1901 - 1982 | Victoria | Journalist & Publisher
Autocratic, idiosyncratic and hard drinking Williams oversaw the Herald and Weekly Times growth into the country’s biggest media group, first as managing director from 1953 to 1964 and as executive chairman until 1970. Feared and respected, he was a hands-on champion of The Sun News Pictorial and identified strongly with its “family” readership. He would view and alter final copy and occasionally phone in reports of events he had witnessed on the city streets. He brought a new level of fairness to political reporting, opposed the White Australia policy and clashed with Premier Sir Henry Bolte on capital punishment.
Jack Williams was the complete newspaperman, whose career spanned six decades. He began as a casual, reporting on rugby matches in his hometown of Grafton, NSW, just after WWI. When he retired in 1970 he was the undisputed head of the country’s largest newspaper and media group, the Herald and Weekly Times Limited.
Unlike other press barons of his era, Williams did not need public recognition or want to be a proprietor. He disliked being photographed, had few friends and was totally absorbed by his work.
Journalist Geoffrey Tebbutt summed up his complex character respectfully: “difficult, prickly, unpredictable, demanding, moody, obstinate, suspicious, sceptical, capricious, impatient”, but equally “helpful, responsive, considerate, tolerant, amiable, practical, resilient, understanding. And above all, humane and generous…”
Not much got past him. Williams could – and on occasion would – undertake everyday tasks, view and alter final copy. He worked weekends, scrutinised journalists’ expenditure carefully, read the house newspapers, watched the television channel HSV7 and listened to the company radio station 3DB in the small hours of the morning, as announcers sometimes discovered the next day. His staff feared and respected him.
From the time he took over in bizarre circumstances following the death of Sir Keith Murdoch in 1952, Williams’ values and controlling management style shaped a golden age of media and growing newspaper circulation for the HWT enterprise.
John Francis Williams was born on 16 June 1901 at Grafton NSW, one of six children to a jeweller and watchmaker, and educated at Sydney High School. He did well at English and aspired to be a journalist. Aged eighteen, he joined the Sydney Evening News reporting on rugby union football matches, then The Bulletin as a financial writer for its ‘Wildcat’ column.
Together with The Bulletin’s financial editor Harold Burston, Williams joined the HWT in Melbourne in 1924. Williams was an early Murdoch protégé and as a financial writer a source of private information and advice.
Williams covered the stock exchange and civic round and in 1932 succeeded Burston as The Herald’s chief financial writer. A member of the Australian Journalists Association, he became its general treasurer. That ended in 1933 when he assumed a senior editorial role and the AJA awarded him its Gold Honour Badge.
In 1933, he was sent to Broken Hill to edit The Barrier Miner, circulation 5000. Williams was also working for Murdoch personally as the HWT and senior executives, including Murdoch, had acquired the Miner and its parent company News Limited. Williams did all aspects of the work himself, selling advertising in the morning, writing editorials during lunchtime and putting the paper out in the afternoon.
He returned to Melbourne in 1935 as assistant manager and was acting manager during Murdoch’s absence overseas in 1936. In 1937, Williams was appointed managing editor and managing director of Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd, publishers of The Courier-Mail and The Sunday Mail and he qualified as an accountant.
Despite wartime difficulties, in which The Courier-Mail was reduced to four pages, five days a week, circulation had risen from 75,000 to 157,000 when Williams returned to Melbourne at the end of 1945.
The retirement of Murdoch stalwarts Hugh Adam (assistant editor-in-chief) and Sun News-Pictorial editor George Taylor in 1946 provided vacancies for Williams and Waters back in Melbourne.
With Sir Keith withdrawing from day-to-day management, Williams emerged, almost imperceptibly, as a powerful figure. He championed the tabloid Sun News-Pictorial that was eating into the rival Argus’ circulation, took charge of the troubled colour magazine Woman’s Day, curbed his chief ’s extravagances and was privately critical of Murdoch’s conflicts of personal interest with those of the company.
Late in 1949, Williams was made managing editor on equal footing with the accountant general manager, William Dunstan, but still subsidiary to Murdoch, who decided that Williams should not succeed him.
A possible reason was Williams’ drinking. A masculine culture of drinking prevailed in journalism but Williams indulged himself. He was starting earlier during the day and could be found late of an evening in the University Club in Collins Street in a maudlin state.
At the HWT board meeting on 3 October, 1952, Murdoch obtained approval to terminate Williams’ contract. Williams, who was a non-voting member, was left in his office until told of his dismissal. But Murdoch died the following evening. An emergency board meeting overturned the decision leaving no record in the minutes and the status quo unchanged.
