The death on Saturday of Creighton Burns provides an opportunity to describe what a strong newspaper editor looks like close up. It shows us what the media can and should be in a society like ours.

Burns was an intellectual in a notoriously anti-intellectual industry, but his intellect was harnessed to a clear-sighted mind and a fibrous character. This combination of qualities made him decisive, resilient and courageous.

As editor of The Age (1981-89) he had a powerful grasp of traditions of his newspaper, of the role of the media, of the public space it occupied, of its relations with government and other institutions, and of the internal political currents that swirl around editors who work for big corporations like Fairfax.

Let’s unpack some of these.

The traditions of The Age are those of a liberal newspaper: sceptical of those in power, secularly meritocratic about issues, democratic by instinct. To watch Burns chair the daily leader conference, in which the paper’s policy on current issues was debated and the editorial opinion “line” decided for the leaders of the following day, was to see those traditions given life and meaning.

In deciding the line for leaders, he would not be budged from what those traditions stood for, yet he encouraged pluralism in the opinion pages generally. Some of his senior leader writers would dutifully produce a leader according to Burns’s will, and then use their own column the next day to argue the opposite. It was a refreshingly combative atmosphere in which to work.

He detested flaccidity in argument or writing. “For Chrissake,” he admonished me on one occasion, “have an opinion, man.” Another time, when the amount of editorial space in the paper was being cut yet again under the pressures of the Fairfax receivership, he wrote a two-paragraph memo to staff telling them to tighten their writing. It was crisply headed “Space and Prolixity”.

He strongly believed in the role of the media as a watchdog over others in power and spent a lot of money building The Age’s capacity to do so. When Victoria enacted Australia’s first Freedom of Information Act in 1982 he encouraged an enthusiastic young reporter, Paul Chadwick, to become a specialist in how to use it and to write a book about it. This made the paper, along with The Canberra Times, a pioneer in the use of FoI. He set aside tens of thousands of dollars from the editorial budget each year to fight important FoI cases in the courts.

This was Burns bringing to Melbourne the influences of his time as Washington correspondent, where he had seen at first hand the accountability exerted by the media in a political culture where information flowed so much more freely than under our Westminster-oriented culture. After I had written a piece about government secrecy he came into my office grinning in his characteristically gritty way. The Premier had just been on the phone saying I was a threat to the Westminster system of government. Burns was delighted.

His default position was always to publish, but not recklessly. Among his biggest decisions was to publish what became known as The Age tapes. These had been created illegally by NSW police who were investigating an immigration racket, tapping the telephone of a Sydney solicitor called Morgan Ryan. By chance, they recorded Mr Justice Lionel Murphy of the High Court talking to Ryan about court cases and appointments to the NSW public service.

Because the police had not obtained a warrant for the phone taps, the tapes were useless as evidence, so they gave them to a celebrated crime reporter, Bob Bottom, who brought them to The Age. An exhaustive process of verification then followed before Burns was satisfied that there was enough evidence to justify his accepting the tapes as genuine. The resultant story, “Network of Influence”, brought about a royal commission which vindicated Burns’s decision, the subsequent conviction of Murphy and then his acquittal on appeal.

It was a text-book study in how to handle difficult and highly damaging material affecting powerful people.

His editorship coincided with the absorption of The Age into the Sydney-based Fairfax corporation. The culture of the Fairfax flagship, The Sydney Morning Herald, was not remotely like that of The Age. It was profoundly conservative, both in its journalistic operations and in its opinions. It looked upon The Age with a mixture of envy – for its journalistic success – and contempt for its comparative radicalism.

Burns did not trust the editors of the Herald or the management of Fairfax and this was cordially reciprocated. Mighty battles ensued as Burns resisted the Sydney influences, for example over the insertion in The Age of Good Weekend magazine, which Burns saw as a piece of Emerald City flimflam with no relevance to Melbourne.

He had strong views on the relationship between editors and proprietors. In 1988 he endorsed a charter of editorial independence developed by his staff. He rejected out of hand suggestions that he should be on the company’s board, saying he would be compromised by having to conform to Board solidarity. Managing directors, he asserted, existed to protect editors from Boards.

In 1987 “young Warwick” Fairfax executed his disastrous buyout of the Fairfax company’s public shareholders. In the heady days before his bankers sent him broke, young Warwick came down to cast a seigneurial eye over his assets at The Age. He attended the evening news conference, after which Burns asked me to stay behind. He then turned to young Warwick and began to educate him, politely and lucidly, about editorial independence, the role of the editor and the role of the proprietor.

How much of this young Warwick absorbed was not immediately clear. He said nothing, but gazed vacantly out the window as the sun set behind the Westgate Bridge. Yet it is possible he did absorb something because The Age did not suffer the intrusions of young Warwick’s editorial watchdogs such as Martin Dougherty, which did so much damage to independence and morale at The Sydney Morning Herald.

Not long before he reached what he called “the age of statutory senility”, Burns retired to care for his terminally ill wife, Anita. The first paper edited by his successor, Mike Smith, carried a tribute to Burns by John Lahey, a beautiful and insightful writer who captured in one sentence the essence of what made Burns a great editor. He had, said Lahey, the gift of seeing great principles in small things.

After his retirement Burns would never be drawn into making public comment about the paper. “If I said it’s better, I would be disloyal to the people who worked for me; if I said it’s worse, I’d be accused of sour grapes.”

The Age of 2007 is a very different paper from the one edited by Burns. The use of prodigiously large headlines, shorter text, “packaging” of stories, large and abundant colour photographs give it a softer magazine-like quality. There is far less political content and more “lifestyle” stories than he would have thought possible. Yet he would still recognise something of the paper’s traditions in its leading articles, and every now and again it produces a piece of outstanding investigative journalism which Burns would have been proud to publish.