Review: Helen Trincaon A Companion to the Australian Media

H is for Hinch: A Companion to the Australian Media

Clever marketing helped position Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion (1996) as the go-to book for the kitchen when it was first published almost twenty years ago. Word-of-mouth reinforced the notion that Alexander’s 816-page volume was all you really needed on the recipe shelf. Her book works because it is reliable and comprehensive, yet it is far from dull. Best of all, the recipes are timeless: they are distilled from Alexander’s vast experience, but they seem contemporary. The end result is that The Cook’s Companion has a reputation as the book to consult for specific information (look under H for recipes with ham) or to browse for pleasure.

Those who have laboured to produce A Companion to the Australian Media could only hope for the same embedding of their 543-page product in the national psyche.  This is a book by a serious, rigorous and committed crew driven by a desire to produce, as the back cover states, ‘the first comprehensive work of its kind, focusing on the history and contemporary practice of our newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and new media industries’. The problem is that while this Companion contains lots of solid information, it is not immediately clear who will look under H (for Herald Sun and Hinch, Derryn Nigel). And the book already feels more like a historical document than a contemporary handbook, given the speed at which the media is evolving.

Time was always going to be an issue: a tiramisu is forever, but the Sydney Morning Herald is a very different beast today than it was seven years ago when this project was launched. The Companion does address the problem of an industry in transition. There are entries about online audiences, digital radio and television, and so on. But there is no escaping the sense that this is a document, up-to-date at time of collation, that is soon to be disrupted by unknown unknowns that will redefine the media landscape.

At one level, the volume’s historical bias is deliberate: the book comes out of the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University, where editor Bridget Griffen-Foley is the director. It contains a wealth of detail about the media, extending back to the time of white settlement, and it extensively records the most influential people, products and genres in the industry since then. The histories are interesting, but an A-Z volume of 479 entries means that the narrative is necessarily fragmented. The need to cram a couple of centuries into 3000 words, or sometimes far fewer, means that some subjects really are once over lightly.

If the Companion does not aspire to be an integrated history of the media, what is its raison d’être? In some ways, it is easier to note what the book is not. It is not a contemporary guide to media practitioners or media outlets. It is not a list of contacts or available products. Nor is it an analysis of media product or producers. It does not set out to critique the media.

But it does set out to be comprehensive. Entries, ranging in size from a couple of hundred words to more than 3000 words, have been authored by journalists, historians, commentators and academics. All the obvious subject areas are here: the individual newspapers and media groups, television programs and leading journalists, broadcasters and proprietors. The range is a nice surprise – from the television soap opera Neighbours, to that icon of investigative journalism the National Times. This is the Companion at its best. The eclectic approach to subjects and the choice of contributors have produced a book that, while hard to classify, has its own charm. Its democratic selection is in tune with a media that is increasingly diverse and vibrant. Why shouldn’t we learn – on the same page – that Neighbours has been exported to more than 50 countries and attracted 20 million viewers the night that Scott (Jason Donovan) and Charlene (Kylie Minogue) were married, and that the National Times’ peak circulation was 107 670 in 1976 and that it never made a profit for its owners John Fairfax & Sons over its seventeen year existence?

Griffen-Foley has said a key aim of the book was to capture the media scholarship that has been underway since the 1980s, as well as to generate more scholarship. To this end, she has included several generic entries, which help to fill the gaps in our media history. The essay subjects range from comics (by Kevin Patrick), to radio comedy (Jacqueline Kent), to religious press (Peter Barnes), to shipping news (Peter Dowling), to weather and natural disasters reporting (Richard Whitaker), to media and violence (Katrina Clifford), to bias (Denis Muller), to economics reporting (Ross Gittins). It is an original way to slice the pie and gives exposure to a range of academic research that sometimes does not get much of an audience. Subjects are heavily summarised in this format, but at least the essays are an entry point for those who want more.

For casual browsers, the alphabetical arrangement offers some lovely surprises. There is an entry on freedom of speech alongside another about a television show, Frontline. Mack, Marie Louise Hamilton (1870-1935) – novelist, poet and war correspondent –  has a half page next to MacPherson, Sir Keith Duncan (1920-93), the head of the Herald and Weekly Times, who went toe to toe with Rupert Murdoch to fight off a takeover bid in 1979. Under M, we also find Melbourne Punch and Men’s Magazines and the Mercury (Hobart) and Mitchell, Harold Charles (1942– ), the advertising executive. It might be a difficult book to categorise, but once discovered it is not a difficult book to read and enjoy.


