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Maxwell Newton (1929–1990)

by Murray Goot

This article was published:

Maxwell Newton (1929-1990), journalist, editor, publisher and brothel owner, was born on 28 April 1929 at Cottesloe, Perth, elder child of English-born parents George William Newton, lead-burner, and his wife Nora, née Christian, legal secretary. Maxwell was educated at Bayswater State and Perth Boys’ High schools before winning a scholarship to Perth Modern School. Awarded a university exhibition, he entered the University of Western Australia (BA, 1950), gaining first-class honours in economics the next year. A good sportsman, he played hockey for the State under-21 team in 1948 and 1949. He began drinking heavily.

After a year of graduate work Newton won a Hackett studentship to an overseas university. He worked his passage in a ship to London in 1951. On 14 June 1952 at St Edward’s parish church, Cambridge, he married Anne Kirby Robertson, a schoolteacher. At Clare College, Cambridge (BA, 1953), he gained first-class honours and the Wrenbury scholarship for the outstanding economics graduate of the year.

Newton took a position as a base-grade clerk in the Treasury section at Australia House, London. In 1954 he returned to Australia to work in the financial and economic policy branch of Treasury in Canberra. Dissatisfied, he moved to Sydney to become a battery-maker for a mail-order firm. Later he joined the economics department of the Bank of New South Wales.

In 1956, after writing letters to the Sydney Morning Herald attacking the government’s economic policies, Newton was offered a job with John Fairfax Ltd by the managing director, R. A. G. Henderson, at nearly twice his current pay. From 1957 he worked in Canberra as a political correspondent for the Herald and Canberra correspondent for the weekly Australian Financial Review, where as ‘Cato’ he penned ‘Canberra Observed’. Gavin Souter described him as a ‘big, thick-haired, gap-toothed, raucous-voiced young man with the kind of vitality that reminded some people of the young [Sir] Frank Packer’. Confident enough to challenge the economic views of both businessmen and politicians, Newton ‘quickly became the [press] gallery’s leading authority in economic matters’. At Henderson’s instigation, Newton wrote speeches for H. V. Evatt, the leader of the Opposition, in 1958 and for his successor, Arthur Calwell, in 1961 and 1963.

Appointed managing editor of the Australian Financial Review in 1960, when the paper’s circulation was 9000, Newton tightened up on deadlines, augmented its Melbourne office and employed ‘stringers’ in Brisbane, Perth and Asia. By mid-1961 the circulation was 21 400. In October, after ‘huge rows . . . and my usual appalling bloody behaviour’, he persuaded (Sir) Warwick Fairfax to make the paper a bi-weekly; his idea was to undermine Packer’s recently launched weekly, the Australian Financial Times. The move to bi-weekly lifted circulation by one-third but when the paper went daily in 1963 it ‘staggered badly’; sales slid to 19 500.

As the first managing editor of the paper Newton had a ‘hands-on style’, in production and advertising as well as editorially. He increased the space devoted to industrial matters, wrote most of the editorials and many other articles, expressing complex ideas in a ‘concise and often dramatic way’. With ‘a great nose for a story’, he brought a new competitiveness to the press gallery, and had a good eye for talent, encouraging university-educated journalists. He had good contacts in the bureaucracy—in the ‘engine-rooms’ not just at the top—and introduced the publication of statistical data seasonally adjusted, an approach favoured by younger Treasury officials. As a man who ‘bubbled with ideas’, Newton had an enthusiasm that could be ‘totally infectious’, but he also divided opinion; those who had ‘worked under him’, Alan Reid observed, ‘either swore by him or at him’.

Impressed by the Financial Times while at Cambridge, Newton sought to broaden the Review. He ‘did not care much about the stock exchange, balance sheets, or share-tipping’, P. P. McGuinness observed; by forming ‘a generation of younger journalists who felt it important to combine academic insights, criticism of policy, and a questioning attitude to authority and official economic policy-making’, he helped remake a field previously ‘dominated by the financial journalists’. Newton also ‘popularized the notion’, Souter recorded, ‘that economics and politics were not only indivisible but were also of profound importance to business’. He promoted the idea of the ‘journalist engagé’; the ideal of ‘objective journalism’ he treated with disdain. In particular, he targeted the Tariff Board and challenged the protectionist policies championed in the Department of Trade by (Sir) John McEwen, Sir John Crawford and (Sir) Alan Westerman.

Following the 1963 election Newton resigned. He was furious with Fairfax for publishing an editorial in the Herald and Sun-Herald in support of the Liberal Party’s economic policies and the government’s re-election, after he and Henderson had campaigned for a Labor win. There were tensions, too, over Newton’s opposition to the idea of Britain’s joining the European Economic Community. Moreover, having his work superintended by the editor of the Herald enraged him.

