This is the second part of my post about Rachel Buchanan and Tim Dunlop’s new books about the media. See Part 1 here.
If Buchanan’s book Stop Press is apolitical, Dunlop’s The New Front Page is a polemic. Dunlop was one of the earliest Australian bloggers, deeply impacted by living in the US in the wake of 9/11. Dunlop’s attitude to journalists and the media is grounded in other life experiences. As a youngster working in his father’s garage and later as an adult running record and video stores, it was all about customer service. Dunlop admits media has more complex relationships and needs to relate to its audience as citizens as well as customers. The problem the media never faced up to, says Dunlop, was that customers alone didn’t make them money but selling those customers to others did.
This attitude of audience as product, affected the way the media dealt with them and led to significant failures which has deeply eroded audience trust. Newspapers have been in a slow decline since the 1920s as other media like radio and then television took away advertisers. But classified ads were still profitable until the Internet destroyed that business model. Dunlop sheds few tears for these developments. Journalists were complicit in their own demise, believing too much in their own invincibility and relying too much on reputation that reality rarely lived up to. Dunlop was one of the earliest to understand the new technology allowed to audience not only to talk back but create their own media narratives.
Dunlop was one of many writers across the world who found their muse in 9/11. The day and its many consequences galvanised opposing views of history. The “mainstream media” as Dunlop and other bloggers called them, lined up almost to a masthead on one side of the argument. Too captive to their sources and too addicted to the drip of insider information, they were unable to connect the dots of the wider picture. Its failure to talk truth to power was epitomised, argued Dunlop, by the groupthink that supported the US President GW Bush case for war in Iraq. The casus belli presented by Bush supporters was swallowed almost whole by the MSM. They were shown up by a variety of amateurs enabled by newly invented blogging technologies, who pointed out the faulty reporting. Dunlop and others were a rare counterpoint to what was otherwise painted as a national consensus for war.
The result were a lack of trust between media and audiences, hostility between the professional and amateur producers, and paranoia and barely concealed contempt from the professionals who saw the newbies as leeching on their work. They were interlopers that had to be resisted rather than challengers to be embraced. The later News of the World scandal confirmed for many the perfidy of the press who treat their audience solely as a commodity.
Dunlop’s own blog The Road to Surfdom, inspired many in Australia to follow his path. He charts his own inspiration to journalist Margo Kingston. Kingston was one of Fairfax’s best journalists but her always slightly outsider status was tested to breaking point when she covered Pauline Hanson’s failed 1998 election campaign. Kingston and Hanson seem unlikely bedfellows but they were both maverick women who refused to play the usual media games. Kingston’s disillusionment with the politico-media alliance at the expense of their audience/voters led to her setting up Media Diary as an online portal for news and discussion. Media Diary became all-embracing and ultimately died when it wore out Kingston but it led the way for many in the audience to find their own voice, Dunlop included.
Dunlop had just done a PhD on democracy, citizenship and public debate. A blog like Surfdom allowed him to eloquently put those ideas into practice. Its success eventually led to a surprise job offer from News Ltd. Despite being an ardent critic of Murdoch’s Empire, Dunlop jumped at the chance to talk to the large audiences News Ltd portals offered. Dunlop quickly learned news.com.au was treated as a second-class citizen in the News Ltd power structure but it still attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. Some said he was selling out, but Dunlop accepted on the condition he would not have any editorial interference. He was a poaching blogger who was now a gamekeeper in the nation’s largest estate. Dunlop became obsessed with issues of moderating comments and curating the unruly conversation that swirled around him. It led to 18 hour days that were both exhilarating and exhausting. Eventually it was undone. His insistence on complete independence proved untenable when sooner or later he criticised the Empire itself. The relationship was terminally damaged after a post criticising the Australian’s editor was deleted. You shouldn’t be surprised, fellow blogging trailblazer Tim Blair advised him, you cannot bite the hand that feeds you.
Now fully independent again, Dunlop’s main concern remains democracy’s ability to allow a variety of voices to be heard. Social media has further muddied the waters, empowering audiences and yet offering new ways for media to show leadership. Newspapers are among the most-connected places in a city or town but their employees can no longer take their audience for granted. Nor can they just troll them for clicks. Dunlop says media practitioners must accept power relations have changed. They must engage audiences or as Dunlop says, according the “respect of talking to them, not down to them.” Otherwise journalism will have little role to play in the continuing evolution of democracy.
Two authors writing on similar themes but with radically different perspectives are taking a discussion of their books on a national tour at the moment. I caught up with them – Tim Dunlop, author of The New Front Page and Rachel Buchanan, author of Stop Press – in Brisbane recently where they were quizzed about their books by the ABC’s Paul Barclay. The books published by Scribe are in a series of first person accounts about the changes underway in what Barclay called a “now emaciated” media industry. Dunlop is well known blogger and political commentator while Buchanan has been a journalist for over 20 years. Dunlop’s forte is the media’s relationship to politics, written from a left-wing perspective. Buchanan’s politics are private but what she does wear on her sleeve is her abiding love of newspapers.
The book subtitles reveal their perspectives on the industry. Dunlop’s New Media and the Rise of the Audience looks forward to a re-shaped landscape while Buchanan’s The Last Days of Newspapers is a valedictory for a dying industry. Buchanan and Dunlop occasionally talked at cross purposes with Dunlop’s focus on political journalism of less interest to Buchanan than newspapers as a whole. Barclay had a tough time find unifying themes but eventually the life-long learning that informed both their views made it a mostly fascinating discussion of Australia’s media landscape in 2013.
Buchanan, in her mid 40s, describes herself as a “paper girl” who has lived most of her life in the “dirty imperfect city of newspapers”. She was first published aged 16 in her native New Zealand and she ruefully remembers her first byline miscaptioned as Richard Buchanan. Starting out as a journalist in the mid 1980s, she landed in a slowly declining but still profitable industry. She loved the wonderful variety of the job with everything from court reporting to heli-skiing. Her peregrinations led her to London before landing a job at The Age in Melbourne. The Age was the toughest paper she ever wrote for. Buchanan said her time there was a stressful competition with other journalists for a spot in the paper.
