'Lasting Impressions — The story of New Zealand’s newspapers, 1840-1920'

On 10 October 2018 Ian F Grant's book Lasting Impressions — The story of New Zealand’s newspapers, 1840-1920 (Fraser Books in association with Alexander Turnbull Library) was launched at the National Library. The book is part of the ATL100 programme and much of it was researched while Ian was an Alexander Turnbull Library adjunct scholar. Here we reproduce the launch address by Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC, with his kind permission.

My principal qualification for launching this book flows from the fact that I have known its author for more than fifty years. We were active in student journalism together on 'Salient' at what was then called then the Victoria University of Wellington. What is more I arranged for him to meet his wife Diane on a blind date in Christchurch after a meeting of the New Zealand University Student Press Association there. Diane is a partner with Ian in Fraser Books.

It is not common for an author to be part of the publication team for a book. Anyone who knows anything about producing books knows that writing them is hard enough but publishing them is a big bother and hazardous.

Ian Grant has performed many services to New Zealand journalism. He was the founder of the New Zealand Cartoon Archive. He has written many books and the one on cartoons is remarkable at many levels.

Photo of Ian Grant
Ian F. Grant author of Lasting Impressions — The story of New Zealand's newspapers, 1840-1920. Photo Mark Beatty.

Lasting Impressions, this book, is a work of prodigious industry and research. I quail at the thought of the amount of time the research must have taken. The book stops at 1920. The next volume may complete the picture. We still have newspapers now, to some extent and in some form. Their circulations are declining.

But for how much longer they will last is impossible to say. The death knell has been sounded by the digital media, the Internet and the consequent destruction of the business model for newspapers. Newsrooms everywhere all over the world have been savagely reduced and then cut again.

Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter took the content of news outlets for their own purposes, built an audience for it, spent no money generating the content and avoided tax. And think what the world of big data has done to the political process, witness Cambridge Analytica. As media commentator Dr Gavin Ellis has said: (1)

What has changed is the media ecology, which has been destabilised by disruptive technologies and rapacious financial interests.

The rot has well and truly set in and the future of journalism is in peril.

No-one seems to agree upon what can replace the old financial model based on advertising that fed the historical development of New Zealand newspapers.The cultural and political values embedded in that model will not easily be replaced. The contents of this book are a testament to what a newspaper can do to instil a sense of community in an area.

As Grant points out, newspapers were part of the glue that held society together. When we lose that world, we will have lost a great deal. Listen to the first chapter of the Memoir of that great American reporter Seymour M Hersh: (2)

I am a survivor from the golden age of journalism, when reporters for daily newspaper did not have to compete with the twenty-four hour cable news cycle, when newspapers were flush with cash from display advertisements and want ads, and when I was free to travel anywhere, anytime for reporting on a breaking news story without having to constantly relay what was being learned on the newspaper’s webpage.

But a book launch should be a cause for celebration not a wake and there is much to celebrate in this book.

As Ian Grant says Papers Past has enabled researchers to read on-line many of the newspapers from days gone by. As the author says in this book:

I make no apology for the frequent use of extracts from newspapers-as well as providing critical information, they evoke the attitudes and flavour of the times and add colour with their command of language reflecting an often passionate commitment to the communities they served and their unbridled assault on the people and policies they opposed.

This technique tells a strong story of a developing colonial society that was in many respects more vibrant and more interesting that our present condition on these islands. There was an energy and vigour on display that we do not now match.

My favourite example is the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, one of the earliest and most distinguished of the early newspapers dealt with in this book. I want to look briefly at one important contribution the Examiner made to New Zealand’s constitutional history based on my own research. (3)

What this example illustrates is how vital and important fair and accurate reports of political discourse were in early colonial New Zealand. Free people trying to achieve a measure of self-government needed to have a newspaper.

Cover of book Lasting Impressions
Cover of Lasting Impressions — The story of New Zealand's newspapers, 1840-1920 published by Fraser Books in association with the Alexander Turnbull Library. Image from Ian F. Grant.

The early Nelsonians were keen constitutional reformers and agitators. There were Chartists among them.They were unhappy with Governor-Grey.They wanted self-government and they wanted it now.

The ‘Great Public Meeting’, as it was characterised by The Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, was held in Nelson on 27 December 1850. Nelsonians conducted the meeting at Albion Square, in Bridge Street next to the Queen’s Garden. The then court room was too small and the meeting had to be moved to a large booth erected for the school examinations.

The Nelson Examiner which came out once a week suspended publication for a week in order to bring out a full report in a double issue, which appeared on 11 January 1851. The report is exceedingly long and detailed, it reports at length what was said by all the speakers.

Nothing like the meeting had ever before been seen in Nelson. The great preponderance of opinion at the meeting favoured the taking of radical constitutional steps.

The meeting began at noon and “terminated between one and two o’clock in the morning ... with only a short interval of an hour for refreshment.” It was attended, so the newspaper reported, by “at least four hundred persons, who were present some time during the discussions.”

This must have constituted a considerable portion of the adult population of the Nelson settlement at that time. Including the town of Nelson and the large rural districts there were 3,495 Europeans and 1,408 Maori there in December 1849. One could not get 400 people to such a meeting in Nelson now as they did in 1850, nor anywhere else in New Zealand.

The lengthiest debate was on the secret ballot. Voting in England at this time for those few who could vote was by show of hands, and conservatives thought that to have a secret ballot was un-English. But the secret ballot carried three or four to one at the meeting.

