Sydney Morning Herald’s 175th anniversary


An alternative view

Bob Gould

As a man of the left with an interest in history, on April 19 I read the Sydney Morning Herald‘s 175th anniversary supplement with great interest.

Like all newspapers, the SMH claims to be independent, and also claims to speak “to, and for, all the people of Australia in reporting and analysing the news”, (page 10, April 19).

The hypocrisy of claiming to speak for all Australians is breathtaking, although it is conventional newspaper cant. For a start, in Australian politics the SMH has rarely been independent, and has only supported a vote for the Labor Party on three or four occasions in the 100 or so elections during its 175 year history.

On every other occasion it has supported a vote for the conservative parties, often in extremely virulent tones. One of the exceptions was the Second World War election, when the then editor, Henderson, or possibly one of the Fairfax family, wrote a carefully thought-out high Tory series of articles, which the SMH released as a pamphlet. The nub of the argument in this publication was that national necessity required the re-election of Labor Prime Minister John Curtin, but that a careful distinction should be made between Curtin Labor and Lang Labor, and the Communists, neither of which should be supported.

In the 115 years since the Labor Party was formed in the 1890s, Labor has won most elections in the state and the federal sphere in the teeth of fierce opposition from the SMH. The relative left liberalism of the Fairfax press in the 1980s and 1990s was a bit of an aberration in the paper’s long history. The current fairly rapid drift of the SMH back to the hard right, which is clearly expressed in the views of most of its opinion columnists, is a reversion to the dominant underlying tradition.

Anyone who thinks that I am advancing a conspiracy theory here should cooly consider what is left out of the news coverage selected for the 175-year souvenir, and what is included. It’s fitting that the king’s speech, reported in the first issue is such a typical piece of British ruling class venom. His Majesty lashes out at seditionists in various parts of his dominions.

What’s left out of the 175th anniversary supplement

The supplement carries no article about the Eureka uprising on the Victorian goldfields; there is no article about the Kelly outbreak; no article about the Sudan wars or the Boer War; no article about the Easter Rising in Ireland; no article about the Russian Revolution in 1917 or the Chinese Revolution in 1949; no article about the defeat of the two conscription referendums in 1916 and 1917 and the subsequent split in Labor; no article on the 1917 general strike in NSW; no article on the framing of the Industrial Workers of the World leaders during World War I for allegedly trying to burn down Sydney; no mention of the election of any Labor government, even the historic first Labor governments, only articles about the removal of Jack Lang and Gough Whitlam; no mention of the defeat of the attempt to ban the Communist Party in the 1950s; no mention of the split in the Labor Party in the 1950s; no mention of the upheaveal in Australia over the Vietnam War and conscription, and none of the striking photographs of popular protest at the time; no mention of Arthur Calwell and the beginnings of non-British mass migration to Australia; no mention of the adoption of White Australia in 1900 and the deportation of the Kanaks; no mention of the overthrow of White Australia in the 1960s; very little about indigenous Australians and their struggle for recognition and autonomy; no mention of horrible end of the Second World War, with the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the opening of the nuclear age.

At the cultural level there is no mention of the widespread conflict between the Protestant establishment and the upstart Catholics in the 19th and 20th centuries; no mention of the conflicts over gambling and alcohol; no mention of the ongoing struggles against censorship and for free speech, ranging from Norman Lindsay’s paintings to the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and so it goes.

I feel some sympathy for the working journalists who had the unenviable job of trying to put the anniversary souvenir together. I do not doubt that they trawled many articles out of the Herald‘s archive on the issues I have mentioned, but they obviously could not publish them because the news coverage and opinions expressed in them are so high-Tory and reactionary as to be repellent even to a modern conservative eye.

The journalists doing the job had probably to settle for a more anodyne selection. Perhaps it might be a good exercise for some young students of journalism at UTS to assemble and publish a selection from the Herald archives on these topics as an exercise in the relativity of journalistic coverage, and how the mass media usually reflect the prejudices of the dominant ruling class of the time.

It’s rather ironic that Sydney’s other newspaper stable is presently conducting an hysterical attack on any idea of relativist cultural criticism, and it strikes me how powerfully relativist cultural criticism is appropriate to the Herald‘s 175th anniversary souvenir.



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