Buchanan tried to leave the industry several times. She wrote fiction, she did full time study, she eventually became an academic. But whatever she tried, she would eventually return to the fold of newspapers. As the years rolled by, she found the industry shrivelling around her though she was disturbed by the hypocrisy of continually expanding university programs for jobs that no longer existed. After several years in academia, she returned once again below the fold to newspapers in 2012. The reason was an unexpected return to New Zealand for family reasons where she picked up a job as a subeditor, fighting off accusations of being a scab in the process. In 2007 Fairfax Media sacked their sub-editors in Newcastle and Wollongong and outsourced the production work of the Newcastle Herald and Illawarra Mercury to NZ at lower rates and with less people. The decision caused shock not only in the two NSW cities but resonated across the entire industry. Sub-editing, said Buchanan, was “once the hidden creative and technical grunt behind a newspaper.” Subbies were the ones who turned “nude” copy into published prose, house-style. They usually had a compendium of knowledge about the newspaper and the city they served. Now they were gone, replaced by contract labour, working hard and cheap and knowing nothing of their faraway markets.
It wasn’t their fault but Buchanan and her colleagues in Wellington had no feel for the Mercury or the Herald and knew little or nothing about local issues or personalities. Sub-editing was always a stressful job and in older times they often had to write to four deadlines a day. Now those peaks are gone, evened out by an incessant demand for daylong copy, done fast and non-stop. After 12 exhausting months in the job, Buchanan quit and came back to Australia to write her book.
Buchanan says the book is about the cultural and economic implications of the death of newspapers. Too much of the public conversation has been about the impact to the journalists and everyone else who worked in the industry has been forgotten. The job losses have affected all aspects of the supply chain from the newsprint makers to the deliverers. It included the printers, the switchboard operators and the advertising execs. Most departments, said Buchanan, “were denuded, centralised or shut.”
As part of her research, Buchanan paid a visit to The Age’s space age printing plant at Tullamarine. In June 2012 Fairfax announced it was shutting Tullamarine and Chullora (Sydney) and moving metro printing to regional plants. Tullamarine was a massive operation encased in glass which had only opened in 2003. It housed three new German double-width printers and state of the art post-press equipment. Architect Ken Sowerby was showered with awards for design, construction, lighting, steel work and environmental friendliness. Designed to make 46,000 newspapers an hour, it was down to 40,000 by 2013 and dropping. Printer numbers too are dwindling. As one printer told Buchanan, “There was little skill left in the job…These machines do everything.” When Sowerby designed Tullamarine in the late 1990s, Australian newspapers were still expanding and the newly evolving online world was still a novelty. Buchanan remembers reading Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital when it came out in 1996 and thought it “super wacky, even absurd”. She now admits most of his predictions have come true.
Buchanan denies she has written a “history book” but admits even her journalist friends think it is. Stop Press is an elegant and wistful eulogy to an age that has passed. Journalism will survive, but the large-scale newspaper industry it lived in is on its last legs. Rachel Buchanan may be in mourning but Tim Dunlop, meanwhile is very much comfortable in the digital realm. For his take on the new front page replacing newspapers, see Part 2 of this post tomorrow.
Little wonder that Tony Abbott should lead the plaudits for the retiring Kevin Rudd, as few helped Abbott to the Prime Ministership as much as his predecessor.
Rudd’s three year destablisation of the former Gillard Government eventually succeeded in ousting her from the leadership. But the damage done in the process had too greatly tarnished Labor in the public mind and the seemingly unelectable Abbott easily triumphed in September. In that election Rudd’s supporters bragged that their man had ‘saved the furniture‘ but it was his vandalism that left Labor’s tables and chairs in such a precarious place in the first place. Gillard never got the credit for her work and in tandem with Abbott and Rupert Murdoch, Rudd worked to destroy her legacy.
Rudd was always a long-term planner when it came to self interest. From the moment he was elected to parliament in 1998, he assiduously courted the media, contacting opinion editors to get his work published and going over their heads when they refused. He gained influence of a different sort when he tandem-teamed with Joe Hockey on the Seven Sunrise program for several years. He considered running as leader against Latham in 2004, defeated Kim Beazley two years later and then oversaw Howard’s End in 2007. As Prime Minister his approval ratings soared with big ticket statements such as the Apology adding to his lustre while he and Wayne Swan oversaw Australia’s interventionist response to the GFC which saved Australia from recession.
But Rudd seemed to have too many ideas that went nowhere. He started to unravel in December 2009 after he failed to bring home a climate change agreement in Copenhagen. This was the same month the domestic political consensus on climate change unravelled under new Opposition leader Tony Abbott and his right wing supporters. As Rudd flagged in the polls, word got out this was a prime minister who fretted over irrelevancies while the tumbleweeds gathered over the big decisions. Rudd was the consummate media performer – it was mastery over the airwaves that got him his huge public profile in the first place – but as Prime Minister he worked the entire government’s decision-making process into the media cycle. As Kerry-Anne Walsh said in The Stalking of Julia Gillard, Rudd took didn’t have what it took to lead a political party: “A steely and steady personality, the ability to be calm under great pressure and under the weight of extreme criticism, and consistently clear thinking.”
Most of these deficiencies were known to party colleagues from the time he ran against Kim Beazley in 2006. Yet those same colleagues knew Rudd was more popular than Beazley and backed him anyway. But by mid-2010 that popularity had finally waned and Rudd was cut loose. If anyone thought Rudd would gently stand aside and quit, they were quickly mistaken. Within weeks of his overthrow, journalists were printing exclusive inside stories of Gillard’s “bastardry”. In the lead-up the 2010 election, Gillard’s hopes of clinging to victory were undermined by a series of devastating questions from Laurie Oakes that showed intimate knowledge of what happened on the night Rudd was deposed.
In the end Gillard retained the Prime Ministership by dint of her negotiation skills with former Nationals Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. Together they carved out an agreement that would ensure a minority government would last the full three years. Minority governments are common in Europe but in Australia they were considered a recipe for chaos and the Opposition aided by a friendly press continually pointed this out, despite the 43rd parliament’s good record on passing legislation. Rudd, meanwhile was never far from the action, and always ready to thrust himself back in the limelight whenever the opportunity offered itself – usually at the worst possible time for Gillard.
