Obituary: John Douglas Pringle

JOHN DOUGLAS PRINGLE, twice editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, was one of the outstanding figures in Australian journalism.

He was a liberal Scot who went to work for a conservative newspaper then controlled by the Fairfax family of Sydney in the days when Australian proprietors recruited their editors from Fleet Street. During his second editorship in the 1960s, Pringle's views on some of the turbulent issues of that decade brought him into bitter conflict with his proprietor. But he left a strong mark on the paper, as well as several elegant and provocative books of essays about his adopted city and country.

Pringle started his first term as Herald editor in 1952, when he was 40. He was born in Hawick, on the Scottish borders, went to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he took a First in Greats, then joined the Manchester Guardian as a leader writer and assistant editor and, later, The Times, where he was spoken of as the finest leader writer of his generation. His father had inherited a part-ownership of Robert Pringle and Sons, a small family knitwear business; he sold his share when John Pringle was a boy, before the Pringle knitwear name expanded.

John Pringle was tempted to Australia by the challenge of editing what was then the country's best newspaper, but also for health reasons: he suffered from tuberculosis and, for most of his life, survived on one working lung. The Sydney that he and his young family sailed into in the 1950s was still a provincial place in the process of casting off its British past. Its newspaper life was colourful, and Pringle soon discovered that "my life in Sydney was going to be a good deal more stormy than it had been in London or Manchester".

At one end of town was the tabloid Daily Telegraph then owned by Kerry Packer's father, Frank, "a huge man," wrote Pringle, "an ex-amateur boxing champion, yachtsman and racehorse owner, who rolled through Sydney in those days like a genial but slightly dangerous baron in medieval Europe". At the other end was the broadsheet paper of record, The Sydney Morning Herald, run by two extraordinary men. Warwick Fairfax, who struck Pringle as looking like a "sensitive, intelligent, slightly neurotic don", was the titular head. The real power was wielded by Rupert Henderson, the managing director (known as "Rags" Henderson after his initials, R.A.G.). Henderson was a brilliant, ruthless newspaperman with a rasping voice who once told one of his editors, "You'd break my heart, if I had a heart."

Despite their apparent differences in background, Pringle got on with his proprietors, and particularly with his staff. They were stimulated by his conversation and encouragement, his lucid prose and grasp of issues. For his part, Pringle was a frustrated editor. The Fairfaxes maintained an archaic tradition of confining the editor's power to the editorial and leader page, with no control over the news pages. To Pringle, this was "responsibility without power" and, when his five-year contract expired in 1957, he did not renew it. He returned to Britain, where he became deputy editor of The Observer.

In 1958, Pringle wrote Australian Accent, probably the first serious attempt by a British observer to come to grips with modern Australia. The book stands as a hallmark, and some of his descriptions, such as that of Sydney as a "gay, pagan, boisterous, raffish city", are probably even more appropriate 40 years later. Pringle also wrote books on Australian painting and Australian wrens (he was an avid bird-watcher), and two sequels of essays about Australia and journalism: On Second Thoughts (1971) and Have Pen, Will Travel (1973).

It was Angus McLachlan, then the Fairfax group's managing director, who lured him back to Australia in 1963. Pringle's first job was as managing editor of The Canberra Times, a small paper in the Australian capital that the Fairfaxes had bought from the Shakespeare family with plans to turn it into a national daily. Competition loomed in the form of a young Rupert Murdoch, who swaggered into Canberra with plans to start his own national paper and, as he told one of the Shakespeares, "run you out of business". Murdoch was obliged, uncharacteristically, to withdraw his headquarters to Sydney; but the national paper he started in 1964, The Australian, was a revolution in Australian journalism and shook the staid Fairfax titles.

Pringle returned as editor of The Sydney Morning Herald in 1965 after insisting that he have control over the whole paper, not just the leader page. He took on the challenge from The Australian by modernising the Herald's appearance and broadening its coverage, particularly in foreign affairs. He liberated talented women from the "social pages" and gave them their first break into serious journalism.

But, as the social upheavals of the Sixties progressed, Pringle found himself increasingly at odds with Fairfax management, particularly (now) Sir Warwick Fairfax, the ultra-conservative board chairman. Pringle was troubled most by his own questioning of Australia's commitment of troops to the Vietnam War, a cause the Herald vigorously supported. He angered Sir Warwick by running an editorial in 1969 which suggested that Australia one day might become a republic. And he incensed him a year later with another editorial that approached Easter in a humanist rather than a religious way. Soon afterwards, at his own request, Pringle left the Herald for good.

"To some extent it was the Vietnam War which destroyed my self-confidence," Pringle told me when I interviewed him in his modest flat high above Sydney harbour. "I did feel I was on the wrong side. And I was ashamed of it. But editors have a difficult time, one way or another."

After more than 150 years, the Fairfaxes lost control of the Herald in 1990. The issues that then caused such ructions now seem like ancient history. The Herald is one of the most staunch advocates of an Australian republic, and women have as much editorial power on the paper as men. For sowing the seeds of these and other progressive changes in Australian journalism, John Douglas Pringle can take much of the credit.

John Martin Douglas Pringle, journalist: born Hawick, Roxburghshire 28 June 1912; Editor, Sydney Morning Herald 1952-57, 1965-70; Deputy Editor, The Observer 1958-63; Managing Editor, Canberra Times 1964-65; married 1936 Celia Carroll (died 1997; one son, two daughters); died Sydney, New South Wales 4 December 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map