By Lawrence Gibbons
Twenty-three years ago this week the first edition of the City Hub appeared on Sydney’s streets pledging “to print the news and raise hell”. Today the City Hub remains the last independent inner city weekly newspaper. To mark the paper’s anniversary, the founder reflects on the importance a free press has played since Sydney’s earliest days and contemplates the impact its decline is having on Australian democracy.
The Australian civil rights struggle started in earnest on October 14, 1824. No blood was spilled and not a single shot was fired, so most history books do not mark the date.
Earlier that year William Charles Wentworth had returned home to Australia after studying law at Cambridge with a secret weapon: a printing press and a business partner. Wentworth’s travel companion was Robert Wardell, a fellow solicitor and an experienced newspaper editor. Together the two men audaciously launched Sydney’s first independent newspaper, the Australian, without permission from the crown.
On October 14 the first edition of the Australian was published, proclaiming, “A free press is the most legitimate, and, at the same time, the most powerful weapon that can be employed to annihilate influence, frustrate the designs of tyranny, and restrain the arm of oppression’.
Transported to our craggy shores aboard creaking wooden ships during the Age of Enlightenment, newspapers have served as a cornerstone of liberal democracy here in Australia. For less than 200 years Australia’s Fourth Estate has ensured that we live in a stable democracy. Newspapers are the watchdog of the rich and powerful. They inform the citizenry of the actions of their elected representatives, so they may be held accountable at the ballot box. Newspapers preserve our precious rights.
The 19th century values of free speech, accountability, and honesty in office are embedded in the very fibres of newsprint.
Less than two hundred years after Australia’s first independent newspaper was published, newspapers are threatened with extinction. Last month’s announcement that the Sydney Morning Herald will become a vulnerable subsidiary of Australia’s largest television network, Nine, is just the latest nail in the coffin of Sydney’s remaining independent, local free press.
Today many Australians are blissfully unaware of the role newspapers have played over the last two centuries in establishing the right to free speech and in ensuring that our government is accountable to us. During the 1820s Governor Ralph Darling, bristled at the criticism he received in the pages of Australia’s new press and set about silencing his critics. Darling charged both Wentworth and Wardell with seditious libel. The two trained solicitors successfully defended themselves. Within two years both men stood aside from their responsibilities at the Australian.
The editor of Sydney’s second independent newspaper the Monitor, was convicted and imprisoned for criticising Darling in 1828. For more than two years Edward Smith Hall continued to edit and publish the Monitor from Parramatta Gaol.
In 1829, Wentworth and Wardell’s successor at the Australian, Atwell Edwin Hayes, was also convicted of seditious libel and was jailed for six months. During the first six months of 1830, two of Sydney’s first independent newspapers were both edited from the same prison: and most Australians have never heard of Australia’s two freedom fighters: Hall and Hayes.
For much of the last two centuries, one newspaper has reported upon the news in Sydney. Established in 1831, the Sydney Herald delivered a conservative counterpoint to the radical titles of the day. Originally a Tory paper, the Herald was launched in opposition to Darling’s more liberal successor, Governor Richard Bourke.
The 1830s were a boom time in Sydney Town as well as across Australia. At the same time press restrictions were lifted, property ownership was liberalised and bank lending restrictions were eased: Sydney’s initial land grants were subdivided and sold off the plan; “Crown” lands (i.e. stolen Aboriginal lands) were sold to British immigrants. During the 1830s, the population of what is today New South Wales doubled. At the same time Melbourne and Adelaide were established and convicts made up less and less of the inbound traffic to Australia.
Right before Sydney’s first property bubble burst in 1841, John Fairfax and his short-lived business partner borrowed ten thousand pounds from British sources to purchase the Sydney Herald. It will come as no surprise to most Sydneysiders that Fairfax initially bought the Herald with offshore capital at the peak of the city’s first real estate boom. A year later the paper went daily, and its name was changed to the Sydney Morning Herald.
For 177 years Fairfax has published the Sydney Morning Herald. While the ownership of the company has changed, the paper’s commitment to providing independent news coverage has not waivered. The business that began by acquiring a small, conservative daily paper in a distant colonial outpost grew to become Australia’s oldest and most significant quality newspaper.
The merger of Fairfax and Nine follows changes to cross media ownership laws introduced last year by the Turnbull government. Later this year when government regulators ultimately rubber-stamp the deal and Nine takes control of Fairfax’s newspaper assets, local news coverage will be scaled back once again.
Over the last 16 years the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance estimates 2,500 news room jobs have been cut across Australia; Fairfax accounted for more than half of those losses. Further cutbacks in Fairfax’s costly local news departments will no doubt help deliver $50 million in promised savings.
Once they are officially combined, Australia’s two media companies will be worth $4.2 billion. While this may sound massive consider that this year the US tech giants Google and Facebook will generate more than $4 billion in ad revenues in Australia alone. Combined globally, Google and Facebook are worth more than $2 trillion Aussie dollars. In comparison Australia’s entire GDP is $1.7 trillion.
With more and more Australian ad revenue flowing offshore to America’s digital duopoly, less and less money is available to generate local news content here at home.
Equally as concerning is the way in which these digital platforms distribute content to consumers and citizens alike. A complex series of algorithms ensure that the news and information we receive online is consistent with our existing opinions, prejudices and beliefs. We see the world in a distorted hall of mirrors. We grow cynical and as we do we become less involved. Civil society faces an unprecedented crisis as the Fourth Estate is replaced by a new medium of fake news, emojis and digital distraction.
On August 21 1995, the first issue of the City Hub was published here in Sydney. In what now looks like the good old days, Australia was then already the most consolidated media market in the world. Three media moguls (Murdoch, Packer and Fairfax) owned every daily and suburban newspaper in the country.
At the end of this year once Fairfax has been swallowed, only two corporations, News and Nine will generate and control most of the nation’s remaining news content.
When the City Hub first appeared in 1995, the Courier newspapers had not yet been purchased by Rupert Murdoch and the Eastern Suburbs supported two other independent weekly newspapers the Messenger and the Spectator. The Village Voice was an independent community paper in the Inner West. Sydney supported no fewer than three local weekly street papers (Drum, On the Street and 3D) as well as two weekly gay newspapers (the Sydney Star Observer and Capital Q).
All these publications generated local news content, most of which has not been replaced as the papers folded. Today, the City Hub is Inner Sydney’s last remaining independent weekly newspaper.
When the paper was launched at the end of the last century, the City Hub took its mission statement from a 19th century newspaper publisher, Wilbur Storey. In 1861 the renegade owner of the Chicago Times said, “It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell”.
The City Hub maintains the seemingly radical idea that a local newspaper should fearlessly report on the news of day. Since its inception, the City Hub has made local news stories freely available. In a free society concerned citizens should not need to brave Murdoch’s paywall to find out what their local council is doing. Not only does the radical act of picking up a newspaper subvert Silicon Valley’s digital duopoly, it ensures there will be local news coverage, supports local small businesses and encourages emerging journalists.
The City Hub proudly upholds the values articulated by Robert Wardell in Australia’s first independent newspaper: a free press remains the most powerful weapon that can be employed to annihilate influence, frustrate the designs of tyranny, and restrain the arm of oppression.