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Panpa Bulletin : February 2007
PANPA Bulletin February 2007 PUBLISHING MATTERS 18 Before getting on to the substance of this article, a couple of disclosures: I have known Zelman Cowen since our schooldays and shared with him what may have been for both of us, a life-changing experience. According to Sir Zelman’s autobiography, A Public Life, he was offered a scholarship to Geelong Grammar School. After accept- ing, obtaining uniforms (which at that time included Eton collars) and making prepara- tions to attend, his family were advised it was school policy that all boys were required to attend Anglican chapel services and this requirement could not be waived for a Jew- ish boy. Cowen’s parents were not prepared to accept the condition and the scholarship was rejected. Thus Geelong Grammar’s loss was Scotch College’s gain. In the biography Pathfnder, Denis Warner writes that I was entered for Geelong Gram- mar, but the family patriarch, my Uncle Alex, persuaded my father that to allow me to attend the obligatory chapel services would be a refection on the family culture, and that if he allowed it he would never speak to him again. My father buckled under the threat, so, like Zelman Cowen, I was withdrawn. Regrettably I cannot say that Geelong Grammar’s loss was Brighton Grammar’s gain. Perhaps it was this episode, so early in our lives, which showed both intolerance and intransigence by both family and school that drew us both to the more secular practice of Liberal Judaism. THE BRITISH PRESS COUNCIL: In 1976, Zel- man Cowen was invited to join the newly established Australian Press Council but declined because of other commitments. From 1983 to 1988, while Provost of Oriel College at Oxford University, he was Chair- man of the British Press Council. At the time of his appointment a wit suggested that it “was a case of employing an Australian to catch an Australian”, a reference to Rupert Murdoch’s controversial place in the British national press. In his book, Cowen identifes the sub- tle problems faced by the British Press Council (and now by the Australian Press Council),including the conficting claim of the right to know and to publish and the counter claims to protect reputation, privacy and basic community standards. He regrets that the Council lacked the power to compel compliance (which the Australian Press Council also lacks). It seems to me that the charges against the press which Cowan lists can be levelled against some Australian newspapers – re- fusal to correct inaccuracies and the right of reply to criticisim, false pretences in the obtaining of stories, intimidation or harass- ment and dubious forms of cheque book journalism, intrusion on grief, interviewing of children, and the identifcation of crime victims. One has only to view Mediawatch to realise the extent of such behaviour by our newspapers. MEDIA MOGULS: Cowen met most of the English media moguls, chief among them Murdoch (no longer an Australian and cer- tainly not an Englishman but chief proprietor of most of the London-based national news- papers) and the scoundrels, Robert Maxwell and Conrad Black. Of Murdoch he says he found him “re- sponsive to reasoned argument”; Maxwell was a man “capable of displaying extraor- dinary charm at one moment and boorish behaviour the next”. Comments on Black are ambivilent but perhaps “the higher levels of a media empire ... was at times a brutal world” used in writing about Stephen Mulholland, a chief executive of Fairfax, sums up Black as well as major media propri- etors in general. FAIRFAX: The recollections and comments Cowen makes about the period of the Tourang majority ownership of the Fairfax group while he was a director and for three years chairman of directors, give an insider’s view of the machinations which accompanied the jostling for position prior to the take-over and later discussions at board level and with staff. He gives great credit to Greg Taylor, the then managing director of David Syme and Company, publishers of The Age owned by Fairfax, for his assistance in negotiations with journalists to ensure Fairfax editors had the right to express views independent of those of the chief proprietor and/or the board of directors. I understand the editorial charter that was written in 1991 is still Fairfax policy. It is quoted by Cowen as “the right to appoint or dismiss editors resides with the board of directors and its appointed management ... but subject to this, full editorial control of the newspapers within agreed budgets shall be invested in the editors”. Conrad Black’s comment when he saw the charter was suc- cinct: “We can live with that”. QUEENSLAND: A few pages of A Public Life, deal with his relationship with the Courier Mail while he was vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland. After the newspaper had published disparaging comment about the university based on the activities of a relatively small coterie of radical students, Cowen reached agreement with the then editor, John Atherton, that prior to publication he would be given the opportunity to put his case and comment when issues of public controversy arose in the university that were to be pub- lished. And so it was. A HEALING GOVERNOR GENERAL: Cowen's association with the press stood him in good stead when he was the “healing” Governor General, appointed by Malcolm Fraser after the debacle of the Kerr years. In keeping with his pronounced regard for the proprieties of offce, Sir Zelman wrote few words on the fve years he spent bringing esteem back to the offce of Commander-in-chief and resident repre- sentative of the Queen of Australia. Thus, he gave the media and the public cause only for approval and praise. EPILOGUE : Sir Zelman Cowen concludes his autobiography with the view that Australia’s sense of national identity has evolved to the point "where the position of the British monarch as Queen of Australia is incompat- ible with our independent status”, a view with which I believe the proprietors and editors of our metropolitan newspapers agree – as I do. Peter Isaacson is a former publisher and is a life member of PANPA. Sir Zelman refects on the press’s role in a public life Sir Zelman Cowen’s views on the British and Australian press are revealed in his recent autobiography, writes PETER ISAACSON.
November December 2006