Griffen-Foley and her advisory board have called on almost 300 contributors, most of them with very specific knowledge and expertise. That’s a lot of cats to herd, but by and large the style is consistent, the content is solid, and while there are errors (Phillip Adams writes a weekly, not a biweekly column for the Australian) this is a professional production. There is an excellent index and the cross-referencing between entries is efficient.

In general, the entries avoid judgments about the quality or value of the products – whether television soaps or newspapers. The Companion is published in a polarised and sometimes combustible media environment; with so many contributors (and views), it is perhaps wise to play it straight. There are the inevitable (and occasionally knee-jerk) criticisms of Murdoch and the domination of News Corp, but in general the tone is measured and the focus is on fact and data rather than analysis. It’s a sensible approach, especially with so many authors feeding in their material. But, perversely perhaps, it also means some entries lack the tone and confidence that would make the volume more compelling.

Neither tone nor confidence is lacking from an entry from my colleague at the Australian, Nicolas Rothwell, who has provided the entry on his own paper. There are dangers in an insider’s account, but Rothwell’s grasp of the culture and intent of the Australian makes this one of the best entries. He has the advantage of having lived through a number of editors. Of former editor-in-chief Paul Kelly’s reign in the 1990s, Rothwell says:

Kelly was a close student of power: in a striking fashion, his Australian was both the chief reflecting mirror of the political process and a shaping check on its chief actors. This period was the high point for the Australian’s role as monitoring angel of the national project. The clarity in the paper’s tone stemmed from a particular value-realm, which in turn descended from its social centre of gravity; a defining current – still evident, though often misconstrued. Rather than simply or solely conservative in tilt, the Australian bears the influence of a small, distinctive milieu: secular Catholic in culture, intellectual in orientation, social democratic, with national ideals and a commitment to communal bonds at its core.

As an insider myself, I find that paragraph among the most perceptive I have ever read about the paper.

Sadly, the entry for the Sydney Morning Herald cannot match Rothwell’s work in tone and analysis. Former editor Max Prisk competently summarises the paper’s long history since 1831, but gives little sense of its strong culture and the aspirations and motivations of its talented staff over the years. That the Sydney Morning Herald is now a very different beast from its glory days in the 1980s and 1990s is one thing; to leave those exciting and important years and the brilliance of so many of its journalists effectively unrecorded is a shame.

The Age fares much better in the hands of Sybil Nolan, a former journalist on the paper, who turned to book publishing and researching history. Nolan captures the spirit of the paper from its start in 1854, writing that the ‘new morning daily was a creature of its time, a paper of politics concerned with liberal rights and animated by social questions’. Like Rothwell, she identifies the essence of the thing. Of the late 1980s and 1990s, Nolan writes:

For almost two decades, there had been a comfortable alignment between the progressive values of the Age and successive Liberal and Labor state governments. But the paper’s failure to define Victorian Labor’s unraveling economic management in the late 1980s contributed to its conflict with combative Liberal leader Jeff Kennett. Within a month of Kennett’s landslide election victory in October 1992, the paper changed editors; under Alan Kohler, it became a site of struggle between neo-liberal reformers and supporters of the paper’s traditional meliorism.

Nolan’s restrained style says more than anger could about the eventual demise of the paper:

From 4 March 2013, the weekday editions of the Age were converted to ‘compact’ (tabloid) format. A month later, the company announced that it was integrating the Age and other newspapers into a new division, Australian Publishing Media. The reorganization confirmed the ascendancy of the Fairfax brand at the expense of its once talismanic mastheads.

Nolan concludes: ‘The weekend editions of the Age went tabloid a year later. By May 2014, the Age’s presses at Tullamarine were silenced, and the paper was being printed at Ballarat.’

That pressure on print is the biggest media story around, so it is a surprise that the Companion does not have a specific entry titled Print Media. Nor is it referenced in the index. There are multiple entries for press – one for each state and territory – but these are semi-historical documentations of the development of various papers in these areas. It seems strange that, in a book that covers photography and news reporting and online video and pay television and even newsprint, there is not one entry that sets out to define specifically the state of the medium that, alongside radio, has arguably provided more Australians with more information than any other in the years since Captain Arthur Phillip.

There are hints throughout the book of the media revolution we are living through. Many entries reference the job losses and falling revenues and circulations of newspapers. How could they not? The challenge to print has redefined journalism around the world. A deft 3000 words or so by a Rothwell or a Robert Pullan (who has authored two long and detailed entries on the Fairfax family and Fairfax Media) or a Sybil Nolan that pulled together this extraordinary change would have been useful.

