Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 1, 1990
The Media of Publishing
Edited by Albert Moran

Press culture and political journalism to 1930

Denis Cryle

George Nadel in the introduction of his Australia's Colonial Culture observed that researchers of the 19th century are confronted from the outset with an "embarras de richesse", or overabundance of source material. [1] In many respects, Australian newspaper history has advanced little beyond the methods of the early investigators. [2] In part this impasse can be explained by the prolific and ephemeral character of 19th century newspapers themselves. The Golden Age of the press might well be renamed the Era of Instability, for the salient feature of press ownership, individual or collective, is undoubtedly its ephemerality. Metropolitan papers changed hands every five years while, in the provinces, turnover was as high as every two years. A scattered secondary literature is becoming available but the task of identifying numerous individual publications and proprietors has absorbed researchers to the exclusion of sustained written commentary.

The prolific character of the 19th century press has important implications for general historians as well as for specialist newspaper researchers. In the absence of systematic research into the newspaper sources upon which they depend, most historians cite the press in piecemeal fashion without any consideration of proprietorial politics or the audience for which the paper was intended; they prefer to consult colonial papers which have survived into the 20th century and to avoid journals which have long since disappeared, even though the latter may have been informative and influential in their time. [3] A further consequence of the selective use of "established" newspapers by historians is the tendency to produce a more conservative picture of the press than is in reality the case. Only one work on the 19th century press exists which is sufficiently thorough and comprehensive to merit serious recommendation. Robin Walker's volume on 19th century New South Wales succeeds in providing a cohesive commentary on southern newspaper development and plugs most of the holes in the potted press tradition. On the subject of unsuspected competition, he reminds readers that both the Atlas, in the 1840s, and the Empire in the 1850s, competed strongly against the Herald. [4] Any discussion of mid century constitutional and land issues would be unwise to ignore these sources.

Freedom and the polemical tradition

Implicit in the bibliographical and journalistic approach is the assumption that newspapers, because of their instability, were incapable of providing systematic discussion of issues and are therefore unworthy of close attention. In a recent Marxist analysis of colonial society, however, William Thorpe has stressed the need to study ideologies and to identify political entrepreneurs operating behind the scenes of government. [5] The strategic importance of the press as a vehicle for ideas and a medium of political organisation cannot be overemphasised. To the extent that it announces social formations and political pressure groups, the press permits valuable insights into a wider cross-section of colonial society than has hitherto been acknowledged. Editorial authorship is an obvious starting point, though not the sole focus for such an analysis. As the self-conscious mediator of newspaper policy and public opinion, the colonial editor enjoyed a privileged position in the newspaper world. One distinctive aspect of 19th century journalism was a polemical tradition which operated simultaneously against government officials and rival newspaper men. The verbal aggression of colonial editors demonstrates a latitude which is no longer tolerated in their 20th century counterparts. In Queensland, it has been equated with rabid provincial journalism. [6] The potted biographical tradition, and the cult of personality surrounding early editors, have tended to obscure their collective contribution as a significant fraction of the colonial intelligentsia. The argument employed by Manion and Kirkpatrick that Queensland editors were not uniformly well educated does not detract from their significant performance as ideologues and organisers of local opinion. [7] A cursory survey of northern editors confirms their status as intellectuals by revealing a substantial literary output in the form of reminiscence, [8] histories, [9] poetry, [10] immigration works, [11] technical treatises [12] and almanacs. [13] Regrettably, it is this broader achievement, removed from the turbulent political context of journalism, for which they are generally remembered.