The issue of responsible government, that is to say where the executive is responsible to the Parliament, was strongly supported to the point that even ex officio members of the Executive should be subject to dismissal by a two-thirds of the members of both houses.

The meeting passed resolutions supporting a bi-cameral Parliament, triennial elections and annual meetings of the Parliament with power by a two-thirds majority of each House to remove the Governor.And they wanted the power to amend in New Zealand the Act to be passed in England setting up the new arrangements.

They wanted a system of local government.They wanted universal male suffrage. They wanted the powers of the colonial Parliament to be absolute in all local matters.

By any standards this was a radical constitutional agenda.

It is hardly surprising the New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852 passed at Westminster did not match the sentiments of the Nelson settlers. The commitment to open, democratic government espoused by the great meeting in Nelson was remarkable.

Governor Grey advised the British Government that Nelson had “a very large number of intellectual and highly-educated persons.” The prevailing sentiment was for representative democracy with universal male suffrage, responsible government, limited executive powers and more accountability for their exercise with power over most matters centred in New Zealand.

There is a great deal in Ian Grant’s book about the people who owned and edited the newspapers around the country, including Charles Elliott of the Examiner. There is rich material about the printing techniques, newsprint, and changing technology such as the arrival of the linotype machine doing away with the need for hand setting of type.

There is much engagement with local news issues that arose all over New Zealand. The arrival of the telegraph facilitated the transmission of news. The formation of the United Press Association in 1880 – the predecessor of the NZPA (now foolishly destroyed) – also helped. (4)

The coverage contained in this book is comprehensive.

We have chapters about the politics of the early papers, the daily papers, the proliferation of papers, the weeklies, the Goldfields press and the city papers, and the papers in World War I. One MP described the war cable news as “nauseating piffle.” We learn “During much of the nineteenth century there were more newspapers in New Zealand per head of population than anywhere else in the world.”

Māori Nuipapa are treated to three chapters. Grant remarks on their high literacy levels and the fact that there was nothing like them in the United States, Canada and Australia, all of which had significant indigenous populations.

We have interesting asides on female compositors as well as early women journalists and editors. Jessie Mackay remarked “It is hard for even the most sympathetic man to obtain conditions that a man writer commands as a matter of course.”

But Ethel May Jacobsen became the legal owner, editor and manager of the of the Akaoroa Mail. She edited the paper for nearly 50 years.

One feature that struck me was that many of the editors died suddenly and young. There were many failures and some papers lasted only a short time. The difficulty of establishing them and making money posed formidable challenges.

We are living in the twilight of newspapers and that makes the early struggles to establish and sustain a newspaper particularly piquant. As the distinguished long time editor of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger wrote in a book published this year: (5)

By early 2017 the world had woken up to a problem that, with a mixture of impotence, incomprehension and dread, journalists had seen coming for some time. News-the thing that helped people understand their world; that oiled the wheels of society; that pollinated communities; that kept the powerful honest — news was broken.

As he says, there is a strong tendency in some quarters to assert that truth is fake and fake is true.

What worries me most about the plight we are in is the future of our democracy. This was a democracy that flourished in early New Zealand mediated by the media, as Ian Grant’s book demonstrates in depth and convincingly.

Effective and constant communication between those who make the political decisions in our society and those who are subject to them is highly necessary in a democracy. There is contemporary evidence the channels of communication are breaking down.

Parliament is not reported properly as it used to be. The changing media landscape has had a significant and adverse impact on political reporting. The media has been a centre of power in the political and democratic system. That power is now being dispersed and diluted.

The media’s function has traditionally been of a constitutional dimension since our earliest days, as the Nelson Examiner demonstrated in 1851. One of the challenges of our age is to find ways to strengthen the New Zealand media and journalism. Journalists dig out information on poor policies, blunders and abuses that elected officials would rather not see the light of day. How this may work in the future is a matter for speculation, but the portents do not look good.

Ian Grant has written an important book.

I hope by the time he finishes the next volume of New Zealand newspaper history we will have found some answers to the issues raised by our broken media model.

Thank you Ian.

You have done the public interest some significant service.

Endnotes

1. Gavin Ellis and Peter A Thompson Restoring Civic Values to the New Media Ecology(2016) 12(2) Policy Quarterly 37 at 40.

2. Seymour M Hersh Reporter-A Memoir (Allen Lane, London 2018) at 3.

3. Geoffrey Palmer The strong New Zealand democratic tradition and the ‘Great Public Meeting’ of 1850 in Nelson (2014) 12 New Zealand Journal of Public and International Law 205.

4. James Sanders Dateline-NZPA-the New Zealand press Association, 1880-1980 (Wilson & Horton LTd, Auckland 1979).

5. Alan Rusbridger Breaking News-The Remaking of Journalism and why it matters now (Canongate,Edinburgh, 2018) at ix.
For another lament about what has happened to news see Nick Davies Flat Earth News-An award-winning Reporter exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media (Vintage Books, London, 2009).

By Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC

Sir Geoffrey Palmer is a New Zealand lawyer, legal academic, and past politician, who was a member of the New Zealand Parliament from 1979 to 1990. He served as the 33rd Prime Minister of New Zealand from August 1989 until September 1990, leading the Fourth Labour Government.

Post a Comment

(will not be published) * indicates required field

Be the first to comment.