Andy McCourt: Australia’s 200 years of press freedom

Mar 21, 2024 at 10:33 am by admin

The year 2024 is a bicentennial of another kind. In 1824 – 36 years after the British colonisation of what was to become known as Australia – a challenger emerged to the tightly-controlled and censored media of the NSW colony, based in Sydney. And it was steered by none other than William Charles Wentworth… with a bit of help from a printer.

Up until 1824, the main media of the fast-growing colony on New South Wales was the government-controlled Sydney Gazette, printed from 1803 by George Howe. It was heavily edited and censored by succesive governers – King, Darling, Bligh, Brisbane and so on.

However, the seeds of a free press in Australia were sown in Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land, as it was known.

In June 1824, the government printer there, Andrew Bent printed and distributed an edition of the Hobart Town Gazette without the government censor’s approval. This was the first uncensored newspaper to be published in Australia.

Bent was in constant conflict with the Tasmanian governors, particularly George Arthur, and he was frequently sued for libel and even imprisoned until he got fed up and relocated to NSW.

But for Sydney, it was the September arrival – or in the case of Wentworth re-arrival as he was born the son of a transported lady, Sarah Cox and alleged (but aquitted) ‘highway robber’ D’Arcy Wentworth, on a ship near Norfolk Island – of William Wentworth and London publisher/barrister Robert Wardell that preluded the first truly free press in Australia.

The partners brought with them an iron press (possibly a Stanhope) and type, with a firm intention of establishing a free press in the colony, which they did one month later. They named it The Australian – many years before the News Limited publication with the same title, published from 1964, although undoubtedly inspired by the original.

The Australian was started without requesting permission from the governor, then Sir Thomas Brisbane who, unlike Arthur in Tasmania, welcomed the notion of free media and even removed censorship from the government-controlled Sydney Gazette so it could compete freely with The Australian.

In a letter to Earl Bathurst, Brisbane wrote of Wentworth and Wardell:

“These gentleman never solicited my permission to publish their Paper and, as the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown coincided with my own that there existed no power to interpose to prevent it without going to Council, I considered it most expedient to try the experiment of the full latitude of the freedom of the Press, and, to enable Your Lordship (Bathurst) to judge how far this Newspaper is conducted with moderation, I have ordered a copy to be regularly transmitted to you.”

Thus began Australia's proud and inviolable romance with freedom of the press/media. There have been many attacks upon it.

After Govnr Brisbane's tenure expired and he was replaced by Darling, there began a fierce battle between the ‘fourth estate’ and the traditional estates of the realm. Darling wanted a return to strict censorship but Wentworth and Wardell were having none of that. Newspaper taxes and libel suits followed, but nothing would dissuade the pair from both press freedom and their vision for a new, vibrant country unshackled from the apron strings of colonial rule and vested interests.

However in later years, Wentworth – as in his rambling overlong verses of ‘Australasia’ – saw this place as “a new Britannia in another world”. It took Henry Parkes to finesse the true meaning of a free country with free media (for he too was a newspaper publisher), and a constitution to fit. That's another story.

Wentworth went on to explore the western plains by crossing the Blue Mountains with Blaxland. He was also instrumental in legislating for the foundation of Australia’s first university – Sydney.

We can confidently claim 200 years of media freedom in Australia, and a vigorous practice of it that has spread around the world. Sometimes imperfect, sometimes downright ugly, but always with freedom of expression at its core.

It was George Orwell who said: “True journalism is printing what someone else does not want published: everything else is public relations.”

Sometimes it’s like Sisyphus rolling a massive boulder uphill for eternity but hey, we all have our burdens!

Pictured: William Wentworth, co-founder of Australian press freedom; (top) Australia's first free media, The Australian of 1824, its 200th anniversary this year

With thanks to publisher and writer Andy McCourt, in whose Wide Format Online, this article first appeared.


Sections: Columns & opinion


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