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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brass, Henry Douglas (1910–1994)

by Denis Cryle

This article was published online in 2020

Henry Douglas Brass (1910–1994), journalist, war correspondent, and newspaper executive, was born on 31 May 1910 at Invercargill, New Zealand, youngest of four children of Scottish-born parents Henry Gray Brass, farmer, and his wife Jemima Hume, née Macalister. After attending (1923–26) the local Southland Boys’ High School, Douglas studied journalism and then history at Canterbury College, University of New Zealand (DipJ, 1932; MA, 1934). He was awarded a senior scholarship (1932) and first-class honours for his thesis on New Zealand’s administration of the Cook Islands and Niue. His brother Alister had earlier been chief medical officer (1928–31) at Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

Following graduation, Brass worked as a journalist for the Christchurch Press, before moving to Melbourne in November 1935 to join the Argus. On 14 December 1936 he married Victorian-born Joan Philippa Trenchard at Christ Church, South Yarra. The next year he joined the Melbourne Herald, where he gained further experience under Sir Keith Murdoch’s close supervision. Returning to New Zealand from 1939 to 1941, he was a correspondent for several Australian newspapers including the Herald.

Brass’s profile within the Murdoch organisation rose during World War II. Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 16 March 1942, he trained as a gunner but was discharged in November to serve as a Herald war correspondent. He was briefly attached to the AIF in the Middle East, before transferring to British forces and covering the successful campaigns in North Africa and Italy of General (Field Marshal) Sir Bernard (Viscount) Montgomery’s Eighth Army in 1943. His lengthy dispatches, which featured frequently on the front pages of the Herald and the British daily press, were highly regarded. Posted to London from 1944, he covered postwar reconstruction, the formation of the United Nations, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. His reports, infused with human interest and written with an antipodean perspective, were largely devoid of political partisanship, and earned him the post of foreign news editor (1949–50) for the Herald in Melbourne.

Returning to London in 1950, Brass covered British and European affairs and his columns for the Herald and its affiliated dailies circulated widely throughout Australia. He was one of a select group of journalists chosen to accompany Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their royal tours of Kenya (1952) and of New Zealand and Australia (1953–54). After reporting on the Australian tour as far as Adelaide, he returned to the United Kingdom to take up a new position as London editor (1954–56) for the Argus, the struggling Melbourne rival of the Herald, for which he wrote the weekly ‘London Diary.’

During his years working for the Herald, Brass and his wife had become friends of the Murdoch family. Before and after Keith Murdoch’s death in 1952, Brass assumed the role of professional mentor to a young Rupert Murdoch, who was then studying at the University of Oxford. After the Argus was purchased and closed by the Herald, Brass was duly appointed London editor (1956–60) for News Ltd, then based in Adelaide, at a time when the local News was the only newspaper which Rupert Murdoch had inherited from his father. Following Murdoch’s expansion into the Sydney newspaper market through the purchase of the Daily Mirror in 1958, Brass returned to Australia and was appointed editorial director (1960–70) of News Ltd and its associated companies.

In 1964, after Murdoch established his new national daily, the Australian, Brass provided a steadying influence in its uncertain early years. His ‘Looking On’ column, persuasively written and widely read, helped shape the paper’s then liberal international outlook, at a time when (Sir) Robert Menzies’s coalition government continued to espouse Cold War thinking and forward-defence policies. He made a series of important appointments to the Australian, including Adrian Deamer as editor and Mungo McCallum as a political journalist, as well as selecting its London and Washington correspondents. Opposing the escalating Vietnam War on moral grounds, he contributed powerful feature articles to the Australian in 1969 attacking both the war and conscription. A critic of Menzies, he believed Harold Holt to be merely a ‘yes man’ on foreign affairs, but he held out hope for a future Whitlam-led Labor administration.

In his capacity as News Ltd editorial director, Brass ‘acted as a conservative brake on the sometimes wild ideas’ (McNicoll 1994, 13) hatched by Rupert Murdoch and his local editors. When Murdoch decided to enter the London tabloid market in 1968, Brass and other News Ltd directors opposed the move. He resigned the next year, although he continued as an occasional correspondent to the Australian on issues of foreign policy until 1975. His departure from News Ltd coincided with the rise of the more politically conservative Ken May, who became the group’s chief executive in Australia (1969–82).

Although Brass’s relations with Rupert Murdoch and his editors were not always harmonious, he was acknowledged by senior journalists as ‘an enormous presence’ (McNicoll 1994, 13) at a time when journalists relied almost exclusively on workplace mentoring. Remembered as ‘a taciturn New Zealander of quiet authority and humour’ (Cryle 2008, 178), he spent his retirement at Mount Eliza, near Melbourne, later moving to the inner suburb of Albert Park. He and his wife remained on good terms with Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, while his personal admiration for Sir Keith Murdoch influenced twentieth-century biographers and newspaper historians, including Desmond Zwar and R. M. Younger. Survived by his wife and predeceased by their son (d. 1986), he died on 5 August 1994 at Prahran and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Cryle, Denis. Murdoch’s Flagship: Twenty-Five Years of the Australian Newspaper. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2008
  • Griffin-Foley, Bridget, ed. A Companion to the Australian Media. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014
  • McNicoll, D. D. ‘Power behind Throne of Murdoch’s Early Empire.’ Australian, 15 August 1994, 13
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX76263
  • Younger, R. M. Keith Murdoch: Founder of a Media Empire. Pymble, NSW: HarperCollins, 2003
  • Zwar, Desmond. In Search of Keith Murdoch. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1980.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Denis Cryle, 'Brass, Henry Douglas (1910–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/brass-henry-douglas-30134/text37397, published online 2020, accessed online 22 September 2020.

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