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Launch speech: Elizabeth Morrison's
David Syme: Man of the Age

David Syme was launched by Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison at the State Library of Victoria on 12 August 2014.

Graeme Davison and author Elizabeth Morrison at the book launch for David Syme

Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison with author Elizabeth Morrison

By Graeme Davison

For almost sixty years, I have been getting up in the morning and walking to the front gate to collect my copy of the Age. The Age was not the first paper to appear in my parents’ household – for a few years until its sad demise in the mid-50s we took the Argus, mainly, I think, through loyalty to my uncle who worked there as a linotype operator. But since my primary years the morning arrival of the Age has been one of the most constant features of my life, so much so, my children once observed, that if it doesn’t turn up I am irritable for the rest of the day. Nowadays, of course, the Age isn’t necessarily a paper at all and you don’t even have to go outside to get it. Barbara and I no longer have to compete for the front page because we can easily go to the Ipad, which she insists is just as good.  She has joined the 50 percent of readers who now access the Age electronically. As a Gutenberg man, I’m still umbilically tied to print.

The Age, of course, is more than a morning habit. It is something very close to the conscience or, as David Syme might have said, to the soul of Melbourne. For a century and half, it has voiced that strain of liberalism – serious, progressive, moral – that is Victoria’s distinctive contribution to the national conversation. In 1892 the visiting English journalist Francis Adams described it as ‘the very mouthpiece of Melbourne and Victoria. Every virtue and every vice of that singular little democracy are expressed by it with a clearness and an emphasis which are either profoundly instinctive or profoundly unscrupulous.’

Then, as now, even those who don’t like the Age’s opinions define themselves in relation to it. There are probably more differences than similarities in style and opinion between David Syme’s Age and Andrew Holden’s Age, (I am sure he would say it is more scrupulous) but when I read an Age editorial I still sometimes imagine I hear that voice– stern yet soft, righteous yet worldly– the voice of its longest-lived proprietor, David Syme.

The Age’, Liz Morrison writes in the splendid biography we are celebrating tonight, ‘was the newspaper Victoria had to have’. It was a product of the colony’s golden age and of its vigorous immigrant democracy. But, as she also shows, it was also a reflection of the complex, driven, prodigiously talented yet strangely vulnerable personality of its proprietor. David Syme, as the title of her book says, was a man, perhaps the man of the age.  No other Victorian of his generation exerted more influence for as long as he did, yet the relationship between the man, his newspaper, its readers and his time, remains mysterious.

It is this mystery that Liz’s book sets out to plumb. To the story already told by previous biographers she adds new layers.  Some, like her perceptive account of Syme’s relationships with his family, offer clues to the inner life of the sometimes remote and abrasive public man.  Others, like her discussion of the workings of the newspaper as a business enterprise, including its technological and financial dimensions, reveal the hidden foundations of the paper’s immense influence.

David Syme was the youngest son of a Scottish schoolmaster. As a child he felt forgotten and unloved, and even as a young adult he lived in the shadow of his better-educated elder brothers. Like them, he at first seemed destined for the church but in the wake of the great disruption of 1843, Scotland was in religious ferment. Gradually all of the Syme brothers diverged from Calvinist orthodoxy towards a more liberal faith. By the time David reached his twenties there was nothing much in Scotland to keep him, and when Australia beckoned, he left without regrets. ‘Here I said to myself is a land where there is room and opportunity’.

In gold rush Victoria, he became a road contractor while his older brother Ebenezer turned to journalism, first with the Argus and later with its much smaller competitor, the Age. It was only through the unexpected death of Ebenezer in 1860, that David, largely out of a sense of obligation to his bereaved sister-in-law Jane and her children, and for the sake of his own young family, became proprietor of the Age. David Syme was unquestionably a man of great capacity, but without his brother’s untimely death, it is doubtful that he would have become the dominating figure that he did. As Liz shows, this family crisis cast a very long shadow over Syme’s life. Liz is the first biographer to tell in full the story of Syme’s often anguished relationship with his sister-in-law, Jane: a poignant domestic drama that throws light, not only on Syme’s character, but on the temptations and deceptions that beset a young widow alone in an often unfriendly world.

David Syme had left Scotland but not everything of Scotland, or the faith of his fathers, had left him. The farther he strayed from formal Presbyterianism, the more tenaciously he held to its stern morality and sense of duty. Having renounced the Christian pulpit, he heeded a call, no less clear, to a secular pulpit, the editor’s chair of a daily newspaper. ‘I believed that I knew what the country required & I felt it to be my duty to put my views before the public’, he later declared. As Liz shows, others had championed many of the Age’s core policies, such as tariff protection and land reform, before Syme adopted them, but no-one preached them with more zeal.

Liz approaches her subject with a close understanding of the world of nineteenth century newspaper publishing. She builds on the knowledge gathered in the writing of her previous book Engines of Influence on the Victorian country press, and on her studies of Ada Cambridge, whose society novels first became known through serial publication in the Australian press. David Syme took charge of the Age at a critical moment in the history of modern journalism, just as new technologies of communication – the electric telegraph and rotary press– were extending the reach and accessibility of the printed word. When the Symes took over the Age its daily circulation was only 7500, one-sixth that of its main rival the Argus. By 1872, the year when Australia was at last joined to England by cable, it had reached 24,000. By 1881, the year of Melbourne’s International Exhibition, it had doubled again to 45,000 and by 1890 it exceeded 100, 000, about five times that of its rival.

