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Edwin Graham Perkin (1929–1975)

by Creighton Burns

This article was published:

Edwin Graham Perkin (1929-1975), newspaper editor, was born on 16 December 1929 at Hopetoun, Victoria, elder son of Herbert Edwin Perkin, baker, and his wife Iris Lily, née Graham, both Victorian born. Graham grew up at Warracknabeal and was educated at the local high school. In 1948 he began to study law at the University of Melbourne, but abandoned his course in the following year when he obtained a cadetship with the Age. At the Methodist Church, St Kilda, on 6 September 1952 he married Peggy Lorraine Corrie.

As a young reporter, Perkin rapidly acquired a reputation for enthusiasm and restless energy. In 1955 he won a Kemsley scholarship in journalism which took him to London. Returning to Australia as a feature writer, he shared the Walkley award for journalism in 1959 for an article on pioneering heart surgery. His rise in the newspaper hierarchy was rapid: he became deputy news editor in 1959, news editor in 1963, assistant-editor in 1964 and editor (at the age of 36) in 1966. He was appointed to the additional post of editor-in-chief in 1973.

Under Perkin's editorship, and with the encouragement of his young managing director Ranald Macdonald, the Age again set itself to influence the agenda of governments, as it had under David Syme. Perkin aimed to establish the paper's credibility as a purveyor of reliable information, authoritative analysis and entertaining writing that would be read by the young and the middle class, and that would make politicians sensitive to the needs of their constituency. He succeeded in part by raising the Age's journalistic standards. He recruited ambitious young reporters, a stable of talented cartoonists and photographers, and a group of senior writers to contribute news analysis and comment. He redesigned the typography and layout of the paper, expanded its foreign coverage, appointed a team of investigative reporters and an environmental writer, doubled the space for readers' letters, and began an occasional feature ('We Were Wrong') which explained and apologized for the paper's mistakes.

Despite his gruff, sometimes unforgiving, insistence on accuracy and ethics, and his earlier stint (1961-63) as lecturer in journalism at the University of Melbourne, Perkin did not believe that training alone produced good journalists: 'intuitive ability runs first for me, intellectual capacity second, training third'. He believed in 'creative subjectivity' and said that contemporary newspapers should concern themselves more with 'analysis and interpretation' than with reportage.

Perkin turned the Age into a more interventionist and campaigning newspaper. It exposed financial scandals in State governments and corruption in the police force, and attacked Federal governments for suppressing information. In the process, it attracted critics who thought it too 'leftist'. In 1972 the Age, which had traditionally supported Coalition governments, advocated the election of E. G. Whitlam's Labor Party. When that government was forced to an early election in 1974, Perkin wanted to support Whitlam again. His stand led to a conflict with the board of David Syme & Co. Ltd, owner and publisher of the Age. A compromise, supported by Macdonald, narrowly averted Perkin's resignation. It also reinforced his insistence on editorial independence, subject to the management's right to dismiss an editor in whom it had lost confidence. The Age became a more substantial, wider ranging, better written and significantly more influential newspaper. Perkin's reforms and his willingness to speak out strongly in defence of the paper's policies boosted circulation from a stagnant 180,000 in 1965 to a solid 222,000 ten years later. The company's revenues rose correspondingly.

Graham Perkin was a large man with a large appetite for life. His success as editor owed much to his ebullience, to his infectious enthusiasm for journalism, to his dominant—sometimes domineering—personality, and to his willingness to bear the heat of criticism. That success won recognition for the Age as one of the ten great newspapers of the world and for Perkin as one of the most distinguished editors of his time. It also led him into senior roles in the newspaper industry, as a director (from 1966) of Australian Associated Press, its chairman in 1970-72, and a director of Reuters Ltd, London, in 1971-74. Away from his desk, he supported the Melbourne Football Club, and belonged to the Savage, Victoria Golf and Melbourne Cricket clubs. He died of myocardial infarction on 16 October 1975 at his Sandringham home and was cremated with Presbyterian forms; his wife, son and daughter survived him. An award for the journalist of the year was named (1976) after him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Hutton and L. Tanner (eds), The Age, 125 Years of Age (Melb, 1979)
  • M. Walker, Powers of the Press (Lond, 1982)
  • Quadrant, Oct 1975
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 Oct 1975, 17 Oct 1985
  • J. T. Tidey, The Last Syme (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 1997)
  • Perkin papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Creighton Burns, 'Perkin, Edwin Graham (1929–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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