Melbourne then and now – Australia’s media capital

By Nicholas Reece, Deputy Lord Mayor of Melbourne.

From its earliest days, Melbourne has been blessed with a vibrant, at times rancorous, and always independent press.

By 1846, just over 10 years after European arrival, Melbourne was already home to The Argus, The Port Phillip Herald, The Port Phillip Patriot, The Melbourne Advertiser and The Port Phillip Gazette to name just a few.

That such a collection of newspapers, periodicals, and journals sprung up so quickly reflected the spirit of the times.  Melbourne was founded on private enterprise, not as a penal colony like Sydney.  And unlike New South Wales, the Victorian media was free and independent.  The media became the glue that bound together the optimism, idealism and disparate dreams of a rapidly growing population of free settlers seeking a new life in the antipodes.

Just like today, there was plenty of competition between media outlets, and the proverbial “war of words” between prominent journalists was not uncommon.  The leading journalist of the era was the legendary Herald scribe Edmund Finn, best known by his nom de plume “Garyowen”.  Garyowen would regularly sledge John Pascoe Fawkner, a “founding-father” of Melbourne and publisher of The Advertiser.  He once described Fawkner’s paper as a “poor, meagre, miserable-looking sheet” and criticized Fawkner’s writing style for its “desire to capitalize immoderately …  as for colons, semi-colons and such trifles he would not condescend to notice them.” 

Fast forward 180 years, and we can be sure Garyowen and Fawkner would be mightily impressed by the scale of modern Melbourne and the contemporary media landscape.  The early establishment of a thriving independent media landscape can still be seen to this day.  The Port Phillip Herald of 1840 has a direct lineage to the Herald Sun of 2023 .  More broadly, the early media pioneers fostered a high level of community interest in news that continues to this day with news audiences in Melbourne significantly higher than other capital cities.   Secondly, Melbourne continues to support a very strong line up of news outlets across newspapers, radio, TV and online.

One thing the early pioneers of the Melbourne press agreed on whole-heartedly was the need for “SEPARATION” from New South Wales.  When it became known in 1848 that Superintendent Charles Latrobe thought the colonists of Port Phillip were not ready for the privilege of self-governing, the press and City Council turned on him savagely.  They even petitioned Queen Victoria to remove Latrobe due to a loss of confidence amongst the people.

Were they alive today, we can also be confident they would fight tooth and nail against the loss of any media activity from Melbourne to Sydney, or anywhere.  Indeed, Garyowen and Fawkner would be turning in their graves over some of the recent shifts in Melbourne media.

Top of the list is the ABC with its decision to move the much-loved Insiders program to Canberra after 21 years of production in Melbourne.    Many of the ABC Radio Melbourne weekend bulletins have also moved to a national format, with Melburnians receiving their afternoon weekend radio news from interstate. 

Now the axe is hanging over the Sunday TV news bulletin in Melbourne, with the ABC announcing plans to move to a national bulletin on this night. 

For decades, Sunday has been the highest rating night of the week for TV news, including for the ABC.   So, why would you choose Sunday of all nights to move away from a local broadcast?  The Sunday night ABC bulletin in Melbourne also regularly attracts significantly more viewers than the Sydney edition. In fact, news audiences across the week and across the board are higher in Melbourne than Sydney, demonstrating that Melbourne audiences are not only loyal, they are more engaged with their local news than anywhere else in the country.  In the unfortunate event that the ABC proceeds with a national weekend TV news bulletin then the location for that broadcast is clear, it must be Melbourne. 

With Channel 10 having moved its weekend news bulletins to a national broadcast from Sydney some years ago, a move by the ABC to Sydney will mean only Channels 7 and 9 will have Sunday bulletins broadcast out of Melbourne.  A further worrying development is the move to national content for online newspaper sites such as The Age and Herald Sun.  It seems that as newsrooms are thinned out more and more of the specialist sections in the online editions are being edited out of Sydney.  This means our online news is becoming alarmingly Sydney-centric, whether it’s covering culture, business, food, lifestyle, entertainment, or sport.  Last week I found myself scrolling through the popular Drive section in The Age only to find a story on “Sydney’s Most Congested Suburbs”.  A quick search across local online news websites  brought up articles about a “Sydney Cheese Festival”, “A new park in Barangaroo”, and “future plans for Goat Island in Sydney Harbour.” 

The move of news coverage away from Melbourne goes against the natural flow of things.  After all, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has recently crowned Melbourne as Australia’s largest city, it is also the fastest growing capital city. 

It is time for a rebalancing of news coverage to reflect Melbourne’s status as Australia’s biggest metropolis: more national news should be coming out of Melbourne, not less.  That should begin with ABC Sunday night news being broadcast out of Melbourne, and not the Sydney studios of Ultimo or Parramatta. 

On a positive note, a number of exciting new media publications have sprung up in Melbourne in recent years such as Crikey, The Conversation, The New Daily, and The Saturday Paper / The Monthly.

Community media in Melbourne also remains the strongest in Australia with institutions such as RRR, PBS, JOY Media, Channel 31 and The Big Issue all doing great work.

Melbourne is also well served by two daily newspapers, The Herald Sun and The Age, and two talk radio stations ABC Radio Melbourne and 3AW which often tops the radio ratings.   These media outlets feature extensive local news coverage and talkback – long may it continue! 

And yet, we must remain ever vigilant against the drift of news coverage from Melbourne and continue to foster new and existing media to tell our stories. 

Where would we be if Garryowen and Fawkner had not chronicled the characters, the crimes, the politics, and the pomposities of Melburnians 180 years ago?   The Argus said in 1944 that “more details are known about the beginnings of Melbourne than most large cities, ancient or modern, because of one man: Garyowen … He had the ability to poke fun at local tall poppies, showing the holes in their socks and their feet of clay, while candidly capturing the essence of early Melbourne.”

Good or bad, for better or worse, we must put every effort into telling the tales of our city. Melbourne stories, Victorian stories.  As it was in the 1840’s, so it must be today! 

This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the opening of Garyowen’s Melbourne an exhibition at the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.

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