Thursday, August 23, 2007

Nation Review: a study of an Australian alternative newspaper (1972-1981)

This essay examines the independent 1970s weekly Australian newspaper, the Nation Review. While almost unheard of today, the newspaper was an influential force in its day with an estimated readership of 150,000 and an important outlet for alternative mostly left-of-centre journalism. The essay will begin with a history of how the newspaper began and the social factors that influenced it. It will examine how it covered the Whitlam era and its controversial dismissal. The essay will also look at the Nation Review’s coverage of international affairs and its thorny relationship with Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It will then discuss its cartoonists and its reputation for investigation journalism and will conclude with an exploration of the newspaper’s eventual demise. It is the contention of this article that while broadly supportive of Whitlam’s agenda, the Nation Review kept a fierce independence that consistently gave it journalistic credibility during its decade of existence.

The Nation Review was an Australian newspaper which published weekly for almost ten years from 1972 to 1981. It was a merger between two newspapers with differing approaches to journalism. These were the Nation and the Sunday Review. The Nation began in 1958 as a serious and independent fortnightly magazine dedicated to fresh ideas and new voices. Schultz called the Nation “a major turning point in the development of contemporary Australian journalism”. The more irreverent Sunday Review began in October 1970 in an era of “sexual revolution and hippiedom". The merger newspaper first published on 29 July 1972. In Tom Fitzgerald’s final editorial for the Nation, he hailed its successor as heralding “the prospect of a new dimension in resources, energy and organisation for independent journalism in a setting where the qualities are desperately needed” (Nation 22 July 1972). Windschuttle described the new merged newspaper as very important to Australian journalism in the 1970s by allowing new talented writers and cartoonists to get started in the business. The Nation Review specialised in cynical political writing and thanks to the likes of Mungo MacCallum, John Hepworth and Bob Ellis, the newspaper was attracting a considerable reputation by 1972. Some of that reputation remained alive in June 2007 when The Sydney Morning Herald described the Nation Review as “a not insignificant weekly newspaper”.

The hybrid Nation Review was born of new ideas and excitement of the late 1960s. Australian culture was beginning to emerge from what Martin Hirst called a “Menzian time warp” with imperial influences shifting to the US. But the mainstream press were distressed to find themselves in the baffling upheaval of the political and social changes revolving around the Vietnam War, women’s revolt and the siege of authority. One man who did sense a mood for change was wealthy and eccentric businessman Gordon Barton who launched the Sunday Review as an anti-establishment paper in October 1970. Hirst mistakenly identified this newspaper as the Nation Review in his article (it did not start until two years later) but it is fair to say that the Nation Review inherited many of its characteristics from Barton’s earlier publication.

One of those characteristics the Sunday Review passed on was its propensity towards new journalism. New journalism began to emerge at the end of the 1960s under the influence of such writers as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Wolfe himself defined new journalism as novelistic non-fiction. The Nation Review had plenty of talent capable of writing this way. Bob Ellis could turn a court judgement into a novella as he described “Justice Collins presiding, a goggled pink faced enigma with a mouth like a letterbox” (Nation Review, 28 October 1972). Another of new journalism’s hallmarks is that its point of view is both obvious and subjective. The Nation Review often wore its heart on its subjective sleeve. In Richard Beckett’s review of 1973, he opined how Australia “showed as little inclination as ever to control its own destiny” (29 December 1973). He also complained that the 1973 oil crisis “hasn’t forced people to re-evaluate basic necessities because yesterday’s unthinkables are today’s needs” (29 December 1973).

If the newspaper was born out of the ideas of the 1960s, it was the Whitlam era that defined it. According to Curran, the Whitlam era was of crucial significance in understanding Australia’s changing attitude to nationalism. The Nation Review had a mostly positive view of Labor’s first Prime Minister in 23 years but could also be critical. On the first anniversary of Labor’s election win McCallum wrote “Whitlam could perhaps end up being the man of destiny and achievement which he appears to believe he already is” (7 December 1973). Under Whitlam, Australia gradually shed its idea of being a homogenous British nation and began to positively identify with the country’s ethnic diversity. The Nation Review was at the forefront of these changing priorities. According to former editor Richard Walsh, its aim was to take part in the creation of a “more stimulating, more sophisticated and more passionate Australia”.