While the newspaper editorial ensured a regular social and political commentary, it was the insertion of provocative contributions on specific issues which gave the colonial press its cutting edge. The persistent practice by which editors opened their columns to anonymous correspondents was the facet of 19th century journalism which most incensed officialdom. The "Colonist" series of the Hobart Town Gazette and the "Vox Populi" letters of Wardell's Australian were important landmarks in the clashes with Governors Arthur and Darling. [14] Governor Fitzroy, commenting in 1848 on the newspapers of the colonies, complained that "there is not one of them that would refuse admission to any article, however personal or offensive it might be". [15] Although it emerges as an integral component of the free press debate, contributory authorship has been all but ignored by press historians. Even the more able commentators of the colonial press, R.B. Walker and R. Kirkpatrick, have signally failed to examine this distinctive dimension of colonial journalism. Morris Miller, one of the few writers to grapple with the clandestine literary tradition, has shown that the confusion over authorship with existed in the minds of colonial Governors has carried over into the work of modem press historians. [16] To fully assess the significance of contributory authorship, it is useful to examine the content of these polemical articles and, where possible, to try to identify the writers concerned. In a few instances, their authorship was an open secret; for the most part, however, establishing their identity requires a sound understanding of the social and political networks operating around the press. Jim Gibbney, an A.D.B. historian who spent several decades researching and identifying colonial journalists, has emphasised the formidable problems confronting researchers "when ordinary journalistic anonymity is reinforced by the political pressures of a sometimes clandestine operation". [17] Perhaps the most rewarding part of these searches is the frequency with which prominent professionals and politicians of various persuasions figure as contributors. The A.D.B., while providing valuable information on individual writers, cannot reconstruct journalism as the collective endeavour which it often became.

The success of colonial newspapers in winning liberty of speech ahead of their British counterparts may be attributed to their aggressive use of the Junius tradition. The tactics of Junius, the celebrated correspondent of late 18th century England, were imported from the Motherland and adapted to colonial culture. [18] In keeping with the correspondence which appeared mysteriously in the Public Advertiser of 1768, many of Junius' 19th century offspring addressed themselves to Governors, eminent politicians and lawyers. Their professed aim was to expose chicanery and resist oppression from the Executive in a style ranging from lofty eloquence to biting invective. In the Australian colonies, where the periodical press was overshadowed by newspapers, free press writing was a hybrid of formal Liberal discourses, popular satire and "Yankee" abuse. The latter usually emanated from editors rather than from contributors, although anonymous attacks on Governors and politicians could also be deemed libellous. Because of its Liberal rhetoric, the Junius tradition has been associated almost exclusively with pressure for constitutional reform. Junius' self-appointed role as a constitutional critic deserves close attention in colonial society where political power was concentrated in the Governor and Legislative Council. Yet it is not the only ideological context in which contributing authorship operates. In particular, the demography of colonial settlement encouraged country correspondents to adapt the Junius tradition to their own ends. During the 1840s, colonial press writing was dominated by squatters who participated vigorously in the land and racial debates of that decade.

With a revival of interest in popular culture, historians have begun to reassess the contribution of 19th century newspapers. Raymond Williams' distinction between writing for the community and writing by the community is a fertile one for understanding colonial journalism. [19] In her acclaimed Archibald Paradox, Sylvia Lawson has developed the notion of collective authorship in the precise context of the Bulletin. Lawson has elucidated Archibald's pivotal role in the 'great print circus' and rightly challenged the narrow textual approach of traditional literary history and biography. [20] My own study of Queensland newspapers in the mid-colonial period should provide valuable background for understanding the genesis of the Bulletin. Unlike the Bulletin era where collective authorship become associated almost exclusively with a democratic sub-culture, mid-colonial journalism buttressed a range of political positions. The Atlas, a satirical Sydney periodical of the 1840s, can, in certain respects, be seen at a predecessor of the Bulletin. It, too, attracted a wealth of talented contributors, under Robert Lowe, and sharply criticised the Governor, imperial officialdom and the Sydney Morning Herald. Yet the Atlas was in other respects ultra-conservative and the political antithesis of Archibald's journal. The polemical tradition which inspired colonial journalists married aristocratic pretentiousness with a democratic enthusiasm for cutting down "tall poppies". It was, in short, a challenge to duel - be it in print, in the courts or in the street.

