THE mass media are being turned inside out in this digital era, and many newspapers especially are struggling. And yet a combination of new and old media, as it emerges, will probably mould Victorian life as much as did the old mix of newspapers, radio and television. Victoria's history was shaped by the media - to a degree that is now forgotten.

Victoria won independence from New South Wales in 1851, after Melbourne and Geelong newspapers had vigorously campaigned for it. When the rush to the Victorian goldfields began that same year, the press advised diggers where to go and where to buy picks and shovels, flour and sugar.

After goldminers fought soldiers and police at the Eureka Stockade in 1854, the captured rebels were taken to Melbourne to face trial. Only one was sentenced to prison. He was Henry Seekamp, the young editor of that controversial newspaper, the Ballarat Times.

In the origins of Aussie rules football, a landmark was the letter printed in a weekly Melbourne newspaper in 1858. The letter was written by Tom Wills, a champion cricketer, born in Australia but educated at Rugby School. He suggested Melbourne sportsmen should take up a winter game, preferably rifle-shooting or football. It was football that won.

Many of the fascinating items in the early Victorian newspapers were simple statements: ''We have nothing to report.'' After Burke and Wills set out from Royal Park in 1860 with their camels on an expedition exploring the continent, the newspapers reported again and again that no news had been heard of them.

A long list of economic, social and political and cultural crusades, and charitable appeals, too, were initiated by newspapers, and later by radio and television. Some initiatives reshaped the nation.

From the 1860s, The Age under David Syme called for tariffs to protect local factories, mills, foundries, and farms. His was a revolutionary policy, for Britain then was the global champion of free trade. By 1908, when Syme died, protectionism was not only Victoria's but the new Commonwealth of Australia's emphatic policy. We are, now, seeing it dismantled year by year.

For decades, the press more than the university was the researcher into facets of national and daily life. Thus in the early 1890s, at the end of Melbourne's land and financial boom, a few journalists became the serious investigators of financial corruption. Two generations later Melbourne journalists were prominent in the ultimate downfall of the Whitlam government in 1975.

So far the media have been vital in two ways. They are a special source of knowledge, though we call it news. The typical Australians in the course of their life probably have gained more knowledge from the media than from the schoolroom.

The traditional media are and will remain vital because they are usually a home of debate. Democracy is government by debate. And the debate in a parliament is only one facet of the nation's debate. In the long term, a vigorous democracy depends even more on the arguments that take place in the media and in other public places than those debated in the parliaments.

If this is true then the Finkelstein proposal that the federal government should be able sometimes to silence or threaten the media is almost as hazardous as the idea that the media should silence or threaten Parliament and the government.

The media and politics have never been entirely separate. Andrew Fisher of the Gympie Truth, James Scullin of the Ballarat Evening Echo and John Curtin, too, were prime ministers who had once been journalists or editors. Alfred Deakin, even while prime minister and the MP for Ballarat, was the regular but anonymous columnist for a leading London newspaper, The Morning Post. Year after year, Deakin sat, invisible, in the press gallery in what was then the federal parliament house, in Spring Street. Deakin the invisible reporter sometimes criticised Deakin the prime minister.

It is curious that one of the momentous political appeals in Australian history - the appeal of John Curtin for the help of the United States armed forces when wartime Australia was in peril - was made not in Parliament. His appeal was published in that influential afternoon newspaper, the Melbourne Herald, in December 1941.

Every profession, every calling, has its defects. The media - because they have to meet deadlines and often report controversial events - have perhaps more than their share of imperfections. This is all the more reason why Australians should acknowledge the thousands in the media who, living or dead, did their best, and honour the few whose best was superb.

Geoffrey Blainey is a historian and an emeritus professor at Melbourne University. This is an edited version of a speech he gave last night to the Melbourne Press Club.

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