Early in the term, Gillard sealed her fate by agreeing to Green and Independent demands to put a fixed price on carbon. It was Abbott who declared the fixed price a tax and thus hung Gillard on her pre-election statement there would be no carbon tax. Less well remembered was the second half of that sentence: “..but let me be clear, I will be putting a price on carbon and I will move to an emission trading scheme.” It didn’t matter – from that moment shock jock Alan Jones and others could get away with calling Gillard “Juliar”. By the time of the first anniversary of Rudd’s defeat, the knives were out, both inside and outside parliament. Newspapers feverishly reported “exclusive” polls in marginal seats that showed voters were clamouring for Rudd’s return. At the last moment Rudd and wife Therese Rein cancelled what the media called an Assassination Party “for K’s former and current staff to say thank you” as Rein tweeted.
While Gillard passed the carbon pricing package with help of the Greens, Rudd stole the limelight once more with an announcement he was having heart surgery. As Walsh said Rudd knew the key to media success was “a consistent presence combined with a dash of theatre”. So whether it was a blow-by-blow account of his ticker troubles or designing a blend of tea for a competition, Rudd would always pop up reminding people of what they were missing. The media lapped it up and ran it in tandem with Gillard’s disaster du jour and op eds that blared “Rudd was Labor’s last chance”. Yet even as Labor slipped in the polls, the caucus remained firmly behind Gillard. Unlike Rudd, she was consultative and dependable, albeit apparently unelectable.
Rudd’s supporters – Alan Griffin and Mark Bishop – denounced the people that brought Gillard to power as ‘faceless men’ without a hint of irony that Rudd’s own shadowy undermining campaign depends on anonymity and sourceless quotes to favourites in the media. Rudd then relied on the momentum they created in the media to finally overwhelm his opponent (ie Gillard, not Abbott). Much was made of the likely slaughter for the ALP in Queensland in the 2013 election with pundits predicting only Rudd would survive. Yet Rudd’s feverish campaigning in the 2012 state election for Anna Bligh had little or no effect on the election – analysts ignored this, preferring to concentrate on what they thought Bligh’s annihilation would mean for Gillard. Rudd meanwhile “zipped” around, secure in his public popularity and posing for public selfies with adoring fans.
On February 18, 2012 a strange video popped up on Youtube entitled Kevin Rudd is a happy little Vegemite. It is the first public glimpse of a Rudd many insiders knew, foul-mouthed, explosive temper and quick to blame. A few days later, he resigned as foreign minister citing attacks by colleagues and declaring he had lost the support of Gillard. With a leadership fight out in the open, Gillard calls in the heavy artillery. In an extraordinary series of public attacks, minister after minister denounced Rudd’s tactics. Wayne Swan said they were sick of Rudd “driving the vote down by sabotaging policy announcements and undermining our substantial economic successes.”
Gillard called for a ballot and Rudd delayed, knowing he did not have the numbers. The media helped again, saying that it might be a two-phase ballot with defeat followed by victory six months later a la Paul Keating in 1991. Gillard eventually won the ballot easily 71-31. Rudd retired to the back bench but the cameras followed him as he lapped up the attention. The “clear air” Gillard’s team craved never came. The media carving remained relentless and the Chinese whispers only served to add to the pollution. History repeated itself as farce in March 2013 when Simon Crean fell on his own sword in an attempt to coax Rudd out for another challenge. Rudd counted the numbers and ducked the challenge rather than lose to Gillard again. But still the sideshow went on, Rudd pumped his persona up and Labor’s poll numbers went down. In June, staring defeat in the face, Bill Shorten blinked and handed Rudd back the leadership.
There was an instant coffee effect with polls briefly returning to 50-50. But Rudd was the souffle that tried to rise twice. Murdoch’s empire was just as ruthless to him as they were to Gillard and as soon as he called the election, they openly called on the electorate to “kick this mob out“. Labor were a rabble, but it was as much Rudd’s doing as any. As Walsh wrote, Rudd “always had to be at the chaotic centre of attention, and whose needs and ambitions inevitably took priority over the interests of the government and the Labor Party, or his loyalty to colleague.” He had no workable strategy, which is why once returned, he was defeated by the most underscrutinised Opposition in Australian political history. As ever with Kevin Rudd, the collateral damage was immense, leaving Labor a broken party. More importantly he badly failed the public. His failure to implement the “great moral challenge of our generation” leaves the next generation blaming Rudd’s megalomania as much as Abbott’s foolish policies for Australia’s climate change intransigence.
Matthew Condon, in his wonderfully intimate and poetic portrayal of Brisbane, has a great investigative story of the John Oxley obelisk at North Quay.
“I have known it all my life,” Condon begins, “the large dull rectangular granite obelisk that marks the exact location where explorer and New South Wales Surveyor-General of Lands, John Oxley, set foot on the northern bank of the Brisbane River in 1824 and proclaimed a settlement site”. Except it seems, as Condon would find out, this was not the place. The white birthplace of Brisbane, “the Caucasian holy ground” as Condon calls it, was actually further upstream at Milton.
The 2.5m obelisk is, as Condon noted, unprepossessing and difficult to locate. Until I read of it in Condon’s book, I was completely unaware of its existence though I had often cycled past the area. Situated near the junction of North Quay and Makerston Street, the obelisk is indistinct, hidden and almost apologetic. To get to it a pedestrian must cross the busy lanes of traffic heading towards the Riverside Expressway. The pedestrian path is a dead end and therefore does not get much foot traffic. Bikers whizz past as they head to the riverside paths directly below the steep cliff, oblivious to the featureless “grey lump” under the pollution ridden trees.
