The Age is a newspaper proud of its history. As the oldest newspaper in the state, it has been part of just about every event that has mattered in public life, and its editors have been important public figures in their own right.
And yet it seems that the newspaper might have overseen a tragedy — the loss of its own priceless archival records.
This week, The Age has been serialising the new biography, written by Ben Hills, of the late great editor Graham Perkin.
But behind the scenes, it seems that The Age has taken a less reverent attitude to the past. Hills and several other researchers have either been told that there are no archives at The Age, or that they exist but they can’t have access.
The newspaper recently moved from its old building on the corner of Spencer and Lonsdale streets to the flash new building on Collins Street, but even before that move, it seems the archives might have been lost or destroyed.
In the foreword to his book, and in an email to me, Hills has said that he sought to gain access to Age archives on several occasions. Hills approached first the-then chairman of Fairfax, Ron Walker, and then company secretary Gail Hambly, who:
“first denied that any such records existed, then stated that if they did exist their whereabouts was unknown. When I finally confirmed the location of the records (principally minutes of board meetings) in the basement of the old Age building in Spencer Street by tracking down a former company secretary, Ms Hambly refused me access to them. In spite of numerous phone calls and emails to this day I have been able to get any reason, from her — nor have I even received a reply to any of my communications. Finally, with my deadline running out towards the middle of last year, I appealed to John B. Fairfax, the only member of the board with any real newspaper experience, to intervene. Mr Fairfax’s intervention was totally ineffective — whilst he said that he saw no reason himself why I should not have access to these records, he said he would pass my request on to Mr Walker. Thus the circle was completed and silence and secrecy prevailed.”
Hills is not the only one who has had trouble. A former Age executive, John Tidey, is researching a biography of former editor Creighton Burns. He reports that when he asked for access to Burns’ records held by The Age, he was told that the file no longer existed. There was some personal material in the editorial library, but “as for letters of engagement, promotion, hero grams, smacks, etc, there is nothing at all”.
And former Age journalist Sybil Nolan contacted The Age some years ago during research for an MA thesis on the editorial identity of the newspaper. She tells me she was unable to confirm whether or not there was a company archive, although she had heard tell of “a lot of filing cabinets downstairs somewhere, containing company information, with an archivist in charge of it”.
The Age people she spoke to seemed vague on whether the archive still existed. In any case, she was not given access to any material helpful to her research.
Yesterday I sent several questions to The Age, asking whether the archive had been retained, or whether it had been destroyed or lost.
I have not received any comment in reply.