1929 - 1990 | NSW | Journalist, editor & publisher
Max Newton lived a life of brilliance and tragedy. He trained as an economist and became a journalist, editor, publisher and brothel owner who was foundation editor of both of Australia’s nationally circulating dailies. In 1963 he edited the Australian Financial Review when it became a daily and in 1964 was The Australian’s first editor. He later published political and trade newsletters, regional newspapers and the Sunday Observer in Melbourne before booze, drugs and bankruptcy lured him into pornography and brothels. In 1980 he found redemption as the financial editor of the New York Post, with his work widely syndicated.
Max Newton was the pioneering editor of two great national daily papers, The Australian Financial Review and The Australian. He went on to publish industry newsletters and became a lobbyist and advocate for lower tariffs and economic deregulation and a Canberra-based publisher of an array of business and rural newspapers.
Newton later became publisher of a seamy Melbourne weekly he famously described as being full of “tits, trots, track and TAB”. Access to that press allowed him to venture also in comics and pornography, and, given the synergies with prostitution and newspaper advertising, ownership of a brothel, as well as prolific use of drugs, legal and illegal, and alcohol.
When his business, not surprisingly collapsed, Newton departed for the United States, where he reinvented himself as a widely syndicated right wing economic commentator, financial editor of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, and author of a book on the American monetary system.
Born in 1929, Newton studied at the Perth Modern School, numbering among his contemporaries Bob Hawke and John Stone, men for whose life achievement and intellectual acumen he never had much respect. These two were to win Rhodes Scholarships to Oxford; Newton for his part won an equally rigorous, if not so prestigious Hackett Scholarship to study economics at Clare College, Cambridge, taking first class honours in economics and the Adam Smith Prize.
He took a position in the economics department of the Bank of NSW (now Westpac), running a battery business on the side. His first ventures into journalism involved writing letters to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, strongly criticizing the economic policies of the coalition government. These brought him to the attention of Herald editor John Pringle who introduced him to managing director R.A. Henderson. Both, according to Gavin Souter in Company of Heralds were impressed by the “big, thick, gap-toothed, raucous-voiced young man with the kind of vitality that reminded some people of the young Frank Packer; he had the same larrikin approach to life but he had intellectual distinction as well.” Henderson once described Newton as the only person he had ever regarded as his equal.
Newton was first involved in feature writing. In 1957, he was sent to Canberra as the Herald’s political correspondent, with a task of also writing commentary for the then-weekly Australian Financial Review. In 1960, Newton became editor of the AFR, quickly broadening its coverage and shifting its focus away from company and business affairs. He was far more interested in politics and macro-economics, as well as industry politics, tariffs, industrial relations and even education, welfare and cultural affairs. He famously once dismissed the pages of stock-exchange tables as “the Chinese section”.
Under Newton’s editorship, the AFR pioneered the use of seasonally adjusted statistics, and produced and developed a generation of economically literate journalists, of whom perhaps the most famous was to be Max Walsh. Within a year he took the paper to being a bi-weekly and, two years later, into a nationally circulating Monday to Friday newspaper.
The 1960-61 credit squeeze saw the Fairfax organisation become bitterly critical of the Menzies Government and to make an unlikely compact with Arthur Calwell, leader of the Labor Party. At the 1961 election, Newton, at Fairfax direction, helped write the Labor policy speech, and to write Labor press releases, all the while coordinating hostile criticism of the government through the AFR.
Newton quit Fairfax in March 1964 after it abruptly reversed its position on Menzies. He said he had lost confidence in and respect for the board, particularly after a “dishonest and even contemptible” editorial insisted upon by the Chairman, Warwick Fairfax.
Soon after Newton was snapped up by Rupert Murdoch to be the founding editor of The Australian, launched in 1964. He was thus involved at the conception of both of Australia’s continuing national daily newspapers.
The Australian set new standards in design, style and approach to the news, and Newton, with Murdoch, quickly recruited, inspired and enthused a brilliant, breezy and confident staff. But owner and editor were soon to clash, not least over Murdoch’s hands-on approach to his baby, and Newton resigned after only a year.
But he was swift to find his feet again, first as a correspondent to The Economist and the (London) Financial Times, and then as a newsletter publisher retailing business and economic intelligence and gossip, and insider understanding of the politics of Australian treasury, trade, tariff and agricultural policies.
Newton’s newsletter was remarkably well informed. Deputy Prime Minister John McEwen came to believe that the then Treasurer, Billy McMahon, was leaking details of Cabinet decisions as well as Treasury materials critical of Country Party trade and tariff policies. McEwen used this belief to veto the election of McMahon as prime minister after the death of Harold Holt in 1968.
With Newton having clients and customers including foreign embassies, such as Japan, McEwen also argued that Newton should register as an agent of foreign powers. He was also enraged by Newton’s advocacy of the interests of margarine manufacturers at the expense of (McEwen believed) the dairy industry. Newton and his small but focused team reveled in the controversy, even in what proved (for the government) to be a disastrous raid on Newton’s premises by Commonwealth policemen searching for stolen government documents. Justice Russell Fox of the ACT Supreme Court found the search warrant invalid.
Newton was forming wider alliances and associations, establishing (for Lang Hancock and Peter Wright) the Perth Sunday Independent in 1969, and, later that year, buying the Daily Commercial News, a shipping and commercial newspaper (and his third national publication). He was also buying a state of the art offset press in Canberra, from which he built a big stable of rural newspapers as well as a Canberra Sunday throwaway, containing delicious social gossip.
In 1971, Newton acquired the presses of Gordon Barton’s Sunday Observer, using them not only to publish a new Observer, but also an array of music and entertainment magazines, Marvel Comics, published under his own imprint, and an array of soft and hard-core pornography.
If he had a certain genius for inventing new businesses, Newton was by now distracting himself too much for any sort of effective management or self-control. His empire collapsed. When the fog shifted from his mind some years later, he was very much again the sort of journalist he had begun: brilliant, eccentric, pioneering and, often, alas, intemperate and irascible. He died in 1990.
Newton was described in a loving, but fair, biography by his daughter Sarah as “among other things an extraordinarily gifted economist, a newspaper editor, a scholar, a highly respected financial mastermind … a political agitator and undercover operator … a brothel owner … a husband three times over, a father of six, a grandfather of five, an alcoholic and drug addict … a showman extraordinaire, an emotional weakling, yet a man of enormous courage and one of the most generous beings to bless this earth.”
Jack Waterford is a former editor, editor-in-chief and editor-at-large of The Canberra Times. He first met Max Newton when Newton's Fyshwick printing presses were printing Woroni, the ANU student newspaper, a newspaper Waterford also once edited in the early 1970s.
Max Newton, in Gavin Souter's Company of Heralds
Company of Heralds, Gavin Souter, Melbourne University Press, 1981
Maxwell Newton, a biography, Sarah Newton, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993
No Return Ticket, Clyde Packer, Angus & Robertson, 1984
Scandals, Rodney Tiffin, University of NSW Press, 1999
A complex man, drawn warts and all, Richard Farmer, Canberra Times, 17 September 1993