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Fairfax, Sir Warwick Oswald (1901–1987)

Sir Warwick Fairfax, former chairman of John Fairfax Ltd and the man at the centre of a communications revolution which helped to change Australian society, died yesterday at his home, Fairwater, at Double Bay, where he was born 85 years ago. The chairman of John Fairfax Ltd, Mr James Fairfax, said last night: "Sir Warwick's contribution to the Fairfax company, which expanded so markedly in his lifetime, was perhaps the greatest of any of the Fairfaxes since the company's founder."

Sir Warwick was born on December 19, 1901, the year of Federation. His death in Sydney after an illness of some weeks occurred as the nation prepares for the Bicentenary. In a long life during which he exercised both large powers and deeply-felt responsibilities, Sir Warwick saw the Sydney Morning Herald, the newspaper he inherited, transformed by technology. But he remained proud that the traditions of the Herald, the nature and beliefs and standards of the paper, were maintained. Sir Warwick's guidance of the Herald coincided with the expansion of John Fairfax into one of the great public companies of Australia, with interests in television, radio and newsprint, as well as newspapers and magazines.

Sir Warwick was educated at Geelong Grammar School, Sydney University and Balliol College, Oxford, where he read philosophy, politics and economics. His habits of study and reflection acquired at university were to remain with him throughout his life. Sir Warwick's association with the Herald commenced in 1923, two years before he joined the staff formally, with two articles on conditions in post-World War I Germany. In 1927 he became a director of the Herald. After the death of his father, Sir James Fairfax, a year later, and the death in 1930 of his uncle and fellow-director, Mr Geoffrey Fairfax, he assumed the chairmanship of the board. He was 28.

In the years immediately prior to World War II, his influence on editorial policy resulted in the Herald becoming a stern critic of the appeasement policies of the British Government under Neville Chamberlain. This was a view opposed by many of the most influential people of the day in Australia. Although yielding to no-one in his support of the free enterprise system, Sir Warwick surprised both friends and opponents by supporting some ALP candidates in the general election of 1943. And after the election of the Curtin Government, he wrote: "The fact is ... that in the absence of a National Government there was, and is, no adequate alternative to a Labor Government."

In 1961, the Herald came under attack from Mr Menzies' supporters when it opposed the return of the Liberal-Country Party Government. This was severe criticism indeed of what Sir Warwick regarded as the shortcomings of the conservative forces. He had written more than 20 years earlier: "Throughout its history the Herald has been no respecter of persons, bodies, institutions or governments, except insofar as it considered they were following the public interest." After retiring as chairman of John Fairfax Ltd in 1977, Sir Warwick was succeeded by his eldest son, James, the present chairman. His principal home was Fairwater, but he had a deep attachment to his country property, Harrington Park. It is understood that some years ago Sir Warwick made arrangements in relation to his family shareholdings in the company to ensure continued family control.

He married three times. There were two children from the first marriage, James and Caroline, now Mrs Philip Simpson. From the second marriage in 1948, there was one daughter, Annalise, now Mrs David Thomas. From the third marriage in 1959 there is one son, Warwick, and two adopted children, Anna and Charles. Sir Warwick was knighted in 1967 for community services. His funeral will be at St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney, at 11am on January 30.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 January 1987, p 1

Citation details

'Fairfax, Sir Warwick Oswald (1901–1987)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fairfax-sir-warwick-oswald-12475/text24631, accessed 21 November 2017.

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