Freedom – the history of the press in New South Wales

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Freedom – the history of the press in New South Wales

Australia has had a very robust newspaper presence since British colonisation. In the early 1800s Sydney was home to many papers reporting on and criticising the progress of the colony of New South Wales. Leading figures included the Stephens’, Robert Wardell, Stokes, Fairfax, E. S. Hall, Edward Atwell Hayes, Robert Cooper, Rev. J. D. Lang, Michael D’Arcy, Henry Bull, Archdean McEnroe and George Howe, his son,  Robert Howe, and the last’s  wife, Australia’s first woman newspaper owner in her own right, Ann Howe. Initially, colonists were dependant on British news from the papers that arrived on the ships following journeys of several months. The telegraph reduced that time from months to minutes.

By the 1850s and into the ‘60s and ‘70s, the main secular Sydney papers were the Sydney Morning Herald, the Empire, the Sydney Evening News, and the Australian Town and Country Journal. The Catholic Freeman’s Journal also had substantial supportThe Herald was a Fairfax paper from 1830 and the Empire was founded by Sir Henry Parkes, bought by Samuel Bennett, who founded the Evening News and merged the Empire into it. Bennett also established the Town and County Journal. These papers were joined in 1879 and 1880 by the Sydney Daily Telegraph and the Bulletin. All of these papers reached the country towns and districts by rail.

Starting from the 1850s also the metropolitan papers were joined by a very healthy provincial press and throughout the latter half of the 19th century, from Sydney to Broken Hill, Australians were very well-informed. Many towns had their own independently-owned paper, with editors running their own leaders, commenting on all international, New South Wales, Sydney and local affairs and enjoying equal status as the city papers. An extensive and efficient telegraph service ensured that news could reach most parts of New South Wales almost instantly and simultaneously.

The newspapers were the main source of information for the public. Government notices were printed by law and local court reports appeared in full, as did coverage of elections with local polling results printed in detail. The provincial papers remain the source of polling information for all elections in New South Wales until modern times. The Herald and Empire reported the parliamentary sittings in detail and are “Hansard” from before Hansard was officially introduced. 

Most provincial newspapers rolled their presses once or twice a week, with a few papers in bigger towns printing three times a week. The general format was four pages of broadsheet with header, notices and advertisements on the front page and advertisements and imprint in the bottom right corner on the back. The open page 2,3 inside spread contained the leader and correspondence on page 2, with advertisements predominantly on page 3 and articles covering both.

Initially, there was an unwritten journalist’s code of conduct, which all responsible editors voluntarily adhered to. International news and news of general interest to NSW and Australia was taken from the Sydney, and occasionally British, American and other papers, and reproduced in the local papers. The local papers covered all local news in their “territory”, which the other papers reproduced or extracted with credit. Editors were free to exercise independently-minded commentary. Objectivity and impartial reportage of news was expected, while editors and correspondents were also free to express their views on all matters of significance. A healthy media-ownership law ensured that no proprietor could own more than one paper at a time, ensuring a diversity of commentary and news.

The newspaper field throughout the 19th century was unrecognisable from that today. For example, when founded in 1879, the Sydney Daily Telegraph was the left-wing political and literary avant-garde newspaper of its time, almost opposite from its current morph. Similarly, the Bulletin, when first established at around the same time as the Tele, co-founded by Haynes with Archibald, was left-wing free trade/labour until Haynes left and Archibald directed the paper to raging protectionism.

Most editors acted responsibly with content relating to individuals, but they were also constrained by exceedingly strict libel laws. From responsible government in 1856, it was illegal for the convict origins of the families of Members of Parliament to be referred to and due to Governor Darling’s war with a hostile press, even into the late 1880s, journalists who were sued for libel were the only members of the public prohibited sanctuary under bankruptcy, automatically sent to debtor’s prison if unable to meet restitutive sums demanded of them. At times, this became a convenient way to silence good investigative reporters, culminating with a case in 1888, which drew the outrage of the entire journalistic community in Australia from Sydney to Perth, when the outdated libel laws were finally brought under review. I refer to that case in detail in The O’Neills of Queanbeyan.

Funded by subscriptions and advertisements, the life of a provincial paper could be precarious, but a few reliable papers under outstanding leadership enjoyed reputations of high standing over some time, among them the Goulburn Herald, led by several good men over the years, the Goulburn Evening Penny Post under T. J. Hebblewhite, the man who gave Miles Franklin the start to her “brilliant career”, the Yass Courier, under staunch Scotchman, J. J. Brown, the Braidwood Dispatch under C. I. Watson and the Albury Border Post, managed by Thomas Affleck for four decades until he closed the paper in 1902. Other leading provincial newspaper proprietors included Thomas Garrett and George Spring of the Illawarra Mercury and Monaro Mercury. However, these are merely a few of the figures representing the hundreds of provincial newspapers in New South Wales during the 19th century, to which my book does more detailed justice.

One pioneering paper, conspicuously, although very long-lived, that did not carry the same universal reputation of responsible reporting, was the Queanbeyan Age, owned and managed by John Gale. Although initially hailed as a pioneering press man with the establishment of the Golden Age in Queanbeyan in 1860, rechristened the Queanbeyan Age in 1864, Gale often fell foul of the general press in NSW for his incorrect, unreliable and biased reportage and, from the 1880s, for his blinkered trumpeting of protectionist politics and Protectionist Member for Queanbeyan for nineteen years, Edward William O’Sullivan. From the first presses of the Age in the 1860s, many times Gale was brought to heel for breaking the journalists’ “code” of ethics. Gale histrionically referred to these instances as “persecution” of the ‘only honest and righteous man in Australia’, in short-lived outbursts equally brought to heel by those who knew better. With a large family in the business, Gale got around ownership restrictions, including when under bankruptcy, by running papers in the names of several of his sons and his son-in-law, Edward H. Fallick. In his own time, Gale was notorious for his many questionable accounts of himself and others. However, Gale was ninety-eight years old when he died on the eve of the 1930s crash and his claim to be the oldest living journalist at the time is very nearly true. It is certainly correct that he outlived many of his contemporaries, so by the early 1900s and into the 1920s there were few people still alive or active who could challenge his outrageous claims about himself and Australian history, tales that increasingly became more daring as the objections diminished. Unfortunately, the false history surrounding John Gale and his monopoly of the Queanbeyan media has served also to suppress the true history of Australia’s newspaper history. Gale devotees aside, I anticipate that most people will be delighted with the new information that opens up an entirely new perspective on Australian history and introduces many exceptional journalists, such as J. J. Brown, John Haynes, T. J. Hebblewhite, Thomas Affleck and John Allan O’Neill, among the many significant figures ignored and suppressed into oblivion by the protectionist-written history of Australia.

My book is a précis of the New South Wales press in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fortunately, many of the newspapers are now accessible online through the NLA’s Trove website. Some newspapers or editions of, however, did not survive in physical form and I have had to reconstruct their bibliographical information, histories and contents from indirect sources, which, although requiring a lot of work, was work of absolute fascination and total enjoyment.