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Essays & Reportage

Where are the historians?

30 July 2009

History on Australian television doesn’t reflect what historians really know about the past, and the fault is on both sides, writes Ruth Balint

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Above: Convict Jane New (Sophie Cleary) during filming of the second episode of Rogue Nation, screened on ABC TV in March.
Photo: Mark Rogers/ © Screen Australia

Above: Convict Jane New (Sophie Cleary) during filming of the second episode of Rogue Nation, screened on ABC TV in March.
Photo: Mark Rogers/ © Screen Australia



IN THE EARLY twentieth century, the legendary American filmmaker D.W. Griffith predicted that children “will be taught practically everything in moving pictures” and “will never be obliged to read history again.” A century later his words sound a warning to those of us who have made history our profession. The visual media dominates the presentation of history and the demand for historical films and documentaries seems insatiable. The public, and indeed many students of history, receive far more historical information from the media than from the pens of historians. Historians might prefer to read books, but when it comes to history, the general public prefers to watch television.

This is nowhere more evident than in Australia, where history has become big business for the producers and broadcasters of television programs. It was under the Howard government, when history itself became something of a cause célèbre in this country, that television histories gained a more prominent position in the industry, a shift cemented in 2005 when the government gave $10 million to a three-year Making History scheme, under the auspices of Film Australia (now Screen Australia). The largest single grant ever given by an Australian government to a television initiative, the move was both symbolic and political. The money was to be used to create a series of television documentaries, for broadcast on the ABC, which would make a significant contribution to Australians’ understanding of themselves and their history. In 2008, rebadged as the History Initiative, the scheme was extended, with the new government committing funds for another ten hours of programming.

John Howard always understood the political and ideological value of history. At stake was Australia’s national identity, and he made no secret of his determination to reclaim history from an academic “elite” – particularly those “professional purveyors of guilt” who had for three decades been busily undermining the narrative of Australia’s past as one of achievement and progress. From his earliest days in office he championed an attack on revisionist Australian histories that challenged the orthodox accounts, which had ignored or denied the Indigenous experience of dispossession and colonisation. By the turn of the new millennium, the debate over the interpretation of Aboriginal history had erupted into a history war, prosecuted for the most part by “Howard intellectuals,” most of whom worked in the print media and had little or no relationship to Australia’s universities and little or no training in the history discipline.

John Howard announced the Making History initiative in the wake of his intervention in the school history curriculum, which he believed suffered from “political correctness.” As Anna Clark noted, the “political effort to reclaim Australia’s story on behalf of the ‘mainstream’ has been particularly critical in schools – a vital site for defining and reproducing the national narrative.” It is likely that television was regarded as an equally important site for intervention, particularly given the perception of documentary as a valuable educational tool.

It is impossible to separate the outcome of the Making History initiative in its first three-year phase from the political context of its birth. Even the titles of the films made under the scheme reveal a certain preoccupation with stories of the heroic achievements of “dead white males” in their visions of, and quests for, nationhood and national distinction. The Blainey-esque three-part series Constructing Australia examined the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Kalgoorlie Pipeline and the Overland Telegraph Line. A series of three documentaries featured episodes from the lives of three prime ministers: Robert Menzies in London during the second world war, Ben Chifley’s famous battle over the coal industry against the communist-led trade union and Harold Holt’s mysterious disappearance. Another documentary examined the Douglas Mawson expedition to Antarctica in 1912. Although each was independently directed, and a couple quite good on their chosen subject, it is important to recognise, and thus judge them on, their commissioning under the Making History banner. Together, they were intended to create a specific metahistory of the Australian past through the topics that were chosen and, equally, those that were not.

As a TV viewer, I found some of these programs entertaining in the way they pushed the boundaries of the genre stylistically, others dull and some downright embarrassing. As an historian, I found them all predictable and unchallenging. These were safe, soft histories. Most relied heavily on the use of dramatisation or re-enactment (although Mawson chose the format of “reality history,” problematic in itself but material for discussion another time). Nowadays docu-drama is often thought the best method for keeping viewers tuned in to what is otherwise often a dry script, delivered in the voice-of-god style so common in historical documentaries. Sometimes it can work if used well, and Peter Butt’s The Prime Minister Is Missing could be considered an example of this. But in most cases fictive re-enactments do not tend to encourage a more critical understanding of the way in which history itself is always only a representation, a product of the times in which it is created. This might seem an ambitious request. The problem remains, however, that re-enactments in the Making History programs mostly functioned as background decoration to the “absolute truth” of the narrative. These offerings sought to produce a version of the past that was seamless, authoritative and unambiguous – all of the things, in other words, that history is not.

