OBITUARY: Editor who laid the foundation
George Palmer, who edited the Financial Mail for 16 years, set in place the principles that would shape business journalism in SA
Days after the terrible events of June 16 1976, a National Party puppet told a German audience that Pretoria was unalterably wedded to "separate development". Apartheid, he declared, was "coming to fruition".
Aghast at such arrogance, the then-editor of the Financial Mail, George Palmer, wrote in an editorial: "The fruits of the policy of apartheid are frustration, injustice, and hatred ... it is a policy which is rejected by the broad mass of the African people. Yet they are being subjected to it with a remorseless insensitivity that can only invite disaster."
Palmer was a superb editor, and though he ended his 16-year term in this post in 1977 (and left SA), his legacy was of courage, a commitment to truth and adherence to journalistic principles.
His death at 92 on the first day of this year — in a hospital in Palm Springs, US — has registered in far wider circles than just the SA media and the community the Financial Mail serves.
As editor, he rejected the fatuous plea that business should stand apart from government. Peace and prosperity were incompatible with racist misrule, he believed. In the 1970s, Eschel Rhoodie (the National Party’s chief propagandist) complained that 70% of the "twisted and poisoned" reports on SA came from the Rand Daily Mail and 20% from the Financial Mail.
Palmer built a disparate team of writers including some specialists, and many without journalistic training. Intelligence and competence were prioritised.
Speaking to former Financial Mail writer Barry Wood in Palm Springs in 2014, Palmer said his proudest achievement was building that team. The roster (mostly white men), included Steven Friedman, Allan Greenblo, Graham Hatton, Peter Wilhelm, Mike Taylor, Bernard Simon, John Stewart, Tony Hawkins and Peter Duminy.
Simon — for years a journalist with the Financial Times — credits Palmer as being "truly one of the formative influences of my life [though] he could be merciless on those he considered weak or incompetent."
Greenblo, now editorial director of Today’s Trustee, says: "I at once feared and benefited from his demanding standards."
Palmer read and edited all Financial Mail copy with a certain military authority.
John Kane-Berman (former CEO at the SA Institute of Race Relations) recalled in his memoir that in 1974, Palmer summoned writers to his office to discuss a demand from the Financial
Mail’s publisher that he quash a story to which a cabinet minister had objected.
After a lengthy discussion, everyone agreed the story should be published and should Palmer be fired, they would all quit in protest. The story ran, and Palmer wasn’t fired.
Michael Holman, for two decades the Africa editor of the Financial Times, says Palmer’s intimidating gaze "scared the pants off me, but in so doing left me with an instinctive questioning of the facts in my own stories."
Palmer’s route to journalism was circuitous. After earning a BCom at the University of Cape Town (UCT), he went into investment banking. He didn’t like it, and when the Financial Mail was launched in the late 1950s, Palmer was asked to join.
His mentor was John Marvin, seconded from the Investors’ Chronicle in the UK to oversee the new publication, in which the Financial Times also had a stake.
From Marvin, Palmer gleaned his mantra: "Never use two words when one will do."
Palmer was born near London in 1925 and grew up in Reading. His mother, a nurse in World War 1, died when he was 12; his father died four years later, leaving George and his sister Eileen.
Young Palmer watched London burn during the Blitz and resolved to join the Fleet Air Arm at the minimum age of 17.
He underwent training on Gypsy Moth biplanes, failed flight school and retreated to the RAF for training as a navigator. He and several hundred recruits were herded aboard a rusty Greek ship to be carried off for fair-weather flying in SA. By the time it reached Port Said, the food was mouldy: by Mombasa there was near-mutiny. When he finally landed in Durban, Palmer said he felt like he’d reached paradise.
After training at Grahamstown, Palmer was sent back to Britain, but the war ended soon after. Two years later he got a bursary to UCT and returned to SA.
In Cape Town, Palmer joined Sailor Malan’s Torch Commando, which mobilised thousands to protest against the National Party’s removal of mixed-race people from the voters rolls.
Hazel Shore, a Cape Town tennis prodigy of the late 1950s, was Palmer’s wife for 32 years. They met playing doubles in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. She says that even in his nineties, Palmer never stopped seeking personal improvement.
Just 11 days before being admitted to hospital, he was on the tennis court, telling Hazel that at last he was mastering the backhand. Just before Christmas, she drove him at breakneck speed from the gym — where he had experienced uncontrolled vomiting — to the Palm Springs hospital.
He was diagnosed with severe pneumonia. Hazel was at his side when he died on New Year’s Day. He is also survived by three daughters from his first marriage, and a sister in Reading.