Thursday, January 24

So long Bulletin, F--k all editors

So The Bulletin's gone. Would Gwen Harwood (pictured) have been pleased? Probably not. She'd made her point, and the world has moved on.

In a hoax similar to the better known Ern Malley/Angry Penguins affair, she slipped the messages above into two sonnets published by the Bully in 1961.

She was protesting against what she saw as prejudice against "lady poets". Today, it finally is "So long Bulletin", but Harwood – who died in 1995 – might concede that recent editors fought hard and well to save the magazine.

And no-one likes to see the death of Australia's oldest publication. The Bulletin has been part of Australian life for almost 130 years.

At times it was boldly forward-looking, particularly in the Australian nationalism of its early days and its publication of the early bush poets and story tellers like Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson.

Through the thirties, too, it won credit for the space it gave to writers such as Kylie Tennant.

But by the 1950s, when I used to ride my bicycle to the corner of Pier and Hay Streets to peruse it in the old Perth Literary Institute, it was – even to a schoolboy – hopelessly anachronistic. Inside its red newsprint cover, it had sections with labels like "Aboriginalities" and "Business, bushranging, etc." And its motto, "Australia for the white man", remained on the leader page.

In 1960, Sir Frank Packer bought The Bulletin and sent in the bright and youngish journalist Donald Horne, who was yet to reinvent himself as an academic and public intellectual, to revamp it.

According to Horne (whose most recent book, Dying, A Memoir, co-authored and completed by his wife Myfanwy, is a moving account of his own illness and death in 2005, aged 83), Sir Frank bought The Bulletin only because it came bundled with The Australian Women's Mirror, which he wanted to keep out of the hands of his brash young rival, Rupert Murdoch. Sir Frank owned The Australian Women's Weekly and already had a successful opinion magazine in The Observer.

In his memoir Into the Open, covering 1958 to 1999, Horne gives a hilarious account of the way he and Sir Frank stormed the fusty offices and minds of the old Bulletin staff. But in a more serious tone, he says: "I had to knock down what was left of this nasty national edifice in a few sharp blows, so that they would never be able to put it together again."

Sir Frank Packer and his editorial whizzkids did pull The Bulletin into a bright, contemporary magazine. But despite our fuzzy nostalgia for the 1960s, we forget some of the misogyny of the times. Most women newspaper journalists worked on the social pages, and the Sydney Journalists Club refused to allow women members.

Down in Hobart, "lady poet" Gwen Harwood grew more frustrated at the rejection slips she received while The Bulletin published male poets she considered inferior. When she submitted her poems under male pseudonyms, magazines published them.

In 1961, she sent two sonnets to The Bulletin, re-using the pseudonym Walter Lehmann. Peope reading down the first letter of each line discovered the acrostics: "So long Bulletin" and "F--k all editors". As soon as Bulletin editor Donald Horne published them, Harwood's poet friend Vince Buckley broke the story.

In the ensuing publicity ("Tas. Housewife in Hoax of the Year"), Harwood felt that her point was not understood. The poems were "poetical rubbish and show up the incompetence of anyone who publishes them".

Useful information about Harwood and the hoax can be found here. It's unclear whether Harwood meant to keep the acrostic secret. In this analysis on the online Australian Public Intellectual Network, Cassandra Atherton takes a closer look.

The hoaxer did go on to win more appreciation, and the book Gwen Harwood: Selected Poems (Penguin, 2001) shows her work well.

Meanwhile, as I type this, old friend David Haselhurst (we were cadets together in Perth) is at The Bulletin's wake. He's written its Speculators Diary for many years, and I guess that's gone.

It's hard to blame anyone for The Bulletin's demise, although some will mount their ideological steeds and charge in anyway. Over the years, the Packers have hired the best journalists, artists and columnists in efforts to drive the Bully into a new era.

Perhaps, however, we can note that the old-time media tycoons like Sir Frank Packer invested their personal status and ego into their publications, and weren't that worried about incurring losses to do so. If outside shareholders didn't like it, they could just get off. For the new breed like James Packer, there's more money to be made in casinos.

In a pattern becoming more common today, media are owned by investors who see just another business, not institutions important to the functioning of healthy societies.

And the so-called private equity investors usually demand fast turnarounds, slashing the fat from moribund businesses, then onselling them for a quick profit. But without a longer-term involvement, they may also slash the company's foundations for growth.

Perhaps that's behind The Bulletin's death. In's first report, Andrew Dodd writes:

Just a few months in the hands of venture capitalists and Australia’s most famous magazine is dead ... Perhaps the new rallying cry for the nation’s media should be 'Australia for the Venture
Capitalist,' as the bean counters at CVC Asia Pacific – the company that now owns 75% of the former Packer family’s Publishing and Broadcasting Limited – have had their way at the expense of one of the nation’s great institutions.

Tomorrow morning, the pundits will waste acres of dead trees analysing the death, and most will blame the internet per se. Some may allude to claims in The Economist last year that the internet will have killed all print newspapers and magazines by 2040.

But I think it's more than that. Fundamentally, the changes come in the way we expect to receive information, entertainment and analysis. Perhaps in our crowded lives, we cannot wait for a weekly newsmagazine – but we may turn to increasingly high-powered television and radio as much as to the internet. And perhaps, as a relief from increasingly stressful working lives, we prefer our non-vocational media dumbed down.

Why read a thoughtful analysis by The Bulletin's Laurie Oakes when newspapers, TV and radio grab his reports and beat them up into something more hard-edged, concise and "sexed up"?

A year ago, I thought The Bulletin was building its online presence as it planned for closure of its print version. But in today's announcement, there's no reference to a continuing online publication, and early reports suggest management has ruled it out.

Paid subscription online magazines now appear less viable to general publishers. There may be more revenue to be earned with free online magazines, with higher readership allowing higher advertising charges.

After his purchase of the Wall Street Journal last year, Rupert Murdoch announced its online edition would become free, funded by advertising.

Australia's may soon face a similar dilemma. Go for subscription material, with the free stuff just a teaser to get them in, or make it free altogether to get the readership which would justify higher ad rates? At present Crikey seems to be having two bob each way.

There's an excellent illustrated history of The Bulletin, Patricia Rolfe's The Journalistic Javelin (Wildcat Press, 1979).


  1. what happened to the speculator.s weekly dairy is it still going? (in a nother paper)

  2. Since the Bulletin's closure, David Haselhurst (a friend since we were cadets together in Perth, a groomsman at my wedding, and the godfather of my oldest son) has written for Money magazine. Last April he has been contributing the Speculator's Diary to online business magazine Eureka Report (which need a paid subscription)and so far it's outstripped the All Ordinaries index.