The monument was conceived in 1924 as part of the Brisbane centenary celebrations and purchased with leftover money from a state government fund set up for the Oxley commemoration and installed a couple of years later. Photographer Frank Hurley’s photo of the monument after World War II shows a well-dressed young couple standing stiffly and reading the plaque in the early afternoon. But these days it is mostly neglected, stranded by the Expressway. As Condon says, it is an eerie city corner that “feels to have died.” Condon also notes the peculiar wording of the text on the obelisk. “Here John Oxley Landing to Look for Water Discovered the Site of this City.” Something doesn’t seem right about it. The unpunctuated wording seems clumsy and uncertain and makes the discovery of the city seem accidental.
The idea for Brisbane emerged in 1817 when Secretary of State for War and the Colonies the Third Earl Bathurst held a commission of inquiry into transportation to NSW. Bathurst was worried NSW was no longer seen as a deterrent and authorised lawyer John Thomas Bigge to investigate. Bigge recommended the establishment of new settlements including Moreton Bay for hardened criminals. In 1822 Bathurst ordered Oxley to survey the site. Aboard the Mermaid, Oxley discovered the mouth of a river on November 29, which he named for NSW Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane. He returned in 1824 on board the Amity with a founding party of 54 souls and explored the river with botanist Allan Cunningham.
Brisbane historian John Steele quotes Oxley’s Field Books for September 28, 1824 (the date on the obelisk) in his 1972 book The Explorers of the Moreton Bay District 1770-1830. “We proceeded down the river, landing about three-quarters of a mile from our sleeping place, to look for water, which we found in abundance and of excellent quality, being at this season a chain of ponds watering a fine valley. The soil good, with timber and a few pines, by no means an ineligible station for a first settlement up the river.” Steele has a footnote for the word ‘landing’ which reads “probably at Frew Park, Milton. See Truman op.cit.”
Frew Park is named for “Daddy Frew” long-time head of the Queensland Lawn Tennis Association and former home of the Milton Tennis Centre. It has long been a derelict site though there are plans to finally develop it. The Truman in the note is Tom Truman, history teacher at the University of Queensland who wrote a series of articles in the Courier-Mail in 1950 arguing that the site of the “chain of ponds watering a fine valley” was in Milton. Truman also quotes from Oxley’s Field Notes from the day before the landing in order to prove the location of Oxley’s sleeping place. Oxley said his party encountered a large group of Aborigines on the riverbank in what is now Toowong and pitched camp “about half a mile below this encampment on the same side of the river there being a small creek between us, which I hoped would prevent them visiting us.” Condon believes this puts the campsite at Patrick Lane, Toowong near the Wesley Hospital. They moved downriver the next morning in search of fresh water. Truman says that day’s landing spot was where the old Western Creek entered the river below Coronation Drive in Milton – over 2.5km from the site of the obelisk. Truman concludes that those who fixed the obelisk at North Quay must have had different information. “I should very much like to know what that extra information was,” he wrote in the Courier-Mail.
Condon made it his task to find out that extra information. He noted that in 1988 a memorial to Oxley was unveiled at the Milton site in the atrium of the Oxley Centre consisting of three glass and steel posts “that look like the ragged remnants of a ship’s sail”. Opposite the centre across Coronation Drive is another plaque commemorating Oxley’s landing “hereabouts”. In three visits to the region, Oxley never set foot on the part of the river now occupied by Brisbane’s CBD. The first commander at Redcliffe, Lieutenant Henry Miller, decided the beach was not suitable and with the help of Port Jackson pilot John Grey, moved the settlement to North Quay. It was Grey and Miller who climbed the embankment near the obelisk not Oxley.
Condon went to Frew Park looking for the “chain of ponds” Oxley spoke about. Truman told him there used to be waterholes connected to the Western Creek which rose in Red Jacket Swamp (now Gregory Park), flowed through Frew and Milton Parks and joined the river at Dunmore Bridge. He also traced the history of the obelisk. Condon notes that in 1926 the Brisbane City treasurer’s department wrote to Mayor William Jolly asking him to make arrangement for the supply of granite blocks for a monument to Oxley at North Quay “under the supervision of the town planner and Dr Cumbrae-Stewart”. The author of the memo was Dr FWS Cumbrae-Stewart co-founder of Brisbane’s Historical Society and a law professor at Queensland University. The site and the inscription were Cumbrae-Stewart’s idea.
Condon tracked down his 85-year-old daughter June Cumbrae-Stewart who told him her father was born in New Zealand before the family moved to Melbourne. Frank Stewart studied in Oxford and was called to bar at London’s Inner Temple in 1887. He practiced in Melbourne before moving to Brisbane in 1898. In 1910 he was offered the job as first registrar and librarian of Queensland University. This moved him into more elevated circles and he added Cumbrae to his name based on Scottish ancestry. He helped found the Queensland Historical Society in 1913 and became president. In 1924 he addressed the society about what he called Oxley’s landing site at North Quay a 100 years earlier.
Cumbrae-Stewart said “it would appear” Oxley first landed near the upper end of North Quay to look for water for which Oxley said, “we found in abundance..for a first settlement up the river”. Cumbrae-Stewart was likely confusing Oxley’s chain of ponds in Milton with Miller’s swampy land at the bottom of Roma Street and then worked backwards to shore up his argument. By September 1924 he was more certain of his opinion telling an audience including Queensland Governor Matthew Nathan that North Quay was definitely the landing spot. Seven months earlier Nathan had called for an obelisk to remember Oxley. Within a year Cumbrae-Stewart became one of the permanent trustees of the Oxley Centenary Fund. As Condon concluded, “he had the facts as he saw them, he had the backing, and then he had the money and the power to put his historical error into granite.”
“It was not so long in the history of the Australian nation that this terrible thing happened. It is a part of Australian history we cannot ignore, let alone forget and for the Warlpiri people it is a history of irreplaceable loss” – John Ah Kit NT parliament 2003
Around now, we should be commemorating the 85th anniversary of the Coniston massacre in the Northern Territory, the last major act in the 140 year war of occupation for Australia. I say “around now” because the killing went on for over six weeks between August and October 1928 and I say “should” because it has received almost no media exposure, with SBS the only honourable exception. While we remember overseas wars in intimate detail, there is little appetite to commemorate a massacre on Australian soil that spread out over a number of sites killing up to 100 people that happened well into the 20th century. The trigger was a black on white murder, because as native bush worker Paddy Tucker said matter-of-factly “No Aboriginal could be allowed to get away with shooting a white man on the frontier, whatever the circumstances.”
