ACT News


Former editor had pride in his role at 'my sort of newspaper'

John Allan, a Walkley-award winning journalist who was editor of The Canberra Times between 1968 and 1972, died peacefully in Ballina Hospital yesterday ''of a long life''.

Son of a journalist and born in June 1925, he served in the navy during the closing days of World War II (one of his brothers was killed over Germany piloting a Lancaster bomber in 1944), did his cadetship at the Bendigo Advertiser and worked in Launceston, Adelaide and Perth before coming to The Canberra Times in 1964. In Perth, he had been effectively editor of Murdoch's Sunday Times and had earned his Walkley writing for Walkabout magazine on an expedition into Western Australia's Great Sandy Desert, where he met Aborigines who had never had contact with white men.

He came to Canberra just as Rupert Murdoch was launching The Australian, intending that it quickly swamp and acquire the resources and revenues of the Shakespeare-owned Canberra Times. The Shakespeare family sold to Fairfax, which set out (ultimately successfully) to drive Murdoch from the city. Editor David Bowman and new managing editor John Pringle set out to raise the standards and the circulation of the Times.

''When I came to The Canberra Times, it was like going to a newspaper I always wished existed, and I thought immediately that this is my sort of newspaper,'' he told a former colleague, John Farquharson, 15 years ago.

Appointed editor after Pringle and Bowman went to Sydney to take charge of The Sydney Morning Herald,, Allan thought himself well qualified on the technical side of newspaper production, but less equipped to deal with events, not least as the Vietnam War began its effect on Australian politics.

''The great obstacle was my lack of knowledge - depth of knowledge and understanding of government, of Australian political institutions, politics and international affairs. It was no easy job to pick this up as I went along.''


Years later, he felt that he had been misled by politicians and the bureaucracy over the Vietnam War, and that he had failed readers by not being more sceptical about government pronouncements.

But he remained passionately proud of the newspaper and its standards and achievements, and what it sought to do. This included, during the period, pioneering work on the systematic reportage of public administration under Bruce Juddery, recognition of the increasingly important role of the Senate in politics, and some crusading on civil liberties matters, including against police entrapment of homosexuals in public lavatories.

Voters' Voice - the column to be dominated for 40 years by recently retired journalist Graham Downie - began after a crisis of lack of Canberra influence in local community affairs. He began the practice of regular corrections - now imitated by newspapers around the world - and was a fierce, and volatile, monitor of grammar and stickler for checking the spelling of all names.

''The editor at work was fairly recognisable,'' he once wrote to his family. ''He ran the ship. He carried responsibility for libels which could run to millions of dollars at worst. He knew what he wanted in a report, but was eminently flexible.

''Some editors have been known to shout and tear their hair where confronted by ignorance and incompetence. Others have been known to screw up a writer's report and fling it at his or her head.

''Some are sweet, even gentle when that's the way to go. Most have a deep well of patience if they see talent. Editor's hearts sing when writing is superb. All have to make tough decisions in seconds.''

Allan was all of this - himself able to make morale and spirits soar with his excitement about a story - or to plummet when he was making manifest his disappointment should it prove inaccurate or miss vital balance.

He stood up bravely to politicians and those who tried to threaten the newspaper. When I was hired in 1972, he warned me that my associations with political causes disqualified me from consideration as a cadet journalist. Ten years later, he wrote to say that he could not remember whether he had hired or fired me, but was proud of my writing.

In more recent times, it seemed to me, he was far too self-critical about the newspaper's coverage of political and social events of the 1960s and 1970s.

He left The Canberra Times in December 1972 to become editor-manager editor of the Fairfax London bureau, which included setting up some major syndication deals that still continue, and, after three years, returned as managing editor of The Newcastle Herald until 1987. He then retired to Ballina.

John Allan is survived by three of his four siblings, by his wife, Susan, and an earlier wife Ruth, their children Jennifer, Sean, Kate, Robert and Tim, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.