Thursday, January 24, 2008

Death of the Bully

I am saddened by the death of The Bulletin. The current issue will be its last.

The Bulletin has been published in Australia since 1880 but its circulation now of 57,030 is well down on from over 100,000 in the 1990s and it is apparently no longer financially viable.

It originally published works by Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson.

I have been a consistent reader of the magazine since the early 1970s – the early writers that stick in my head were Peter Samuel and the outrageously reactionary David McNicol – in my radical student days I think I often bought the magazine just to be outraged afresh by McNicol. I always enjoyed The Bulletin’s smart-arsed slightly hard-edged right-wing politics even when I was firmly an opponent of these views.

I have been a follower of The Speculator column for most of that time – making the occasional odd five hundred bucks (and also sometimes losing) while an impoverished university student by following the tips offered.

Peter Coleman’s consistent good-humoured conservatism in the face of gutter attacks from the left during the Vietnam War period was one of the factors that changed my politics.

Trevor Sykes – well he was just an outstanding editor and, of course, one of Australia’s best journalists.

On a very minor issue for a decade I followed a backgammon column that was axed (I think) around 1980.

An informed, affectionate though realistic obituary is by former Bulletin journalist Tony Abbott:

Once, news that The Bulletin was closing would have journalists gathering at pubs like the Castlereagh (known to Bully staff as the "scunge") to drown their sorrows. But most of the old city pubs have gone too and even journos don't drink like they used to. Is Sydney any the worse for that? Not really.

Similarly, Australian journalism will survive The Bulletin's demise. Of course, it's sad that a magazine that published Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson is gone. The bunyip nationalists will wax nostalgic about its early anti-establishment crusades (despite the noxious masthead, "Australia for the white man"). It's always a pity to see another voice in the national debate stifled. Still, it's some time since The Bully set an intellectual agenda or even filled a distinct niche in Australian publishing.

The Bulletin's most recent heyday was in the 70s and 80s under the editorships of Trevor Kennedy and Trevor Sykes. It was less intellectual than under Donald Horne and Peter Coleman but broke more stories. A Bulletin story sparked the Painters and Dockers Royal Commission, which helped bring down the Fraser Government. It became a "must read" item for senior people in public life or in business. But newspapers were evolving too. As people increasingly took their news from radio and TV, the papers trespassed onto The Bully's turf of opinion and in-depth analysis. By the late 80s, the magazine often seemed like daily journalism in a glossy format.

Too often, it analysed on Wednesday what had already been done to death in the weekend papers. To a much more senior colleague, I once suggested that The Bulletin should be modelled on The Spectator only to be admonished: "But the Speccie sells 50,000 copies in England while we sell 120,000 in Australia".

The situation eventually reversed itself because The Spectator is unique in a way that The Bulletin no longer was. "Lunch with Maxine McKew" sometimes provided new insights. Laurie Oakes' column was essential for politics tragics. People who took David Haselhurst's stock market tips mostly made money. Patrick Cook was usually good for a laugh and much insight into the way we live now. But The Bulletin no longer offered the lions of journalism much that wasn't available in the best newspapers. There may not be much sentiment in journalism but there must be some among media proprietors (before private equity), otherwise The Bully would have folded long ago.

The Bulletin has been home to more than its share of high achievers. Horne was one of Australia's foremost public intellectuals. Coleman was that and a state Liberal leader too. Sykes is a humourist as well as Australia's finest business writer. Former Premier Bob Carr graduated in spin from its newsroom. For some years, Malcolm Turnbull was the legal columnist. It was a very eclectic place even by media standards including, at different times, such luminaries as Sam Lipski, Peter Samuel, Robert Drewe, David Armstrong, John Edwards and Greg Sheridan. Only a classy magazine could have attracted and honed such talent.It was a great place to work. I once wrote a piece about the development of the Indian navy. Whenever I was nearby, Dudley Burgoyne would gaze fixedly towards the sea. When eventually queried, he said that he didn't want the Indians to get him. Another colleague would always leave a tie on his desk to mask the fact that he wasn't normally there. That was journalism in the era of the three-schooner lunch. The Bulletin nurtured fine minds and published great writing. We can't afford to lose deep thinkers and compelling communicators. That's what matters, not the publication in which they appear.

4 comments:

Spiros said...

Now Ian Chappell will need another outlet to indulge his inexplicable intense dislike for Steve Waugh.

Good piece by Abbott, by the way.

whyisitso said...

Ian Chappell doesn't like anyone.

Bring Back CL's blog said...

it was on lifesupport.

When kezza dies and then Jimmy sold out to private equity it was only a matter of time

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