Because he was so successful in winning readers and extending the paper’s circulation, one can too readily assume that Syme had a brilliant command of the new technologies of cable and print. Certainly he was keenly aware of their importance and eager to adopt them, but as Liz shows, his reach often exceeded his grasp. His first ventures in rotary printing were plagued with technical difficulties and in the attempt to secure favourable access to the international cable news (yes, there were cable networks in the 1870s!) he was sometimes out-manoeuvred by his rivals. He was slow to adopt the linotype machines that revolutionised printing in the 1890s. On the other hand, he was a shrewd judge of journalistic talent and recruited some of the best journalists of the day, including the young Alfred Deakin, and his long-serving, adroit editor A.L Windsor.

David Syme himself was frank about his desire to exercise power. The Age, he observed, ‘does not ask the man in the street what he thinks but tells him what he ought to think’. Previous historians have portrayed him as the eminence grise of Victorian politics, making and unmaking governments, installing his own men and advancing his own political program with ruthlessness and skill. Liz presents us with a subtler portrait. Syme, she suggests, was not a political puppeteer pulling strings. There is little direct evidence of manipulation. As recent events have reminded us, however, a newspaper proprietor may exercise power without having to issue specific directions, if he already inhabits the mind of the politicians, who must habitually ask themselves ‘What would David – or Rupert– think?’

David Syme was an immigrant, but he became an Australian. He was convinced that Victoria’s experience could contribute an understanding of the great issues of the day.  The Symes had connections with radical political circles in England – with Chartists and Mazzinians–supporters of the Italian risorgimento,– and with the circles surrounding the Westminster Review and the publisher John Murray. An autodidact living far from Europe, David Syme nevertheless aspired to make his intellectual mark at Home, publishing works on political economy, biology, government and theology. In Victoria, he was a mighty power in the land. ‘When David Syme spoke, they listened’, one contemporary noted. But the four books he published in England had at most a polite, and sometimes less than polite, reception. Melbourne’s Professor McCoy thought that Syme’s book on evolution had ‘pretty well disposed of Darwinism’ but Alfred Wallace, who reviewed it for Nature, dismissed it as ‘a feeble and almost puerile attempt’ to overthrow a work of a scientific genius. It is hard to imagine a press tycoon of our own day engaging in such an apparently quixotic intellectual enterprise. Driving them all, however, as Liz suggests, was a deeply felt need, to restore a sense of coherence to a world no longer ruled by the wise superintending God of his Calvinist forebears.

This search for certainty was also perhaps the source of his perennial restlessness, anxiety, and ambition. There was much to admire in Syme’s lofty sense of public duty, his deep, if unsentimental, care for his family and employees. But the picture of the man that emerges from Liz’s book is not that of a person at peace with his world. In three or four pages describing Syme’s relations with his employees, she uses the following adjectives: carping, unremitting, querulous, abrasive, acerbic, peremptory, insulting, patronising, dictatorial and sarcastic. Many years later, the businessmen W. S. Robinson shrewdly observed that perhaps the man who appeared so ‘forbidding’ to his inferiors was himself suffering a ‘definite inferiority complex.’

As I read Liz’s book, I wondered whether Syme recognised the contradictions in his own life. A Calvinist without God, an unloved son who became a severe father, a radical democrat of dictatorial tendencies, a potentate who yearned to be an intellectual, an enemy of hereditary rights who, by the end of his life, had established a landed dynasty–Syme seems to be a man driven by forces he scarcely understood. When he died in 1908 he was buried in a tomb worthy of a Roman emperor in the Boroondara Cemetery. His friend and fellow Scot, Reverend Patrick Murdoch of Trinity Presbyterian Church Camberwell, read the burial service. A year or so earlier Murdoch had introduced Syme to his son Keith, a shy, devout lad with a pronounced stammer. Syme was impressed by the boy’s shorthand skill and gave him a job as Malvern correspondent to the Age, at the handsome retainer of 1 1/2 d a line. Keith Murdoch, another lapsed Presbyterian, would eventually become the managing director of another Melbourne paper, the Herald, and, in turn, the father of the most powerful Australian pressman of them all.

From Ebenezer Syme, who vowed ‘to make the power of the press subservient to the diffusion of a pure and Christian morality’, down to the proprietor of the News of the World, from the man who discouraged his reporters from using the telephone to one whose employees hacked other people’s phones, there is, despite appearances, a direct line of succession. David Syme and Rupert Murdoch espoused different moral and political beliefs, but exhibit similar personality traits. As Liz suggests in her final pages, David Syme could well be described as a ‘proto-tycoon’, exercising within colonial Victoria the same relentless drive for power and control that his protégé’s son now exercises globally.

David Syme: Man of the Age is a rich, detailed and persuasive portrait of an important Australian.  As I have tried to suggest, it will stimulate reflection not only on Syme himself but also on the role of the press in his age and ours. But finally I want turn from the man of the age to the woman of the hour, our author Liz Morrison.
Liz, it is a special honour and pleasure, to be invited to launch this book, the culmination of your long scholarly engagement with the history of Australia’s print culture. It is appropriate that the book should appear under the Monash Publishing imprint and be launched here at the State Library and in association with the Age, two cornerstones of Victoria’s cultural life. Our paths first crossed, I think, when you were a member of the Monash School of Librarianship. Later, under the supervision of my colleague John Rickard, you completed your PhD in our School of Historical Studies. It’s wonderful that many of your old Melbourne friends are here tonight. On their behalf, as well as your new ones in Canberra, I congratulate you on this achievement.  Will you join with me in wishing success to David Syme: Man of the Age?


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