In 1964 Newton joined another ‘anti-establishment’ figure, Rupert Murdoch, to become the foundation editor of the Australian. Newton educated the paper’s large Canberra staff on the importance of economic reporting, including business reporting. However, ‘driven and riven by jealousy’ of Murdoch, he soon fell out with him. Newton was a free trader and a supporter of the Vietnam War; Murdoch was then a protectionist who opposed the war and favoured what Newton saw as other ‘Left-Liberal causes’. Newton wanted a paper that attracted an elite readership and charged high advertising rates; Murdoch, who had not planned for a national paper and was desperate to stem its losses, was more at home with what Newton saw as ‘vulgar journalism’. Above all, Murdoch ‘constantly interfered editorially’. In March 1965 Newton was sacked; he would look back on it as ‘a big favour’.

Newton produced a weekly Canberra letter for the clients of Staniforth Ricketson at the stockbroking firm J. B. Were & Sons and advised various companies. He contributed to the Nation for two years and became a stringer for Time, Life and Fortune, and for the Economist, Financial Times and New York Journal of Commerce.

In 1965 Newton began publishing Incentive, also known as ‘Invective’, sub-titled Weekly Report on Business Trends and Economic Policy. Some saw it as reprising the muckraking style of Ezra Norton. Its success encouraged him to expand. Under the name Business Press Services, he acquired the Management Newsletter: Analysing News and Trends for Australian Business Executives from W. D. Scott & Co. early in 1966 and wrote the economic advisory letter to the firm’s clients. He created Tariff Week in May 1967, the Australian Parliamentary and Legislative Review in June and Minerals Week in September.

Newton’s censure of the 1965 report by Sir James Vernon’s committee of economic inquiry, plus his work for Richard Crebbin to get margarine production quotas lifted, made him powerful enemies. McEwen, in the words of his biographer, elevated Newton ‘from irritant to obsession’. McEwen attacked him for being a Japanese ‘paid agent’ and for helping the Japan External Trade Organization prepare its cases for the Tariff Board, and worried about Newton’s alliance with the Treasury and the treasurer, (Sir) William McMahon, with whom he talked for an hour every week. This closeness was one reason why McEwen refused to serve under McMahon after Holt’s death.

McEwen’s complaints about Newton helped to make him a public figure. Newton appeared frequently on Australian Broadcasting Commission television and radio. Although originally well disposed to the new prime minister, (Sir) John Gorton, Newton soon attacked him—and McMahon—for not standing up to McEwen. McEwen and other government members wanted Newton expelled from the press gallery on the grounds that he was not a journalist but a propagandist. The gallery, which had split on whether to admit Newton in the first place, now split on whether to expel him. Newton resigned.

Newton received a good deal of information from public servants, and paid for much of it. He wrote an ‘exposé’ of the government, pursued Gorton over his private indiscretions and printed confidential Liberal Party advice to Gorton on the timetable and tactics for the planned 1968 election. Most recklessly, he reproduced diplomatic cables between France and Australia. On 23 May 1969 the Commonwealth Police raided his business in Deakin and ransacked his home; they also accessed his bank records. The Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory deemed the search warrant to be invalid, but the raid and other acts of harassment ‘broke him’; they turned Newton into a ‘junky’, his daughter stated, ‘hooked on Mandrax’.

From late 1968, funded by Crebbin, Newton bought a series of papers in towns on the New South Wales south coast. Lacking community engagement and a local presence, the venture failed. In 1969-71 Newton launched or purchased a variety of journals, including Australian Miner, Jobson’s Investment Digest, the short-lived Weekend Business Review, Australasian Manufacturer and Pacific Island Trade News. In 1972 some of his journals were folded into an expanded Incentive but at the end of the year it ceased publication.

Newton had started the Independent, also known as the Sunday Independent, in Perth in 1969; the mining entrepreneurs Lang Hancock and E. A. (Peter) Wright bankrolled it. Wanting to create ‘an important daily financial newspaper’, Newton had acquired the Daily Commercial News and Shipping List from Ron Brierley’s Industrial Equity Ltd. He took over the Daily Shipping Guide in San Francisco, working there for a time, and bought the Pacific Islands Monthly. In 1971 he launched Brisbane Weekly Sports Life; aimed at hotels and clubs it was Newton’s introduction to ‘footy, tits and the TAB’.

This magazine was also a bridge to his launching in 1971 a Sunday paper, the Melbourne Observer, later renamed the Sunday Observer. From August 1973 there was also the Midweek Observer. To keep his presses moving Newton published the Midweek and Weekend Punter and acquired the rights to the Marvel comics. Printer and publisher of soft-porn magazines and newspapers, he established a mail-order business in pornographic books and sex aids.

