Newspapers, free speech and activism in Sydney since 1969

by Wendy Bacon

Wendy Bacon has been an urban activist and journalist since 1969. She is a non practising lawyer & was previously the Professor of Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney.

In October 1969, while Christo, Jeanne-Claude and others were wrapping Little Bay, a small group of University of New South Wales students, academics and anti-censorship campaigners produced two ad hoc newspapers. I was part of that group. 

Thorout, as it was called, followed a vote to abolish the UNSW Students Union Council because of it quietism and servile relationship to the university administration.  When the motion passed, the Council’s supporters argued that despite its lack of activism, the Council did at least produce the Tharunka student newspaper. We replied that anyone could produce a newspaper. We were aware that with the advent of small offset printing, it was much easier and cheaper to produce a newspaper. Back in the not long past days of hot metal type, producing newspapers was a more exclusive activity. Having argued that it was possible, we thought the least we should do was produce a newspaper. So we did.

I remember that the thought of producing our own newspaper was exhilarating, much like blogging seemed in the early days of the web, thirty years later. Up until then, we had only produced pamphlets on a Gestetner machine. Now we used an electric typewriter, Letraset for headlines, pen and ink drawings and montage. Typos had to be laboriously corrected by cutting out tiny letters and glueing them carefully on top of laid out sheets that were later photographed to make plates for the presses. We paid cash to a small offset printery. 

We were a small but varied group that included Sydney Libertarians who supported permanent protest, anarchists and anti-authoritarian Marxists including radical Labor Club members. As far as I can remember, no one attempted to resolve the inconsistencies. To conservatives we were a ‘riff-raff’ and “lunatic fringe”. 

As far as I know, none of our small group was actively involved in Wrapped Coast but we enjoyed the fact that, initially at least, it ‘got up the nose’ of the staid Sydney establishment. The Wrapping provoked debate about the nature of art and that resonated with young people who felt little connection with mainstream institutional life, including the media and cultural institutions. 

Our first two newspapers led to a three-year anti-censorship campaign that included the publication of Thorout, the 1970 edition of the UNSW student paper Tharunka, underground newspapers Thorunka and Thor and a free newspaper version of The Little Red School Book.  There were arrests, trials and brief periods of imprisonment. We were part of a tradition that had already been established earlier in the 1960s at UNSW by Martin Sharp, Richard Neville and others including the artist Johnny Allen, who also helped with our first publications. Looking back I don’t think we expected much from the mainstream media. When they expressed outrage at our ‘filth’, we laughed and created a montage of the headlines.

Our initial internal focus on university politics soon gave way to a much broader agenda. These productions were part of the alternative, student and small magazine press that flourished around Australia in that period, constantly challenging the limits of censorship and reporting on issues and voices that were absent in the mainstream media. 

Civil disobedience was everywhere in those days. There was a constant stream of sit-ins, marches and arrests. Hundreds signed statements of defiance against conscription.  A few draft resisters were jailed, which led to more protests. 

In April 1969, university students had organised an anti-conscription march that featured a giant petition. 500 police gathered in the city. The force of their intimidating presence was a surprise because police had approved the route. Protesters were crushed against the Wentworth Hotel wall and some were trampled underfoot. More than a hundred protesters were arrested, many violently. NSW unionists supported the students by publishing 50,000 copies of a four-page supplement. The front page was a single photo of an arrest, headlined,  “Do you approve of this? This happened in Sydney only a few days ago.”

Thorout, which appeared a few months later, stood out from others in that we saw publishing itself as a form of direct action against censorship and self-censorship. More than 100 books were still banned in Australia. In 1969, anti-censorship campaigners were picketing censored movies that could be seen freely elsewhere. We published and held festivals of banned words and works that were self-censored by the timid Australian publishing industry. The sexually explicit materials we published ranged from fictional works whose authors could not find publishers to descriptions of early sexual experiences and contraception manuals. 

