Journalists Writing Australian Political History

Article excerpt

There is a long tradition of Australian journalists writing political history: in his 1985 survey of political history and biography, political scientist Peter Loveday listed ten such works. (1) In recent years there appears to have been a considerable increase in the volume of these publications. A survey of the National Library of Australia catalogue using the search term "Australian political history" revealed 446 books examining professional politicians, political parties, governments, election campaigns, or the political involvement of institutions and individuals published between 1933 and 2009. (2) Most of these books were published from the 1980s onwards. (3) I have identified eleven political histories written by Australian journalists between 1933 and 1970, and ninety-seven written between 1970 and 2009--an increase of more than 800 per cent. (4) This article examines the phenomenon and suggests its beginnings can be traced back to the 1960s.

I undertake four tasks. Firstly, I pinpoint the significant moments in the development of the genre and trace its steady rise; secondly, I discuss the genre's characteristics, looking for continuities in topics, range and approach; thirdly, I discuss how these books differ from political histories written by academics, and fourthly, I seek to explain the increase in numbers. Incorporated into my discussion is the testimony of a small sample of Australian journalists, publishers and academics. Eight interviews were conducted for this study between 5 and 27 May 2009: two with journalists who have written political histories, three with publishers of political histories, and three with academics who have written political histories. (5) All interviewees were asked to discuss the differences between academic and journalistic political histories; which journalistic political histories they admired; whether they had noticed an increasing trend towards journalists writing political history; what might be causing that trend, and its implications for public understanding of political processes. In addition, the journalists were asked to describe their motivations for writing their books, their models, methodologies and approaches.

Tracing the Rise

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries journalism and history writing were closely linked. A number of academic historians--Ernest Scott is just one example--trained as journalists before embracing university life, and such training in investigative research, reporting and writing to deadlines informed their academic research and writing. (6) Journalists have written a variety of histories over two centuries: W.C. Wentworth, John West, Samuel Bennett, Roy Bridges, and Cyril Pearl are examples of journalists who have produced works of historical investigation based on substantial research. (7) This study is concerned, however, with those political histories, including biographies, written by journalists who used insider knowledge gained from their employment covering politics.

The earliest of such books appears to be Ambrose Pratt's uncritical biography of his employer, David Syme, written in 1908. (8) In 1933 A.N. Smith, the first president of the Australian Journalists Association (AJA), published Thirty Years: the Commonwealth of Australia, 1901-1931. (9) About the same time, the Bulletin's Malcolm Ellis published The Red Road, an expose of the alleged influence of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) on the Lang Labor faction in New South Wales. (10) Warren Denning's Caucus Crisis: the Rise and Fall of the Scullin Government appeared four years later. (11) In a biographical note to the 1982 edition of Caucus Crisis, the journalist Alan Reid--himself the author of several important works of political history--claimed Denning's work to be "the first piece of permanent writing to come out of the Canberra Press Gallery". As far as I can ascertain, this is accurate. As we will see, it was certainly the most influential. …