of Canberra, tracking the fast-changing status of women in 1970s society and shining an editorial torch on corruption and organised crime.

Carroll became editor-in-chief of both papers. His respective editors, Max Walsh at The Financial Review and Max Suich at The National Times were strong-headed and successful. Vic Carroll was never threatened by talent; he fostered it.

In 1975, Carroll was appointed head of Sungravure, Fairfax’s magazine arm. As usual he was diligent, but he was absent from “the main game.” It was remarked by colleagues at the time that management had sent Carroll to a sort of editorial Coventry for senior executives after Evan Whitton wrote a Walkley Award-winning series for The National Times on Australia’s military involvement in Vietnam, including a scathing critique of the decision to enter the conflict.

Four years later, Carroll took extended leave and could often be seen scything through the waves at Bondi Beach. (His second son, Tom, was a professional surfer who won the world title in 1983 and 1984) The sabbatical didn’t last long. Max Suich was appointed chief editorial executive at Fairfax and one of his first decisions was to install Carroll as editor, and later editor-in-chief, of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Carroll oversaw a makeover of Australia’s oldest metropolitan daily. He introduced new sections such as Metro and Good Living, with much of the original design work performed by the gifted Eric Beecher. Edited by young journalists, the new sections also attracted a younger readership, particularly among women.

In 1984 Carroll’s task renovating the SMH was done. He resigned as editor-in-chief, but remained with Fairfax, going on the board of the Newcastle Herald and the Illawarra Mercury. Later, after leaving the company, he wrote The Man Who Couldn’t Wait, about the disastrous, debt-laden, 1987-8 takeover of Fairfax by a young Warwick Fairfax.

Andrew Clark worked under Vic Carroll at The National Times in the mid 1970s. He is now a senior writer on The Australian Financial Review.

 

Vic Carroll in 1970. Courtesy of Fairfax

 

 

 

Further reading

 

The Man who Couldn’t Wait, Victor J. Carroll, William Heinemann, 1991

 

Company of Heralds, Gavin Souter, Melbourne University Press, 1981

 

Killing Fairfax, Pamela Williams, Harper Collins, 2013