Aboriginals had lived in Central Australia for thousands of years but it had only been a frontier for last 70. The first white man in the region was John McDouall Stuart who launched several expeditions of discovery north from Adelaide in the 1850s and 60s. On his fourth journey in April 15, 1860 he described the valleys of the MacDonnell Ranges as “as fine a pastoral hill country as a man could wish to possess”. Possession was indeed the name of the game and the Overland Telegraph Line brought more whites into this difficult country in the 1870s as well as the first cattle. As they did in every other part of Australia, the native tribes resisted this invasion, but the whites kept coming. The trickle became a flood inspired by gold finds at Hall’s Creek in 1909 and the federal push to develop the Northern Territory after taking it over from South Australia in 1911.
Coniston cattle station was founded in the wake of World War I and stocked with cattle in 1923. It exists today as a working cattle station on the edge of the Tanami Desert 300km north west of Alice Springs. Its advantage in a very dry area is that it has a sustainable natural water supply fed by a huge underground basin. Founding pastoralist Randal Stafford named Coniston for his native town in the English Lake District at Cumbria. The Australian Coniston was much harsher environment. In fact it was the last frontier between British and Aboriginal law.
Today the nearest Aboriginal town to Coniston is at Yuendumu established in 1946 by the Australian Government Native Affairs Branch for Anmatyerre and Warlpiri people. Before Yuendumu, the Anmatyerre and Warlpiri people lived scattered lives through the region as did a third group known as Kaytetye. These people watched uneasily as properties like Coniston began to take access to their waterholes for their stock. To the Warlpiri people, the prospectors, pastoralists and other travellers were ruthless trespassers who damaged sacred sites and took their waterholes, and sometimes their women. Stafford himself took an Aboriginal wife.
Stafford’s neighbour was William John (“Nugget”) Morton who took up Broadmeadows. Morton held the Aborigines in disdain always sitting with his back to them in any camp. He was also ruthless and sadistic, and thought nothing of stealing the wives of hands that came to work for him. Morton ruled by fear and with the whip he dealt out to whites and blacks alike.
Native problems with difficult cattlemen were worsened by a growing drought that crippled central Australia from 1924. Aboriginals gravitated to the few remaining good waterholes such as those on Coniston and Broadmeadows, spearing cattle to supplement their meagre diet. In August 1928, Charles Young, a pastoralist on Cockatoo Creek reported that things were bad out Coniston way and “the niggers seemed to be out of control”. Young said they came to his camp and demanded food and tobacco. “They all had spears and boomerangs and were semi-civilised blacks. We were armed with Winchester rifles all the time. I fired over the heads of the blacks several times with the result that they cleared out.” With settlers and Aboriginal people competing for the same resources, central Australia was a tinderbox ready to ignite.
The spark was Fred Brooks, a veteran cattle hand at Coniston station, aged 67 in 1928. Brooks had known Stafford for many years and helped him establish Coniston. However there was no money for wages during the drought so supplemented his income by dingo trapping. He bought two camels and took two Aboriginal boys on an expedition. Brooks knew the local Aborigines and was not worried by growing tensions. The party set up camp at Yurrkuru Soakage near a number of Warlpiri families whom Fred probably knew from their seasonal work at Coniston.
Bullfrog Japanangka was one of a sizeable group of Warlpiri camped at Yurrkuru and he had three wives. At gunpoint, Brooks demanded he loan him two wives to help him gather firewood and generally act as camp assistants. Brooks promised Bullfrog payment of food and tobacco in return. A few days later, Bullfrog was still waiting for his payment and now his third wife also ended up in Brooks’ camp. Enraged he attacked Brooks’ camp with the help of other warriors. He commanded his wives to hold Fred’s hand behind his back. One warrior hit Brooks on the head with a yamstick, while Bullfrog hit him several times on the head with an axe. Other men also hit him with boomerangs and axes. Brooks was hastily buried with one foot sticking out of a shallow grave. Brooks’ two Aboriginal helpers fled to Coniston to raise the alarm. Bullfrog and his family escaped to the mountains and played no further part in the following events.
Once Stafford found out about Brooks’ murder, he rang Police Commissioner John Cawood in Alice Springs. Cawood told Stafford mounted constable George Murray was already on his way to the region to investigate cattle killings in the Pine Hill and Coniston station country. Murray was the local “Protector of Aborigines” and was driving to Stafford’s property hoping to borrow horses for patrols. Murray was a war veteran and Cawood’s formal instructions were to arrest the culprits and to avoid violence where possible. But it wasn’t protection that Cawood or Murray had in mind for the Aborigines, instead it was tacitly understood he would “teach them a lesson”. Murray arrived at Coniston on August 12 where he interviewed Brooks’ black accomplices. He was there three days later when two warriors arrived. After a scuffle Murray shot and wounded one and chained them to a tree overnight. The two men were on a list of over 20 people Murray believed were involved in the murder. The following day Murray led a patrol of seven including Stafford and his two prisoners to a Warlpiri camp 18km west of Coniston.
Though Murray told the posse there was to be no shooting unless necessary, he rushed in ahead causing consternation in the camp. When he tried to arrest a native they fought back. Murray fired two shots and several of the posse including Stafford also fired their guns. One of the posse, Jack Saxby was later to say, “You cannot arrest these bush blacks.” At least five Aborigines died in this first act of reprisal, according to the whites’ testimony at the later Board of Inquiry. Further west of Coniston, the posse picked up more Warlpiri tracks and surrounded a party of blacks. At least eight, and possibly 14, warriors were shot dead. Two more were shot dead as they tried to escape at Cockatoo Spring with Murray proud of his revolver shot at “at least 150 yards distant”. At this stage the patrol returned to Coniston station and Randal Stafford would take no further part in the remaining killing.
