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Munster, George John (1925–1984)

by Murray Goot

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

George John Munster (1925-1984), journalist, was born on 3 October 1925 in Vienna, elder child of Ernst Münster, a Czech-born Jewish industrialist, and his wife Ada, née Neurath, an Austrian Catholic, and was named Georg Hans. Georg was educated in Vienna until 1937, and then in Brno, Czechoslovakia, following the Anschluss, before sailing from London with his family in February 1939, for Sydney. A pupil at Sydney Boys’ High School, Munster topped the 1943 Leaving certificate in French and English, a language he had started to teach himself aboard the ship, and came third in Latin. Interviewed about his success, he was quoted as deploring ‘the Australian prejudice vs foreigners’, and liking dancing and pretty girls, swimming (he was a school lifesaver) and books; he read French and German and hoped to become a good citizen. In later years he taught himself Italian, Spanish and Russian.

Securing an exhibition to the University of Sydney (BA, 1948), Munster obtained first-class honours in English under A. J. A. Waldock and second-class honours in philosophy under John Anderson, a figure he ‘usually delighted in mocking’; seen by John Docker as a link to the Anderson tradition, Munster was no Andersonian. Peter Coleman remembered him as ‘thin, stooped, chain-smoking, grinning, glancing, guffawing’. Cultivating ‘an air of mystery’, Munster was a man of ‘restless scholarship’ who ‘scoffed at the philistinism of the university’. His friends thought him ‘a genius’. Attending ‘whatever meetings of protest were called’, he observed the obscenity trial of Lawson Glassop and visited Rosaleen Norton’s coven. He wrote for Honi Soit, contributed to the arts journal Arna and co-edited two issues of Hermes. With Eugene Kamenka, Adrian Roden and Neville Wran, Munster was one of a team of ‘awesomely articulate youngsters’ on the radio program Youth Speaks.

In Munster’s first job, in 1948, with the university’s guidance officer’s department, he gave introductory English lessons to ex-servicemen. He also taught at Knox Grammar School and had a stint at the Bathurst immigration reception and training centre. Naturalised in August 1949, he travelled to Britain and Europe. He did relief teaching in Britain; went to Vienna, where his parents were domiciled as they tried to reclaim property taken by the Nazis; lived in Spain, mainly in Majorca; taught for the British Council in Iraq, chiefly in Basra; and in 1955 returned to Australia, via India. Living in a lighthouse at Barrenjoey, north of Sydney, he tried to write a novel but his literary output was confined largely to book reviews.

In 1958 Munster and Tom Fitzgerald, the finance editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, founded the fortnightly Nation, ‘an independent journal of opinion’. Fitzgerald owned it. On 16 December 1960 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, Munster married Marie Meziere de Lepervanche, the secretary at the journal’s office.

Munster wrote for Nation under his own name and those of ‘D. Jenkyn’ and ‘Lurksman’ among others; some pieces were unsigned. He was an acute observer, a deft analyst and a fine writer, who ranged widely. Munster wrote ‘trail-blazing essays on tax avoidance’, Ken Inglis observed; he was ‘a one-man corporate affairs commission’, as Humphrey McQueen put it, before any such body existed. He also wrote about the media, public figures, art and literature; to challenge the censorship laws he arranged for Nation to publish a chapter from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. In the words of his friend Richard Hall, Munster believed ‘that good journalism made its contribution to debate and ideas as much as any other areas of intellectual endeavour’.

In 1964 Munster returned part time to the university and completed an MA (preliminary) on ‘problems in anthropological peasant studies’ in 1967 with the equivalent of first-class honours. In 1968 Munster embarked on a master’s degree; his research, which did not involve field-work, focused on the non-Christian peoples of Northern Luzon in the Philippines. But he became embroiled in a dispute with his supervisor, Bill Geddes, over professional ethics. In 1974 Munster began working under Les Hiatt on A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s analysis of Aboriginal kinship. He also tutored, though he refused payment. In 1979, unhappy with Geddes’s continuing dominance in the anthropology department, he quit.

When Nation merged in 1972 with the Review (a Melbourne weekly published by Gordon Barton and edited by Richard Walsh) to form Nation Review, Munster became the Sydney editor with responsibility for the centre-page spreads. These, it was hoped, would maintain Nation’s in-depth analytical feature journalism, a tradition that Munster’s work had done much to establish and sustain. After the sale of Nation Review to Geoff Gold in 1978, Munster became a senior editor at Angus & Robertson Ltd, where Walsh was the publisher and Barton the proprietor. In 1981, when Barton sold the company to Rupert Murdoch, Munster went freelance.

In 1980 Munster and Walsh compiled and self-published Documents on Australian Defence and Foreign Policy 1968-1975. The book, which set out to show ‘whether officialdom makes politicians wiser or obstructs their intention’, brought to public notice official documents. The book included ‘two protracted episodes when misleading analysis was associated with misdirected action’—one concerned with United States and Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, the other with Australia’s attitude to Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor. On Saturday 8 November the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age published what they intended to be the first of three instalments. But the Commonwealth government obtained from the High Court of Australia an injunction suppressing publication, enforced at 12.45 a.m.; in later editions the page was left blank. Excerpts planned for the following week never appeared. The government was concerned with reaction in Washington and Jakarta, and argued that publication breached confidentiality, copyright and the Crimes Act. Some copies of the book had been sold, the rest were now withdrawn. Two years later, an updated version—a mixture of paraphrase and quotation—was published under Angus & Robertson’s Walsh & Munster imprint as Secrets of State: A Detailed Assessment of the Book They Banned.

Munster’s most important book, on Rupert Murdoch, was published posthumously. A Paper Prince (1985) offered a compelling account of Murdoch’s rise from a local businessman to a global behemoth. The political scientist Henry Mayer described it as ‘well crafted, informative and highly intelligent’.

In the 1970s Munster had worked on a six-part radio series, ‘Tombstones of the Revolution’, a study of reactions to the deaths of revolutionaries, for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and a television documentary on V. Gordon Childe and his changing engagement with Marxism. These projects took him to Europe and the Soviet Union. Shortly before his death he signed a contract for a book on the private lives of famous Australians, based on their letters. He was also researching Sir Robert Menzies’ stand on appeasement, planning a book and radio series on Gallipoli, hoping to write the gypsies (Roma) back into the Holocaust, and trying to interest the Australian Film Commission in a documentary on New Caledonia.

Survived by his wife and their daughter, Munster died of ischaemic heart disease on 14 August 1984 at St Leonards and was cremated. Friends and admirers established the George Munster award for independent journalism to ‘uphold the traditions of independence, meticulous accuracy, integrity and lucidity’ exemplified in Munster’s own journalism.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Docker, Australian Cultural Elites (1974)
  • G. Dutton, The Innovators (1986)
  • K. S. Inglis (ed), Nation: The Life of an Independent Journal of Opinion, 1958-1972 (1989)
  • R. Walsh, Ferretabilia (1993)
  • P. Coleman, Memoirs of a Slow Learner (1994)
  • H. McQueen, Gallipoli to Petrov (1994)
  • Australian Corporate History Bulletin, vol 2, no 1, 1986, p 16
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Aug 1984, p 9
  • Munster papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Murray Goot, 'Munster, George John (1925–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/munster-george-john-15786/text26978, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 27 September 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Münster, Georg Hans
  • Jenkyn, D.
  • Lurksman
Birth

3 October 1925
Vienna, Austria

Death

14 August 1984
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation