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Ian Richard Mathews (1933–2021)

by Jack Waterford

Ian Mathews, by Peter Stewart, 2011

Ian Mathews, by Peter Stewart, 2011

Australian National University Archives

Ian Mathews, as editor of The Canberra Times during the 1970s and 1980s was a wise, tolerant, kind and forbearing man. But any journalist, or would be journalist, could find himself or herself rudely ignored by him for a sin many could never intuit — spelling his surname with two Ts — Matthews.

Mathews may well have been the more common; nothing marked off Mathews as better-born, more literate or erudite. But it was the spelling of the surname he had inherited. A journalist who did not notice this version in relation to him, or who simply assumed that all names sounding like this had two Ts, was careless. It was a base-level patent mistake that suggested a general unreliability in accurate recording of names. Getting a name wrong was not a small thing, particularly to the reader involved.

Accuracy was very important, and spellings were to be consciously checked. There was little that irritated a reader more than seeing a moment of glory, on the sporting field, in public service or in community life, ruined for the scrapbook by a reporter's mistake with the spelling of a name. The Canberra Times was, from the 1960s, a world pioneer in running a daily correction column and it ran to correcting misspellings. Every mistake was an embarrassment and saw the offender dressed down, after repeat offences threatened with the sack. One's personnel file contained one's corrections, and, often, copies of written reproofs from the editor.

Mathews, like John Allan before him, and not a few editors after understood perfectly well that reporters and sub-editors could easily make mistakes in the course of preparing, each day, from scratch a newspaper of (then) an average 30,000 words. Some readers and academics mocked them and laboured under the belief that the newspaper made more mistakes than the publications which did not acknowledge them except under legal duress.

Ian Mathews would occasionally write a letter to a public critic pointing out six or seven mistakes in the last academic publication by the writer himself. Or, having been criticised for the paper's grammar agree with the criticism, but, while not excusing it, point out that a certain number of such mistakes were more or less inevitable under the pressures of production: "For example, I notice in your letter to me you have a singular verb following a plural subject in line three, and you have confused, on line 12, "discrete" for "discreet".

Sometimes, late at light, he would observe some infelicity on a page proof, too late to be corrected by a new printing plate. He might order a "chisel" — a removal of the offending word from the plate strapped on to the press, or a "batter" — making obscure just what the word was. On a famous occasion, a page appeared with a white rectangle — an entire story, of doubtful authenticity but deeply offensive to Muslims — was chiseled out.

This guardianship of quality and standards, including calm and patient mentoring of generations of young journalists, was a constant feature of his 25 years at the newspaper. Born in Surrey, in England in 1933, he and his brother Jeremy (later to be attorney-general of Hong Kong in the last days of British rule) spent much of their childhoods, including during the Blitz in London, farmed between various relatives. His mother suffered from a depressive illness and was in an institution; his father, a marine engineer was mostly at sea. Ian had attended nine primary schools by the time he was 12.

Leaving school at 16, he worked for a year as a junior clerk in local government before joining the merchant marine for several years. He had been rejected on the grounds of height for national service. Later he joined a newspaper group of about a dozen titles, mostly weeklies, around Tunbridge Wells, receiving a thorough training in journalism as an indentured apprentice. In the late 1950s, he and his wife Joyce became ten-pound poms migrating to Australia, originally seeing the trip somewhat like the modern backpacker and expecting to return. He took a position as a sub-editor with Rupert Murdoch's Adelaide News, then in convulsions while its editor, Rohan Rivett, was facing charges of seditious and criminal libel over their criticisms of a case in which an Aboriginal man, Rupert Stuart, had been sentenced to hang for murder.

In 1963, Mathews obtained a job at The Canberra Times, then owned by the Shakespeare family, but soon to be acquired, and much expanded, by the Fairfax organisation as it came into competition with Murdoch's Australian. Working alongside editors David Bowman and John Allan, and for a while under John Douglas Pringle, managing editor, Mathews was soon in executive positions, as chief sub-editor, news editor and later, deputy editor. He became editor in 1972, and later, editor-in-chief as the paper expanded and the editor's tasks more shared.

Though Ian wrote many thousands of words in unsigned leading articles over the years, his byline was not often seen. But his personality was all over the paper, in helping commission articles, deal with correspondents, contributors, and reporters, as well as with the managers of wire services, as well as being the public face of the newspaper. He was also intimately involved in the process of selecting which material would be published, and with what prominence, as well as in settling leaders, and generally managing the editorial staff and budget.

He developed a deep love of Canberra and its institutions, including the ANU, but also its planning and environment, its four seasons and its being a paradise for education and sport. He was keenly interested in road safety, and pioneered the publication of weekly national road toll figures. With the ACT chief justice, Russell Fox, he promoted new non-criminal means of dealing with illicit drugs, pointing out that prison did not affect the problem of demand, nor rehabilitate offenders.

Just as importantly, his editorial policy promoted a broad liberal and deeply civilised view of the nation and the world, attentive to issues of social welfare, human rights and Aboriginal affairs, as well as the economies and culture of Australia's neighbours, international aid and development issues, the "north-south dialogue", and the United Nations. The newspaper won a number of UN Peace Prizes for its coverage of international issues. At the national level, his paper was continuing to pioneer coverage of public administration, as well as the tumult and developments of the Whitlam and Fraser years — including the deep recession brought on to Canberra with deep budget cuts in 1976. This led Mathews to see the need for Canberra to grow its private sector, and the paper sponsored a Canberra means business program design to attract employment and investment.

With the 1987 break-up of the Fairfax empire and the acquisition of the newspaper by Kerry Packer, Mathews was squeezed out of the paper, but remained closely involved in Canberra affairs. He published a newspaper for the United Nations Association, an RSL newspaper, and a regular newsletter directed at people who, like himself, were in the Order of Australia. He became a part-time student, first in Byzantine and Middle Eastern history and later in English literature. He became an honorary but very active member of the university's Emeritus faculty, taking charge of its publication program.

Ian was soft-spoken, a fund of anecdote — rarely mean about the many characters who populated his newsroom and the wider Canberra — and promoted and helped develop many careers, including that of Crispin Hull, his successor as editor and myself, his deputy. On one occasion, after a gentle word about reducing costs of a section of the paper, I asked for budget details, against which I could monitor expenditure. He said he would rather not say. He expected his executives to make decisions based on what was best for the paper, not what suited a bottom line, he said. Those were the days!

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Citation details

Jack Waterford, 'Mathews, Ian Richard (1933–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 5 March 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Ian Mathews, by Peter Stewart, 2011

Ian Mathews, by Peter Stewart, 2011

Australian National University Archives

Life Summary [details]


29 January, 1933
Surrey, England


28 November, 2021 (aged 88)
Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.