While Lawson's perceptive analysis of the Bulletin cannot always be applied retrospectively, her work documents an important moment in the transformation of press culture. The polemical tradition, revitalised and popularised by the Bulletin was appropriated for democratic and nationalist ends. A creative high point in late colonial journalism, the Bulletin announced the sustained challenge of the Labor press to the more official line of the metropolitan dailies. In one sense, Labor journalists can be seen not so much as rejecting their past as reworking it to their own crusading ends. Along with editorial criticism of Granny and the establishment, the Labor press perpetuated other journalistic strategies. Creative tensions between editor and contributor continued to provide diversity of opinion and maintain healthy circulations. By recruiting outspoken writers, successful Labor journals transcended faction and promulgated a pluralist reading of politics in preference to the strict party line. The new Junius articulated class issues in a plain manner but retained his predecessors' capacity for theoretical and serious analysis. His eventual disappearance from newspaper columns represented a defeat for the left-wing of the party and for committed journalism. [22] The defection of talented writers and the loss of intellectual vitality which resulted contributed significantly to the decline of the Labor press after World War One.

Ownership and Constraint

The historical overview attempted above outlines the broad transformations of a culture which was both lively and dynamic. At the same time, it reveals the profound contradiction in Australian press historiography, between a libertarian past and a present dominated by media monopolies and vested interests. A historic study of the rise and fall of the Labor press, set in the context of competition from an established industry, would highlight and elucidate this dichotomy. Implicit in contemporary preoccupations with ownership and control is a nostalgia for the "Golden Age" of journalism, when competition and low capital investment were conducive to idealism and independent political thought. [24] The Golden Age interpretation originated in powerful institutional myths of the colonial period. Notions like the Free Press and the Fourth Estate were widely invoked to justify the position of the press as a leading Victorian institution. [25] Colonial Queensland in particular, has been depicted as the haven of the fighting editor and the independent proprietor, but this view represents only part of a complex picture. Changes of ownership, especially company formation and takeovers, played a decisive part in shaping editorial policy. Recent research into Joint Stock newspaper companies reveals sharp fluctuations in the fortunes of polemical journalism. [26] Irrespective of the instability of colonial publications, ownership remains a prime determinant of political journalism and free expression.

This study proposes a redefinition of colonial newspapers based upon an integrated analysis of authorship and ownership. Complementing the elaborate colonial mythology of authorship were assumptions of independent and competitive ownership. In respect of ownership, Queensland emerges as a test case for the Golden Age thesis; the optimistic hypothesis that the northern colony remained a haven for the small proprietor underpins most of the local press writing which has accumulated steadily over the last two decades. Neither metropolitan journalists nor Courier-Mail historians have attempted to redress this conspicuous imbalance. Under the influence of Clem Lack, the Golden Age interpretation has become another variant of the frontier myth based upon rugged individualism and pioneering values. [27] A critical examination of 19th century ownership reveals serious flaws in this accepted pattern of press historiography. In larger provincial centres, company formation merely formalised collective arrangements which had existed even in the pioneer phase of newspaper development.

The apparent discontinuity of 19th century press ownership and the resilience of a potted biographical tradition in journalism have encouraged a few researchers to attempt a collective biography of newspaper proprietors. James Manion's Paper Power in North Queensland, includes a brief but inconclusive analysis of the occupations of North Queensland pressmen. [28] The most systematic survey along these lines is Susan Carey's study of South Australian pressmen between 1836 and 1890.29 Carey's emphasis on individual ownership and on J.L. Bonython's association with the South Australian Advertiser, are not inconsistent with the lingering Golden Age interpretation. She refers in passing to family ownership, but makes no mention of collective or corporate arrangements despite the fact that her study encompasses the late colonial period. This omission becomes significant when she discusses the social origins of her sample. Carey's assertion that these men shared a middle class professional background is questionable for she does not appear to have taken into account the newspaper investment of squatters and rural capitalists in joint stock enterprises.