The upheaval in media business models and the search for audience share has led to intense competition in the industry. The result is a profession far more aware of commercial realities and yet more questioning of its work and product than I have seen in 40 years of journalism. The pressure is on for journalists to reflect on their own operations and the operations of others, and a highly literate and empowered public is joining in the debate in robust fashion. On social media, a take-no-prisoners culture ensures immediate feedback from consumers, who are now also producers. Accountability is at an all-time high. At the same time, interest groups and like-minded individuals have become more aware of formal complaint mechanisms to challenge the reporting of generic issues, such as climate change or coverage of the Middle East.

All of this constitutes a big trend in consumer power, yet the Companion seems to have missed the boat in one area at least. Jack Herman, a recently retired executive secretary of the body, has written the entry on the Australian Press Council – the key avenue for public complaints. It is a competent summary of the council’s history. But there is little sense of the explosive issues confronting the council, and no mention of the criticism offered by some members – especially my own newspaper – in recent times. Whatever one’s view of the operations of the APC or the Australian’s reporting of the subject, the failure to note such sustained criticism weakens the entry. The challenge the Companion has in keeping up to date is demonstrated by the fact the council has a new chairman, who comes with his own history and style, but that this appointment post-dates the publication.

There is pleasure to be had from less contentious but more culturally interesting subjects, such as game shows (‘valuable places for acquiring and displaying celebrity’, according to the entry’s author, Frances Bonner), or Richard Aitken’s essay on gardening (‘Garden journalism in the nineteenthth century was replete with pseudonyms and rhetorical flourishes’). But I suspect most readers will get satisfaction from the entries on key figures – past and present – in Australian media. There’s a nice one about the Crawford Family that neatly canvasses the innovative production house of Hector Crawford Productions. The decision to cover the family, not just its best-known member, is deliberate. We learn from author Philip Davey that while Hector’s

activism, entrepreneurial skills and musical direction have been acknowledged’ it was arguably his sister Dorothy and her son Ian, who ‘were the real force behind Crawfords … Dorothy was the ‘absolute creative brain of the organization’ during Australian television’s formative years.

That’s a lovely insight into a company that has been a household name for decades. I also enjoyed the entry on the legendary Vic Carroll. Long-time Fairfax journalist Andrew Clark doesn’t pull his punches, stating that Carroll is ‘the undisputed giant of Australia’s post-war journalism’.

Several contemporary journalists and editors have their own entries. These choices are necessarily subjective and one does not envy those who had to decide who was in and who was out. Who would quibble with Paul Kelly or Michelle Grattan being included? One could say the same of David Marr, Kerry O’Brien, Ray Martin and Jana Wendt. But why not Dennis Shanahan or Laura Tingle or Geraldine Doogue or Fran Kelly – each of whom has been a practising journalist for more than 30 years and each of whom is arguably at the top of his or her game? The Companion is not a Who’s Who of the national media, but some of the omissions – among them Les Carlyon and the Australian’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell – are intriguing.

Some of the portraits snapshots are among the best entries in the book. John Newfong would be little known to younger generations, but he was the ‘first Aboriginal Australian to work as a mainstream journalist’. Newfong died in 1999 at the age of 55, but his glory days were in the 1970s after the then editor of the Australian, Adrian Deamer, hired him to report on land rights and the civil rights movements. Susan Forde’s is a subtle and respectful account that still canvasses a complex man who ‘felt torn between his role as an Aboriginal campaigner at a time of great hostility towards this cause from the mainstream media and his career as a journalist’.

Robert Milliken’s entry on John Douglas Pringle, the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald is a similarly astute account of a man who changed the paper and opened doors for many younger staffers. Sandra Hall draws on her comprehensive 2008 biography of legendary newspaperman and former Truth owner Ezra Norton for an excellent portrait of the muckraking journo.

It is in these historical entries that this book reveals its riches: there is a freedom in writing about the dead, and contemporaries are necessarily harder to get right. There are many impressive contributors, including historians Geoffrey Bolton (on Press, Western Australia) and Humphrey McQueen (on Rydge’s, the business-oriented publishers), many of whose names will be familiar to readers, but they are listed without biographies or qualifications (largely for space reasons). It would have been helpful to know their provenance. Everyone comes from somewhere and that information inevitably adds a layer to the material as it is read.

The publisher of this volume, Australian Scholarly, has done a good production job, and taken the risk on a work that adds greatly to the collation of information about the nation’s media. The compilation of such a work is a major undertaking, one that few would undertake. A Companion to the Australian Media may struggle to find an audience beyond media courses, media practitioners and the academy, but the effort to capture such an unwieldy and volatile beast is commendable.