Brian Johns, who died in Sydney on New Year's Day, was a remarkable man, a great friend to many, and a great enabler. His family came to Sydney from Queensland in 1947, and at the age of sixteen Brian entered St Columba's Seminary. After three years he left and went to Canberra to become a journalist. It was the start of a career marked by his passion for providing increased opportunity to Australian writers, artists, filmmakers, television makers, and creators of all kinds. In doing so he became, as Ed Campion said at Brian's funeral, 'the champion of a better Australia'.
Everything Brian did during a successful period in the press drove him deeper and deeper into politics and the arts. He had two great strengths to smooth his path: he was a consummate strategist and he was straight as a die with everyone he met. His currency was ideas: he loved the rigorous examination behind every creative project and loved even more enabling them to fly.
Leaving journalism in 1974 to work with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet fed his insights into the importance of proper strategy and policy. This was followed in 1979 by a legendary period as publishing director of Penguin, where his strategy was greatly to increase the market presence of Australian books.
That same intense creativity was put to work at SBS when he became managing director in 1987. He was the right leader to build new strategic meaning into an already powerful Charter. He appointed me Head of Television. With a passionate staff, we delivered high-quality programming from all over the world and in almost every language. SBS TV became the proud face of multiculturalism. Both in radio and television, SBS offered new opportunities for new Australian program makers. It was during those years that all of us at SBS got to know Brian's wife, Sarah, the centre of his life and a great supporter of SBS.
In 1992 Brian was asked to chair the Australian Broadcasting Authority, which supervised the regulation of the Commercial Television and Radio networks. He now had hands-on experience of both public and commercial broadcasting and was a natural choice for the position of managing director of the ABC in 1995. Under-standing the massive change that digital technology signalled, in 1996 he announced a complete restructure of the ABC. Before he went to the ABC, we had wrangled ideas about public broadcasting in a digital world. Brian asked me to supervise the National Networks (Radio, Television, and Online) and to shape them into a single creative entity. The whole restructure was a huge and often painful task for ABC staff. The pain was exacerbated by a massive and needless cut to the ABC's budget by the Howard government. But the change succeeded in placing the ABC far ahead of the commercial broadcasters in the introduction and development of digital content. The work, however, was never completed. In 2000, Brian left the ABC and was replaced by Jonathan Shier. Brian maintained the drive for Australian content and sat on a variety of boards, most notably that of Copyright Agency. He never stopped mentoring, advising, and challenging creative people.
Seamus Heaney in one of his essays described a work of creative imagination as being one in which conflicting realities find accommodation within a new order. That was an outcome Brian Johns delivered several times over to the benefit of all Australians.
All editors dream of working with managing directors of culture and goodwill. Kerryn Goldsworthy, who edited ABR in 1986–87 with distinction, was fortunate enough to work with Brian Johns, who was Chair from 1984 to 1987 (he had served on the Board since 1982). Kerryn recalls her somewhat novel recruitment. The pair had never met, but Brian offered Kerryn the job because he had admired a sentence in one of her book reviews. 'One sentence,' she told me. 'How or why he thought this qualified me to edit the magazine remains a mystery to me even now. But this was typical of his generosity and optimism. He'd take a punt on anyone.'
As a young publisher myself, I knew of Brian Johns – the legend of Ringwood – but I didn't meet him until many years later. This was soon after the Copyright Agency (of which he was then Chair) enabled us, through its Cultural Fund, to create the Calibre Prize for an Outstanding Essay in 2007. Over a series of excellent lunches and dinners, I came to know Brian as a singular presence in our culture – affable, immensely shrewd and well-connected, always interested in results.
Brian served on the board of Copyright Agency for thirteen years and chaired it from 2004 to 2009.
Copyright Agency funded the Calibre Prize for six years: now it stands on its own feet, as was intended. Other support followed. Reading Australia – which presents about 200 essays on key Australian texts – is a testament to his vision, his imagination, his concern. ABR is delighted to be publishing twenty of them. Brian Johns knew that if we endlessly fawn over the new at the expense of past treasures we will diminish our culture and deprive young readers and writers of a full appreciation of Australian culture.
Australian Book Review – just one of thousands of organisations and artists that benefited from Brian Johns's support – salutes this Titan of ideas and culture.