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Media, no matter the century, always have a leading role

Date

Geoffrey Blainey

Traditional media are vital because they are the home of debate.

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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9 comments

  • This is a really interesting read. I think there's still an important role for the professional media, we just need to work out what it is. Long live journalism!

    Commenter
    NJW
    Date and time
    December 07, 2012, 10:51AM
    • The problem is that the "professional journalism" which exists today is hardly that any more. The media is not interested in publishing a story unless it contains the words scandal, shock, outrage, injustice, or in some way involves children.

      With the explosion of tabloid journalism we now have this rubbish they call media - all done to try and sell more papers/content. You say long live journalism - but I question just what that term means nowadays?

      Commenter
      Mark
      Location
      Inner West
      Date and time
      December 07, 2012, 11:18AM
    • NJW,
      I'm not worried about the journalism. What should be corrected is the right of reply/corrections to be done quickly and in the same style as the accusation was first made.
      In other words, if guilty of lies the apology should be in the same location and size as the original article and within a reasonable time limit.
      Not... "oh well we got it wrong but we're not going to do anything about it now."

      Commenter
      Econorat
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 07, 2012, 4:00PM
  • Praise is due as much to the editor as it is to Geoffrey for the airing of this article at this time.

    There are several threads I would like to follow.

    The first is Leveson/Finkelstein. There is no such thing as an independent panel appointed by government. Self censorship/conformity derived of under the table agreements between proprietors is equally problematic. We see the everyday effects of such "independent" state funded broadcast media. I challenge arts-culture-communications academia to appeal publicly for funding to run an empirical study measuring the employment and nature of masked attribution in broadcast media for the expressed purpose of disseminating state propaganda. The item that does hold water in all this is not ethics & legalism & privacy for the few but rather professional standards and editorial aspiration.

    The next item for mine is to pick up on the matter of the effective employ and prominence of letters (commentary) by the editor through the 19th century and early part of the 20th century. I recently highlighted the significance of Edward D.S. Ogilvie's letter published in the SMH on July 8, 1842 that is willfully suppressed by white academia. Ogilvie was a rich squatter who had made good in New England, spoke warmly of the aboriginal people while acknowledging past mistakes and misunderstanding. one who impeached the white community to look upon the black community as their equals and to acknowledge their rights. Reading the colonies 19th century newspapers is a far more faithful and trustworthy experiential engagement with the people of that society than is being reflected in media today. I doubt Blainey would have been the historian he is today if he had to trade exclusively on the efforts of journalists.

    Commenter
    archivista
    Date and time
    December 07, 2012, 11:48AM
    • The next matter is to acknowledge the waning effectiveness of media in scutinising and campaigning on issues of moral and strategic leadership.

      I do not agree with Blainey's views on protectionism or nation building past or present. Black Jack McKeown was a disaster for this country, and so too were those mentioned above that were so complicit in driving us into an 1890's ditch deeper than anywhere else in the world. The Symes years were those where our earlier egalitarian world view narrowed, social Darwinism and anti-Asian hysteria were embraced and the likes of the frontier sentiment derived of experience rather than Teddy Roosevelt styled "Shaping of the West" total romantic b/s. The Ogilvie's mentioned above were overthrown by charlatans and rapacious jingoes.

      The character of Wilson's "varmint" (Billy Hughes) and one could say by extension, John Howard, was born of those sorry years.

      We did, however, do many things on capacity born of isolations natural fostering of a can do mentality for import replacement and new world aspirations desire to build better basic infrastructure for the whole of the community. In the early years when things really were being built we didn't need duopolies to build and run everything with rackets set up on the spurious "economies of scale" argument. Civic leadership provided by those running the mutuals and government was exemplary in comparison with those ticket clippers and amenity destroyers that have asset stripped and organised their way to power in racket ridden boardrooms and government today.

      I believe in the radical different and more positive outlook and opportunities available to us if we return to the basics and restrict the role of inter-mediation in public discourse to those subsequently deeply scrutinised when claiming to speak for those that can't speak for themselves.

      Commenter
      archivista
      Date and time
      December 07, 2012, 12:23PM
      • So very well said archivista !!
        The new media is their threat, where boardrooms don't dictate what is written/said. Where anyone can hit the keyboard, set up a page and send their message to the world.
        The economics besieging MSM is dictating the information we are receiving, how we disseminate is upto us. I must say I google so much to get to the truth of claims reported.
        Even the ABC is not what it once was, a lip of a thing compared to it's former glory.

        Commenter
        A country gal
        Date and time
        December 07, 2012, 1:36PM
    • Apart from sustaining a viable business model due to the spread of the internet and the competition this brings, the mainstream media faces the growing possibility of having more government and extra-national interference occurring.

      From either internal speech codes to court orders, the free press is under pressure everywhere.

      We need something akin to the US first amendment.

      Commenter
      Ben Pensant
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 07, 2012, 1:37PM
      • Good article with many potholes like our phony democracy.
        Democracy is government by debate. And the debate in a parliament is only one facet of the nation's debate.

        Democracy is where a nation is ruled by its people, rather than parties politic or the mob who gets into power using lies and then doesn't listen to public opinion.

        A democracy is form of government in which all citizens vote on issues that face the nation and not just a few......you common masses dont count as it is under our representative democracy.

        Representative democracy is a government in which people theirs dictators.

        Switzerland is a federal republic with a system of direct democracy, in which the ultimate power lies in the hands of the people and not just the mob as their cronies who impose what they think people ought to have as it is in any autocracy.

        What we have witnessed is the rise of a political class who are in essence a dictatorship who are cut off from real world, manipulate the truth, enrich themselves at the tax payers expense.

        The political parties no longer represent the interests of the public but serve as vehicles for personal ambitions.

        But what makes SWITZERLAND so different that it can prosper and remain relatively free while the rest of the world descends into chaos and tyranny?

        The only prosperous country among all the europeen countries....... WHY?
        The people are given a direct say in their own affairs under Switzerland's system of direct democracy, which has no parallel in any other country.

        For responsible government to be effective, citizens must feel they are connected to government.


        .

        Commenter
        half
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        December 07, 2012, 1:41PM
        • The executive has called in the lib-lab-green machines and they are presently coordinating their response to this article. Watch this space for the resumed punch and judy show for the benefit of the plebians once matters have been arbitrated by the big Canberra cahoona and finally settled as to which position will be assumed by each and where dust settled consensus lies. We'll get back to you soon with situation normal....

          Commenter
          archivista
          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 3:24PM
          Comments are now closed
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