Wednesday, September 16

The National Times – reborn as a sickly child, stranded out of its time

You have to have lived the times to understand what The National Times meant to many of us. And to understand why we're so disappointed with the National Times reborn this week as an online member of the Fairfax Digital Media stable.

Each Thursday, we'd stop in to a newsagent to pick up the new edition of this remarkably bold – radical even – newspaper produced within the staid halls of the Sydney Morning Herald establishment. Usually, we also bought the weekly Nation Review, grubstaked by the left-supporting millionaire Gordon Barton.

The NT launched its first issue on February 8, 1971. That, my generation will remember, was a time of profound social change in Australia and most of the western world. A growing women's rights movement. The Pill. Flower power and the Age of Aquarius. Hippies. Vietnam war and anti-conscription moratoriums. Some men even dared to let their hair grow long.

In hotel bars, long the domain of blokey men, young women in rainbow garb would tell you they'd studied iridology, stare deeply into your eyes, and pronounce: “No, you're not an alcoholic.” Then you'd have another half a dozen beers with them.

Some 22 months after the NT's launch, came “It's Time” – the slogan which helped Labor's Gough Whitlam become Australia's Prime Minister, winning government after years of conservative rule. Three years later, he was gone, dismissed by Governor-General John Kerr – the former Labor lawyer Whitlam had thought would be his man.

Today, many of us remember Whitlam for fiscal irresponsibility and his failure to rein in the wild antics of his Cabinet ministers.

But we should also remember he legislated to give women equal pay for equal work, to recognise indigenous land rights, to provide for no-fault divorce in place of the shameful and often fraudulent proving of adultery or habitual drunkenness against a “guilty party”. He provided allowances for single mothers, and appointed a special adviser on women's affairs.

He saw Australia's future lay in its relationships with Asian nations, and gave recognition to communist China – a move which will underwrite Australia's prosperity for decades to come.

He also helped Australia see itself as a proudly independent nation, and not an outpost of the declining British Empire (or Commonwealth of Nations, whatever that name was meant to signify).

Before Whitlam, Australians had to carry a British passport when they ventured overseas. His government provided Australian passports.

They were exciting times to be alive. And The National Times was part of that excitement. As Fairfax journalist David Marr (editor from 1980 to 1982) said the other day:

The paper's beat was spies, politics, prisons, rape, defence, politics, the US alliance, motoring, business, sex, politics, tax scams, education, health, the women's movement, the arts, crime and politics. The National Times pioneered a strange alliance between lifestyle and the gutter, between wine and crime. This was mocked and imitated . . .

We weren't planning the overthrow of capitalism. We weren't hell-bent on radical change. The National Times was giving voice to a brand of scepticism growing in Australia for decades. The
revolutionary thing was doing so from behind the conservative walls of fortress Fairfax.

The old National Times lasted until August 1, 1986. It never made a profit, and its circulation rarely reached 100,000. Fairfax changed its publishing day, and it battled on for five months as The National Times on Sunday, and until March 13, 1988, as The Times on Sunday.

When Fairfax began signalling the relaunch of The National Times as a website devoted to intelligent reviews and commentary, your Grumpy Old Journo was sceptical. The times have changed – the youthful irreverence of the 1970s and early 1980s, the optimism and the excitement, are little more than a memory in our materialistic society.

But also, I hadn't realised just how cheapskate Fairfax Digital Media could be.

The Sydney Morning Herald bounces on to my front porch about 3.30 each morning. I usually read it back in bed. For the last three mornings, I've gone on to check the National Times website – and what's this? I've already read most of the featured stories when I perused the morning newspaper. What's the point of that?

Not only that, for all the promotion of The National Times reborn, the website displays with a design and typography which positions it as just another page on the SMH website. So far, the verdict of other commentators agrees with mine, as shown here and here.

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