Williams succeeded Murdoch formally late in 1953 when he was appointed managing director. In 1964 when George Caro retired he became executive chairman. Williams retired as managing director in 1967 and as chairman in 1970, but remained a board member until 1973.
In Williams’ time the HWT extended its Melbourne-based newspaper, magazine and radio assets, secured a television licence with the launch of HSV7 (Herald-Sun Television) in 1956, purchased the Brisbane Telegraph and merged it with the Courier-Mail to form the public company Queensland Press Ltd (having acquired the Murdoch family interest in Queensland Newspapers). A survey in 1959 claimed that companies controlled by the HWT produced nearly half of all newspapers sold in Australia.
Williams supervised the purchase of The Argus from its London Daily Mirror owners in 1957 as well as its closure, the acquisition of the Bendigo Advertiser (1963), South Pacific Post Pty Ltd in Papua New Guinea (1965) and West Australian Newspapers (1969). The missing citadel was Sydney. Williams wanted the Sydney Daily Mirror in 1960 but it went to Rupert Murdoch, who the HWT board considered would fail.
Williams believed financial success to be important for a newspaper or media group in order for it to remain independent. The beneficiaries were the shareholders through annual dividends, bonus issues and a fifteen-fold increase in market value over fourteen years. To counter vulnerability to takeover he designed a complicated interlocking system of holdings with associated group companies that proved effective in his lifetime.
He had a personal sense of the readership. Keith Dunstan recalls him telling journalists that The Sun was “a family newspaper” whose typical reader lived “in a triple-fronted brick veneer in Moorabbin, was married, with two children … struggling on a mortgage … and a mental age of 14.” He believed its readers were conservative and easily shocked. The chorus of his journalists’ satirical “Sun anthem” (sung to the music of The Red Flag) ran:
So wave the people’s paper high, and shout aloud our battle cry: Let’s shun the news that seems obscene and keep the breakfast reading clean.
Williams cultivated politicians and business leaders, was a member of Victorian Liberal leader and premier T. T. ‘Tom’ Hollway’s notorious “kitchen cabinet” and, after 1955, hosted late afternoon Flinders Street boardroom drinks with Victorian Premier Henry Bolte and Chief Secretary Arthur Rylah. He was rewarded with a knighthood on New Year’s Day, 1958, an election year for Victoria.
Williams wrote under his own by-line but his views and values were expressed more directly through editorial influence. Political news was probably reported more fairly than before, but HWT support for state and Federal Liberal and Country Party administrations remained crucial at election time. HWT newspapers opposed both the death sentence issued in 1961 to the psychopathic murderer Robert Peter Tait, subsequently commuted, and the hanging in 1966 of Ronald Ryan. Williams’ relationship with Bolte was never the same afterwards.
Williams was of medium height and dour expression and in his later years especially had a gravelly voice and a twisted face – “features you couldn’t miss”. Although impatient, prickly and lacking warmth, he was not a vindictive or sacking boss. His undertaker role with The Argus pained him and many former Argus staff found berths at the HWT.
He carried on a version of Murdoch’s paternalism and continued to eulogise him as “the Boss” who had built the company, despite what he knew of Murdoch’s manipulation of HWT affairs for his own benefit. To a new generation of HWT employees though, Williams was the boss. Ultimately, he was a transitional figure: a journalist manager with financial training and a controlling personal style. Those trained wholly as finance men who succeeded him were not as successful.
In his last years Williams suffered from diminished eyesight. He had a stroke in July 1980 and died in an East Melbourne nursing home on 31 March 1982.
David Dunstan is a historian and writer who lectures at Monash University. He has written extensively about Melbourne politics, history, sport and wine. He is the son of Melbourne journalist Keith Dunstan and grandson of William Dunstan, both of whom worked for the HWT, with and for Sir John Williams.
The Herald and Weekly Times building in Flinders St in the 1960s
Bolte: a Political Biography, Peter Blazey, Milton, Qld, 1972.
‘Williams, Sir John Francis (1901–1982)’, David Dunstan, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
No Brains at All: An Autobiography, Keith Dunstan, 1990, Viking O’Neil, Ringwood.
The Hanged Man: the Life & Death of Ronald Ryan, 2002, Mike Richards, 2002, Melbourne, Scribe Publications.
Strive to be Fair, Don Whitington, 1977, Australian National University Press, Canberra.
Keith Murdoch: Founder of a Media Empire, R. M. Younger, 2003, HarperCollins Publishers, Sydney.