AT THE Evatt Foundation’s “Dialogue On Democracy” seminar of lectures and discussion in Launceston on November15, 2008, Professor Henry Reynolds spoke about the campaign to stop the transportation of convicts to Van Diemen’s Land.

“Launceston played a critical part”, providing the effective leadership for a campaign which extended over six years, (1847-53) in which public meetings, pamphlets, demonstrations, petitions and boycotts kept the issue alive, maintaining “a degree of burning intensity even when they thought they weren’t getting anywhere”.

According to Tasmanian historian Professor Michael Roe, “anti-transportation became a socio-political movement of vehement strength, in its scale comparable to the anti-corn law agitation in contemporary Britain, or even the American abolitionist movement”.

In the colony’s first election for the Legislative Council in 1851, “anti-transportationists were overwhelmingly successful” (Roe).  When transportation was finally abolished in 1853, the crusade culminated in victory celebrations held in Launceston on August 10, 1853.

The events of that day, proclaimed a public holiday, began with people congregating in St John’s Square, followed by a procession through Launceston’s central streets.  It was a long procession, at its head the colony’s leading anti-transportationists, followed by the adult native-born, then the children, and right at the end a printing press on a cart (Reynolds).

The presence of the printing press in the celebrations was in recognition of the essential importance of the print media in Van Diemen’s Land to the success of the anti-transportation movement, especially Launceston’s Examiner newspaper, founded in 1842 by John West.

West demonstrated in a powerful way the usefulness of the press in harnessing public opinion and translating it into political action.  His biographer, Patricia Ratcliff, summarized his influential voice in this way:  “Morally affronted by the continuation of transportation, West, by the power of his oratory, his editorials in the Examiner and the Hobart Colonial Times, and his definitve History of Tasmania (1852), educated colonists about their history, exposing the fate of the Aboriginal peoples, and the moral evils of a convict system which permitted the exploitation of a captive labour force.”

Launceston’s Examiner has long since relinquished any aspirations to investigative journalism or critical analysis of the main issues of importance to the general community. No doubt John West would be disappointed that the paper still retains the name he gave it.  I well remember in the 1960s that the only analysis during the years of the Vietnam War in the Examiner came from the pen of hawkish conservative American writer Walt Rostow’s weekly column.  In retrospect that is a terrible indictment of the information the paper was prepared to give its reading public, especially the young. 

Rostow would not be out of place in the Examiner’s pages in the years since the 1960s, but John West would be. 

One important difference between the 1960s and now is that we are not as dependent on the local press as we were then, and are less likely to be held captive by how and what it does or does not do. Nevertheless there is a huge gap between the possibilities and opportunities which the local media has to explore, truly investigate and provide informed and useful debate on almost all (if not all) important local issues, and the role which it has chosen to play, especially in the north of Tasmania. 

This is seriously detrimental for Tasmanians.  There are times when the media takes to task those who criticize its performance, editorializing about the “public’s right to be informed”, and extolling the virtues of “freedom of the press”. It is paradoxical in fact, that the print media in Tasmania (with the exception of some fine journalism by some of the Hobart Mercury’s journalists) has undertaken the role of restricting its own freedoms, of imposing its self-limiting straightjacket on what the public has a right to read about, and what the parameters of debate and discussion should be.

It is within this general context that the role of Tasmania’s online newspaper, Tasmanian Times, has been so important since Lindsay Tuffin established it.  It provides the only real forum for Tasmanians to explore and discuss and read and seek informed views about Tasmanian issues.  In a significant sense it does now what John West’s Examiner did in Van Diemen’s Land/Tasmania in the 1840s and 1850s.

Tasmanian Times is now crucial to the dissemination of information in Tasmania, to the debate of local issues, to throwing light on the interface between the local, the national and the global.

Tasmanian Times has given a voice to Tasmanian people that has been often and largely denied by the mainstream media, and still is.  It has fostered and encouraged the extension of the parameters of commentary, where elsewhere it has been constrained, or censored, or neglected, or ignored, or deliberately omitted.

Tasmanian Times is seriously important.  Hopefully, it is at the forefront of a long procession which continues what John West began in Tasmania, but which he then took with him, with greater long term success, to Sydney, as foundation editor of The Sydney Morning Herald in 1854.  That was Tasmania’s loss.

May Lindsay Tuffin stay much longer than John West did, but whatever he does in the future, we Tasmanians owe him a lot, for he has given us an opportunity to have a voice, to have an influence which we have been progressively losing, and to learn how to use “freedom of the press” in the true sense, as an untrammeled democratic means of expression.

Peter Henning
Sources:  Henry Reynolds, “Launceston’s Link with Democracy”, lecture, Evatt Foundation, Launceston, 15/11/08; Michael Roe, “Anti-Transportation”, Companion to Tasmanian History, 1995, pp. 19-20; Patricia Ratcliff, “John West”, ibid, pp. 383-4.

Peter Henning
This is seriously detrimental for Tasmanians.  There are times when the media takes to task those who criticize its performance, editorializing about the “public’s right to be informed”, and extolling the virtues of “freedom of the press”. It is paradoxical in fact, that the print media in Tasmania (with the exception of some fine journalism by some of the Hobart Mercury’s journalists) has undertaken the role of restricting its own freedoms, of imposing its self-limiting straightjacket on what the public has a right to read about, and what the parameters of debate and discussion should be.