1920 - 1996 | Northern Territory | Editor
Jim Bowditch was the audacious, crusading, hard-drinking editor of the Northern Territory News for 18 years from 1955, transforming it into a campaigning, more left-leaning paper that fought for Indigenous rights and a better deal for the territory from Canberra. After winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal fighting with special forces in Borneo in World War II, the London-born Bowditch was captured by the Australian egalitarian spirit which earned him enemies amongst some business people and bureaucrats. He won a Walkley award in 1959 for Best Provincial Newspaper Story. In 1973, he was removed as editor by Rupert Murdoch in a dispute over an obituary he wrote about a prominent local businessman that was not published on the orders of the newspaper's manager.
Acting on a tip that a soldier settlement scheme would be established soon in Central Australia, London-born James Frederick “Big Jim” Bowditch arrived in Alice Springs in 1948 to take up the position as paymaster clerk in the Works and Housing Department. As a teenager who had worked his passage to Australia in 1937 and experienced farm life in New South Wales and Queensland, he was keen to become a cattleman.
Bowditch was a returned serviceman. He’d fought at Tobruk and Milne Bay and as a commando with the “Z” Special Force in Borneo - winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal, an award second only to the Victoria Cross for gallantry by soldiers. He intended to be in a prime position to apply for land in the Northern Territory to achieve his dream. He had even done an animal husbandry correspondence course as part of the plan.
The soldier settlement scheme never eventuated, but Bowditch became deeply involved in the life of the frontier town (population about 2000) taking part in cricket, amateur theatricals, debating, politics, union affairs and chess competitions.
As secretary of the Alice Springs section of the South Australian branch of the Federated Clerks’ Union, Bowditch wrote for its newsletter The Clerk, under the byline “Doop the Snoop”. He campaigned for people being unjustly treated by government departments and private enterprise. Aware of the racist attitudes to Aboriginal people in Alice, Bowditch became known as the only white man in town who would talk to and help “half castes”.
He and his wife Iris took children home from an Anglican home at weekends for a special treat. Those who wanted to improve the lot of Aboriginal lives were disparagingly referred to in print as “The Goodies”.
Because of his deep political and union involvement, Bowditch came under the scrutiny of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, heightened by the Menzies Government‘s Communist Party Dissolution Bill of 1950.
His involvement in so many issues and organisations put great strain on the marriage. After Iris left him and returned to her parents in Melbourne, Bowditch took leave from his job and went to Adelaide for a break. Watched by ASIO and uncertain about his future, he considered enlisting to join the fighting in Korea. Instead, he returned to Alice and became editor of The Centralian Advocate.
He quickly became a fearless and audacious editor and his reputation spread north. In 1955, he was offered the position as managing editor of the Northern Territory News in Darwin, first printed on 8 February 1952 in a bid to stifle the strident Northern Standard, run by the North Australian Workers’ Union.
Bowditch swung into gear and was soon rattling the NT administration by probing gambling dens which seemed to have police protection, an honest cop “banished to the bush” for helping him. Circulation almost doubled because of Bowditch’s lively reporting. Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 1960 and he and Jim had a close association in those early days of the rising media mogul’s career.
Bowditch often became the news. He arranged to meet in a stormwater drain an escaped Fannie Bay Jail prisoner, who had been shot at by police in a manhunt, and persuaded him to hand himself in. He hid stayput Malay divers who were ordered out of the country after the collapse of the pearl shell industry – driving them to a secret location south of Darwin and thwarting the extensive manhunt for them. He helped hide Portuguese sailors who had jumped ship and sought political asylum. He campaigned against the RAAF to stop the bombing of a nearby island that hosted a Dreamtime spring and was a breeding ground for turtles.
During a council garbage collectors’ strike, local councillors had to collect the rubbish themselves. This created headlines in the British newspapers and delighted cartoonists. Bowditch defended the garbos, much to the fury of the mayor who invited Bowditch to the mayoral residence where they wrestled in the rose garden.
In November 1961, a major story broke in Dutch New Guinea when Michael Rockefeller, son of the New York governor, was last seen swimming for shore after his catamaran was swamped during an anthropological expedition. In search of a scoop, Bowditch offered to fly from Darwin in a light aircraft and parachute into the area because of Dutch reluctance to allow landing permission.
To prepare himself for the proposed daring mission, Bowditch borrowed a parachute and practised wartime jumping and rolling from his desk in the News office, between a few drinks and laughs.
Bowditch joined a moratorium march against the Vietnam War and was attacked by some members of the RSL. He led the historic Gurindji land rights struggle, causing headlines down south.
Bowditch won a Walkley Award in 1959 for Best Provincial Newspaper Story for his report on the top-end search and rescue of the luxury yacht Sea Fox and its American showman skipper John Calvert, who was accompanied by a young Filipino woman and a smoking, beer-drinking pet chimpanzee named Jimmy.
The fabulous Bowditch era at the News, ended abruptly after an editorial he wrote about Darwin’s richest man, Michael Paspalis, following his death on 17 October 1972. The article was pulled by the paper’s manager and a new editor was appointed, causing a strike by staff and an industrial arbitration hearing.
Much has been said and written about Big Jim’s “hard drinking”, a legacy of his extraordinary wartime experiences - experiences that steeled his antipathy to war and injustice.
In August 1945 Sergeant Bowditch was deployed with his commando unit along the Kahala River in Borneo when 50 Japanese came upriver in native canoes and attacked in overwhelming force a small Australian post. Leading the rescue party, Bowditch and his men sank all of the canoes, killed 30 of the enemy in fierce hand-to-hand fighting and put the rest to flight. That action earned him the DCM and the American Bronze Star.
But Bowditch would be haunted by another incident during that same mission before the Allied capture of Tarakan. He had paddled in to gain intelligence and killed a young sentry who had suddenly surprised him – then mutilated the body in a bid to convince the Japanese that he had been attacked by a native, rather than part of the invading Allied force.
In an interview before his death in 1996, Bowditch said: “That nasty killing stayed with me for some years. I guess others had the same nightmarish problems after that kind of war murder.” He would weep at the memory of a “young Japanese lad in uniform …who had no chance.”
Peter Simon worked on newspapers and magazines in Australia and New Zealand, including four years under Bowditch from 1958. He served as Press Secretary to the Northern Territory ALP Leader of the Opposition and on the staff of a South Australian senator. He operates the blog littledarwin.blogspot.com
Bowditch, with first wife, Iris, at Adelaide investiture where he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for wartime braver. Courtesy of Peter Simon and Little Darwin blog
Northern Territory News in 1954 when the right hand side verandah with push out windows and several partitions provided primitive accommodation for the manager and his family. Courtesy of Peter Simon and Little Darwin blog
Stayput Malay divers story, NT News
1979 celebrations of 25 years of NT News. Courtesy of Peter Simon and Little Darwin blog
Cover of Whispers from the North
Jim Bowditch, in a 'classic Jim pose'. Darwin, Northern Territory, before Cyclone Tracy, late 1974. Courtesy of Kerry Byrnes.
Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, NTU Press, 1992
Whispers from the North, Jim Bowditch, NTU Press, 1993
'Sergeant James "Jim" Bowditch – A Memory of World War Two', Alan Powell, Northern Territory Historical Studies, No. 29, 2018: 80-83