Former Age editor Michael Gawenda has called on Fairfax executives to come clean on the fate of the invaluable company archives. Gawenda has also revealed that at the time he left the editorship in 2004, the archives still existed but were in an appalling state of neglect.

He believes there is “every chance” they did not make the journey from The Age’s recently abandoned building on the corner of Spencer and Lonsdale streets to the new Media House in Docklands.

Gawenda said: “[Chief executive] Don Churchill and [former editor] Andrew Jaspan would not have had it as a front-of-mind issue. All of us can be faulted for not taking enough care of this. But let’s at least acknowledge what has happened and if mistakes have been made, let’s admit them. I think it is a scandal and a tragedy.”

As previously reported in Crikey, several researchers in recent years have been either refused access to the archives, or told that they don’t exist. 

Yet the company is silent on their fate — or at least that part of the archives that used to reside in the basement of the Spencer Street building. In the past few weeks I have sent several emails to The Age seeking more information. I have received no response, which can only lead to the conclusion that there is nothing good to say.

Gawenda has revealed that in 2004, in his final months as editor, he asked his personal assistant to investigate what had happened to the archives. She reported back to him that in the basement there was a mass of material in a great mess, with files strewn around and papers lying loose.

As a result, Gawenda says he made some attempts to persuade the company to hire an archivist to sort out the material. This came to nothing. He now wishes he had tried harder.

Other Age staff have reported to me that they saw the archives in the same year — which was the 150th  anniversary of the paper. One recalled: “It looked like someone’s back yard after a shed clean out.”

Yet as well as the basement “tip” of records, there are also memories dating from the early ’90s of a large safe in the company secretary’s office, which contained the minutes of the board meetings. Some say these dated  to the days of David Syme. Yet these, too, have either been lost or for some reason been denied to researchers.

Meanwhile, former Fairfax editor Max Suich has described the Fairfax archives as “almost certainly the most valuable historical documents that corporate Australia possesses”. Suich made the remark in his review of Ben Hills’ biography of Graham Perkin, published in the Walkley magazine.

Who can disagree?

The Age archives would, if they were intact, cover David Syme himself, and Victoria’s transformation from gold rush boom state to the birthplace of Federation, through two world wars, a Depression and in to the modern era. Yet, according to what John Tidey, who is writing a biography of editor Creighton Burns, was told, even records relating to the 1980s can no longer be found, or at least were not made available to him.

It would be nice to know for sure what has happened to all this material. Sadly, The Age doesn’t seem interested in telling us.