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Journalism and Journalists

Initially journalists were also publishers. Melbourne's earliest newspapers, the Melbourne Advertiser and the Port Phillip Gazette, established in 1838, were handwritten publications reporting on shipping movements as well as significant events. Journalism developed with the growth of print publications and literacy. Newspapers and periodicals provided men and women with independent financial opportunities; 'penny-a-liners' or 'stringers' (because they were paid by the length of the string of words they had published) were common as regular contributors alongside staff employees. Later, within more highly organised and professional publications of the late 1800s, they were known as 'linage reporters'.

In October 1854 the Age was established to compete with Melbourne's major newspapers, the Argus and the Morning Herald. Within two months the new competitor was in financial difficulties. Rather than see the newspaper, which had established a reputation for independent campaigning, fail, the journalists and printers of the Age formed a 'co-partnery', each member contributing £25 and a percentage of their weekly wage. This arrangement lasted for 18 months until the newspaper was bought by co-partnery member, journalist Ebenezer Syme.

The earliest recorded organisation of journalists in Australia was the Victorian Reporters Association (VRA), established in 1889. John Tipping, the Association's first president, was a Hansard reporter who took minutes of the Victorian Parliament, and had previously been involved in establishing reporters' associations in Britain. (Hansard reporters continue to be covered by the journalists union, currently the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.) The VRA had branches in a number of Melbourne suburbs and assisted both the amateurs (a term increasingly used to describe stringers) and staff writers or 'professionals'. In 1892 an Institute of Journalists, established by a number of office-holders from the VRA, effectively took over the role of the Association. It aimed to develop the professional aspect of journalism and looked to exclude 'amateurs'. Nomination for membership required that qualifications be set out in detail with a statement of the nominee's employment. The first general meeting of the Australian Institute of Journalists was held at the Cathedral Hotel in Swanston Street on 27 February 1892. Mr H. Short (the Age) presided. It was attended by journalists representing the Argus and Australasian, the Age and associated papers, Daily Telegraph, the Herald, Evening Standard, Melbourne Sportsman, along with writers for various magazines, journals and provincial newspapers. An office was established at 193 Collins Street in February 1893.

The Institute's rules were drafted by the parliamentary draftsman, E. Carlisle, and included committing the organisation to promote whatever may tend to the elevation of the status and the improvement of the qualifications of all members of the journalistic profession; to ascertain the law and practice relating to all things connected with the journalistic profession; to act as a means of communication between employers and prospective employees; to devise tests related to qualifications and to encourage the means for journalists to provide against sickness, age, death and misfortune. The Institute was adamant that it was not a trade union. Despite this it was required, by the number of out-of-work journalists in the 1890s, to establish an employment register in which the secretary recorded the names of all journalists open to engagement. While by 1894 the Institute had 199 members listed, its auditors were already warning it against leniency in collecting membership fees and the organisation soon found itself unable to survive.

In 1906 another attempt at an association was undertaken with the formation of the Press Bond. It was presented as a primarily social organisation for working journalists. In 1908 the Commonwealth Government invited the Bond to send representatives to a dinner for visiting United States warships, but the invitation was withdrawn after newspaper proprietors complained that they should select journalists for such events. While some officials insisted on the right to select representatives from the ranks of journalists, the Press Bond folded as many members were not supportive of a showdown with employers.

The Bond's secretary, Bert Cook, had been a federal parliament roundsman in 1904 when new industrial legislation - the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act - was brought in. He recalled that the Act stated that no employee could be dismissed because he was a member of a registered organisation. The clause was meant for the benefit of manual workers but Cook privately consulted the Federal Industrial Registrar who, seeing an ambiguity regarding the ability of the Act to cover an association of journalists, said a test case would be required to establish if professionals could register as an industrial organisation under the Act. Cook called a meeting of journalists - 'persons professionally and habitually engaged on the staffs of newspapers or periodicals' - to secure their support. The meeting, held on 10 December 1910 at a café in the basement of the Empire Building in Flinders Street, agreed to proceed with the proposal and attempt to register an industrial association of journalists. A test case was heard on 11 April 1911. After two days of argument it was apparent that there was no legal bar against professions under the Act. The Australian Journalists Association (AJA), the first of what would later be called 'white collar' unions, was officially registered as an industrial association on 24 May 1911. As the registration was under federal legislation the Association was required to be a national organisation and AJA branches quickly spread from Melbourne to other major metropolitan and regional centres.

With the sitting of the new Commonwealth Parliament in Melbourne from 1901 the city became an important place for journalists who, it is reported, received better pay than colleagues in other capital cities. However, as Alice Henry, a journalist with the Argus, pointed out in a letter to feminist journal Woman's Sphere in 1901, 'women writers of more than ordinary ability receive less than half the remuneration given to men'. Henry wrote that the practice of dealers supplying weekly supplements which 'do duty over and over again in different papers' undermined opportunity for journalists. Women often wrote under a male pseudonym, although the Melbourne Review in 1876 was the first to print author and electoral reformer Catherine Helen Spence's articles under her own name.

The formalisation of an industrial organisation meant that bargaining over wages and conditions was systematised, and although conditions still varied widely according to local conditions and the situations of particular publications, there was increased standardisation in the industry. Journalism awards were among the first to avoid distinguishing between male and female rates of pay, however there were distinctions made between the kinds of work. Women most often found work on social pages and women's sections, which became an important entrée to decision-making positions. In February 1923 Miss May Maxwell, editress, women's pages, was one of the 24 leading members of staff photographed to mark the opening of the new Herald building. Pat Jarrett, appointed as Sun-Pictorial first women's editor in 1948, remained in the position until 1973 and oversaw the transformation from social pages into a news section with an emphasis on women's concerns.

