Inside Story

Enter the Australian

Rupert Murdoch’s national daily burst into print on 15 July 1964. Ken Inglis assessed the new paper later that month for Nation magazine

Ken Inglis 14 July 2009 2345 words

Rupert Murdoch (centre) with Australian staffers Solly Chandler (right) and Hank Bateson looking at a page one proof on 15 July 1964. Newspix

Until Wednesday of last week Australians had never been offered a daily newspaper written for the whole country. The men who preached federation in the last century, above all Alfred Deakin, believed that the federal compact would be not only an expression of nationality but a source of it: the formal achievement of union, they hoped, would encourage the people of the several states to think and feel more closely to each other. It would surely have pleased Deakin to see the Australian flying out to the old capitals of colonial Australia from the artificial national capital whose foundation was itself a response to parochial rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney. It would have pleased him, I think, not only as a nationalist but as a journalist, though he might have been professionally disappointed that the new paper did so little with the Commonwealth Conference – that bizarre descendant of the Imperial Conferences about which Deakin wrote with much wit.

The Australian is, first of all, a clean and handsome thing to look at. Not all the news pages have the “elegant appearance” we had been led to hope for; but compared with those of every other Australian newspaper they are, as promised, “uncluttered.” The double-page carrying editorials, cartoon and features seems to me simply beautiful: a few square feet of black and white fit to place alongside the best-designed newspapers of our language and time – the Guardian, say, or the Observer, or the New York Herald Tribune. Not that the Australian is an imitation of any of these models (or, as far as I know, of any other): like any good visual design, it shows both intelligent assimilation and fresh imagination. It is interesting to compare, in the first issue, an advertisement for Rogers’ of Canberra with the surrounding editorial matter. In any other paper I think the advertisement would appear at home: here, it looks inappropriately coarse.

On the news pages, the designers are cramped by using the same old narrow columns as the rest of our daily press. Perhaps I will get used to seeing the relaxed prose of Alistair Cooke broken into lines which may contain only three, three and a half or four words; but I wish I did not have to. And I wish the designers had been bold enough to abolish the practice of interrupting stories with subheadings of one or two words chosen fairly arbitrarily out of the paragraph that follows. Not only the Age but the Sun News-Pictorial, no austere journal, do without this device in their feature pages. I wonder what Mr Cooke thinks of having, just above his words “The most durable though bootless protest…” the single word BOOTLESS floating in the italic capitals.

The prose is less elegant than the layout. Contributions by such writers as Robin Boyd, Jock Marshall, Kenneth Hince and Edgar Waters read as if the layout were designed for them; some other pieces, signed and unsigned, sit there less happily. It is disconcerting to have, on the same page, prose by Alistair Cooke and prose which he would never write unless as parody; and it is an unfortunate practice, I think, to print a piece from “Alistair Cooke and our world news service” without indication where Cooke ends and somebody else (who?) begins. Having recruited staff from other papers in which nimble writing has been seldom encouraged it is perhaps no wonder that the Australian prints without rewriting such a string of clichés as “a whirlwind high-level visit here today against a background of rising tension.” But in this paper, such passages look as out of place as the cheap “furniture specials” offered by Rogers’ would look in a house designed by Robin Boyd. And when one reads on a prettily planned page about holidays, of “a year-round phenomena,” it is like seeing in a Boyd house a chair with one leg off.

The language of headlines is made less flexible, at least in the case of stories one column wide, by the narrowness of columns. On the fourth day, “shock” was used in a headline as if it meant “unexpected”; and it seems not impossible that the headline of my nightmares may appear even in the Australian. It is over a story about an unexpected attempt to discover why an ambulance was late, and it reads: MERCY DASH SHOCK PROBE BID.

SO MUCH had been promised that it hardly seemed possible for the paper to contain an unheralded feature; but there, on the first day, was a section FOR THOSE WHO TRUST THE STARS. (“Scorpio and Pisces people combine to accomplish major tasks,” the stars revealed in the first issue. Rupert Murdoch, I discover from Who’s Who in Australia, is a Pisces person. Who is a Scorpio?) Here, in a newspaper candidly designed for the best-educated part of the population, was a daily dose of the most mindless of superstitions. Why? For that matter, what is the rest of page three there for – “the Peter Brennan Page – the column that goes round the world’s lighter side”? It appears to be a copy of the “William Hickey” page of the London Daily Express – a section of crisp, trivial and often malicious gossip. “Peter Brennan” is benign and flat and he writes like a columnist in the most demotic evening paper or woman’s magazine:

“Don’t romp with lion cubs. Film actress Virginia McKenna who is on location in Nairobi couldn’t resist playing with a couple of cubs which were brought on the set. Such cuddly, playful things. She stumbled over one of the cubs and broke an ankle. It hurts: and filming will be held up.”

Is this stuff meant to keep a bird-brained wife quiet while across the coffee-pot her husband, deep in the detachable second half, sees how his shares are doing? Does she then tell hubby what posture towards the market the stars appear to advise for the day? The whole page seems out of character with the rest of the paper.

OUTSIDE CANBERRA, readers get an edition set up in Canberra and printed in Melbourne and Sydney. The edition for Canberra has, so far (I am writing after four issues), eight pages more of local news and advertisements and a battery of comics of which many are identical to the very episode with strips in Melbourne and Sydney papers: a federal reader of Li’l Abner can move from the Sydney Morning Herald to the Australian without missing a bar. In Canberra the second half opens not with the business review, as in the national edition, but with a page of local news pictures. Each edition carries some news of sport that is not in the other. The front pages differ slightly. On the first day, the space occupied in the national edition by the headline “FBI finds second headless body” was replaced for Canberra by “Eggs dropped on shoppers.” “Trapped” skiers became “Canberra” skiers. Less intelligibly, a “call girl raid” in Milan was replaced by the murder of a girl in London. Canberra readers, but not others, were told on the first day why the paper is published in the national capital. Several advertisements for Canberra firms have been appearing (wastefully, and I presume temporarily) in the national edition.