“Creating a nation” was the phrase – spoken and unspoken – that underlined the logic and the premise of this first stage of Making History. At the heart was a phantasm, the idea of a unified core culture and history – what Benedict Anderson defined as the “imagined community” – which works here to produce a dominant idea of Australianness, past and present, as Anglo, or white. The lives of great men were positioned to reflect a story of national greatness. The question of race, meanwhile, remained a minor footnote to the dominant narrative of Anglo-Australian progress, at a time when it was otherwise a major topic of discussion and debate, in parliament, on the street, in the newspapers and in the academy. To ignore it in the commissioning process was inherently political. Making History instead gave us a past in which such disputes, while they occurred, were simply an unfortunate, regrettable, part of a bigger, grander story.

If the politics of race was noticeably absent, the Australian Legend was writ large. Modern Australia was forged in the unique egalitarian circumstances of the bush and cemented on the battlefields of Gallipoli, creating a hardy nation of battlers, so the Legend goes. Making History reproduced the myth of Australian egalitarianism, without much inkling of how this myth has played out to the detriment of many in Australia’s history and society, or its mnemonic function in the “creation of nation.” Often this was more implicit than explicit, the expression of what Michael Billig has called “banal nationalism”: “The metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously raised with fervent passion; it is the flag unnoticed on the public building.” A prevalent theme was of spirited, anti-authoritarian men who had stood up to the yoke of British authority to make Australia free. Rogue Nation, for example, another series produced under the initiative, configured the history of the Rum Rebellion as a story of “how a handful of driven, anti-authoritarian men saw off several British governors, encouraged upheaval and learnt the art of politics; discovering that debates, pressure groups and propaganda could change governments and shape policy. In doing so, they helped to lay the foundations of the prosperous liberal democracy of Australia.”


WHY WE NEED to be discussing these recent products of television is because these are the most prolific and most influential constructions of history in the public arena today. There are a number of reasons for the often poor state of Australian television history: the marginalisation of historians in the creative process is one; another is the issue of accountability. Historical documentary-makers are under no obligation to consult with historians about content, even where they have received public funds to produce their histories. Debates and decisions about what to fund and what to screen occur largely within the confines of the funding agencies and bureaucracies themselves, with little outside pressure or external checks and balances.

This points to a concern raised by Marcus Westbury recently in Meanjin, where he argues that the government agencies and organisations set up to support Australian cultural production are “creatures of history and closed to possibility.” Westbury is addressing the whole spectrum of arts funding, but his criticisms are particularly apt for the state of history on Australian television. He argues that Screen Australia is supporting fewer, larger, more experienced producers to the exclusion of other innovative filmmakers. The ABC is following a similar path in its commissioning process. I would add that this trend also excludes innovative histories. Instead, the productions, although sometimes interesting from a filmic perspective, rarely move beyond a formulaic, narrow understanding of the discipline and its possibilities.

History on Australian television can also end up being a labour of budgets rather than a labour of passion or enquiry, a fact reflected in some of the rush jobs that appear on our screens. There can also be a serious lack of awareness of scholarship on a particular subject, which results in the reinforcement of the sort of myths historians have been writing against. The Floating Brothel, broadcast on the ABC in late 2006, was an example of this. Although it was not a Making History program, this was another publicly funded historical “docu-drama.” Based on the book of the same name by Siân Rees, the program re-enacted the journey of the convict women aboard the Lady Juliana – “the founding mothers of modern Australia” as they were described – on their journey here in 1789. The promotional blurb on the Film Australia website described the year-long voyage as one in which “at each port of call the women turn the catwalks into boardwalks and transform the ship into a floating brothel. They will do what it takes to survive the journey and doing business is in their blood.” The film re-enacts an orgy, which is supposed to have occurred during a wild thunderstorm on 6 February, after the first convict women disembarked from the First Fleet.

Yet the “foundational orgy,” as historian Grace Karskens has dubbed it, almost certainly never happened. Does it matter? As Karskens points out in her new book The Colony, it does. Not only do documentaries like this one reassert the old “damned whores” stereotype of early convict women and ignore histories that since the 1980s have argued against those blind stereotypes, they also avoid the more important, and more interesting, point about the power of myth. The salacious image of the colony as one giant brothel is an important one historically, and could have been explored far more intelligently.

Yet public discussion of these televisual histories is alarmingly rare in this country, and contributes to the lack of accountability. Criticisms from historians usually occur either in the classroom or in scholarly articles and books. Given the amount of time between when an academic article is accepted and when it is published, and the very limited reach of academic journals, these tend to have little to no impact. With books the time delay is usually even longer.

Screen Australia and the ABC have each organised forums for historians to present their views, but these tend to be one-off events, not conducive to significant change in the culture of funding and broadcasting decisions. There are no independent panels of historians, as there are in the United States, for example, looking over the submissions for funding for history programs. Professor John Hirst was attached to the Making History initiative as the consultant historian. A respected historian, Hirst is also well known in the academy for his political conservatism, and is one of those who rejected the “black armband” view of history as being too “negative.” This would not have mattered had there been others to balance opinion in the assessment of ideas and content (which is what I imagine he was commissioned to do), but there were not. A lone voice, he was there, it seemed, to tick the box.

