Robert Pullan - Freedom Lost - Friday 13th March

Freedom Lost: A history of newspapers, journalism and press censorship

In conversation with Quentin Dempster

Since 1803, Australia’s newspapers have had a part in curating and distributing our nation’s stories second only to conversation. Yet anxiety over what exactly those stories should be and how much to tell has been a constant irritant to editors, proprietors, journalists, readers, politicians and lawyers alike.

The first Australian newspaper editor, a West-Indian Creole called ‘Happy George’, set the tone for this battle for freedom of the press when his paper was secretly censored by the Colonial Secretary. Back then the Australian settler population was about 7,000, frontier Sydney was a jail and they did things differently. When you stole your neighbour’s heifer you were publicly hanged from a branch of the nearest gum-tree. By 1923, the peak of newspaper influence in Australia, 21 proprietors owned 26 capital-city daily newspapers in a population of only 5.7 million. Print monopolised communication.

In today’s digital age, with 25 million Australians living in one of the world’s most stable democracies, newspapers are no longer tied to the tyranny of hot metal, and reach out via fibre, copper and air past their paper origins into the 24-hour news cycle. Yet anxiety over censorship remains.

In this epic collection of essays, Robert Pullan, a life-long journalist, tells the lives of the poets, preachers, drunks, gunmen and genius-editors who shaped Australian press history and battled the censorship ogre. The stories are quintessentially Australian and told with an evocative voice that brings history to life and challenges the assumption that it is only now in our history that we must battle for freedom of communication. As he asks — why is it that the most eloquent judicial defence of the press was made nearly two centuries ago in 1827?

The tension between love and fear that censors human communication appears historically tenacious, world-wide and self-harming. In the minds of a resentful minority of readers, newspapers themselves are a crime, violating standards of grammar, taste and privacy and shouting when a whisper is appropriate. But since written words have made science, history, law and religion possible, it seems profoundly paradoxical for humanity to invent and enforce censorship and sanctify ignorance. The argument for suppression is the argument for ignorance.

This book reveals through its telling of personal stories from over two centuries of Australian history that the most effective censorship, self-censorship, is already practiced in newsrooms across the country in capital city dailies and regional and suburban newspapers. Perhaps then, it is in the stories of the past, that we can discern where best to head now.


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Date and time: Friday 13th March, 6pm for 6.30pm

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