Brian Johns: A critical Australian romantic
Brian had a gift for friendship. I first got to know him in the late 1970s; I know that many of you knew him for longer.
Over the years as some of his closest friends passed away, he made time to get to know others and share their dreams, ambitions and stories.
That speaks to his gift for friendship – his curiosity and empathy drove him to make connections, to find the good in people. He used to say to me that the best structures and systems in the world wouldn’t work without the right people – irrespective of gender, creed, or background. Never underestimate the importance of people of quality to bring ideas to life, he would say.
I was struck, in the days immediately after his death, how quickly social media filled with stories of his acts of kindness, of empathy and insight, of words of advice that shaped a career or pointed to new directions.
It helps of course if those you gave a hand up to along life’s journey included some of the best writers, editors, thinkers and artists in the country. So the stories were good – funny, self-deprecating and rich in detail. No doubt more will flow today.
It will take some time to winkle them all out, because Brian was also a very private man. He was not one to sing his own praises, to grandstand or draw attention to himself.
Even in his dying days as he fretted about unsolved problems on his boards, he said, but I don’t want to have to make a speech. Sarah lovingly assured him that that was something he didn’t have to worry about any more.
Over the past week much has been said about his professional achievements. His was the original portfolio career. Although, more often than not he was the boss.
Career is the wrong word to describe the contributions Brian made through the work he did – work that gave him great satisfaction, but work that enabled others to get closer to achieving their potential and to leave a tangible benefit.
Most of us would be happy to have one of these achievements on our CV:
To have been arguably the best political reporter of his generation at the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian, Bulletin and Nation, breaking stories that took citizens behind the veil of official secrecy and in the process inspiring younger journalists, well before Watergate spawned a new generation of reporters;
Or to have operated at the highest levels of government, respected by both the Brahmin prime ministers of the 1970s, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. There he learnt the quiet, persuasive ways needed to get things done behind the scenes in Canberra. Still he managed to discreetly leave his fingerprints on policy innovations that changed this country;
Or to have reinvigorated Penguin Books and provided new opportunities for Australian writers, editors, booksellers and readers, and in the process to foster new publishing ventures;
Or to have helped SBS realise its vision and bring this country’s contemporary multiculturalism to life on radio and television. To provide opportunities for Australians to engage with the rich diversity of non-British public broadcasting, programs and news in languages other than English and sports that hadn’t previously been televised here;
Or at the Broadcasting Authority to find ways that ensured the commercial broadcasters accepted their responsibilities to put resources into telling Australian stories; and be fair and accountable, as custodians of the public spectrum that made their businesses possible and profitable;
Or to have encouraged Prime Minister Paul Keating to articulate a vision for a creative nation, and a nation in which the tyranny of distance could be circumvented by broadband and technology;
Or to have pushed the ABC to be more ambitious and innovative, to be less fearful of the future, to look out rather than in, to include more of the full diversity of the country on the airwaves and online. To mysteriously use his impeccable Canberra skills to head off a crippling efficiency dividend, to turn a potentially hostile inquiry into a ringing endorsement, and to prepare the Corporation for the digital future – while battling an bewilderingly hostile political environment that threatened to undermine a cherished national institution;
Or to have ensured that more of the copyright income from the publishing business found its way back to creators through CAL’s cultural fund, so they could produce more and better works, to make a bigger impact, to aim higher.
In all of these roles Brian sought to broaden the understanding of what being Australian meant, and how it could be expressed – what made us unique, what we could do better, what we could adapt and learn from others, and how we could express it in the most beautiful and memorable ways.
As Tony Maniaty noted, Brian was an Australian romantic. He was of the generation that grew up after the Second World War, as the shackles of colonialism were being thrown away. A new global system emerged, shaped in large measure by Franklin Roosevelt’s defining four freedoms, of speech and religion and from want and fear. Over time this country too was transformed – and as a result a poor Catholic boy from Cairns got to occupy some of the most influential offices in the land.
Brian came of age at a time when questions of national identity were increasingly actively explored – without apology or self-consciousness: in journalism, literature, art, music, film, TV, politics.
And in the process that very sense of identity changed, it became richer, more nuanced, more open – better able to engage with the world.
This occurred, thanks in no small measure to the articles that were written, the books commissioned and published, the films produced, the television shows broadcast, the art gathered in national and state galleries and leased through Artbank. More often than not, Brian was there at the pivotal moment – talking, writing, encouraging, cajoling, making connections, putting people and ideas together.
He was not uncritical, but he loved Australians and the idea of Australia.
But he was not simply an Australian romantic. He brought a pragmatic, critical hardheadedness to all the things he did. As a working class boy, he knew the value of money – he was not one who thought an artist starving in her garret could produce her best work. He knew that money mattered, that building an audience mattered and that if that audience also engaged with something of quality that was distinctively Australian, so much the better.
He was culturally ambitious, long before it became the Australia Council’s mantra.
So at Penguin he worked hard to disrupt remnant colonial arrangements and ensure that Australian authors could be distributed and find readers in other countries, even if New York and London editors complained that they wrote with ‘an Australian accent’. While at the ABC he tried hard to try to convince the BBC to buy Australian-made programs – he was not happy that we just bought theirs in bulk.
He really believed that content was king long before that became a cliché. This was not a romantic notion. He wanted to make sure that the operators of the new digital platforms paid for the content that he knew would drive their businesses. He knew that without an economic structure that returned income to producers and creators, it would be hard for a small English-speaking country to continue to make original programs, stories and works of art, that could be enjoyed here and shared with the world.
There is still no bigger challenge in the creative cultural sector, though Brian did more than his bit to chip away at it.
He wasn’t content to wait for someone else to come up with a solution. He knew that was one of the benefits, and responsibilities, of having your hands on big levers, you had to be brave enough to pursue original ideas that others hadn’t got to yet.
Many of his insights came from his prodigious reading. He was a literary omnivore. He read widely, he made unlikely connections, he was curious. So at the end in his room at the Wolper there were books on the bedside table, the beautifully redesigned Meanjin, an advance copy of Griffith Review Fixing the System and poems by the great Seamus Heaney.
When life was just too busy in those demanding jobs, he used to say there was always time for poetry. A few minutes with a great poem could provide the creative, emotional and intellectual nourishment to keep you going. And it did – until the very end.
As you all know, his favorite greeting was, What are you reading? It was a good conversation starter for a sometimes shy, and private man. But he was always interested in the answer and generally had something to add.
So my final word of tribute is to say, Keep Reading. Should we meet him again, you know his first question will be: What are you reading?
And he won’t be satisfied if you say, A bit of this and a bit of that.
Julianne Schultz is Editor and Professor, Griffith Review.