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Williams, Sir John Francis (1901–1982)

by David Dunstan

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

John Williams, n.d.

John Williams, n.d.

from Herald & Weekly Times Library

Sir John Francis Williams (1901-1982), journalist and company director, was born on 16 June 1901 at Grafton, New South Wales, youngest of four children of English-born Edward John Williams, jeweller, and his wife Susan, née O’Keeffe, born in New South Wales.  Educated at Sydney Boys’ High School, Jack did well at English and aspired to be a journalist.  He began as a casual reporter on local rugby matches at Grafton for the Sydney newspapers.  Aged 18 he joined the Sydney Evening News reporting on rugby union matches, then the Bulletin as a financial writer for its 'Wildcat' column.  In 1924, with the Bulletin’s financial editor Harold Burston, Williams joined the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd, Melbourne, and was among seventy-one employees given individual contracts by (Sir) Keith Murdoch in 1927.  Treasurer of the Australian Journalists’ Association, Victoria district, Williams was awarded its gold honour badge in 1933.  He had married Mabel Gwendoline Dawkins, an artist, on 2 April 1931 at St Joseph’s Catholic Church, South Yarra.

After covering the stock exchange and civic round, in 1932 Williams succeeded Burston as the Herald’s chief financial writer.  In 1933 he was sent to Broken Hill to edit the Barrier Miner (circulation 5000).  He was working directly for Murdoch, as the HWT and senior executives, including Murdoch, had acquired the Miner and its parent company News Ltd in 1930.  Williams sold advertising, wrote editorials and put the paper out.

In 1935 Williams returned to Melbourne as assistant-manager and was acting-manager during Murdoch’s absence overseas in 1936.  In 1937 he was appointed general manager, and later managing director, of Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd, publishers of the Courier-Mail and the Sunday Mail.  He had qualified as an accountant.  Although Murdoch and John Wren had merged their respective newspapers to form Queensland Newspapers in 1933, the HWT had the largest shareholding.  But Williams was again working personally for Murdoch.  With the gregarious J. C. 'Jack' Waters he recruited staff from (Sir) Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph and elsewhere to make the paper 'more lively' but baulked at offending 'the good Brisbane burghers', according to Don Whitington.  After Murdoch resigned in December 1940 as Commonwealth director of information Williams succeeded him in an honorary acting capacity in 1941.  Despite wartime difficulties, in which the Courier-Mail was reduced to four pages five days a week, circulation had risen from 75,000 to 157,000 when Williams returned to Melbourne at the end of 1945.

With some retirements and Murdoch’s withdrawing from day-to-day management, Williams emerged, almost imperceptibly, as a powerful figure.  He championed the tabloid Sun News-Pictorial that was eating into the circulation of the rival Argus, took charge of the troubled colour magazine Australian Woman’s Day, curbed his chief’s extravagances and was privately critical of Murdoch’s conflicts of personal interest with those of the company.  Late in 1949 Williams was made managing editor on equal footing with the accountant general manager William Dunstan, but was still subsidiary to Murdoch, who now decided that Williams should not succeed him.  A possible reason was Williams’s drinking.  At this time he could often be found late in the evening at the University Club in a maudlin state.  Dunstan had an unexpected outing late one night in 1948 to obtain Williams’s release after police arrested him urinating in Alfred Place.  Colin Bednall recalled that when he took over from Williams at Queensland Newspapers 'the Courier-Mail building, from the board room to the men’s locker rooms, was the biggest grog shop of the north'.

Other possible reasons for Murdoch’s loss of confidence in Williams, apart from the threat he posed to him personally, were his Catholic religion, his limited outlook and a new protégé in Bednall.  At the HWT board meeting on 3 October 1952 Murdoch obtained approval to terminate Williams’s contract and negotiate a settlement.  Murdoch died the following night; an emergency board meeting overturned the decision leaving no record in the minutes and the status quo unchanged.  Williams succeeded Murdoch formally, late in 1953, when he was appointed managing director.  In 1964, when George Caro retired, he became executive chairman.  Williams retired as managing director in 1967 and as chairman in 1970, but remained a board member until 1973.  In this time the HWT became the country’s leading media group.  It extended its Melbourne-based newspaper, magazine and radio assets, secured a television licence to launch HSV7 (Herald-Sun TV Pty Ltd) in 1956, purchased the Brisbane Telegraph, and merged it with the Courier-Mail to form the public company Queensland Press Ltd (having acquired the Murdoch family interest in Queensland Newspapers).  Williams supervised the purchase of the Argus from its London Daily Mirror owners in 1957 and its closure, and the acquisition of the Bendigo Advertiser (1963), South Pacific Post Pty Ltd in Papua New Guinea (1965) and West Australian Newspapers Ltd (1969).  A survey in 1959 claimed that companies controlled by the HWT produced nearly half of all newspapers sold in Australia.  The missing citadel was Sydney.  Williams wanted the Sydney Daily Mirror in 1960 but it went to Rupert Murdoch, who the HWT board considered would fail.