Although Rod Kirkpatrick and James Manion have recently included details of provincial joint stock ventures in their accounts, [30] no Australian press historian, journalist or academic, has sufficiently come to terms with the phenomenon of company ownership in the colonial period. The Press in Colonial Queensland, attempts to remedy this deficiency by critically analysing two important limited liability newspaper companies, the Queensland Daily Guardian Company (1866-68) and the Brisbane (Courier) Newspaper Company (1868-73). Despite the paucity of information concerning the political economy of the 19th century press, some attention must be devoted to joint stock ventures because of their strategic political importance and relatively high capital investment. A modern social-critical approach which emphasises political power and vertical control can provide a useful corrective to the rhetoric of the Golden Age interpretation. The limited evidence available suggests that the transfer of authority to shareholders and managers at the expense of editors did not take place without major industrial and economic problems. Joint Stock companies in metropolitan and provincial centres often faltered for lack of editorial direction. Competitors, in a one-sided debate, lampooned "Lie-Ability" companies as gagged and unworkable.

Better documented is the long-standing control of leading metropolitan papers by individual families. The Fairfaxes of the Sydney Morning Herald [31] and the Symes of the Melbourne Age [32] spring to mind as the earliest and most influential representatives of an austere newspaper tradition. The constitutional and regional conservatism, espoused by the Herald during the 1850s and 1860s had important repercussions for press development in adjacent colonies. While Queensland and Victorian papers recruited Herald workers from Sydney and aped Granny's denunciation of colonial Liberals, a member of the Fairfax family unsuccessfully attempted to extend the family dynasty to Melbourne and Brisbane. Unlike Melbourne, where the Symes emerged to counter the Argus and the Fairfax influence, Brisbane and Adelaide were slower to develop traditions of family ownership. The Buzacott brothers, who eventually extended their operations from central Queensland to the metropolis, did not achieve the stable success of J.L. Bonython's Advertiser in Adelaide. [33] As Rod Kirkpatrick has demonstrated, family ownership was a more realistic and secure proposition in provincial centres, where capital demand was in the hundreds of pounds. [34]

Throughout the 19th century, Joint Stock companies were established to replace individual proprietorship. After 1850, they were a feature of the newspaper scene in all colonies. The prevalence of company control over the metropolitan evening press was a significant triumph for management over journalistic initiative. The colonial Telegraphs, while advanced from a technological and business point of view, signally lacked the polemical dimension of provincial journals or indeed of the metropolitan morning dailies. It should not be overlooked that the latter established and maintained their ascendancy by aggressive editorial commentary. My mid-century study, incorporating the rise of the Herald, demonstrates that Fairfax's paper was at its most effective when it relentlessly attacked leading Liberal politicians. [35] The biblical self-righteousness of the Herald was never more apparent than during the protracted feud with Rev. John Dunmore Lang, an episode which hardly rates a mention in Gavin Souter's work. The Herald remained a frontrunner on such moral issues as transportation and Melanesian labour. Its long-serving editors McGarvie and West, were invariably embroiled in controversy with newspaper rivals. Until D.W.A. Baker's recent biography of J.D. Lang, the "Reverend Agitator" has been a neglected figure in the turbulent world of colonial journalism. [36]

