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Davidson, Francis Joseph (Frank) (1904–1996)

by Patrick Cornish

This article was published online in 2020

Francis Joseph Davidson (1904–1996), journalist and newspaper editor, was born on 26 September 1904 at Claremont, Perth, elder child of English-born Katherine, née Begley, and her locally born husband Timothy Aloysius Davidson, telegraph clerk and later a special magistrate of the Commonwealth public service. His grandfather, Archibald Davidson, had been a printer and compositor. Frank was educated at St Thomas’s and St Patrick’s schools, before winning (1918) a scholarship to Christian Brothers’ College, Perth. An outstanding scholar, he was awarded P. B. Durack gold medals for his performance in the Junior certificate (1919) and as dux of the college (1922), and he topped the State in Latin in the Leaving certificate.

At sixteen, while still a schoolboy, Davidson helped to report on football matches for the Mirror newspaper. The paper, run by Victor Courtney and John Simons, was twinned with a sports publication, the Call. In 1923 Davidson joined the staff of those papers as a cadet. The Mirror, a weekly publication, specialised in racy coverage, quite a leap for someone raised in a very proper Catholic home. He became skilled in covering the concerns and interests of local people and places. Unusually among his newsroom colleagues, he was a teetotaller and a non-smoker.

On 8 August 1928 at the Catholic Church, Claremont, Davidson married Mavis Alice Robinson, a typiste. Five years later the couple took an extended sea journey on the MV Kangaroo to Singapore, Malaya (Malaysia), and the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). A talented violinist, he entertained officers and passengers with his on-board performances. Mavis soon got used to her husband’s habit of taking copious notes for a series of travel articles that would appear in the Mirror on his return.

In 1935 Courtney and Simons formed Western Press Ltd to encompass their existing papers and the newly acquired Sunday Times. Davidson was appointed editor of the Mirror in the subsequent restructure. He earnt the nickname ‘The Brute’ for pushing his staff to collate and publish Saturday’s football and racing results in the paper sold in the streets that afternoon. Staff claimed that they liked their boss but ‘particularly from Tuesday to Friday’ (Davidson 2020). Despite the additional responsibilities he continued to pen articles, writing a regular comedic column under the pseudonym ‘Absolom.’

After being recommended by Prime Minister John Curtin, Davidson accepted an invitation to be the State press officer for the wartime Department of Information in 1941. He provided daily briefings to editors on news from the front and Australia’s role in any action. Returning from this secondment, he set off on a lengthy business trip to the United States of America in May 1944. While there he filed a series of reports on his encounters with politicians and Hollywood celebrities. In November he was appointed editor of the Sunday Times and editor-in-chief (editorial director from 1957) for Western Press. He was also a director (1946–79) of Western Press Ltd and Country Newspapers Pty Ltd.

Though banter and bouts of weekly glee marked the Davidson regime generally, he was immensely proud of a serious case of investigative journalism in the Sunday Times. In 1950 he heard rumours of staff mistreating patients at the Claremont Mental Hospital and asked a young reporter, Laurie Turner, to apply for an attendant’s position and make authentic reports. Davidson recalled it as ‘a restrained, dispassionate account’ that revealed staff ‘unkindness, roughness, kicking, punching, [and] burning with a cigarette’ (1985, 117). The exposure led to a royal commission that was critical of the asylum’s administration and, in his view, brought the institution ‘out of the shadows, tightened up conditions, gained more money for treatment, [and] raised the dignity of patients’ (1985, 117).

In 1954 the emerging newspaper entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch acquired a substantial interest in Western Press. He recognised editorial gold in Davidson—a man who knew virtually everyone who mattered in Perth and had earnt their respect, even when he had written candidly about them. Blessed with a tremendous memory, Davidson always seemed to have a contact who could advise or provide support on matters of public interest. He was well placed to fast-track Murdoch’s admission into business and political circles in the State.

Peers, underlings, and rivals respected Davidson as an all-round newspaper man. He was an observant and accurate reporter; a stylish writer; an innovative, forthright, and demanding editor; an astute businessman; and a competent publishing technician. He met publishing deadlines, even if it meant writing and editing the content himself. In 1979 he retired, having worked for the same company for fifty-seven years. His tenure spanned a period of immense change and upheaval; it encompassed the Depression and World War II, and lasted until computerisation brought fundamental changes to newspaper production. In his later years he wrote for pleasure and spent time in his garden. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 22 November 1996 in Perth and was cremated. At the funeral his son Ron recalled: ‘Dad loved words, but not too many of them’ (Davidson 1996).

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Davidson, Frank. ‘Memories of a Newspaper Man.’ Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society 9, no. 3 (1985): 107–22
  • Davidson, Lawrie. Interview by the author, April 2020
  • Davidson, Ron. Eulogy given at Frank Davidson’s funeral. Unpublished manuscript, 1996
  • Davidson Papers. Private collection
  • Davidson, Ron. High Jinks at the Hot Pool: Mirror Reflects the Life of a City. South Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1994
  • Dunn, Frank. ‘Pioneering Editor Dies.’ Sunday Times (Perth), 1 December 1996, 16
  • Williams, George. ‘Editor Put Fun into His Newspapers.’ Australian, 9 December 1996, 13

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Patrick Cornish, 'Davidson, Francis Joseph (Frank) (1904–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davidson-francis-joseph-frank-30345/text37641, published online 2020, accessed online 23 October 2021.

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