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Crusading Financial Mail founder approaches 90

The man who stood for quality, stood up to John Vorster and mentored some of SA’s best journalists.

Fifty-six years ago George Palmer was among the founders of the Financial Mail (FM). During the long Palmer era, the FM gained a reputation for quality writing and unwavering opposition to apartheid.

From an early age, Palmer was already no stranger to controversy.

As a teenager in Reading, Palmer observed the fires from the aerial blitz over nearby London. Not waiting to be conscripted, Palmer joined the Fleet Air Arm at 17. Transferring to the RAF, he arrived in South Africa for flying training in Grahamstown and then the Western Cape. Returning to Britain as a navigator on Wellington and Lancaster bombers, Palmer’s squadron in 1945 was waiting to be sent to the Asian theatre to finish off the Japanese.

“My good luck,” he says, “was the Americans dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war, and I was demobbed.”

Having been smitten by the beauty of Cape Town, Palmer wrangled a bursary at the University of Cape Town and secured passage on a Union Castle ship back to South Africa.

After graduating from UCT, Palmer had joined former RAF flying ace Sailor Malan’s Torch Commando, protesting the racial policies of the new Nationalist Party government. In 1950 Palmer helped launch the Liberal Party, a precursor of today’s Democratic Alliance.

He joined a merchant bank, a career he did not fancy. Soon he was invited to join the new publication that would be jointly owned by South African Associated Newspapers and the Financial Times group.

Initially Palmer was deputy to John Marvin, the financial editor of the Economist who was sent from London to launch the publication to monitor South Africa’s burgeoning mining and financial sector. The Financial Times of London had 50% interest in the new magazine. Two years later in 1961 he became the FM’s editor, a post he held with distinction until the end of 1976.

Editorial legacy

During a recent visit to Palmer’s home in Palm Springs, California, the no nonsense, demanding editor, said his proudest achievement was building the editorial team at the FM. During the turbulent mid-70s it included Peter Duminy, Tony Heard, Mike Taylor, John Kane-Berman who went on to SAIRR, columnist Steven Friedman, Allan Greenblo, Graham Hatton, Peter Wilhelm, John Stewart, Richard Rolfe, later Financial Times writers Tony Hawkins, Bernard Simon, and Michael Holman, and former Battle of Britain pilot Ken Romain. Jackie Bosman was the gifted artist who weekly turned out provocative, high quality covers.

Greenblo, currently editorial director at Today’s Trustee, says Palmer was his mentor, “an often intimidating editor who set the FM’s crusading tone.” Greenblo says, “I at once feared and benefited from Palmer’s demanding standards.” “He was,” he says, “a superb rewriter who would go through copy sentence by sentence, rewriting and explaining each change.” That practice, says Greenblo, is sorely lacking in journalism today.

The Economist’s John Marvin was Palmer’s mentor. “He advised writers to never use two words when one would do, a practice I sought to emulate.” Palmer views himself as a better editor than writer.

Greenblo recalls an incident that underscores his mentor’s editorial integrity:

“I had handed in a story critical of a business person with whom he frequently played tennis. George called me to his office and started going through the story line by line, quite dispassionately. He did a little rewriting here and there, but changing nothing in the article’s tone or argument. “Good,” he said when he’d finished. “That’s fine. Take it down to production.” “But George,” I asked, “isn’t Mr X one of your closest personal friends?” George responded with a sigh: “In this business you can lose friends.”

Political enemies

Some weeks after the 1976 Soweto uprising, Palmer and senior FM editors traveled to Pretoria’s Union Buildings to interview the magazine’s nemesis, Prime Minister John Vorster. Arriving for a meeting scheduled weeks earlier, they were told that Vorster would not see them.

Palmer asked if the prime minister would at least allow the group in to shake hands and say farewell. After some time they were ushered in. Vorster approached the editor and jabbing an accusing finger said, “Palmer, you’re an enemy of the state.” To which Palmer replied, “no, prime minister, you are.”

Some time after that tart exchange, members of the special branch of the SAP arrived at the FM’s offices on the ninth floor of the Carlton Centre. They demanded access to the magazine’s files. Palmer told an intimate, “that’s it, we’ve become a police state and I want no part of it.” He soon left to become international editor at Business Week in New York.

In the end Palmer wasn’t comfortable with then uncritical style of American business journalism. Moving to LA he met his current wife, Capetonian Hazel Shore, on the tennis court. Nineteen years Palmer’s junior, the couple spent two years working in Tokyo and then moved to London and the south of France. They now live in retirement in Palm Springs.

In recent years Palmer collaborated with his long-time friend Stanley Uys writing opinion pieces on SA politics. When Uys died in London earlier this year, Palmer wrote in a tribute, “how many times have I thought ‘why can’t I write like Stan?’”

“As a newcomer to journalism (in 1960),” he continued, “the first page I would turn to in the Sunday Times would be Stan’s political commentary on the inside story on what the Nats and the United Party (and all the rest) were really up to, who was doing what to whom and the consequences for South Africa and its governance.”

Current-day SA

George Palmer, who will be 90 in February, retains a keen interest in South African affairs. “I am daily appalled at what is happening,” he says. “Helen Suzman must be turning in her grave.”

History is likely to judge Palmer kindly, placing him among the courageous editors who defied threat and intimidation to maintain journalistic integrity. During apartheid there was a deep chasm between economics and politics, between destructive racial discrimination and a private sector whose success required ever-closer racial cooperation.

In a different form that chasm is still present, meaning that quality journalism in the Palmer tradition is vital in today’s South Africa.

Washington-based economics writer Barry D. Wood began journalism under George Palmer at the Financial Mail from 1974 to 1976.

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