1904–1951 | Queensland & NSW | Editor
Brian Penton was one of Australia’s most controversial, courageous, outrageous and effective newspaper editors. He preached classic liberalism as a columnist, editor, novelist, bohemian, litigant, sailor and visionary. Under his editorship, the Sydney Daily Telegraph in the 1940s engaged its readers with new intellectual ideas and challenged the prevailing political and moral beliefs. Penton made many enemies amongst the Establishment, so much so that his reputation as a great editor was banished for nearly half a century after his death.
More than 30 years before the publication of The Lucky Country, Brian Penton used the Daily Telegraph in Sydney to try to shake Australia from its complacency and laziness and to examine its place in the changing geopolitical climate.
Penton’s wartime editorship of the Daily Telegraph was a feat of sustained intellectual and political energy, which succeeded, in the teeth of acute labour shortages, newsprint rationing and political censorship, in harnessing some of the best minds in the country to the tasks of comprehending, first, the scale and significance of the global conflict, and then of re-imagining Australia’s place in a post-war world.
In 1943–44, for example, by partnering with the ABC’s two Sydney radio stations, and the armed forces listening groups, the Telegraph managed to elicit interrelated articles, talks, panel discussions, and readers’ letters around a series of Big Issues: “Australia’s Global Problems” was one.
Penton was a divisive figure, surrounded in the later years of his editorship by a small group of loyal colleagues, but feared and disliked by many others, especially in the aftermath of the journalists strike of October 1944, in which he sided strongly with Frank Packer and victimised some senior strikers, such as Edgar Holt, Richard Hughes and Don Whitington - none of whom ever forgave him.
No-one, however, could deny his courage in standing up to the Federal Government earlier that year in the “Censorship Crisis”, when he and Cyril Pearl printed editions of the Sunday Telegraph and Daily Telegraph with prominent blank spaces as a protest against government censorship of politically embarrassing information. Whole print-runs were seized at gunpoint by federal police.
Three years later Penton published a full account of the incident, Censored (1947), relating it to the chronic weakness of Australian liberal democracy.
The divisiveness of Penton’s career meant that his significance was largely unrecognised until decades later when many of his views seemed more mainstream.
Penton’s career started in Brisbane, where he was born in 1904, attended Brisbane Grammar School, started as a copyboy on the Brisbane Courier Mail in 1921, and took some courses in the new Diploma of Journalism at the University of Queensland. In early 1924 he married Olga Moss, an elegant bohemian intellectual seven years his senior, who taught Latin at Brisbane Girls’ Grammar.
A year later they moved to Sydney, where Penton – after a surprisingly fast trip, alone, to London and back in the first half of 1925 – landed a job as junior reporter with the Sydney Morning Herald. Here he made his mark with a brilliantly witty, often very funny, but occasionally serious column called ‘From the Gallery’, a daily report on proceedings in the New South Wales parliament from August 1925 to March 1927, and in the new national parliament in Canberra from September 1927 until his resignation a year later.
Not for the last time, his abrasive ridicule nettled some powerful politicians – in this case probably Sir Earle Page – enough to have him recalled from Canberra. Others, notably Billy Hughes and the Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, sometimes used him as a speech-writer.
Early in 1929 he set sail for England again, to be followed a few months later by Olga, this time in hopes of finding a job on Fleet Street, but apart from some casual work with the Daily Express and the Daily Mail – including an interview with Tallulah Bankhead – he had little success.
Much of his five-year stint in London was spent managing the Fanfrolico Press - a short-lived but moderately successful printer and publisher of fine classical editions, the brainchild of Jack Lindsay and “Inky” Stephensen; writing for their journal the London Aphrodite; and pursuing his own ambitions as a novelist.
In late 1933, Penton returned to Sydney to a job as a regular columnist with the Telegraph, then with the Associated Newspapers group. His daily column, ‘The Sydney Spy’, with byline and photograph, gave plenty of scope to his malevolent wit, curious learning, cultured cosmopolitanism and love of sailing.
Together with his sudden fame as the author of Landtakers (1934), a dark and brutal novel about pastoral pioneering in south-east Queensland, the column gave him wide recognition in Sydney at the time. ‘The Spy’ continued until his resignation some two years later, prior to the takeover of the paper by Consolidated Press.
After a holiday in Spain, where Penton finished Inheritors, a sequel to Landtakers, the Pentons returned in 1936, and Brian joined the new Daily Telegraph, where he rose from literary editor to news editor, and succeeded Clarence McNulty as editor in 1941.
During these years Penton developed a strong interest in national politics and international relations and was forthright in attacking fascism abroad and defence complacency at home. As a professed “classical liberal”, he admired and supported politicians from both sides of the party-political divide who he thought best represented that tradition, from Billy Hughes and Bill Wentworth to Bob Menzies and Bert Evatt, and savagely ridiculed those, like Eddie Ward, Arthur Calwell or Archie Cameron, whom he regarded as dangerously illiberal.
His short book, Think – Or Be Damned! (1941), a vigorously iconoclastic assault on complacency, hypocrisy and self-delusion in Australia, brought together many of the themes of his leaders, reviews and feature articles from the preceding few years. People who were around at the time spoke of it decades later as one of the most memorable publications of the war years. A second book, Advance Australia – Where? (1943) addressed similar themes in a more measured and philosophical style, with a focus on the future.
After the war, the process became a little more one-dimensional with Penton’s regular Saturday essay ‘Why We Said It’ (1945-47) summarising the previous week’s editorials. As Donald Horne, a Telegraph cadet at the time, observed: “Penton wanted his readers to see Saturday as revision day”.
That didactic strain also appeared in Penton’s much-admired (if often parodied) Guide to Cadets, first introduced in 1946, in which, in addition to helpful advice about defamation, interviewing, bias-avoidance, and typefaces, the notorious Telegraph house style was defined: avoidance of passive verbs, abstract nouns, long sentences, subsidiary clauses and circumlocutions. And as if mastering the Guide were not rigorous enough, cadets in Telegraph training attended weekly lectures and sat for examinations based on a required reading list that included many of Penton’s favourites: Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann and Henry Handel Richardson.
In 1943, William Dobell had painted a portrait of Penton, which was entered for the Archibald Prize in the same year as Dobell’s controversial winning portrait of Joshua Smith. Penton entered into the controversy with gusto, clearly revelling in the attention it drew to his own unusual – some said diabolical – physiognomy, a feature he had traded on for years as a key to the darker sides of his personality. Unlike Lucifer, however, he was not immortal, and he died in 1951 at the age of 47, after a long battle with cancer.
Patrick Buckridge is a literary historian and former head of the School of Humanities at Griffith University. He is Brian Penton’s biographer.
Telegraph and Herald staff member Brian Penton, New South Wales, 15 September 1934, p4. Courtesy of Fairfax
The Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, Canberra, 1927.
Brian Penton at the helm of the Josephine in Sydney, Hobart Race, 1947.
The Scandalous Penton, Patrick Buckridge, UQP, 1994
Landtakers: The Story of an Epoch, Brian Penton, Endeavour Press, Sydney, 1934
Inheritors. Brian Penton, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1936
Advance Australia - Where? Brian Penton, Cassell & Co, Sydney, 1943
Think - Or Be Damned, Brian Penton, Halstead Press, Sydney, 1941
Censored! Brian Penton, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1946