homehomepeopleVictor Sidney Norton

Names: Norton, Victor Sidney

Born: 12 August 1906, Johannesburg, South Africa

Died: 4 May 1983, Cape Town, South Africa

In Summary: Journalist.

Please note: This biography is a modified extract from the following source: Sondedrling, N.E. (1999) New Dictionary of South African Biography. Volume 2. Pretoria: Vista University of Pretoria. Pp 169-170. If you would like to contribute to this biography please click on the contribute tab.

Victor Sidney Norton was the elder son of Sidney (Peter) Norton, a Johannesburg journalist, and his wife. His father's descent was English and his mother was of Swedish extraction.

Norton's limited formal education was enriched by exposure to his father's lively mind and wide reading. Among his varied experiences after he had left school was a spell behind the counter of a store in Duiwelskloof in the former North Eastern Transvaal. Here, characteristically, he spent rainy days studying Mathematics from textbooks found in a storeroom.

In 1927 he joined The Star as a reporter. He was soon transferred to the Bulawayo Chronicle in what was then Southern Rhodesia. By this time he had become an exceptionally skilled self taught shorthand writer.

In 1931he and a fellow reporter, Bob Crisp (later famous as a cricketer and a much decorated soldier of the Second World War), made their way to Cape Town with the idea of earning their passage to South America on a cattle ship. When this plan was thwarted by an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, both found jobs on the Cape Times.

Norton's outstanding ability was soon noticed by the editor, B.K. Long*, and he was assigned to Parliament as writer of 'Notes in the House', a column with considerable prestige. Parliament fascinated him, and he made himself an acknowledged authority on its rules and procedures.

In 1935, after short periods as chief subeditor, leader writer and chief of editorial staff, he became chief assistant editor under Long's successor, G.H. Wilson. When Wilson retired in 1944, Norton, though only 37, succeeded him. He was the first South African born editor of the Cape Times and among the first South Africans to edit any of the country's major English language newspapers.

His brand of journalism was highly personal, combining strong political convictions, vigorously expressed in leading articles, with an iron insistence on accurate, fair and responsible reporting. No news story, he maintained, was, fit for publication unless it included the 'other side'.

Scarcely less strenuous was his concern for good English. He was himself a master of the language and wrote with remarkable facility. His leaders, forceful, eloquent and polished, were typed at top speed, usually with scarcely a note to guide him.

If his judgements were not always free from prejudice or oversimplification, they at least left no one in doubt as to where he and his newspaper stood.

Perhaps the most notable period of Norton's editorship was the 1950s, when the Cape Times threw itself into the battle against the wave of legislation that removed coloured voters in the Cape from the Common Roll. It was issues of this kind, involving questions of justice and human rights, that stirred him most and evoked leading articles that have been described as 'like the crack of a long whip'.

His courage was demonstrated by his repeated readiness to risk an action for defamation rather than withhold any criticism that he believed justified and necessary. Yet he remained on good personal terms with many of those he lashed so mercilessly in his leading articles. On his death, a former editor of Die Burger, Dr Piet Cillie, paid tribute to him as an outstanding newspaper man and a worthy antagonist who 'never let our public differences damage our personal relations'. It was on Norton's initiative, he recalled, that the Cape Times and Die Burger began the practice of printing each other's main leaders.

In 1960 Norton was called to the Bar of the Senate the first South African editor to be so summoned to be reprimanded for contempt of Parliament. This followed the finding of a Select Committee that he had committed a breach of privilege by publishing (albeit without comment), words used by a Member of Parliament, Mr J. Hamilton Russell, about the enlarged Senate.

He attended conferences of the Commonwealth Press Union in Britain and Australia and was for 12 years Chairperson of the South African Morning Newspaper Group, an organization for the exchange of news. He retired in 1971. Two years later Rhodes University in Grahamstown awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in Literature.

Norton's editorial combativeness concealed a genial and generous personality, with much humour, an unfeigned enjoyment of life and much goodwill towards all he met.

One of the many things he was enthusiastic about was French, which, with his usual tenacity, he learned to speak fluently. He read extensively in French literature and made an exhaustive study of the phonetics of that language.

Of medium height, strongly built, he revelled in outdoor pursuits. He was a keen yachtsman and played a key role in the organization of successive Atlantic yacht races.

In 1935 Norton married Mildred Elizabeth Mary (Molly) McClurg, with whom he shared a tireless social life and a wide circle of friends. Their daughters, Tessa Clark and Judy Olivier, both became journalists.