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The Fleeting Years: SMH 170th Anniversary Editorial

This is an editorial that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 170th anniversary of the newspaper’s founding.

It provides a defence of the work of the press in Australian society.

Sydney Morning HeraldIn an age of impermanence it is something to endure. But as The Sydney Morning Herald marks its 170th anniversary today, it is not to celebrate mere longevity, not just to look back. Rather, it is an occasion to reflect on the essence of the newspaper, the qualities that have enabled it to grow as an institution and to serve the community, the State and the nation for so long.

A newspaper, like a living organism, develops constantly in lively response to the changing social, political and commercial environment. Yet it cannot survive if it abandons its fundamental beliefs and values. The Herald changes but has been constant in its insistence from the beginning that it will be “independent in thought and speech”.

In the first issue, on Monday, April 18, 1831, The Sydney Herald, as it was originally called, asserted: “Our editorial management shall be conducted upon principles of candour, honesty and honour. Respect and deference shall be paid to all classes. Freedom of thinking and speaking shall be conceded, and demanded. We have no wish to mislead; no interests to gratify by unsparing abuse, or indiscriminate approbation. We shall regret opposition, when we could wish to concur, and bestow the meed of praise. We shall dissent with respect, and reason with a desire not to gain a point but to establish a principle.” The language of the early 19th century might now seem quaint. But the liberal principles on which this newspaper was founded are plain enough.

From its early beginning as a tiny weekly, entering the lists against three established competitors, the Herald quickly grew and prospered. In 1841, two years after his arrival in the colony, John Fairfax (1805-1877) bought a half-share in what by then had become the colony’s only daily newspaper and so laid the foundations for a remarkable newspaper dynasty. It lasted five generations until the quixotic move by 26-year-old Warwick Fairfax, a great-great-grandson of the founder, to buy out, on largely borrowed money, all other interests ended in the ignominy of receivership in 1990.

The early Herald’s competitors fell by the wayside. In their place other competitors have arisen, not only other newspapers but also new forces in radio and television. Now there are sources of information in cyberspace. Sometimes the Herald has sought to meet competition by joining it, as in earlier days when Fairfax owned dominant television and radio interests. Today a variation on this theme is being played out on the Internet. Fairfax will continue to explore new frontiers. In this it will rely, as ever, on the strengths of its core enterprise, the Herald. Those strengths are directed to the essential purpose of reflecting – in the words of a former editor, John Douglas Pringle – “the movement of ideas, which gives democracy its strength”.

The means of transmitting and presenting the news continue to diversify. But the way news is gathered, digested and presented, if it is to continue to enjoy the trust of the public, will follow well-established principles. These principles are meant to ensure, as far as possible, accuracy and objectivity in the presentation of news and fairness in the expression of opinion, including the accommodation of a variety of views and argument in letters to the editor, reviews and special articles.

The Herald insists, as Mr Pringle wrote in 1955, on “that absolute freedom without which no newspaper can do its work properly”. And, of course, freedom is indivisible. “The freedom of the press is in no way different from the freedom of the individual. It derives from the same principles; it is limited by the same laws. If it is ever lost, the individual will have lost freedom also.”

These words apply with equal if not greater force today. To reassert this freedom is not to claim infallibility in judgment or perfect discretion in all matters. The Herald has never done that. Indeed, its first leading article, quoted above, includes the observation: “Editors, it must be acknowledged, are not, in all cases, guided by motives that will bear scrutiny.” In its robust 1830s context this more probably was intended by the first editor of the Herald as a swipe at his rivals than as an admission on his part. Be that as it may, the assertion of freedom is not made less valid by exceptional abuses of it. Freedom, however, does imply responsibility, and it is that ideal today which is shaping the Herald’s new ethics policy as the strictest in the land.

Many times, what is raised in objection to the Herald is no more than a difference of opinion, and in a free society differences in opinion are as natural as breathing. This is a conservative newspaper, in the best sense: it is conservative in its concern to maintain and protect the foundations of a free society, the principles of integrity, fairness and decency.

In the rush of daily deadlines it strives for perfection, a worthy if impossible aim. In assessing a multitude of issues, it seeks with each one to reach a carefully reasoned viewpoint, consistent with the newspaper’s basic principles, which it then argues strongly in its leaders. This does not mean the position is always correct or immutable. The information a newspaper deals with comes as a constant swirling blizzard, blowing ever more strongly with every advance in communications technology. The direction and strength of all elements in this blizzard are not always clear.

The Herald never claims to be right at all times in all things. Instead, it is committed to providing information to its readers and in putting to them a range of opinions, including its own, not to shout anyone down, but to help “the movement of ideas, which gives democracy its strength”.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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