March 31st 2007


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Red Star over East Timor

EDITORIAL: Melbourne Cup field in Timor's Presidential election

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Time running out for John Howard?

FINANCE: Concerns over US company behind Qantas takeover

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Australia's foreign debt - myth and reality

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Brian Burke's shadow government

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Why must the show go on? / Another wake for absent friends / Reluctance to condemn Mugabe / Musical chairs / More heat than light

INTELLIGENCE CORNER

DRUG POLICY: Sweden's success in combating drug use

UNITED NATIONS: Dilemma for pro-abortion feminists

OPINION: The narcotic of narcissism

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Mothers in the military

CINEMA: Where Hollywood fears to tread - Mel Gibson's 'Apocalypto'

THE ARGUS: Life & Death of a Newspaper

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THE ARGUS:
Life & Death of a Newspaper


by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, March 31, 2007
Quixotic enterprise

THE ARGUS: Life & Death of a Newspaper
edited by Jim Usher
(Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing)
192 pages. Rec. price: $39.95

Reviewed by Max Teichmann

This is a book produced to recall the closing-down of The [Melbourne] Argus, a morning paper of considerable reputation which had been operating since 1846. Our book is some kind of testimony to the loyalty which The Argus received from its workers, such that a group of survivors have come together, and written reminiscences and biographical material, on their own behalf, 50 years on.

Four ex-Argus journos met for a number of years, canvassed old writers known to them; and persuaded them to contribute stories, anecdotes, observations, drawn from the time they were working at The Argus. This piece of Australian history - social, political, cultural - is the result, having been put together on a shoestring, and by volunteers, and finally presented to Nick Walker, of Australian Scholarly Publishing, to complete.

The final outcome is a fascinating, disorderly potpourri - insights into the minds and lives of some Melbourne journos, printers, and other newspaper workers (and The Argus was employing 1,000 people when it closed); snapshots of how Melbourne newspapers operated and competed with one another; and, at arm's length, samples of the events going on in the outside world, which The Argus, etc., had set out to cover.

There is good news and bad news here. Perhaps the bad news first. There is no index; and, in a book replete with proper names, I found this a serious disadvantage. I know that there is an extensive Table of Contents at the beginning - very helpful - and an exhaustive list of the people appearing in this miscellany. But I still felt the need for an index. I understand that nowadays, constructing one is not a very complicated or expensive enterprise.

Secondly, almost of necessity, most of the contributors worked in the 1950s, for before that, you are needing contributors now in their 80s - such as Peter Golding, who is 83. So the long history of The Argus, why it attained its great influence and international reputation in the first place, is not told. In fact, the last seven years of The Argus's life were somewhat idiosyncratic.

Thirdly, there is a good deal of overlap, with contributors covering ground very similar to that traversed by other contributors. But really, the aim was to make it possible for ex-journalists on The Argus to tell their tales, and say how it all appeared to them.

One picks up the nostalgia, the withdrawal symptoms (still active today), and the signs of anger - or just deep puzzlement - at the nature of the trauma whereby overnight, in 1957, everything stopped, and the plant, machinery, anything which could have been the basis for a new paper, in situ, was broken up and dispersed. The Argus, as known to its contributors, simply ceased to exist - by order, from England, and in total secrecy.

Ironically, the takeover of The Argus by the powerful Mirror Group, of Fleet Street, led to hopes of a renaissance for The Argus. Fresh capital, new ideas, and new strategies from London. But instead, the new arrivals from England finished up destroying their new possession.

*   *   *

The overall flavour of a great many of these reminiscences is very blokey, almost macho. There were few women on the paper, and those women were often pointed in the general direction of women's business. If you can believe the fellows, it was a world where many seemed to swim in alcohol, to keep totally irregular lives, and to be endlessly showing off to one another like arrested adolescents.

There is one typical account of the editorial staff, having put next day's paper to bed, assembling, each with his own beer-mug, to analyse the paper just sent off. This analysis could last till six in the morning. Ridiculous. What happened to family life, seeing that these journos would have to start at two or three on the same day? I think we know the answer, and what happened to the health of so many of them.