While the mainstream newspapers including The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and Daily Telegraph did report some allegations of police violence, we observed for ourselves how it was downplayed. But mainstream journalism was silent around everyday violence towards working-class people and blatant racism towards Aboriginal people. Once people realised that the Tharunka crew were interested in breaking through silences, we received a flow of information and ideas. We published prisoners’ signed statements about organised mass violent assaults. The SMH had rebuffed the requests of civil liberties’ lawyers that they be published.  A fellow student and Aboriginal activist Paul Coe and author Frank Hardy assisted us in a publishing a four-page supplement in support of the Gurindji Land Rights struggle. This advocated a boycott of Imperial Foods, which was owned by Vesteys, the UK company that owned the cattle stations where Aboriginal stockmen were on strike. 

The strongest intellectual influence on our first publications were the Situationists, and especially Guy Debord who wrote The Society of the Spectacle. The roots of Situationism could be traced back to Dadaism and Surrealism. By the time the Situationists reached the height of their influence in the massive French uprising of students and workers in 1968, they could be described as anti-state Marxists.

The Situationists encouraged breaking out of everyday routines and roles. They were interested in urban planning and architecture. Earlier in the sixties, they went on ‘wanderings’ through the city. They recorded their findings which they used to explore the link between environment and influence on the behaviour and emotions of individuals. This they called, “psychogeography.”

The Situationists argued that rather than being seen as a separate sphere, art should be integrated into everyday life. Later, Debord argued that art must be dissolved into revolutionary praxis. We found his critique of modern capitalism compelling. My memory is that we only read translations of parts of the Situationist works, extracting quotes and extracts for publication.

The idea of the Spectacle made sense to us at two levels. The commodification of daily life was everywhere around us in the endless ads for appliances, fashion, apartments and holidays. Sydney’s first major mall Roselands was promoted as a fairyland where customers, 70% of whom were women, could organise exciting day long excursions. But we also saw the spectacle in notions of democracy and politics that encouraged passivity and acceptance of authority. 

In 1969, we were still on the cusp in Australia of a major uprising of movements around Aboriginal Land rights, black rights, women’s liberation, gay rights, prisoners’ rights, kids’ rights and environmental activism. A major property boom meant that lower-income residents in the Inner City were being forced out of old working-class neighbourhoods. Developers had their eyes on remnants of urban bushland. Residents action groups were mushrooming. Unions were vilified in the media for their fairly frequent strikes, including for the 35-hour week. The construction workers’ Green Bans that saved parts of Sydney were not imagined until 1971. 

Those involved in each of these movements developed a voice through their own art and journalism. Coverage of the issues raised were also pushed from the shadows into more mainstream art and journalism. This project will always have unfinished business. Silences continued, especially around the issues faced by those on the margins. It is worth exploring for example why, even though we campaigned to stop the cruelty in the juvenile justice system, child abuse was never mentioned. 

Our revolutionary optimism was unfounded. A decade later, we reflected on whether our confidence in the ‘revolutionary moment’ was itself an illusion, just another part of the spectacle. To use another Situationist term, what were the processes by which capitalism ‘recuperated’ and became even more extreme adding to inequalities and climate change that threatens millions of people and species?

While each period is different, those of us who remember 1969 feel the reverberations of the past. Those who are threatened by repression and vilification respond with frightening force and promise more repression. Censorship and self-censorship still exist while the spectacles of freedom and democracy surround us.  We know that being treated as customers and clients is not the same as being a citizen and that consultation that is not intended to be meaningful cannot stand in for participation. 

2 thoughts on “Newspapers, free speech and activism in Sydney since 1969”

  1. Like a heirloom that increases in value as time goes by, this article shows the courage to reveal injustices with a rudimentary media half a century ago.
    What amazes me is that most of them are to be displayed again in the most prominent place of the house.
    Let give each issue the reverence it deserves by exposing them to the extended family of social media hence honouring the truth. You are such a legend Wendy.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding Nieves. I often think of those of you out West on the Darling River. I am wondering how much of the ‘real story’ of the drought and heat has been suppressed or simply not considered – that’s quite apart of course of the silencing around the occupation and its terrible aftermath of the lands of the First Nation’s people.

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