The verbal antics of editors and writers - exhibitionism, inversion and abuse - should not divert the attention of modern researchers from important issues in which the press became involved. Indeed, colonial journalists employed irony and dramatic contrast to reinforce their message. It is the presence of this irreverent dimension in Sylvia Lawson's work which sets it above Souter's Company of Heralds. For future press research, two major directions suggest themselves. The first of these is based on a detailed analysis of individual publications like the Bulletin and upon their contribution to popular culture. In this vein, Rod Kirkpatrick's; forthcoming biography of Thadeus O'Kane and the Northern Miner may prove an interesting complement to Lawson's Archibald Paradox. The second approach, more ambitious in scope, advances beyond contextualist argument to intertextuality by identifying significant social and political debates which elicited collective press commentary over a specified period. For the purpose of my Queensland work, three broad debates - land, constitution and race - were identified as dominant preoccupations for the years 1845 -1875. Instead of focussing on individual papers and editors, this 'mainstream' approach tends to emphasise journalism as social responsibility rather than bohemian indulgence. The adoption of historical press polemics as an organising principle promises greater thoroughness and sophistication than much previous writing in the field. R.B. Walker's descriptive volumes suffer from the marked absence of any such analysis. [37] According to this perspective, hegemony operates as a contested set of cultural practices rather than as monolithic control or discourse. Not only does this methodology permit the integrated analysis of a demographic cross-section of newspapers and the reconstruction of a lively press culture but it ensures that the contribution of individual journalists and publications can be assessed in a precise intellectual framework. As such, it allows comprehensive and critical perspectives on a literature dominated by potted journalistic biography and uncritical craft tradition.


1. George Nadel, Australia's Colonial Culture (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1957), pp. 3-4.

2. One of the most tenacious of early researchers was James Bonwick in his Early Struggles of the Australian Press (London: Gordon and Gotch,

1890). A discussion of the state of Australian newspaper

historiography may be found in Graeme Osborne, "Communication See Transport" in G. Osborne and W.F. Mandle (eds.) New History.

Studying Australia Today (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1982), p. 157.

3. To take the example of Queensland during the mid 1860s, the Brisbane Courier and the Rockhampton Bulletin were both under strong challenge from the Queensland Daily Guardian and the Northern Argus, two popular organs which commanded greater authority than their better known counterparts.

4. R.B. Walker, The Newspaper Press in New South Wales 1803 -1920 (Sydney: Sydney U.P., 1976), chs. 4, 6 and 7.

5. W. Thorpe, A Social History of Colonial Queensland: Towards a Marxist Analysis (Ph.D. thesis, QU, 1985), Introduction, pp. iv, vii, xv.

6. Rod Kirkpatrick, Newspaper Articles on the Provincial Press, in J.D. Kerr, Book of Cuttings (Brisbane, Oxley Memorial Library).

7. Kirkpatrick, Sworn to No Master, A History of the Provincial Press in Queensland to 1930 (Toowoomba, Darling Downs Institute Press, 1984) p.272; James Manion, Paper Power in North Queensland, A History of Journalism in Townsville and Charters Towers (Townsville, North Queensland Newspaper Company Limited, 1982) p.14; on this point, both writers defer to the earlier judgement of Henry Mayer's Press in Australia (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1964), pp.16-17, 56,189-92.

8. George Loyau, The Personal Adventures of George Loyau (Adelaide: Henn, 1883); George Wight, Congregational Independency (Brisbane: Gordon and Gotch, 1887).

9. William Coote, History of the Colony of Queensland (Brisbane: Wm. Thorne, 1882); George Loyau, The History of Maryborough (Brisbane: Pole, Outridge and Coy, 1897); J.T.S. Bird The Early History of Rockhampton (Rockhampton: Morning Bulletin Office, 1904).

10. Sylvester Doig, Papers (1802-1884) (MSS, OML).

11. George Wight, Queensland, The Field for British Labour and Enterprise and the Source of England's Cotton - Supply (London: Cornhill, 1887); Ebenezer Thorne, The Queen of the Colonies (London: 1876).

12. Angus Mackay, The Sugar Cane in Australia (Sydney: Town and Country Journal, 1883) and The Semi-Tropical Agriculturalist (Brisbane: Slater, 1875); A.G. Boyd, The Earth's History in Verse (Brisbane: Watson and Ferguson, 1889).

13. T.P. Pugh, Queensland Almanac (Brisbane: 1860-).

14. For details of the struggles under Arthur and Darling, see Joan Woodberry, Andrew Bent and the freedom of the press in Van Diemen's Land (Hobart: Fuller's Bookshop, 1972) and Frank J. Meaney, The History of the Sydney Press 1803-1850 (M.A. Thesis, University of Newcastle, 1969).

