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.