A central theme in this new Australia was the growing prominence of indigenous issues. In his 1972 policy speech, Whitlam connected the treatment of Aboriginals directly to the national image and the theme of national self-respect. The Nation Review wrote many articles about Aboriginal conditions and was determined to hold Whitlam to his promises. In 1974 the newspaper regularly complained of inaction saying “the old policies towards blacks at home are still alive and kicking” (18 February 1974) and “there is no doubt the average native child spends a lot of time in prison (24 May 1974). The Nation Review was there to remind its readers that Whitlam’s feel-good message left much to be desired at the coalface.

Nonetheless they did not wish his government’s demise. There are few more passionate political talking points than the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government and the Nation Review covered it in partisan detail. When Whitlam opened his campaign for the double dissolution election, his theme was the end of parliamentary democracy as we know it. The Nation Review agreed. In A.R. Blackshield’s article “How John Kerr exceeded his powers”, he wrote “[Kerr] shattered constitutional monarchy into fragments that might never stick again” (Nation Review, 14 November 1975). As the election approached, the Nation Review maintained the rage – laced with its biting satire. MacCallum had taken to calling the Fraser administration as the “kerrtaker” government (12 December 1975).

The Nation Review was not afraid to apportion blame to the media, particularly to Rupert Murdoch. Although Murdoch had helped elect Whitlam in 1972, he was capable of being critical to the Labor regime. In the “dismissal” edition, Mungo MacCallum’s article “Lady Kerr’s Weekend Indiscretion” linked Rupert Murdoch to the Whitlam sacking discussing “Murdoch’s conversation with Fraser that Kerr had told him to hold out” (14 November 1975). A week later they went further. George Munster named Murdoch as “the third man in the coup” and his papers “played a major part in the campaign to get rid of Whitlam…with 11 pro-Fraser front page leads to 2 pro-Whitlam” (21 November 1975). This was not merely Nation Review paranoia; its concerns were shared by the former Labor Government. Earlier that year deputy Prime Minister Jim Cairns admitted he did not think it was possible to win office if opposed by the media.

But the Nation Review was no mere mouthpiece for Labor. When Indonesia invaded Portuguese East Timor in 1975 in violation of international law, it received subtle encouragement to claim sovereignty from Australian Prime Ministers on both sides of politics. The Nation Review remained a voice for an independent Timor. In a prescient interview with East Timorese Fretelin leader Jose Ramos Horta in Darwin, Bill Green noted that “Indonesia plans to annex the territory” (12 December 1975). He quoted Ramos Horta as saying “the Australian government has blood on its hands…we cannot count on support from Australia” (12 December 1975). While Fraser’s caretaker government was in power at the time of the interview (and caretaker foreign minister Andrew Peacock had refused to meet with Ramos Horta), this was also a barb at the recently dismissed Labor government. In 1974 Whitlam had rejected Portuguese requests to establish an Australian consulate in Dili and he also gave Suharto a “green light” to occupy East Timor.

Back home, the Nation Review was a fierce opponent of autocratic long-term Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Bjelke-Petersen was the personal embodiment about all that was different about Queensland in the 1970s. Sir Joh described dealing with the press as “feeding his chooks" but the Nation Review was just as disparaging about him. Reporting in 1978 after a banned Brisbane street demonstration, the newspaper said of him “Petersen talks of legal marches in the same way as Hitler announced he had no further territorial claims” (3 November 1978). In the same edition Paul Lemuel wrote “by now every visitor to the deep north expects Queensland to provide a third rate imitation of Alabama without (as yet) the lynchings”.

