OBITUARY: A leader and mentor who changed the face of financial reporting in SA
Palmer enjoyed huge respect from his staff and the business community. Thus did the FM’s authority develop
On the cusp of his 93rd birthday, as 2017 turned to 2018, legendary FM editor George Palmer died in California. His last conscious moments were spent, as he might have wanted, on a tennis court. While playing, he collapsed with pneumonia of which there’d been no outward symptoms.
In writing about him, his teachings resonate: produce an introduction that will lead readers to want more; keep sentences short; don’t use two words when one will do; make it crisp; get quickly to the point; hit hard; be fair ...
Basic lessons were integral to making Palmer a great editor and mentor, as those who passed through his hands during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s will readily acknowledge. He led by inspiration, even to an extent by intimidation.
Because he meticulously perused the raw copy of journalists – encouraging here and criticising there, showing how to explain relevance and add value – they’d quickly know whether they were meeting the quality standards he demanded for the magazine’s reputation and impact.
To have worked for him was to have been on a perpetual learning curve. To have earned his praise was a constant motivation and its own reward. Thus did the FM’s authority develop.
A gentleman to the core, Palmer enjoyed huge respect from his staff and the business community at large. With its tightly niched circulation, the FM punched way above its weight. Considered a potent voice of South African business, it was Palmer who promoted the integration of investment, economics and politics as an editorial discipline. Guidance was in his commitment to liberal principles.
Such was the depth of intellectual leadership, complemented by writers who’d become recognised specialists in their respective fields, that editorial meetings never lacked stimulation. Story ideas were advanced and challenged. When it came to government pronouncements or corporate lapses, he’d throw up for debate: “What should be our policy?” Then it would be pursued, frequently with courage that on occasion put him at loggerheads even with his own management.
He courted controversies and wasn’t averse to provoking them. He relished revelations and pushed for them to be dug out. All the while, the bedrock of readable economics and investment analysis remained supreme among the financial media of the day.
Two further points should be noted as measures of his integrity. The first is that Palmer maintained a strict Chinese wall between the editorial and advertising departments. He never allowed editorial columns for pandering to advertisers, and he was deaf to pleas that advertising be placed on condition of editorial.
The second relates to the song and dance, back then, by National Party spokesmen of the Anglo American controlled shareholdings in the two major English-language newspaper groups (one of which owned the FM). To Palmer, it mattered not an iota. A personal recollection is illustrative.
In the early 1970s, I got wind of a site assembly being put together by Anglo American Properties (Amprops) for a major project. The head of Amprops phoned Palmer to ask that an article not be run until the assembly was complete, whereupon an “exclusive” was promised.
Palmer then called me. “I hear you have a story about an Amprops project,” he said. “Yes,” I confirmed, “but I’m still working on it.” Palmer responded: “Write what you’ve got and have the story on my desk within half an hour.”
That week the story was published. Palmer didn’t care that it resulted in Amprops paying higher prices for the properties still being assembled.
When the FM launched in 1959, as a joint venture between the Financial Times Group and SA Associated Newspapers, the first editor was John Marvin, who’d been seconded from the UK. Palmer, an economist at UAL merchant bank, became the first deputy editor. Two years later he succeeded Marvin and continued as editor until his emigration, for family reasons, in 1977.
Palmer has passed on. His legacy, for the benefit of the FM, must shine on.
• Allan Greenblo was a journalist on the FM for eleven years from 1967.