This is not to say that historians are not involved in these productions, but their involvement often occurs in unsatisfactory ways. Historians have often been content, even flattered, to participate from the sidelines, as one of the obligatory expert talking heads, or as consultants. Neither of these positions is usually very satisfying. Interviewed for their knowledge on a particular topic, historians will get five minutes of fame but little or no control over how the interview is edited or used. Worse, as consultants, they are often more a showpiece to satisfy granting agencies, or to make sure, in the words of one historian–filmmaker, “that period costumes are ‘right’.”

The marginalisation of historians in the making of screen histories points to a major misconception that prevails in both the creative arts industry and the academy: the idea that historians prefer writing history to working in images, and that their work is designed for each other rather than the general reader. The trail-blazing American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who made such celebrated series as The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz, has described himself as an “amateur historian” who wishes to “rescue history from those who teach it and the scholars who only wish to talk to themselves about it, and to return history to a kind of broad dialogue.” This is a common charge, that history in the hands of the historians is an elitist project. Unfortunately, it is also one that the academic system perpetuates. Those among us who do wish to produce works outside the boundaries of the peer-review system often find ourselves butting up against the walls of a rigid orthodoxy patrolling the boundaries of academic merit. This is slowly changing. In most arts faculties “creative works” are now measured as a legitimate outcome of academic endeavour, a move introduced mostly to accommodate scholars working in the spheres of Music or Fine Arts.

Another common misconception within the film industry is that historians simply don’t “get” the medium. This may once have been true, but not today. Examples abound overseas of historians working the medium in successful and illuminating ways: Simon Schama’s History of Britain, Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money, Robert Wistrich’s The Longest Hatred, Jay Winter’s The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century and Nigel Spivey’s How Art Made the World are a few of the more famous examples. In these series historians are presenters of their own histories, a format that only really works for television when the presenter is a recognisably “unique” personality. There are certainly problems with the way these TV dons tend to reinforce the idea of the historian as male, middle-aged and slightly stuffy (or, in the welcome case of Schama, eccentric). But some women have started to break the gender mould: the lively Vanessa Collingridge, who fronted the four-part series Captain Cook – Obsession and Discovery, is one.

Simon Schama, who works at Columbia University, recalls that when he first started work on his series any fears he held about his credentials for a television project were reciprocated by the television industry tenfold. He writes that “there is still much dug-in resistance to the mere notion of writers getting anywhere near a position of true creative partnership in the making of historical documentaries.” Elsewhere, he has recounted the reaction he got to his modest proposal for an academic to learn enough to be able to assist in the editing process. The suggestion was greeted “with dumbfound incredulity. ‘Over my dead body,’ was one producer’s pithy response.”

Moving beyond the covers of scholarly monographs into film is out of reach for most historians, simply because there isn’t the time, the space or the resources to develop the necessary skills or projects. Moreover, in Australia courses that teach the language of film often reside in departments of film studies, media studies, journalism and communications; very rarely do they live in departments of history. Yet, as Schama predicts, echoing D.W. Griffiths, “the future of history, the survival of history is going to depend at least as much, if not more on the new media and television as on the printed page”’ Pierre Sorlin, noted film scholar and historian, is similarly convinced that television will change our comprehension of the past. “Cinema changed our vision but did not influence our intelligence of the past,” he writes. “On the other hand, it is our very conception of history that will be modified by television.”

In Australia we have yet to see this happen. Yet if historians want to engage and stimulate interest and debate about history and its interpretive possibilities, and if they are going to break the monopoly of the “amateur historians” over the viewing public, they will need to be assisted and supported to do so. Film demands a radical rethinking of ways to present the complexity of the past to a watching, as opposed to a reading, audience. To communicate an event in fifty-five seconds or fifty-five minutes, as opposed to fifty-five pages, takes a special skill. Some of us are up to the task. What is needed, I believe, is institutional support for this kind of shift – the guided exposure of history students and professional historians to the craft of documentary film-making, in scripting or editing, for example, and a more collaborative partnership between the academy and the film and television industry. There are many possibilities.

This is not a call for historians to abandon the craft of scholarly writing. It is a call for recognition of the need for historians to play a more central role in the construction of media-based histories. We need look no further than our own television screens for evidence of this. Writing for television demands a rethinking of style and format, but not the abandonment of a crucial principle of good history, which is the use of the imagination. History is a storytelling art. The artforms need to be expanded, for the benefit of history and its audience. •

Ruth Balint is a lecturer in the School of History and Philosophy at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Her documentary, Troubled Waters, was screened on SBS in 2001.

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