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Leonard, Sir Reginald Byron (1907–1986)

by Rod Kirkpatrick

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Reginald Byron Leonard (1907-1986), journalist and newspaper editor and manager, was born on 13 March 1907 at St Kilda, Melbourne, third of four children of Victorian-born parents Joseph Paton Leonard, clerk, and his wife Annie, née Edwards.  Educated by the Christian Brothers at St Kevin’s College, East Melbourne, in 1924 Reg enrolled in the faculty of arts, University of Melbourne, but soon withdrew.  He was briefly a state school student-teacher but he disliked teaching.  At 17 he became a district correspondent for the Evening Sun in the city’s docks area, paid only for what was published.  The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd then employed him, sending him to Canberra in 1926.  He recalled later that the thirteen years he spent reporting politics from the national capital and mixing with politicians, including W. M. Hughes and (Sir) Robert Menzies, were his happiest in journalism.  Returning to Melbourne in 1939, he became the Herald’s deputy chief-of-staff.

After World War II broke out, Leonard served from July 1940 to April 1941 as the Royal Australian Air Force’s director of public relations.  On 19 April 1941 at St Anne’s Catholic Church, East Kew, he married Ivy Annie ('Pat') Blampied.  He went to Britain and, in 1942, to Papua as a war correspondent.  In Port Moresby he suggested that the army should establish a service newspaper for troops cut off from reliable news.  General Sir Thomas Blamey approved the plan and in November Leonard was appointed a major, Citizen Military Forces (later Australian Imperial Force), and editor.  On 19 November he produced the first issue of Guinea Gold, a four-page condensed tabloid-type newspaper printed on yellow-tinted paper, reporting daily the progress of the war in succinct paragraphs.  Its brief was to present news and avoid comment.  Housed in a former government printing office and operating a Linotype and antiquated flat-bed presses, the staff worked from midnight to dawn to run off the required number of copies.  An edition for American service personnel was added and the combined circulation was to peak at over fifty thousand.  As the Allies advanced, the newspaper’s head office moved to Lae, New Guinea.  Leonard relinquished his post in November 1944 and transferred to the Reserve of Officers.

Back in Melbourne, Leonard rejoined the Herald, as chief-of-staff.  In 1950 he was appointed assistant to the managing director, but he maintained his journalistic activity by diversifying into radio.  He became known for his authoritative and incisive radio commentaries on current affairs, delivered on the HWT-owned radio-station 3DB.  In 1955 he was posted to London as editor of the Herald’s cable service; he was reputedly the first Australian newspaper journalist allowed into Moscow following the death in 1953 of Joseph Stalin.  After a year Leonard returned to Australia via the Middle East, filing vivid reports at each stopping point.  In Egypt he interviewed President Gamal Abdel Nasser in what had been one of King Farouk’s palaces.

In 1960-70 Leonard chaired the panel of the Channel 7 television network’s public-affairs program, 'Meet the Press'.  On one occasion an interviewee, the eccentric athletics coach Percy Cerutty, offered to punch Leonard’s nose.  After a confrontational interview with the Federal Opposition leader Arthur Calwell, Leonard faced the camera and delivered a comprehensive, extempore, seven-minute summary of the half-hour session.

Leonard had moved to Queensland in 1958 when the HWT appointed him managing director of its Brisbane subsidiary, the Telegraph Newspaper Co. Pty Ltd.  He was also managing director (1970-74) and chairman (1971-82) of Queensland Press Ltd and its subsidiary, Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd.  Chairman (1971-82) of Brisbane TV Ltd, he was a board-member (1974-82) of the Herald & Weekly Times.  He was a director (1973-78) of Australian Associated Press Pty Ltd and chairman of both the Media Council of Australia and the Australian Newspapers Council.  Although an effective chairman and highly skilled broadcaster, he was out of his depth in financial matters.  Attempting to improve the profitability of the Telegraph, where the circulation was stagnant, he worked on reducing expenses, rather than improving revenue--for example, he turned off lights and rationed biros.  One staff member commented:  'he might save a few hundred pounds, but he’ll lose a newspaper'.  Leonard’s gloomy outlook won him the nickname 'Mr Sunshine'.  However, as managing director he greatly influenced editorial policy.  He retired from all his board positions in 1982.

In 1971 Leonard had launched the Children’s Hospitals Appeal; by 1986 it had raised $5 million for equipment and amenities, including accommodation for accompanying parents at the Royal Children’s and Mater Children’s hospitals in Brisbane.  Chairman of the organising committee until his death, he pursued the fund-raising with 'almost fanatical zeal'.  He seemed driven by a desire to make the appeal as successful as the HWT’s earlier initiative had become in Melbourne.  In 1972 he was named Queensland’s Father of the Year in recognition of his work for ill children.  Appointed OBE (1971) and CMG (1972), he was knighted in 1983.  In 1982 he summed up his guiding principle:  'I am a believer in helping the underdog'.  Survived by his wife and their daughter, Sir Reg died on 12 March 1986 in South Brisbane and was buried in Pinaroo lawn cemetery, Aspley.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force, 1939-1942, 1962
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns, 1963
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 30 August 1972, p 9
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 4 December 1982, p 27
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 13 March 1986, p 4
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 14 March 1986, p 4
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 10 December 1982, p 9
  • House News (Brisbane), January 1983, p 1
  • private information

Citation details

Rod Kirkpatrick, 'Leonard, Sir Reginald Byron (1907–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leonard-sir-reginald-byron-14173/text25185, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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