The next encounter was at Six Mile Soak where Saxby said they surrounded a camp. He was the marksman stationed at the back to see none escaped. “I could tell that the blacks were showing fight, by their talk and the rattle of their weapons,” Saxby said. He heard Murray telling them to put down their weapons then heard several shots. “The blacks saw me coming and threw a couple of spears at me,” he said. “I jumped off my horse and fired four or five shots with my rifle. I do not know whether I hit them or not. I certainly tried.” At least six more were dead. The killing party then spent several days following blacks towards the WA border where the spree continued. When later asked by the Board of Inquiry, “Did you shoot to kill Mr Murray?” he responded, “Every time.” When asked, “You did not want to be bothered with wounded blackfellows?” he responded, “Well, what could I do with wounded blackfellows?”
Missionary Annie Lock was one of many horrified by the tales she was hearing from natives. As she put it, it was “the story of one surprise visit after another to native camps by the police, each time resulting in the shooting and killing of natives. Some said there were eighty killed, others made the number less. At the official enquiry, some months later, the number given was seventeen, but seventy was the number generally believed in the bush.”
Whether it was 17 or 70, the killing wasn’t over. An Aboriginal war party attacked Nugget Morton on the belief he too was about to start a massacre (though this may have been based on a misunderstanding he was about to kill a beast). Morton was attacked but gave as good as he got and escaped by horse. Meanwhile Murray’s party was now sent to Pine Hill to investigate cattle thefts there. They met a sizeable group of Kaytetye warriors in three encounters and although no record of the meeting survives, it is likely there were considerable Aboriginal casualties. While there was certain acceptance in frontier society of “an eye for an eye”, there was unease growing as the extent of Murray’s bloodthirsty rampage became known. On September 11, the first account of the slaughter appeared in an Adelaide newspaper.
Commissioner Cawood was now presented with a problem. He needed to someone to investigate Morton’s attackers but Murray had gone too far. Yet because of a shortage of manpower, Murray was instructed again to prepare for a third patrol to Morton’s Broadmeadows station. The killings continued wherever Murray’s party encountered Aborigines. In one incident, Murray reported that “even after several shots were fired it did not steady them. When order was restored it was found there were eight killed.” At the end of the patrol Murray and Morton estimated they had killed 14 warriors. The killing was finally ended when Murray had to go to Darwin for the trial of two men accused of killing Brooks.
The trial of Padygar and Arkirkra was brief. http://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/1043.html It started on November 7, 1928, three months after Brooks’ death. Murray summarised the first patrol in which Padygar was arrested at the start and Arkirka at the end. But the one white person, Bruce Chapman, who had seen Brooks’ body, was himself dead. Murray admitted openly he shot to kill in reprisal. The jury needed just 15 minutes to acquit the pair. The Darwin correspondent for the Adelaide newspaper said “Press, pulpit, and the general public unanimously agree with the jury’s verdict in the aboriginal trial, and are shocked by the candid admissions of the police that they shot to kill natives who showed fight when overtaken.”
A key figure in raising awareness of the killing was Methodist lay minister Athol McGregor of Katherine after he heard 17 Aboriginals were shot dead in one of the punitive raids at Stuart Town. He confronted Commissioner Cawood who defended the killing. Cawood became worried when McGregor wanted a Board of Inquiry. He encouraged journalists to cover the Darwin trial and Murray’s testimony gave them their headlines. Even a League of Nations representative made negative comments. Prime Minister Stanley Bruce and Cabinet Ministers were inundated with letters and petitions demanding an enquiry though the majority of Stuart Town residents though they were “do-gooders” who did not understand conditions on the frontier.
Bruce chose the Board with a whitewash in mind. The chairman was a Cairns police magistrate, the second a SA police inspector and the third was Commissioner Cawood himself, over the considerable protests of McGregor and others. The enquiry was held from December 30, 1928 to January 16, 1929, with a summary on closure February 7. It called 30 witnesses but skimmed over the issue of settlers taking Aboriginal women apart from a few denials by bushmen. Instead they blamed the Missionaries for preaching a doctrine of equality, even though none were in the Coniston area at the time of the attacks. Cawood instructed Murray to keep quiet about the second patrol in which he admitted 14 more had died, to add to the 17 officially admitted in the first patrol. Murray never conceded the combined 31 deaths constituted a massacre. He was just a policeman doing his job. Police Paddy from Murray’s party was the only Aboriginal witness called. He blatantly lied about seeing Brooks’ body and was never cross-examined.
The findings were inevitable. Murray accepted responsibility most of the deaths. The board accepted Murray’s evidence he had always called upon Aboriginal men to put down their weapons and that he only shot in self-defence when attacked. The Board concluded the shootings were justified and they blamed “cheeky” Aborigines intent on driving whites from their country. Though the Board accepted there was a drought, it agreed with Murray’s comment: “There was no such thing as starvation in any part of the country I have travelled to.” The whitewash concluded.
So how many people died? A friend of historian Dick Kimber once had the temerity to ask Murray when he met him “Did you really kill 31 blackfellows?” Murray’s response was “that’s all they investigated.” The Central Land Council’s booklet, “Making Peace With The Past” (2003) said the toll was likely double that. Missionary Annie Luck heard from eye-witnesses it was at least 70 dead. Douglas Lockwood’s 1964 book, “Up The Track” discussed the shootings with 70-year-old Anmatjira man George Japaljari. “All of old George’s friends and relatives were shot. The only survivor was George. They were bad … bad … times”.
Mervyn Hartwig’s “The Coniston Killings” (1960) had some access to Murray as well as talking to Luck and other pastors. His view that 70 to 105 is “the more correct number”. Kimber thinks it was 70 to 80 but ahttp://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/1103.html “a further 100 or more people, mostly men, were shot in the station country under consideration, and in a wider general area from Central Mount Wedge in a western arc through Mount Farewell to Tanami.” For the Warlpiri, the consequences of Coniston continue to this day, spread far and wide from their native lands. However for the majority of whites on the frontier, the frontier war was over and the bloodbath was justified to “teach the blacks a lesson”. Over the years that conviction became unease and eventually descended into the stone wall of silence. Even today Coniston is peripheral, because it does not make us “feel comfortable and relaxed about our history.”