15. Historical Records of Australia, 10 Jan. 1848. Quoted in Nadel, Australia's Colonial Culture, p.l36.

16. E.M. Miller, Pressmen and Governors. Australian Editors and Writers in early Tasmania (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1952), pp.241-44, pp.246-49.

17. Gibbney, Labour in Print, Preface, p.1.

18. In colonial Queensland and Van Diemen's Land, the chequered career of William Coote provides an example of the Junius phenomenon. A freelance journalist and historian, the elusive Coote was generally considered to be the most able and dangerous political writer of his day.

19. Raymond Williams, "Radical and /or Respectable" in R. Boston, The Press We Deserve (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970) pp.14-15.

20. Sylvia Lawson, The Archibald Paradox, A Strange Case of Authorship (Ringwood: Vic., Penguin, 1983), Ch.9 "The Mutilated Text."

21. Denis Cryle, The Press in Colonial Queensland, A Social and Political History 1845-1875 (St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1989).

22. See Ernie Lane, From Dawn to Dusk: Reminiscences of a Rebel (Brisbane, Brooks, 1939).

23. Kirkpatrick, Sworn to No Master, ch.13.

24. Stephen Koss, The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain, The Nineteenth Century (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1981), p.8; A.G.L. Shaw, Book Review of the Newspaper press in New South Wales, 1803-1920 in Historical Studies, v. 17, Oct. 1977, p.555.

25. George Boyce, "The Fourth Estate: The reappraisal of a concept" in George Boyce, James Curran and Pauline Wingate (eds) Newspaper History from the seventeenth century to the present day (London; Constable, 1978), ch. 1; Paul Rutherford, A Victorian Authority. The Daily Press in Late Nineteenth-Century Canada (Toronto; University of Toronto Press, 1982), ch.6.

26. Cryle, The Press in Colonial Queensland, chs. 5 and 6.

27. Clem Lack, "Some Notable Australian Editors and Journalists", J.R.H.S.Q., v.9, 1970-71, pp. 22-63; Rod Kirkpatrick, Series of articles on the Queensland provincial press (Press Cuttings, OML and in the Journalist, Feb.-Dec., 1980).

28. Manion, Paper Power in North Queensland, p.27. More useful are the individual portraits which the author has included in the final section of his book.

29. Susan Carey, "Owner/Editors of South Australian Newspapers, 1836-1890: A Collective Biography", Flinders Journal of History and Politics, v.6, 1980, pp. 11-18.

30. Kirkpatrick, Sworn to No Master, ch.8; James Manion, Paper Power in North Queensland. A History of Journalism in Townsville and Charters Towers (Townsville: North Queensland Newspaper Company Ltd., 1982), pp. 24-31. For a discussion of newspaper investment in Britain during this period, see Alan Lee, The Origin of the Popular Press 1855-1914 (London: Croom Helm, 1976), pp.50, 86ff.

31. Gavin Souter, Company of Heralds (Melbourne: Melbourne U.P., 1981).

32. C.E. Sayers, David Syme, A Life (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1965).

33. Carey, "Owner/Editors of South Australian Newspapers, 1836-1890 ", pp.16-18.

34. Rod Kirkpatrick, Sworn to No Master: A History of the Provincial Press in Queensland to 1930 (Toowoomba: Darling Downs Institute Press, 1954), chs. 17,18 and 22; see also Denis Cryle, "Queensland's Provincial Press: an Analysis of Publications", Media Information Australia, no. 36, May 1985, pp.45-47.

35. Cryle, The Press in Colonial Queensland, chs. 2 and 3.

36. D.V.A. Baker, Days of Wrath. A Life of John Dunmore Lang (Melbourne: Melbourne U.P., 1985). Lang's substantial influence on journalism in Queensland and Victoria requires further attention.

37. For Lawson's review of the first Walker volume, see Labour History, no.33, Nov.1977, p.131.

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