Williams was a committed and hard-working manager who was not motivated by the need for public recognition and who did not aspire to be a major shareholder or proprietor himself.  The beneficiaries in his management republic were the shareholders through annual dividends, bonus issues and a fifteen-fold increase in market value over fourteen years.  Williams believed financial success to be important for a newspaper or media group in order to remain independent.  To counter vulnerability to takeover he designed a complicated interlocking system of holdings with associated group companies that proved effective in his lifetime.  He had a personal sense of the readership.  The Sun News-Pictorial, he told journalists, was 'a family newspaper' whose typical reader lived 'in a triple-fronted brick veneer [house] in Moorabbin, was married, with two children . . . struggling on a mortgage . . . and [had] a mental age of 14'.  He believed its readers were conservative and easily shocked.

As autocratic as any owner-baron, Williams could—and on occasion would—undertake everyday tasks, view and alter final copy and scrutinise journalists’ expenditure carefully.  He read the house newspapers, watched the television channel and listened to the company radio station 3DB in the small hours of the morning, as announcers sometimes discovered the next day.  His staff feared and respected him.

Under Williams the expansive boardroom lunches with junior staff present favoured by Murdoch gave way to more intimate and closed meetings with senior aides.  He cultivated politicians and business leaders, was a member of (Victorian Liberal) Premier T. T. 'Tom' Hollway’s notorious 'kitchen cabinet' and, after 1955, hosted late-afternoon Flinders Street boardroom drinks with Premier (Sir) Henry Bolte and Chief Secretary (Sir) Arthur Rylah.  The young Rupert Murdoch was a visitor.  Williams was knighted on New Year’s Day, 1958, an election year for Victoria.  Political news was probably reported more fairly under his regime than before but HWT support for State and Federal Liberal and Country Party administrations remained evident and crucial.  Williams wrote under his own byline but his views and values were expressed more directly through his editorial influence.  HWT newspapers opposed both the death sentence issued in 1961 to the murderer Robert Tait, subsequently commuted, and the hanging in 1967 of Ronald Ryan.  Williams’s relationship with Bolte was never the same afterwards.  The circumstances of the Australian Labor Party split and the threat of sectarian-based politics in the 1950s posed difficulties for him personally.  Few of his staff would have known that he was a practising Catholic, lest perhaps he was thought complicit as a consequence.  He opposed the White Australia policy.

Williams was of medium height and dour expression and in his later years especially had a gravelly voice and a twisted face—'features you couldn’t miss'.  He disliked being photographed, had few friends and was totally absorbed in his work, which he lived close to, in a townhouse in East Melbourne.  The journalist Geoffrey Tebbutt summed up his complex character respectfully:  'difficult, prickly, unpredictable, demanding, moody, obstinate, suspicious, sceptical, capricious, impatient' but equally 'helpful, responsive, considerate, tolerant, amiable, practical, resilient, understanding. And above all, humane and generous'.  Although lacking warmth, Williams was not a vindictive or sacking boss.  He tolerated a masculine culture of drinking.  His undertaker role with the Argus genuinely pained him and many former Argus staff found berths at the HWT.  He carried on a version of Murdoch’s paternalism and continued to eulogise him as 'the Boss' who had built the company, despite what he knew of Murdoch’s manipulation of HWT affairs for his own benefit; although to a new generation of HWT employees Williams was the boss.

Ultimately, Williams was a transitional figure:  a journalist manager with financial training and an obsessive and controlling personal style.  Those trained wholly as finance men who succeeded him were not as successful.  Predeceased by his wife (d.1980) and survived by their son, Sir John died on 31 March 1982 in East Melbourne and was buried in Springvale cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Blazey, Bolte (1972)
  • D. Whitington, Strive to be Fair (1977)
  • K. Dunstan, No Brains at All (1990)
  • R. M. Younger, Keith Murdoch (2003)
  • J. Usher (ed), The Argus (2007)
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 10 December 1967, p 122
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 January 1970, p 6
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 April 1982, p 13
  • Herald (Melbourne), 3 January 1970, p 22
  • Herald (Melbourne), 29 December 1973, p 6
  • Herald (Melbourne), 31 March 1982, p 4
  • House News (Melbourne), August 1982, p 2
  • C. Bednall papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Williams, Sir John Francis (1901–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-sir-john-francis-15864/text27064, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 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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