There have been blemishes. In the second issue, a story on the front page headed “False claim for pills” carried no direct indication that it was about the US, not Australia. Among misprints, one was of the sort that used to be relished by lovers of the unreconstructed Canberra Times – a reference to Alexander Pope’s poem “The Dungad.” (The Canberra Times on the same day has a “bronze plague.”) But to the layman, the sheer technical achievement of assembling and distributing these two editions of a new paper with so few mishaps is very impressive indeed.

GOOD DAY, said an editorial welcome in the first issue. The manner foreshadowed in this greeting is more colloquial than those of the SMH or the Age or the Canberra Times. (In the Canberra Times, the comparable headline early this month was “Your New Times”). The Australian is not only less formal, but less modest. Comic strips in the Canberra Times are headed “In lighter mood”; in the Australian “The greatest array of strip features in Australia.” On the first day the paper announced: “The world news service which appears in The Australian surpasses any yet assembled in the pages of one newspaper anywhere in the world.” On any meaning I can think of, this boast is not true. I would like to have seen fuller accounts of what was said about the first issue by people quoted under the headline “Nation’s leaders congratulate The Australian.” I do know that one of these leaders, A.D. Hope, said: “Your arms get tired because the paper is so wide, and it gets in the porridge because it is so long.” I would rather not be told, as I read the overseas news, that I have embarked on two BIG pages of it. But I will put up with the Australian’s slapping itself on the back if that noise helps to attract enough readers to keep it going.

Some of its boasting is soundly based. For one thing it is by Australian standards a big paper. Take away classified advertisements from last Saturday’s paper, and you are left with thirteen pages in the SMH, sixteen in the Canberra Times, and nineteen in the Age. The Australian’s Canberra edition has one page of classified advertisements and thirty-one others; its national edition had twenty-two pages which included only two columns of classified advertisements. Among those pages on Saturday is a weekend magazine which I think looks better, ranges more widely, and is written with a more even competence, than the comparable section of any other Australian paper.

The Australian is giving more space than its rivals to solid overseas news. On Senator Goldwater’s victory it had nearly twice as much as the Age, more than twice as much as the SMH, and four times as much as the Canberra Times. Next day it had rather more than the Age about the Republican convention, and far more than either of the other two papers. The same is true, for Saturday, of political and military news from Southeast Asia. In the case of the Commonwealth Conference, however, the Australian gave a fairly bald summary of the prime ministers’ communiqué, the SMH a longer summary, and the Age and Canberra Times the full text. All in all, it looks as if we will get more foreign news from the Australian, without being sure that it gives the fullest version of any particular item. (It may be, of course, that other editors will be provoked by the newcomer into printing more foreign news. There is plenty of room for them to do so.)

On local Canberra matters, the Australian so far seems to me not quite as efficient as the Canberra Times. The older paper is looking a little more comfortable in its broadsheet pages than it did earlier in the month; and its pictures are now reproduced more clearly. It carries, as the Australian does not so far, many columns of the classified advertisements which serve an urban community as a people’s market. It has been printing rather more hard news about the city’s affairs. The management of the Australian will presumably try to close this gap before the middle of August, when they stop having free copies delivered to everybody in Canberra and Queanbeyan, and the Canberra Times is bound to try to increase its own local news and pictures.

Both papers appear likely to go in for what Americans have called sob-sister stories about the locality. Already the Australian has had a piece on conditions at Canberra’s only real slums – a collection of huts for men known as the Causeway Mess. The Canberra Times had a fuller account of this place some time before it was taken over by John Fairfax and Sons; but it did not print, as the Australian has, a picture of an old resident and his dog. The Canberra Times is appealing for money (and has received nearly £1700 as I write) on behalf of a young man who lost his sight and his hands in an explosion. If this man had not experimented with explosives, he would not now be enduring a terrible affliction. If two newspapers had not begun to compete for the pennies of his fellow-citizens, he might have had no access to the compassion of strangers. I am reminded of Richard Hofstadter’s comment on the annual appeal in the New York Times for the city’s Hundred Neediest Cases. “A civilisation that needs sob-sister journalism is a sad one, but the same civilisation incapable of producing it would be worse.”

The only local issue on which I have noticed the papers disagreeing so far is the skill of the Canberra Repertory Society at playing Macbeth. For the Canberra Times critic it was “a wretched experience” involving, among other things, “gloomy darkness” and “far too much recitation.” The Australian’s critic found rather “a refreshing absence of elocution” and thought the atmosphere of guilt “brilliantly suggested by the sets, costumes, lighting and music.”

“We think we can hold the people of Canberra,” said John Pringle [managing editor of the Canberra Times] on Four Corners last weekend. Nobody knows yet whether he can, or whether Mr Murdoch’s huge gamble can come off. The one cautious bet I am inclined to make at the moment is that in Canberra the circulation of the SMH and the Age will fall. By the middle of August, the newsagents will know how solid a base in Canberra the Australian has achieved by its performance and by vigorous canvassing on its behalf. There is no evidence yet for predicting beyond that point, except for those who trust the stars. •

First published in the fortnightly national affairs magazine Nation on 25 July 1964