PRINGLE, JOHN MARTIN DOUGLAS (1912–99)
Twice editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, John Douglas Pringle (as his by-line always appeared) broke several moulds in Australian newspaper journalism. The last figure in a Fairfax tradition of importing editors from Britain, he modernised the Herald’s appearance and broadened its coverage in news, features pringle, john martin douglas (1912–99) and foreign affairs. Pringle’s liberal editorial approach towards some social upheavals of the 1960s sparked conflicts with Sir Warwick Fairfax, the Herald’s conservative proprietor. But Pringle left a lasting legacy for the paper, as well as several elegant and challenging books about his adopted city and country.
A Scot, Pringle took a brilliant classics degree at Oxford, then joined the Manchester Guardian and the Times, where he was regarded as the finest leader writer of his generation. R.A.G. Henderson, managing director of John Fairfax & Sons, recruited Pringle as Herald editor in 1952. He was attracted by Sydney’s invigorating climate as much as the professional challenge: tuberculosis in his youth had left him with only one working lung.
Pringle’s charm, detached wit, lucid writing and encouragement of younger journalists inspired his staff. Yet the editor’s role, confined then to just the leaders and book pages, with no control over the rest of the paper, was still constrained by decades of Herald traditions. Frustrated, Pringle did not renew his contract after five years and returned to Britain: ‘I was not prepared to be a figurehead even on such an ancient and respectable barque.’
When John Fairfax & Sons again lured him back from Britain in 1963, he insisted that the job embrace the whole paper. He spent a year as managing editor of the Canberra Times, and introduced a current affairs program, Seven Days, for ATN7, before moving back to the Herald in 1965. He started liberating women from the social pages, and promoted such outstanding writers as Margaret Jones and Lillian Roxon. Freeing the Herald from its conservative editorial policy in a decade of intense social and political change proved less straightforward.
The Vietnam War posed a dilemma for Pringle, a liberal rationalist who had agreed to support the Fairfax board’s case for the war. His misgivings about US policy grew, ultimately causing personal distress and health problems. Pringle wrote a leader saying that pacifists could be brave people. He published another by Evan Williams predicting that Australia would become a republic. An Easter leader discussed not religion (as they always had) but a humanist approach to abortion and contraception. This was all too much for Sir Warwick. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable in the job, Pringle stepped down in April 1970.
Gavin Souter, a colleague of Pringle’s through both his editorships, says Pringle ‘marked the end of an ice age and the start of a modern thawing process without which the paper might not have survived’. A decade after Pringle’s death, the Herald strongly supported Australia becoming a republic. Women enjoyed as much editorial power on the paper as men. For laying the groundwork of these and other progressive changes, John Douglas Pringle could take much credit.
Pringle authored several books, including Have Pen: Will Travel (1973). The annual John Douglas Pringle Award is offered jointly by the British High Commission and the National Press Club.
REF: G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981).