Influential voice of Victoria’s golden age
David Syme: Man of The Age By Elizabeth Morrison Monash University Publishing and the State Libary of Victoria, 434pp, $39.95 THIS is a biography of that often maligned species, a newspaper proprietor or “press baron”. It is also the story of a self-made colonial businessman of the gold rush generation. Through both lenses it tells us much about Victorian age Australia, especially Melbourne and the evolution of its newspapers.
David Syme was the principal figure of The Age newspaper, first senior partner, then sole proprietor. He has been the subject of three earlier biographies, all of which have a focus on his role as purported kingmaker and backroom politician.
In Man of the Age, Elizabeth Morrison, a historian of 19th-century Australian print culture, expresses doubt about whether Syme’s direct political influence was as great as some have suggested. She instead emphasises his role as a newspaper chief executive.
He bought new printing plant to cope with rapid growth in circulation and in the 1890s introduced photographs in a daily newspaper and linotype machines to set copy for printing, which ended the day of hand compositors setting up material letter by letter. He arranged improved cable news services once telegraphic communications with the rest of the world began in 1872.
The Age began publication in 1854. Syme’s less worldly brother Ebenezer became an owner in 1856, with David following in 1860. This was the day of the numerous but financially flimsy
September 6-7, 2014 colonial press, more like country newspapers with circulations of a few thousand and little Dickensian printeries. Most did not survive. Under mainly David Syme’s management, The Age did, to reach a circulation of more than 100,000 by the early 1890s. One of his skills was pricing. The Age originally cost sixpence a copy. Syme gradually cut the price to a penny, at first reducing the size of the paper also but later increasing it again as the lower price brought more buyers.
After 20 years of financial struggle Syme was a very wealthy man and the paper financially strong enough to survive the 1890s crash after
The Age halcyon years in the 1880s. He invested soundly in property, avoiding the land boom bubble. Like a lot of other wealthy men, he bought farms and was a keen cattle breeder but also a fan of irrigation.
Syme had many other characteristics of a good businessman. He was single-minded, controlling, ready to work long hours, autocratic and reserved, proudly honest and paternal towards his staff, but prepared to go to the edge in a tough spot, shrewd in judgment but not always so, a mix of the systematic and chaotic in his working life. As the business prospered, he became more sociable and moderately active in public organisations.
He kept his eye on the product, and there was a touch of the visionary in his flair for seeing how it could be improved, in content as well as technically. He was a “quintessentially typical and an exceptionally singular man of Victoria’s golden age”, Morrison writes, “a gold rush immigrant imbued with the ethos of progress and development ... A controlling and caring family man, he exemplifies par excellence the paterfamilias of Queen Victoria’s era.’’
A self-taught intellectual, Syme “pursued and pondered on the faith and doubt issues of the age” and (in books he wrote) “for meaning beyond the here and now”.
This was the era of “liberal” versus “conservative” in colonial politics, a division inherited from Britain but evolving differently in the various colonies. Under Syme The Age became the great, aggressive liberal paper. Many of the causes it aggressively embraced have stood the test of time. The liberal causes in Victoria were “unlocking the land” for farm selection from the big leasehold grazing stations; and protective duties to foster manufacturing and more marginal farm products. Liberals also wanted “free and secular” state primary education at the expense of church schools, which was abrasive to Catholics.
Substantial democracy had arrived by 1860, but liberals wanted to further it with payment for MPs and a brake on the co-equal powers of the Legislative Council, voting for and membership of which was restricted to the better off.
While historians disagree about how far Syme personally made and unmade Liberal politicians and how far he created the wave or merely rode it, his voice, that of The Age and usually that of the Liberal politicians were much the same. If votes and newspaper circulation are an indication, it was also the voice of most Victorians.
The Age and its conservative rival The Argus competed fiercely but successfully. Strident, often brilliant editorials argued the rival viewpoints and attracted circulation comparable with almost anywhere but London.
Syme came from a big family in lowland Scotland at a time of heated ferment over religion and politics. His father studied for the Presbyterian ministry, but gave it up for teaching. David immigrated to the Californian goldfields and in 1852, aged 24, moved on to the new golden frontier of Victoria. It was the time when, young, enthusiastic but rarely very prosperous, forebears of half the future Melbourne elite seemed to arrive: Menzies, Fraser, Calwell, Baillieu, Brooks among other names one day to be prominent.
Syme died in 1908. His family controlled The Age until 1983, when it passed on to the Fairfax group, inheritor of Syme’s Sydney near contemporaries, John Fairfax and his sons.
David Syme, proprietor of