1938 - | NSW | Business journalist & editor
Suich was among the first to foresee the impact of Australia’s iron ore boom and the importance of Japan to Australia’s economic future in the 1960s. He went to Tokyo as a freelance reporter and educated Fairfax audiences about the nation that was becoming Australia’s biggest market. Suich edited The National Times when it stimulated national debate with long-form narratives on issues, a style that migrated to other serious papers. As Chief Editorial Executive of Fairfax, Suich appointed Vic Carroll editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and gave him the resources to put it on a path to becoming a world-class newspaper.
Max Suich was born on April Fool’s Day in 1938, the same year British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a total fool of himself with Adolf Hitler. Suich made it his business never to be made a fool of as he rode an at-times edgy career right to the top. As he often said, self mockingly but accurately: “I’m an upwardly mobile Croat.”
Brought up in Sydney’s western suburbs, the able teenager Suich attended the selective Canterbury Boys’ High School, where a contemporary was John Howard. There Suich first established a reputation as someone who could argue with formidable tenacity.
He secured a cadetship at the afternoon newspaper The Sun in 1956, around the same time Max Walsh began his career at Fairfax. Suich was a fast learner, and those around him noticed something more. He was not just interested in politics, but the politics of newspapers. Curious, adaptable, witty and energetic, Suich had a psycho-conspiracy-detective bent as a reporter and a precociously sophisticated grasp of power and influence in his own industry. As one life-long Suich observer once put it, “Max was always training for the top job.”
In 1961 Suich followed the well-trodden trail of other young Australian journalists to London where he worked for the BBC. There he met the love of his life and priceless professional collaborator, Jennie.
Soon after, Suich found himself on the wrong side of a libel writ, hastening his next adventure – editing the English language Beirut Daily with staff of five, including Jennie as chief sub. It was 12 years before the outbreak of Lebanon’s 14-year civil war, but the “Paris of the Middle East” was then the sort of place where minor traffic disagreements could escalate into deadly gun-play.
In 1964 the couple returned to London where Suich was a reporter on the Labour-leaning Daily Herald, which five years later transmogrified into the Tory-hugging Sun under new proprietor Rupert Murdoch. Suich returned to Australia in 1965 and worked for a couple of years at the Sydney Sun-Herald, under the steady editorship of Fred Petersen.
A resourceful, enterprising reporter, Suich did well, breaking some major stories. However, he yearned to paint on a bigger canvas, one that was more challenging and where he would be taken more seriously. He secured a stringer role with Fairfax papers writing from Tokyo, bolstered by similar arrangements, at differing times, with radio station 2GB in Sydney, plus The Bulletin and The Observer in London.
The Australian Financial Review soon proved to be the best Tokyo gig for Suich. A year before he arrived, then ConZinc Rio Tinto (now Rio Tinto) began shipping iron ore from its Hammersley deposit in WA’s Pilbara region to Japan, signalling the start of a bilateral trade and investment boom. Suich rode that boom, and along the way changed his reputation from that of an energetic news breaker to a serious reporter, analyst and commentator on Australia’s place in Asia.
He returned in 1971 to be the AFR’s Deputy Editor under the remarkable Peter Robinson, who had served with such distinction in a similar role in Tokyo in the 50’s and early 60’s. After just a year Suich was appointed editor of The National Times, largely at the behest of Vic Carroll. He proved to be an inspired choice.
Launched in February, 1971, with the aim of reaching an audience in search of a Sunday newspaper with more serious and analytical content than was offered by existing mastheads, The National Times focussed on federal politics, business, social affairs and lifestyle. Suich gave it an edge. A combination of a restless, at times iconoclastic mind, a remorseless demand for better copy, and tabloid cheekiness jelled in a paper that explored the Whitlam era and the 70s social revolution, and uncovered extraordinary tales of crime and corruption, particularly in Sydney.
As his six-year editorship of the ‘Natty Times’ progressed, Suich notched many firsts, including his courageous publication of Evan Whitton’s brilliant dissection of Australia’s disastrous military involvement in the Vietnam War - a series published at the time of the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Around the same time, he rode the feminist wave, promoting the work of the then equally edgy feminist journalist, Anne (Dammed Whores and God’s Police) Summers.
Suich was also a canny operator with an eye for the bottom line and published endless school and wine guides amid the paper’s more hi-brow version of editorial shock-horror-probe. A man with a loud laugh and, at times, even, on louder bark when delivering orders to staff, he was an editorial ace. Friday was deadline day, but this did not prevent an otherwise ferociously hard-working Suich from occasionally patronising six to 12-hour lunches.
In 1978, Suich left The National Times and the paper never really recovered from his departure in the eight remaining years of its existence. Suich spent the next nine months reviving The Sun-Herald and further developing strong contacts with the Fairfax Board.
He was appointed Fairfax’s chief editorial executive in 1980. It was a grudging acknowledgment by the then entrenched Fairfax management of the energy, success and relevance of a group of editiorial executives led by Vic Carroll and including Suich.
Suich’s best appointment as editorial chief executive was to make Carroll editor-in-chief of the then the stagnant company flagship, The Sydney Morning Herald. Others were more mixed, and staff were never completely clear what Suich was up to, leading some to attach the adjective ‘Machiavellian’ to his name. To be fair, however, he made Fairfax a courageous, engaged editorial entity, abandoning the coarsening conformity that had at times predominated in Australia’s greatest newspaper group.
But there were limits. Publication of the “Goanna” allegations in The National Times about rival media proprietor Kerry Packer, which were based on a working paper report of the Costigan Royal Commission, added to hostility towards Fairfax among some powerful business figures in Sydney. But Fairfax editorial management under Suich tolerated, if not always encouraged, troublesome journalism that poked its nose into dirty corners where it was unwelcome.
A series of unwise management initiatives, including the disastrous purchase of Channel Seven in Melbourne, helped precipitate the debt-charged takeover for Fairfax mounted by young Warwick Fairfax at the end of 1987. The bid, while technically, collided with that year’s financial crisis and drove Fairfax’s into receivership in 1990, decisively terminating Suich’s 32-year association with the company.
From 1989, Max and Jennie Suich entered a seven-year 50-50 partnership with John B. Fairfax, who was also ousted by his cousin’s takeover, to publish his Independent monthly. This was followed by a three-year association with the Chris Anderson-led Optus telecommunications group, including a period as the company’s marketing manager.
Andrew Clark worked at The National Times from 1974 to 1978 and was the paper’s political correspondent in Canberra for two years. He is a former editor of (the now defunct) Australian Business magazine, was editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald for three weeks in 1988 and was editor of The Sun-Herald from 1993 to 1997. He is now a senior writer on The Australian Financial Review.
Max Suich in 1973, courtesy of Fairfax
Company of Heralds, Gavin Souter, Melbourne University Press, 1981
The Man who Couldn’t Wait, Victor J. Carroll, William Heinemann, 1991
Killing Fairfax, Pamela Williams, HarperCollins, 2013
Corporate Cannibals: The Taking of Fairfax, Colleen Ryan and Glenn Burge, William Heinemann, 1992