Walter Kommer was a journalist of great distinction whose epitaph should read: “Here lies the man who saved The Australian.” Columnist MARK DAY remembers his legacy in this obituary.
Walter Iman Kommer came to journalism by chance after an adventurous early life that included time as a commando in the West Irian highlands, a tennis-shoe maker and building labourer.
He was born with the gift of clear thinking. His ability to discern the facts and draw lucid conclusions from them determined his path in life from his teenage years in war-torn Europe until his retirement in Perth.
In an interview conducted shortly before The Australian’s 50th anniversary in 2014, Mr Kommer told how, in his late teens, he had a chance to join the bureaucracy in his native Holland but all he could see before him was boredom and struggle.
“It was clear to me that I had to get out of Europe if I were to have any chance of making something of my life,” he said. So he emigrated to Indonesia, formerly the Dutch East Indies, and joined the army.
After two years of jungle patrols and cloak-and-dagger activities in the politically unsettled West Irian province, Mr Kommer came to Australia in 1953. His first job was making tennis shoes in a factory in Sydney during the day while he studied English in the evenings. After years of working by day on building sites to support his young family while studying at night, Mr Kommer was awarded an honours degree in economics.
His life took a crucial turn when he answered an advertisement in the Australian Financial Review. Max Newton, the paper’s editor, was searching for an economist to join his staff.
This may seem logical and sensible today, but it was a revolutionary thought in 1960 when journalists were more likely to be jacks-of-all-trades rather than specialists. Newton knew his publication, soon to become Australia’s first nationally distributed newspaper, needed expertise.
According to Mr Kommer, Newton hired him saying: “Don’t worry about whether you can write. We’ll fix that.”
“I picked it up pretty quickly,” he said. “At university you start off by arguing your case and you finish up with your conclusion, whereas in newspapers you come to the conclusion at the top, then you explain how you have come to that view. It didn’t take long to understand that all I had to do was to reverse it.”
Under Newton’s guidance, Mr Kommer began writing about Australian businesses from a new standpoint — “how they worked internally, what their futures were, what the competition was, what sort of technology was required, whether they saw themselves in the Asian market” — which gave him an understanding of business at the coalface.
These years were to be pivotal in his career. He wrote extensively for the Fin about the bauxite mines at Weipa in Queensland and years later, when Rupert Murdoch asked Mr Kommer to run the miner Alwest, competitors smugly asked what he knew about bauxite. “Well, more than they thought,” he said.
Mr Kommer had just moved to Melbourne with the Fin in early 1964 when Newton defected to join Rupert Murdoch in his quixotic plan to launch The Australian.
Mr Kommer signed up to be Newton’s deputy and was soon deeply involved in chaos. Newton was brilliant and mercurial, but had not the slightest grasp of the daily nightmare of producing a newspaper in Canberra and distributing it to the nation’s breakfast tables the next morning.
Soon, he and Murdoch were engaged in ideological and strategic struggles and Newton was fired. Mr Kommer felt conflicted by his loyalty to his mentor and his lucid understanding that the Newton editorship was a disaster.
He took over as editor and brought stability to the operation. His ability to analyse the vital components of the business and search for solutions to each problem brought order to chaos.
He ended the “trade wars” where Newton, supported by then treasurer William McMahon but in defiance of Murdoch, fought against the protectionist policies of deputy prime minister John McEwen. The issue dominated national politics and caused great division within The Australian, but Mr Kommer’s assessment was that McEwen was right.
There was still one fundamental problem: The Australian was based in Canberra and its audience was not. “I immediately understood that our markets were where the big cities were,” he said.
Mr Kommer oversaw the move of The Australian from Canberra to Sydney in 1967 and remained editor until 1969. He then established Alwest and also managed Murdoch’s oil and gas interests for many years.
Mr Kommer was chairman of the Australian Newsprint Mills and formed a publishers’ bureau now known as the NewsMediaWorks Environment Advisory Group to manage the industry’s product stewardship issues.
Mr Kommer’s early retirement years were dedicated to caring for his wife, Cynthia, who died in 2009. He became a voluminous reader and follower of international politics and business.
When he retired, he was honoured at a dinner at the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron where Murdoch said: “Walter, the one thing I want you to understand, mate, and I thank you for it, is that you saved The Australian.”
Mr Kommer is survived by a son, Mark, daughter, Helen, and partner Paula.
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