Melbourne newspapers had always attempted to address colonial news as well as local issues. The case of James Harrison provides an interesting example of the impact of the cable on colonial journalism. Harrison, who had been a writer for the Age, went to London soon after Australia was connected to Britain by cable in 1872 and continued to send editorials, reviews and scientific news. New printing press technology and access to cable news meant that the Age was able to increase the number of its pages for news stories. However, as a nationalist sentiment developed in the 1880s Harrison was gradually supplanted by local writers as David Syme, the proprietor of the Age, made arrangements for books published in London to be sent to Melbourne to be reviewed. Convinced that Alfred Deakin would 'need a holiday' after his political coalition was defeated following a no-confidence vote in the Victorian Parliament in 1890, Syme sent him to India and Ceylon to report on irrigation projects. Deakin 'was a skilled writer and an industrious observer better prepared by reading than most travellers' and, as his biographer has noted, the articles were well received. This foray into foreign reporting was an exception. In this late colonial/early Federation period, Australian journalists overseas tended to be either expatriate adventurers who wrote for the larger papers of Britain or the United States, or stringers who worked on English-language newspapers, usually in imperial outposts or trading ports.

One of the most well-known Melbourne expatriate journalists was G.E. (Chinese) Morrison, a traveller whose account of one of his journeys, An Australian in China, prompted the London Times to ask him to be their correspondent in Indo-China. He covered the Franco-British dispute in the region during 1895 and later reported the Russo-Japanese War. As an Australian he firmly believed he was part of 'Greater' Britain and often spoke of his allegiance to England. Later another Melbourne journalist made his name as a foreign correspondent but he reported war from the side of Australia's opponents. Wilfred Burchett was one of the first reporters into Nagasaki after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. His reports shocked the world. Later he found himself reporting war from North Korea and North Vietnam. When he lost his passport in 1962 the Australian Government refused to renew it, virtually rendering him stateless.

Melbourne journalists had lost much interesting work and political influence when the Commonwealth Parliament shifted to Canberra in 1927. Gradually the political influence of media in Sydney grew. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) was based in that city from its inception in 1932 and established its independent news service in 1947. Although radio had been introduced to Australia in 1923, for many years it was prevented from broadcasting news by newspaper proprietors afraid of competition. Over time, however, newspaper companies bought into the new medium, supplying copy from their journalists to be read on air and dictating broadcast times for bulletins so they would not clash with newspaper editions. Following World War II the introduction of portable recorders allowed greater freedom in radio news gathering. Supported by the growing ABC, radio journalists achieved a measure of independence from newspapers. In 1939 in response to Japanese shortwave broadcasts, Australia began its own international propaganda broadcasts, 'Australia Calling', which was directed from wartime headquarters in Melbourne. Its successor, Radio Australia, remained in Melbourne at the end of the war.

From the mid-1930s until after World War II the figure of Keith Murdoch, who began his career in newspapers as an Age linage reporter for Malvern, dominated Melbourne journalism. As head of the Herald & Weekly Times he oversaw a stable of successful newspapers, magazines and eventually radio stations, and wielded considerable influence through organisations such as Australian Associated Press (AAP) and Australian Paper Mills, which were largely cartels run by Australian newspaper proprietors. Committed to international experience as a mark of a mature journalist, he shepherded young journalists into Fleet Street as part of their journalism education. During the war many of Melbourne's journalists went overseas as war correspondents. For most it was their first experience at reporting overseas. Chester Wilmot, one of Australia's best-known war correspondents, began his radio career in Radio Australia. Journalists such as Alan Moorehead (the Herald) and George Johnston also became recognised and well-loved authors. In 1947 Murdoch completed negotiations with Reuters that opened the way for AAP journalists to report to the world and Australia from posts in Asia, although Reuters insisted on maintaining operational responsibility for all journalists in its offices. Herald & Weekly Times journalist Denis Warner, who was appointed to the Reuters office in Tokyo after a long stint reporting in the Pacific and South-East Asian theatres during World War II, became one of the most respected journalists writing on Asian affairs.

Technological change gathered pace after the war. Radio news was refined and became independent of newspapers. The introduction of television in 1956 provided Melbourne journalists with the first opportunities for nationally televised commentaries. While the new media provided increased opportunities for journalists, the economics of the industry and the cost of introducing technology ensured that newsrooms would always be scrutinised for excessive overheads. Computerisation of text began in the 1970s and found its way into newsrooms. Video Display Units (VDUs) replaced typewriters and 'cold metal' (phototypesetting) replaced hot-metal linotypesetting in printing rooms. Journalists concerned about these changes called for national strikes in 1981. The Melbourne meeting voted to consider a compromise offer from employers, unaware that their Sydney colleagues had voted to carry through with the strike. While they succeeded in securing a VDU allowance for journalists, the change meant considerable rationalisation in the industry, substantially doing away with the role of sub-editors. Journalists themselves now write copy direct to page and edit their own work according to the allotted space, rather than sub-editors checking and cutting copy as required. Satellite technology, introduced from the late 1980s, replaced cable and radio delivery systems. Regular international reports can be secured with image, voice and text material supplied by syndicated agencies. At the same time local journalists are able to 'drop in' to trouble spots reporting directly to local audiences, but often without the chance to build up expertise or local knowledge.

John Tebbutt

Cryle, Denis, Disreputable profession: Journalists and journalism in colonial Australia, CQU Press, Brisbane, 1997. Details