Ken Inglis

1929-2017    |    Victoria    |    Journalist & Historian

Inglis was one of Australia’s finest historians, a journalist, author and pioneer of Press criticism. He spent most of his professional career at the Australian National University. Inglis wrote critically-acclaimed books including a biography of official war historian Charles Bean, a two-volume history of the ABC and Sacred Places, an exploration of Australian war memorials. A regular contributor to magazines and newspapers, he drew national attention to the case of Max Stuart, a young Aboriginal man convicted of murder and sentenced to death in South Australia.




Kenneth Stanley Inglis


When Ken Inglis picked up the phone one evening in Adelaide in mid 1958, the operator told him that Sydney was on the line. The unexpected caller was Tom Fitzgerald, financial editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, who wondered whether Inglis might be interested in becoming Adelaide correspondent for a fortnightly magazine to be called Nation.

“It was a life-changing conversation,” he recalled decades later. “Back in Australia after three years in England, teaching in a university and wanting to communicate with people outside it, I had found nowhere really comfortable to write.”

Journalism, he wrote elsewhere, had been his “only boyhood ambition” — an ambition “formed after reading Isobel Ann Shead’s novels Sandy, about a lad who became a newspaper reporter, and Mike, about another who became a radio man.” The chance to write for Nation came from the right kind of magazine at exactly the right time.

Inglis’s first attempt to become a journalist hadn’t been quite so well-timed. Near the end of the Second World War, as the 16-year-old editor of Melbourne High School’s fortnightly newspaper, the Sentinel, he had called on Harold Campbell, the editor of The Age. Campbell was kind but discouraging: too many experienced journalists were about to return from the war expecting their jobs back for positions to be available for keen youngsters.

Inglis wrote for Nation – a 24-page fortnightly — mostly in the evening, or in other moments he could spare from his day job as a lecturer in history at the University of Adelaide. There, and at the University of Papua New Guinea and the Australian National University, he wrote the books for which he is best remembered — The Stuart Case, his forensic study of the prosecution of Max Stuart; The Australian Colonists: A Social History of the Period from 1788 to 1870; his two-volume history of the ABC; and his award-winning exploration of Australian war memorials, Sacred Places.

Inglis had written for newspapers before, and he had also been an occasional contributor to Harold Levien’s magazine, Voice (1952–56), the first serious attempt to produce an Australian version of the New Statesman. But Nation was a revelation for contributors and readers alike — topical, on-time, sharply written, well-informed and, above all, independent. It gave a generation of frustrated academics and journalists – established names including W. McMahon Ball, Cyril Pearl and Geoffrey Sawer, and newscomers like Brian Johns, Sylvia Lawson and Robert Hughes – an outlet for writing that was sceptical, enquiring and serious without being dull.

Inglis’s style perfectly suited the magazine. “His interest was less in voicing disapproval than in observing the rituals, frequently arcane, usually ancient but occasionally in the process of formation, that structure our lives,” his colleague at the University of Adelaide, Robert Dare, recalled. “That required him to be sensitive to idiosyncrasy and self-delusion, paradox and contradiction, change and continuity, all of which have something to tell us about the peculiarities of our culture — and make great copy to boot. Through the pages of Nation he found a way to bring the methods of the historian to an understanding of how we live now.”

Inglis wrote on an enormous range of topics for the magazine, from the Australian tour of the radical American singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer to a Jehovah’s Witness rally in Adelaide. But mostly he wrote about the Press, and what distinguished these pieces from other reporting about newspapers and broadcasting at the time was his careful reading of their content and his attention to their visual styles.

Tom Fitzgerald was more than happy to give space to this kind of scrutiny: his ambition with Nation was to show the broadsheet papers, one of which he worked for, how to better serve their readers. The two men — tall, lanky, slightly dishevelled Ken, with his fine head of hair, and the short, neatly dressed, balding Tom, temperamentally so alike — made quite a pair.

All the characteristic elements are there in Inglis’s first piece on the Press, which describes the rivalry between the establishment Adelaide Advertiser and young Rupert Murdoch’s afternoon paper, the News. “The News and the Advertiser usually ignore each other’s existence, though they are not inflexible about it,” he writes drily, before describing an early instance of what would become Murdoch’s modus operandi: boosting his own paper by relentlessly attacking his opposition’s news as stale. “The attack rested on the undeniable fact that The Advertiser comes out in the morning and the reasonable assumption that a lot of things happen in the world which enable evening papers to report them first,” observed Inglis.

His scrutiny of the Adelaide papers became even more pointed in a series of articles about the police’s mistreatment of Max Stuart, an Aboriginal man accused of a brutal murder. One of his reports on the affair attracted the attention of a Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Tom Farrell, who flew to Adelaide, interviewed a supporter of Stuart’s, Father Thomas Dixon, and turned the case into a national issue.

Inglis’s technique is on display in a long piece about Rupert Murdoch’s boldest project, The Australian, in mid 1964. The new paper, he wrote a few days after its launch, “is, first of all, a clean and handsome thing to look at. Not all the news pages have the ‘elegant appearance’ we had been led to hope for; but compared with those of every other Australian newspaper they are, as promised, ‘uncluttered’.” But the paper’s prose was less elegant: “Contributions by such writers as Robin Boyd, Jock Marshall, Kenneth Hince and Edgar Waters read as if the layout were designed for them; some other pieces, signed and unsigned, sit there less happily.” Even more worryingly, most of page three was devoted to an extended gossip column with a horoscope. Rupert Murdoch’s contradictory impulses, and his fear of failure, were on vivid display.

Between pieces for Nation, Inglis had a chance to do the kind of journalism he’d had in mind when he’d called on the editor of the Age. In 1965 he accompanied a pilgrimage of old diggers to Gallipoli for the 50th anniversary of the Anzac landing, half his fare paid by his employer, the Australian National University, and half by The Canberra Times. He wrote seven richly reported despatches from the journey, later confiding that he had been “enraptured” to be carrying a card authorising him to send cables via London to Sydney. He would write in a similar register in several of his books, including his memorable description of his visit to Central Australia researching the extended postscript for Black Inc.’s reissue of The Stuart Case.

Living in Papua New Guinea in the late 1960s and the early 70s with his wife, the writer Amirah Inglis, and their family, Inglis wrote for The Canberra Times about PNG’s journey to independence. After Nation, he continued to write, though less frequently, for newspapers and magazines. Ten years later, a new fortnightly (later a monthly), Australian Society, was launched, and he contributed occasional pieces.

Ken Inglis was a deft, meticulous and generous writer whose prose lit up any magazine, newspaper, book or journal it appeared in. He was also great company, the possessor of a prodigious memory and an insatiable curiosity (clichés that, though accurate, would no doubt bring a smile to his face), and a source of wise counsel. As the historian Graeme Davison wrote, his “influence is not to be found in the sum of his scholarly contributions — or not in those alone — but in his influence upon others, and the unfailing generosity of spirit and acuity of mind that he has imparted to our professional and national life.”

Peter Browne is editor of Inside Story, where an earlier version of this tribute appeared.

Ken Inglis (front row, second from right), as a Queen’s College student. Courtesy of Ken Inglis and Inside Story


Ken Inglis at the Canberra War Memorial. Courtesy of Fairfax


Courtesy of Fairfax