On 15 July 1964 Rupert Murdoch launched The Australian, the country’s first national newspaper. Based in Canberra, its national edition frequently disrupted by fog, the paper had a difficult start. But Ken Inglis, reviewing the first editions for the fortnightly magazine Nation on 25 July, found a lot to admire…
Until Wednesday of last week, Australians had never been offered a daily newspaper written for the whole country. The men who preached federation in the last century, above all Alfred Deakin, believed that the federal compact would be not only an expression of nationality but a source of it: the formal achievement of union, they hoped, would encourage the people of the several states to think and feel more closely to each other. It would surely have pleased Deakin to see the Australian flying out to the old capitals of colonial Australia from the artificial national capital whose foundation was itself a response to parochial rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney.
It would have pleased him, I think, not only as a nationalist but as a journalist, though he might have been professionally disappointed that the new paper did so little with the Commonwealth Conference — that bizarre descendant of the Imperial Conferences about which Deakin wrote with much wit.
The Australian is, first of all, a clean and handsome thing to look at. Not all the news pages have the “elegant appearance” we had been led to hope for; but compared with those of every other Australian newspaper they are, as promised, “uncluttered”. The double-page carrying editorials, cartoon and features seems to me simply beautiful: a few square feet of black and white fit to place alongside the best-designed newspapers of our language and time — The Guardian, say, or The Observer, or The New York Herald Tribune.
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Not that the Australian is an imitation of any of these models (or, as far as I know, of any other): like any good visual design, it shows both intelligent assimilation and fresh imagination. It is interesting to compare, in the first issue, an advertisement for Rogers’ of Canberra with the surrounding editorial matter. In any other paper I think the advertisement would appear at home: here, it looks inappropriately coarse.
On the news pages, the designers are cramped by using the same old narrow columns as the rest of our daily press. Perhaps I will get used to seeing the relaxed prose of Alistair Cooke broken into lines which may contain only three, three and a half or four words; but I wish I did not have to. And I wish the designers had been bold enough to abolish the practice of interrupting stories with subheadings of one or two words chosen fairly arbitrarily out of the paragraph that follows. Not only the Age but the Sun News-Pictorial, no austere journal, do without this device in their feature pages. I wonder what Mr Cooke thinks of having, just above his words “The most durable though bootless protest…” the single word BOOTLESS floating in the italic capitals.
The prose is less elegant than the layout. Contributions by such writers as Robin Boyd, Jock Marshall, Kenneth Hince and Edgar Waters read as if the layout were designed for them; some other pieces, signed and unsigned, sit there less happily. It is disconcerting to have, on the same page, prose by Alistair Cooke and prose which he would never write unless as parody; and it is an unfortunate practice, I think, to print a piece from “Alistair Cooke and our world news service” without indication where Cooke ends and somebody else (who?) begins.
Having recruited staff from other papers in which nimble writing has been seldom encouraged it is perhaps no wonder that The Australian prints without rewriting such a string of clichés as “a whirlwind high-level visit here today against a background of rising tension.” But in this paper, such passages look as out of place as the cheap “furniture specials” offered by Rogers’ would look in a house designed by Robin Boyd. And when one reads on a prettily planned page about holidays, of “a year-round phenomena,” it is like seeing in a Boyd house a chair with one leg off.
The language of headlines is made less flexible, at least in the case of stories one column wide, by the narrowness of columns. On the fourth day, “shock” was used in a headline as if it meant “unexpected”; and it seems not impossible that the headline of my nightmares may appear even in The Australian. It is over a story about an unexpected attempt to discover why an ambulance was late, and it reads: MERCY DASH SHOCK PROBE BID…
Read the full text of Ken Inglis’s review of the first edition of The Australian at Inside Story.