Eric Walsh. Tribute to Brian Johns.

Jan 12, 2016

The death of Brian Francis Johns, 79, in the early hours of New Years Day marked the end of one of the most impressive Australian media careers of the last half century.

During this period Johns engaged in and excelled at the top level of almost all aspects of media affecting the lives of everyday Australians.

He distinguished himself as a political journalist on The Australian when he was that papers first political correspondent. He then filled similar roles on the now-defunct Weekly, The Bulletin and was later chief of the political office of The Sydney Morning Herald. He went on to fill executive news management positions on that newspaper.

In 1975 he was recruited to a senior position in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet where he remained for some years under the Whitlam and Fraser Governments.

Having made a significant mark in newspapers he was to enjoy a similar success in literature as Australian publisher for the overseas Penguin Group for seven years. He greatly increased the number of Australian titles produced locally by this well-known international publisher, becoming a widely respected figure in Australian publishing.

He was next to impress in the field of broadcasting when he was somewhat surprisingly made Head of Australia’s SBS television and radio networks. He excelled here as an administrator, greatly strengthening SBS by first introducing limited advertising to boost its budget.

From here his administration skills were recognized and he was appointed to head The Australian Broadcasting Authority. It now seemed inevitable that he would graduate to the top job in Government broadcasting, becoming General Manager of the ABC.

Johns made his presence felt in all three of these non-newspaper appointments.

He had had a surprising entry in the field of mainstream journalism.

Two journalistic giants Maxwell Newton, who turned The Australian Financial Review into a highly successful daily newspaper and Tom Fitzgerald finance editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and founder of the influential political and cultural fortnightly, Nation, were jointly responsible for launching the career of a then largely unknown media star.

Johns had come to Sydney from Queensland as a boy and won a scholarship to prestigious
St Joseph’s College where he had a stellar career as a student. On leaving he spent more than two years studying for the Catholic priesthood. He left to become a journalist.

His career, started quite unspectacularly on the bi-weekly country newspaper, The Queanbeyan Age. Through church contacts he escaped that boredom and gained a position with the Australian Government publicity unit, the Australian News and Information Bureau – by no means the home of Australia’s leading journalistic talent.

He overcame his frustration and his employment’s limitations by making notable contributions on political and cultural issues – mainly political – for Tom Fitzgerald’s fortnightly Nation.

In 1964, years later, when Max Newton was hand-picked by Rupert Murdoch to be Editor of his ambitious new National Daily, The Australian, he was aware that significant political journalists in existing media were comfortable and were unlikely to take a risk on the questionable new venture of the then unproven 32 year old Murdoch.

In conversation with Fitzgerald who had gained a high opinion of Johns from his frequent contributions to Nation, Max was persuaded to take a chance on a young man virtually unknown outside the columns of Nation. He had no cause to regret his gamble.

A highly successful media career began from here.

Having later climbed the heights in journalism, literature, administration and broadcasting it was fitting that his career should begin its close by teaching.

For more than two years he was engaged as Adjunct Professor of Journalism at Queensland University of Technology where he made many friendships and won admiration and gratitude from scores of students. His final days, cut short by his unexpected and ultimately fatal illness, was spent once again in organisation and administration.

He was Chairman of the Australian Copyright Agency and also Chairman of that body’s cultural foundation, a role he particularly enjoyed as it involved the funding of young writers. He served on the Board of Melbourne University Press and The Southern Phone Company.

His death marked the end of what was a very well-rounded era of accomplishment by Brian Francis Johns.

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