For a time the Observer did well, with circulation reaching 200 000 in 1974. Henry Mayer observed that what was ‘new’ was ‘the open advertising for de facto brothels in the Health section, the politics which are cleverly sloganistic, the magazine-like supplements . . . and the high price’; it was a mixture of ‘Right-wing porno-politics, populism, and exploitation of repression’. But, as Newton himself said, for a newspaper that ‘produced no news’ and had a cover price of 45 cents when daily papers sold for about 10 cents, sales of this kind were ‘too good to last’. Advertising revenue became a problem, Crebbin’s full-page margarine ads notwithstanding; known in Melbourne as the ‘contra king’, Newton exchanged advertising space for goods and services. In 1974 Crebbin’s company Marrickville Holdings Ltd had taken over the Daily Commercial News, leaving Newton with the Observer; it marked the end of a close relationship. The next year a receiver was appointed and ownership of the Observer passed to Peter Isaacson; Newton’s income of $30 000 to $40 000 a month now came mostly from pop magazines. Newton was dismissed from the Observer in 1976. He was heavily in debt; his purchase of new printing presses and increases in the price of newsprint were among the causes. In December 1977 he filed for bankruptcy; his tax debt alone was $223 000.

Newton opened three brothels and a sex shop that hosted movie nights of hard pornography. He had lived with Diane Austin since 1972. Divorced from Anne in 1975, he married Diane on 28 April 1976 at St John’s Church of England, Toorak; they divorced in 1980. From 1975 Newton had been involved with Valerie Olivia Norton Waldron, a former prostitute who had advertised in one of his newspapers. They married on 14 November 1981 in New York.

In 1975 Newton had become ‘a director and national spokesman on economic and political issues’ for the libertarian Workers’ Party, founded by John Singleton. Singleton, who had an interview program on Murdoch’s Channel 10 in Sydney, invited Newton to commute weekly to Sydney as a regular guest. Initially Murdoch was horrified but after Newton defended Murdoch’s takeover bid for the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd, the two met and re-established a mutual regard. Like Newton, Murdoch was now committed to free markets and to right-wing politics.

Appointed financial editor of Murdoch’s New York Post in 1980, Newton set about promoting Reaganomics. His daily column was syndicated internationally through News Ltd. Newton also wrote a daily ‘Wall Street Report’ and a weekly ‘Wall Street Letter’ for the London Times; he was sleeping little and typing 7000 words a day. In 1983 his book The Fed: Inside the Federal Reserve, the Secret Power Center that Controls the American Economy was published; Milton Friedman thought it was outstanding. A pure monetarist, Newton became a sought-after speaker. In 1982 he established MaxNews Financial Network, a lucrative consulting and publishing firm. He started the New York Money Market Report. Later he acquired Fed Fortnightly. He considered these ‘the most exciting, happiest and productive’ times of his life.

In 1988, when Murdoch sold the New York Post, Newton left News Ltd; in 1986 he had moved to Florida. He also separated from his third wife. For much of his life he had been an alcoholic, sometimes dependent on other drugs as well, and had suffered a series of health problems. John Stone, secretary (1979-84) to the Treasury and a friend since schooldays, described him as a man with ‘a brilliant mind, an almost infinite capacity for hard work, a warm-hearted generosity, and a spontaneous sense of fun’, but McGuinness and other admirers acknowledged that he was often ‘shrill’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘illogical’. Newton died on 23 July 1990 at Boca Raton, Florida, and was cremated. Predeceased (d.1978) by the younger daughter of his first marriage, he was survived by his wife, the son and elder daughter of his first marriage and the three daughters of his second.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Reid, The Gorton Experiment (1971)
  • H. Mayer and H. Nelson, Australian Politics: A Fourth Reader (1976)
  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981)
  • C. Packer, No Return Ticket (1984)
  • P. McGuinness, ‘The Economic Guerrillas’: A Lecture in Honour of Maxwell Newton (1991)
  • S. Newton, Maxwell Newton (1993)
  • P. Golding, Black Jack McEwen (1996)
  • Politics, Autumn 1975, p 58
  • Canberra Historical Journal, July 2006, p 2
  • Bulletin, 24 Feb 1973, p 69, 12 July 1975, p 30
  • Nation Review, 31 Aug-6 Sept 1973, p 1442
  • Australian Financial Review, 30 Nov 1977, p 15, 27 July 1990, ‘Weekend Review’, p 5, 2 Aug 1990, p 16
  • Times on Sunday, 31 Jan 1988, p 36
  • West Australian, 25 July 1990, p 9
  • Weekend Australian, 25-26 Sept 1993, ‘Weekend Review’, p 8
  • private information.

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Citation details

Murray Goot, 'Newton, Maxwell (1929–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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