In­flu­en­tial voice of Vic­to­ria’s golden age

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Robert Mur­ray

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

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