1914 - 2000 | NSW | War correspondent, columnist & editor
David McNicoll’s 66-year career included writing the Sydney Morning Herald’s first gossip column and Town Talk in the Daily Telegraph, the first column to appear regularly on the front page of a daily paper. McNicoll was appointed a war correspondent by Frank Packer in 1944 and remained a loyal lieutenant for 50 years as a columnist, consultant and editor. McNicoll was noted for two world scoops; an interview with Argentine leader Juan Peron and the first interview with Nelson Mandela in prison at Robben Island. He spent many years promoting Press freedom through the International Press Institute and the Australian Press Council.
David McNicoll was a born columnist who cut a unique figure in Australian journalism in a career spanning 66 years. Though every inch the professional, he was not your average journalist. What set him apart was his gentlemanly style coupled with arch conservatism, which often sparked controversy. But in every-day affairs he related easily to people, he could swear at times, he liked a drink, he was a devotee of horseracing and he loved good clothes.
Sometimes known as “Dapper Dave”, he was the epitome of the urbane, charming man-about-town, at ease with the Sydney social set, royalty, high-profile politicians and any number of VIPs. But for all his controversial attitudes, he was the sort of person you couldn’t help liking.
He was staunchly loyal to the Packer family and the Packer media group, which he served for 50 years as journalist, editor and columnist. He only stopped writing his weekly Opinion column in the Bulletin and retired after suffering a stroke in 1980. Though the views he expressed in that column were sometimes dubbed outdated and irrelevant, it was one of the magazine’s most popular features and advertisers were said to clamour for space on the opposite page.
Born in Geelong, Victoria, on 1 December 1914, son of Brigadier-General Sir Walter Ramsay McNicoll, he was educated at Scotch College, Melbourne. He lived most of his life in Sydney where his career began in 1933 when he joined the Sydney Morning Herald as a cadet journalist.
He became the Herald’s first gossip columnist – writing light, mainly social paragraphs under the name “Jack Meander” when World War II broke out. McNicoll was a contender to become the Herald’s war correspondent with the AIF, but when this went to Guy Harriott, he obtained leave of absence and enlisted in the Army. He served in the Middle East and Cyprus with the AIF’s 7th Division Cavalry and rose to the rank of captain, though he always maintained he was a “hopeless soldier”.
Through a chance meeting with Frank Packer at a cocktail party in Melbourne in early 1944, he became a war correspondent for Packer’s Daily Telegraph. Sent to cover the Allied D-Day invasion of Europe, he was accredited to General George S. Patton’s US Third Army. He relished the five months he spent with Patton as the “most exciting time of his life”, reporting on the Third Army’s Normandy breakout and its pursuit of the Germans until it ran out of fuel at Metz. He also made it to Paris to cover the liberation. Recalled by Packer, he was on his way to New York when the Germans launched their Ardennes counter offensive (Battle of the Bulge), but was not sorry to have missed it.
While in America, McNicoll brought off a world scoop interview with the Argentine dictator, Juan Peron. In another assignment, which was to have far-reaching consequences, he spent some time studying the work of American columnists. On his return to Sydney, this led to the launching in February 1946, of Town Talk, the first regular front-page column to appear in an Australian newspaper. In a Walter Winchell-Earl Wilson style, McNicoll wrote the column for five years before going on to become editor-in-chief of Australian Consolidated Press on the retirement of E. W. MacAlpine in November 1953. He was to hold the position for nearly 20 years.
Apart from his years as a columnist, McNicoll also became well-known to the Australian public as the moderator for many years of television’s Meet the Press. When the Packers sold the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph to Rupert Murdoch in 1973, McNicoll resigned to freelance until, a few months later, Frank Packer phoned with the offer of columnist and editorial consultant to the Bulletin. He remained a consultant, occupying an office clogged with memorabilia, until illness overtook him in 1999.
In his war reporting, McNicoll never glamorised conflict. Seeing the human side of war, he brought the columnist’s touch through telling, evocative prose. Down the years, what has often been overlooked is McNicoll’s poetry, most of it written during the war. Kenneth Slessor considered his 1941 poem, Air Mail Palestine, ‘one of the best and certainly one of the most haunting Australian poems which the last war produced’.
In his 1979 autobiography, Luck’s A Fortune, McNicoll said he had been amazed at his own good fortune. Luck certainly walked with him throughout his career, which never looked back after his chance meeting with Frank Packer in 1944. Of his wide-ranging experiences in journalism, from the D-Day landings to the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco, getting to know Princess Margaret and many other prominent people, he once said: “I think we had the best of it. We had the salad days. It has been a fascinating haul with very few moments of regret”. It was, he said, a “dream run”.
McNicoll was made a Commander of the Order of British Empire in 1969 for services to journalism and later created a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur by the French Government. He devoted many years to the International Press Institute, as well as to the Australian Press Council, which awarded him its inaugural medal.
John Farquharson, who died in 2016, worked for the Canberra Times for 22 years. This article was adapted from his obituary of McNicoll published in the Times.
Courtesy of Fairfax
Luck’s a Fortune, David McNicoll, Wildcat Press, Sydney, 1979.
Air Mail Palestine, with Other Verse and Some Prose, David McNicoll, Dymocks Book Arcade, 1943.