A day before the election, Australia’s newspapers came down from their ivory towers and delivered their pronouncements on who should win the election. Quite why anyone should pay any notice to them was not explained, other than it being a prestige remnant of power that looks increasingly quaint as newspaper circulation dissipates into oblivion. The new online Guardian Australia attempted to crowdsource the answer but the 20th century papers mostly took their cue from the owners and urged people to vote Liberal. No different from most of the times past, but this one was poignant, as it may be their last hurrah.
Murdoch might see himself as immortal, but his powers are waning. His papers’ campaign against Rudd overcooked the egg and probably had no effect on the election other than stoking the outrage of Twitter critics. Its biggest long-term impact will be to itself: hastening the demise of the bond of trust between his papers and their readers. And by the next election they will no longer have print competition to spur them on. By 2016 it is likely like the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald will be digital only with little or no prestige. Any online editorial they might do on the election would be indistinguishable from a humble blog.
The Age’s likely last hurrah was to buck the trend and plump for the increasingly hapless and bizarre Rudd. Despite its supposed “Guardian-on-the-Yarra” leftness (TM scornful lemon-eating right wing intellectual Gerard Henderson) the Age usually bats for the Coalition when it came to election as its best ever editor Graham Perkin found out. Perkin believed it was the role of the newspaper to represent the people. “If we don’t do it, who will?” he would ask. Perkin set up an Insight team dedicated to investigations modelled on the successful ones of the Sunday Times in the UK. Because his targets were often wealthy people or wealthy companies or wealthy institutions, he was accused of being left wing.
Certainly he supported Whitlam in 1972 and argued long and hard Whitlam deserved more time than two years as a government. But Perkin had to fold to the company line and support the Opposition in 1974 when Whitlam just scraped over the line. That Perkin was more newspaperman than a leftist was shown in 1975 when he called Time on Whitlam’s brave experiments because they were funded by too many dodgy deals. Perkin editorialised for their removal but a heavy drinker and smoker, he died a month before the Dismissal, of a heart attack at age 45.
With the Age still in shock, it was Murdoch’s Australian that led the charge to push Whitlam out. Murdoch had already proved his papers wouldn’t just give a candidate the opinion page; he’d give them the entire book. Murdoch was ruthless in plugging every editorial he could just how bad Whitlam’s rabble were. Not just that, but any story angle that even vaguely praised Whitlam’s initiatives were censored or spiked as not “strong” enough. The paper published misleading unemployment figures The headlines too were manipulated. One changed from “Gough’s promise – cheap rents” to “Gough’s panic – cheap rents” between editions. Overall they screamed just one message: “sack the government”.
Murdoch’s journalists at the Australian were infuriated with his blatant meddling. Seventy-five of them wrote to him saying the paper had become a “propaganda sheet” and a “laughing stock.” Then 109 journalists in Sydney went on strike. This was embarrassing to Murdoch fellow media barons who were uncomfortable the media’s own actions were front and centre in the debate. Murdoch himself was just angry. According to biographer William Shawcross, Murdoch told one of his journalists Barry Porter “if you insist on providing ammunition for our competitors and enemies intent on destroying our livelihoods, then go ahead.”
In the end a court ordered strikers to return to work and management and staff should discuss the complaints. When they did meet, Murdoch gave no ground. He refused to accept his papers were biased and accused the journalists of incompetence and inaccuracy. He probably felt he could write the paper himself and often did. In February 1976 he reported in the Australian (with the help of new PM Malcolm Fraser) that Whitlam had met two Iraqi officials just before the election soliciting for funds. The now opposition leader refused to answer the allegation and many of his own party members were convinced it was true. It ultimately led to his resignation in 1977.
As David McKnight meticulously investigated in Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power, Whitlam’s rise and fall was one of many he orchestrated. Murdoch’s growing power in three continents was exercised “by phone and by clone” according to Eric Beecher (one of the editor clones that ran off the reservation). But he didn’t always back winners. He used the Sun in 1970 to say “why it must be Labour” only for Ted Heath to snatch victory. By the middle of that decade Murdoch had become smitten with Richard Nixon and was shocked by his downfall.
He threw his full support behind Reagan and then Thatcher in the UK. He secretly funded anti-communist conspiracy theories by activities such as David Hart and Brian Crozier. His ultimate success was to found Fox News as a 24-hour propaganda vehicle thinly disguised as news journalism. In Britain he moved easily through the corridors of power with politicians of all stripe scared by the power of headlines such as “It was the Sun Wot Won it”. Across the US, Britain and Australia, Murdoch turned his full arsenal of titles into his pet projects such as the Iraq War, stymieing action on climate change and promoting small government.
The hubris of News Ltd ultimately led to the phone hacking scandals because they thought they get away with anything. Murdoch called his Leveson Inquiry experience the most humiliating day of his life. Not that it made it any more humble. He used the scandal to turn the Sun into a seven-day-a-week and within a year was as feisty as ever, bombarding the world his contrarian views via the medium of Twitter. On august 20, Rupert tweeted that conviction politicians were hard to find anywhere. “Australia’s Tony Abbott rare exception. Opponent Rudd all over the place convincing nobody.”
By phone and by clone, his editors quickly got the message. The clone was New York honcho Col Allan who choreographed the series of strident front pages. No humility here, the Murdoch papers were strident and arrogant, doubling up with added venom from their 2010 campaign to unseat Gillard. Tony Abbott had a dream run from News Corp Australia who glossed over the absurdities in his policies in their effort to oust Labor. Murdoch’s intellectual wing The Australian wanted the things Rupert Murdoch wanted: small government and less regulation and Abbott was just the man for the job. “Tony Abbott,” the Oz said, “presents as an authentic leader possessed of personal and political integrity,” it enthused, glossing over the hundreds of fudges, backflips and lies Abbott has to his record since becoming opposition leader on December 1, 2009. This shameless praise and failure to parse the Coalition agenda undermines the accurate criticism of the Labor years such as their live export mess, Rudd’s thought bubbles and calamitous leadership dilemmas.