Whether this fanatical bonding pushed out normal social and family relations, or whether it was chosen, and preferred, as a virtual substitute for those relations, is not for me to say. But it reminds me of the people who go in for professional politics. Which is, perhaps, why the two professions, supposedly separate, even opposed in many cases, get on together very well.

There would've been an aura of conservative gentility about The Argus, but the basic fare was not all that different from two of Melbourne's other papers, The Sun and The Herald. Crime and the police rounds, sport, accidents and disasters, society happenings: these were very important. The old Argus links with the conservative parties, especially with the United Australia Party, were strong. Political reporting was of a high standard, and benefited from tips from government members. The conservatives seemed to be virtually always in office.

Beat-ups and fabrications

The country, and the regions, were much more important than they are now. And The Argus ran an extensive network of stringers, and occasional correspondents, who were so intent on getting their name to a bye-line that beat-ups were frequent, and fabrications not unknown.

In fact, the competition among Melbourne's papers was fierce - with The Argus playing David to the Herald and Weekly Times' Goliath. Each Murdoch paper had a daily circulation of 400,000 - as against 170,000 for The Argus - so Argus people aimed at being first; and endless scheming went into the design of the "scoop".

Among the many contributions to this book, I found Peter Golding's long article, a piece by Jeanette Conway, and Bob Murray's short, totally factual pieces the most interesting. Bob has been through the financial records of The Argus, and, even though many are missing, he concludes that, like its young sister The Star (an evening paper competing with The Herald), The Argus ran out of money. It spent too much, and earned insufficient revenue to make a reasonable profit, while sustaining a large burden of debt. It is almost as if the death of The Argus was inevitable, though it was brought forward by the blunders of the new British owners.

Bob Murray lists some extraordinary - and perhaps unnecessary - factors which combined to doom The Argus. First, the investment in the machinery for colour printing, which was a world first, indeed not introduced by many papers for another 30 years. Hence, it was a PR triumph. But it was a financial disaster. Debt was blown out, to try to pay for it.

Second, The Mirror Group's political orientation was Labour, if not Left-Labour, while much of The Argus's readership and most of the financial supporters were conservative. So large numbers of Argus readers moved. The Argus did manage to replace them. However, they couldn't replace the advertisers and wealthy supporters who wouldn't accept the change.

The Argus then found itself being called "The Red Argus", for Standish Michael Keon and Frank Scully, both Labor MPs, spoke of there being 22 communists on The Argus's staff, and of the newspaper being the willing instrument whereby Frank Hardy produced, in book form, Power Without Glory.

Well ... there were nothing like 22 communists on the staff, but Power Without Glory was turned into a book with the help of sympathisers from inside the paper. The board and management didn't know what was happening until too late. So in a darkening Cold War atmosphere, The Argus was simply asking for trouble.

Portraits of leading Mirror Group people who came here to run The Argus, and who failed - then sold it off in the night - are provided. These chaps, H. G. Bartholomew, Sydney Elliott, Cecil King, Hugh Cudlipp etc., sound not nearly as clever as they believed themselves to be. They didn't understand the market, and the underlying Australian society. They didn't understand their staff. Too many decisions were taken on the run. Too little information, and too much hubris.

The Brits tried to make The Argus like The Daily Mirror: lots of girlie pictures, many on the front page, etc., etc. Traditional Argus customers didn't like this stuff. And so, London decided to close the paper down, and to destroy everything. (Including many files.)

It has become a legend that Keith Murdoch, as a price for buying out the building, etc., demanded that the rest be destroyed. In fact, he wanted the paper to go on, and was tempted to buy it, but thought better of it; while Frank Packer flew in from Sydney to make an offer, only to be told that the deed had been done. Anyway, as a final punishment, the Mirror Group was to acquire Robert Maxwell as its leader.

While all this raged above, The Argus journos kept writing well, and introducing innovations all the time. Argus journalists, starting with their cadets, were very well trained - superior in many ways to their rivals - and when the crash came, they were able to survive and move on. Quite a few helped build up the infant public relations industry into a power in the land.

There are masses of press photographs included here. All quite evocative. So, in the end, this whole quixotic enterprise has been worthwhile.


























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