As well as its fine stable of writers, the Nation Review was also known for encouraging young and talented cartoonists such as Michael Leunig, Patrick Cook and Peter Nicholson. Leunig was the creator of the newspaper’s symbol (while it was still the Sunday Review), a lean and nosy dog that editor Richard Walsh mistook for a ferret. Because the cartoonists had free rein, they sometimes ruffled official feathers. In September 1973 the newspaper reported it was fined $150 and held to be an indecent publication in Victoria due to two cartoons of penises by Patrick Cook and Laszlo Toth (Nation Review, 28 September 1973). The cartoons were printed a year earlier in what was then the Sunday Review. The 1973 edition helpfully reprinted the cartoons and noted acidly that “the prosecution was not initiated by a member of the public but by the Chief Secretary’s office”.

According to Ricketson, weekly newspapers such Nation Review and The National Times ran literary journalism as did the magazines Australian Society and Independent Monthly. However none of these publications had the money to support the research time literary journalists needed or the know-how to train journalists in the form. Ricketson defined literary journalism to have the following elements: documentable subject matter, exhaustive research, novelistic techniques, freedom of voice, literary prose style and underlying meaning. It is arguable that Nation Review did succeed in having many of these elements in its stories. Tanner argues that the newspaper “championed” investigative journalism along with The National Times and Times on Sunday.

However what all these newspapers and magazines mentioned by Ricketson and Tanner have in common is that they are now defunct. Some post-mortems attempted to blame the demise of Nation Review on changing political tastes after the torrid political events of 1975. Keith Windschuttle offers an alternative reason for its demise. He claims that in the mid-1970s the paper was badly edited and lost touch with its audience. Most likely it was the dissipation of political activity towards the end of the 1970s that killed it off. In August 1979 it admitted “we may be moribund…but we are not dead” (16 August 1979) and apologised for the non-arrival of the 12 June and 9 August editions. The newspaper dragged on for two more years publishing as a monthly near the end. By the time it folded in 1981 most of the Australian counter-culture publications of the 1960s and 1970s had died with it.

But while it lived, the Nation Review covered a lot of ground. It was a prestigious newspaper with many excellent writers and cartoonists. It gave wide coverage and a new fresh voice to the political issues of the day. While it was a left of centre publication, it was never a Labor stooge. The newspaper more than lived up to Walsh’s claim of helping to create a stimulating, sophisticated and passionate Australia during its ten eventful years.


Ann O'Dyne said...

Because the cartoonists had free reign, "

and they had a free rein during their reign too.

I loved the Nation Review - who can forget the long-running discourse on the source of Chicken Marengo, as reviewed by Sam Orr ?

it's distribution was spotty in the early days ana one had to seek it out.

and I am shocked to discover that the lean and nosy like a ferret was in fact a dog.

nebuchadnezzar said...


oops good pick up on the 'free reign' obviously was in my imperial mind set when I wrote it!

Actually I didnt live in Australia during its years of publication so have no first hand memories of it, or the Chicken Marengo.

But it looks like a very sad loss to our denuded media scene.

The dog /ferret story is indeed true (according to ex-editor Richard Walsh)

Hope you enjoyed the article despite the typos!

fridgemagnettt said...

"...wealthy and eccentric businessman George Barton "

It's not the end of the world, but he was Gordon, not George.

shula said...

Man, this takes me back.

My Dad used to write for this paper.

Derek Barry said...

Fridgemagnettt - thanks for pointing out my error on Barton's name. Have fixed this.

Shula - what was your Dad's name?

Beverley said...

By the time it had folded in 1981..."

most of its cartoonists were working in the mainstream media, or were about to... with Michael Leunig and Peter Nicholson working alongside Petty and others at the Melbourne Age.

The young and talented cartoonists encouraged by the Nation Review also included Mary Leunig.

Thanks for creating a blog about the Nation Review!

Anonymous said...

Grew up on Nation Review, had the ferret sticker on my schoolbag: great cartoons, Mungo, Hepworth, all at their peak. Sam Orr a must-read. He published a book later: "Roll on, Brave New (bloody) World". Captured the zeitgeist perfectly years before all these foam-eating foodies. You might find it in a second hand store these days.

Sigh. It was all so clear who the goodies and the baddies were in them days...

Beverley said...

It was the fourtieth birthday of the Nation Review on Sunday (29 July 2012). Perhaps one day there'll be a tele-series...