This thrashing of the reputation of the fourth estate in the name of profit and power is the ultimate tragedy of Murdoch’s interventions. Under his watch, the watchdog has gone feral and cannot be trusted to do its job anymore. Sooner rather than later, the dog will be put down. A fifth estate is there, picking up bits and pieces but relies on the media for most of its fodder, having few resources to do the heavy lifting of covering courts, parliaments and other places where “news” happens. It’s anyone’s guess how much furniture the fifth can protect after the fourth has gone.
The great Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney is dead at 74. His death was announced with “profound sorrow” by his publishers Faber. “His impact on literary culture is immeasurable,” Faber said. “He was nothing short of an inspiration to the company, and his friendship over many years is a great loss.” His friend and fellow Irish poet Paul Muldoon said Heaney was hospitalised after a fall a day earlier.
American poet Robert Lowell described Heaney as the most important Irish poet since Yeats. Heaney was a household name in Ireland and his 12 major collections did well commercially. Heaney was on the school curriculum and I well remember his brooding poems from the 1970s singeing their way into my own growing political conscience. Heaney was also a successful broadcaster and journalist and in 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.
Irish president Michael D Higgins said Heaney’s contribution to the republics of letters, conscience, and humanity was immense. “The presence of Seamus was a warm one, full of humour, care and courtesy – a courtesy that enabled him to carry with such wry Northern Irish dignity so many well-deserved honours from all over the world,” Higgins said. “His careful delving, translation and attention to the work of other poets in different languages and often in conditions of unfreedom, meant that he provided them with an audience of a global kind.”
Seamus Justin Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 at Mossbawn, near Castledawson Co Derry. His yeoman father Patrick owned a 40-acre farm and was a dealer in cattle and a taciturn man. Seamus would write about his father’s “lifelong speechlessness” and a gagging that was common to many that would later explode into violence between Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland.
Seamus’s mother Kathleen also fit an Irish stereotype, that of a warm, generous and imaginative woman. She bore nine children with Seamus the eldest. On her deathbed in 1984 the poet recalled a scene when they were cooking while the rest of the family was at Mass. “I remembered her head bent towards my head/Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives/never closer the rest of our lives”.
Heaney grew up in a world where Catholics and Protestants mixed and generally lived in harmony. He attended the primary school at Anahorish which catered for both creeds, which was unusual in Northern Ireland. Yet he could not avoid looking at the Ulster border on a map of Ireland as a “vestigially bloody marking”.
Heaney was the beneficiary of the enlightened 1947 Northern Ireland Education Act which was aimed at bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds. He won a scholarship to St Columb’s College Derry. There he mixed with the likes of fellow poet Seamus Deane and politician John Hume. St Columb’s was a harsh environment though Heaney thrived academically. He won a second bursary to study at Queen’s University Belfast. At this bastion of Protestantism, Heaney sought out the Catholic Sodality and the GAA ceilidh. But the curriculum laid stress on British culture which saw him finding his way among “Jane Austen’s vicarages, discussing Tennyson’s loss of faith and Lawrence’s phallic conscience”.
It was this grounding in the canon that would help make his Irish poetry accessible to English audiences. Robert Frost was another huge influence on Heaney and like the American poet, the young Irishman witnessed the tension between the ancient craft of the land and modern education. He published his first poems in his third year at Queen’s in the university’s literary magazines showing the influence of Frost but also of Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
He graduated with first class honours in English language and literature in 1961 and after a course at St Joseph’s College of Education, got a teaching job at a secondary school in Belfast. Around this time Heaney discovered the Irish writings of Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague and James Joyce, which he skirted around at college. Kavanagh had a similar background to Heaney and his book The Great Hunger would become a major influence. “Kavanagh gave you permission to dwell without cultural anxiety among the usual landmarks of your life,” Heaney wrote. Meanwhile Montague showed Heaney how to freely write about the complexities of Northern Ireland while Joyce freed him of his “linguistic inferiority complex”.
In October 1962 Heaney met schoolteacher and fellow writer Marie Devlin at a party. He loaned her a book A Alvarez’ anthology The New Poetry and asked her to return it a week later. They married three years later. The same year his Eleven Poems were published to coincide with the Belfast Festival of the Arts, and were well received by London critics. His 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist, based on his childhood, brought him to the attention of the wider world. As Heaney and Marie started a family, the political situation in Northern Ireland deteriorated, and Civil Rights movement started, taking its inspiration from the US. Heaney was gradually politicised by Stormont’s hostility to the movement.
In 1969 Heaney published Door into the Dark which included “Requiem for the Croppies”. Requiem harked back to the failed 1798 rebellion but lines like “A people hardly marching… on the hike/We found new tactics happening each day” spoke to the worsening situation in Belfast and Derry. Heaney had a hiatus from the unfolding tragedy with a sabbatical from Queen’s to be guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. However rather than it being a period of escape, Heaney used the time in the US to connect the circuits between the Old World and the New.
He returned to Belfast and in 1972 moved to Carysfort College in Dublin. His literary reputation grew with his collections Wintering Out and North. This latter work showed a new and darker tone as Northern Ireland spiralled out of control. He told an ITV documentary that Northern Ireland was “a society, if you like, that’s fallen from grace. This is limbo land at best, and at worst the country of the damned.” In Funeral Rights he wrote “Now as news come in of each neighbourly murder/ we pine for ceremony,/ customary rhythms:/ the temperate footsteps of a cortege, winding past / each blinded home”.
In the eighties Heaney moved away from his blinded home and back to the US to work at Harvard before being elected professor of poetry at Oxford in 1989. In 1995 came the Nobel award. In his acceptance speech, Heaney recalled Yeats “on this platform more than seventy years ago” when Ireland was emerging from the civil war and war of independence. Yet Yeats barely alluded to either war in his Nobel speech talking instead about the Irish Dramatic Movement. Heaney had no such inhibitions and said change in Northern Ireland was long overdue. “It should have come early, as the result of the ferment of protest on the streets in the late sixties, but that was not to be and the eggs of danger which were always incubating got hatched out very quickly,” he said.
Heaney finished that speech with a paean to the power of poetry. That was, he said, “the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.”