Auckland’s newspaper wars, Grant Hannis

Extra! Extra! How the People Made the News
David Hastings
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869407384

Histories of New Zealand newspapers are usually boring. I’m sure anyone who’s tried to read Guy Scholefield’s 1958 history of New Zealand newspapers has soon given up. The text is detailed to the point of incomprehensibility and the writing grindingly dull. Incredibly, Scholefield’s volume remains the most up-to-date general history of the topic. And dullness can’t begin to describe James Sanders’s 1979 history of the New Zealand Press Association (NZPA), the country’s now-defunct news agency. Sanders even feels the need to tell us when NZPA’s committee started a new minute book.

There’s no reason it should be this way. Newspaper reporters are often present when fascinating events occur – from the fall of dictators to a fire-fighter saving a cat up a tree. And newspaper people are often eccentric, engaging characters. There are some signs of change. One is Redmer Yska’s recently published lively account of the history of New Zealand Truth. But you usually need to track down journalists’ autobiographies to find great tales. Deadline, Pat Booth’s reminiscences of his life in newspapers (including investigating the Arthur Allan Thomas case), is a good example. And Pat Lawlor’s vintage account of working as a reporter in the early part of the 20th century, Confessions of a Journalist, is still a great read.

And so too, thankfully, is David Hastings’s Extra! Extra! How the People Made the News. It’s an account of the fierce wars fought between competing Auckland newspapers in the 1800s. It is a welcome contribution to the small number of New Zealand newspaper histories that are actually fun to read. The book charts the careers of the main Auckland newspapers of the 19th century, the New Zealander, the Southern Cross, the New Zealand Herald and the Star. The New Zealander is no longer with us, having closed in 1866, but, of course, the Herald is (having merged with the Cross in the 1870s). The Star survived until the end of the 20th century as the Auckland Star, but today only remains as part of the name of the Sunday Star-Times.

There is much to commend in this book. Hastings is an ex-journalist, whose jobs have included editing the Herald’s weekend edition, and his love and understanding of news reporting infuse the text. The book gives gripping accounts of journalists covering various events in New Zealand’s colonial history. Take the capture of Ruapekapeka Pa, Hone Heke’s stronghold during the Northern War of the 1840s. Aucklanders were desperate to hear the news, which arrived in the town seven days after the event (such were the vagaries of waiting for news to arrive by land and ship in the 19th century). The massive demand for news of the event saw copies of the New Zealander sell like hot cakes. “It claimed to have sold 2000 copies, a huge number in a town with a population of around 3000,” Hastings tells us.

And how about this account of the hanging of a murderer at Mt Eden prison in the 1860s? The heavily disguised hangman was, in fact, also a prisoner, who had agreed to do the job in return for time off his sentence. After the deed was done, he walked away from the scaffold, but other prisoners recognised him by his distinctive walking style and, a paper reported, there “erupted ‘a perfect Babel of yells, hooting, curses and the most terrible threats of vengeance’ ”.

Some of the best stories in the book are about news that never was. During the Waikato War, the New Zealander published what Hastings calls “one of the great blunders of New Zealand journalism”. It ran a report that Maori had murdered 10 Pakeha near Wairoa. The reporter had no independent confirmation of the rumoured deaths, but the newspaper ran it anyway. The story was simply wrong – no such event had taken place. The Government had to post notices around the town to calm people, and the competing Cross smugly told its readers that it had also heard of the supposed killings, but “it being only a rumour, we abstained from giving publicity to it.”

But smugness can easily become hubris. In 1873, possibly as a joke or to raise public awareness of the possibility of invasion, the new editor at the Cross, David Luckie, ran a story he thought his readers would find obviously fake. The story was about a Russian warship attacking Auckland. The ship was the Kaskowiski (Cask of Whisky – geddit?), and the article noted that the events reported took place three months in the future. But many readers didn’t spot the hints. Instead, panic spread in Auckland and, when the truth came out, Aucklanders were furious. Luckie never really lived down the shame.

We also learn of the hazards of trying to be first with the story. A common 19th-century practice was for reporters to take small boats out into the harbour to meet incoming ships, collect overseas newspapers from onboard, row back to shore and thus beat their competitors with international news. It was a risky business. In 1863 reporter Harry Lewis nearly drowned during a gale when his boat was swamped, and the next year was badly scalded when a steamer suddenly spat a stream of hot water. Fellow reporter Henry Brett was forced to push a competing reporter off a stairway when he tried to grab Brett’s stash of newspapers, and Brett was nearly run down by a ship during what he called a “thick dark night” in the Rangitoto Channel.

The book is generously illustrated. We are accustomed to see 19th-century journalists as stern-looking figures posing stiffly for the camera, so it’s a breath of fresh air to see contemporary cartoons that playfully mock these journalists. And Hastings includes some great pen-portraits of the journalists who populate his history. John Williamson was a hopeless alcoholic until a member of the clergy converted him “into a fierce – if occasionally backsliding – advocate of temperance.” Then there’s the poignant tale of George Main, who had a long career at the New Zealander and the Herald. He grew ill with diabetes, and the Herald put him on indefinite sick leave with full pay. When his condition did not improve, he grew depressed. One day, he visited the Herald office for a chat, went home and killed himself. Coupled with their grief, his colleagues were confused. As a reporter, Main had often covered suicide and frequently spoke out against it. The inquest found he’d slit his own throat while temporarily insane.

As successful as Hastings’s narrative history is, there is another dimension to the book. Hastings intends his book to be a counter-argument to just about all the conventional wisdom in New Zealand 19th-century journalism history and some heavy-duty communication theory besides. That’s quite a tall order, and Hastings’s analysis is too slender to convince. He does not accept, for instance, the conventional idea that the New Zealander failed because its pro-Maori stance alienated readers. But his evidence is piecemeal. Rather than thoroughly addressing and refuting the arguments, Hastings simply asserts that the paper failed because it was slower to publish news than was its competitor, the Cross. Hastings gives a few examples of this as evidence. That’s not sufficient.

He also takes issue with claims newspapers can dictate public opinion. Rather, he says, newspapers must allow public opinion to dictate their editorial positions, or else they will lose their audience and fail. Indeed, this is the explanation for the book’s title, which, when you think about it, tells us nothing about what the book is actually about: 19th-century Auckland newspaper history. But Hastings gives us little, if any, evidence to support his argument. Admittedly, it would be difficult to provide evidence about Auckland readers’ views on various topics and their reaction to news coverage, but that is Hastings’s contention, so he needed solid evidence.

And Hastings’s theoretical arguments are not nuanced. Time and again he argues that news is what matters to readers and to understanding the fortunes of newspapers, not the papers’ editorial stances. But he assumes news is value-free; he gives no deep analysis of the nature of news. Whose stories are told? Whose narratives are favoured? Whose voices are heard? Indeed, the fact all the heroes of Hastings’s tale are white males, which may have played a factor in how they represented the news, seems to pass him by. But as a narrative history of Auckland’s newspaper wars in the 1800s, the book is a great read. Perhaps one day Hastings will publish a follow-up, giving an account of Auckland’s newspapers in the 20th century. I would certainly read it.

 

Grant Hannis heads the postgraduate journalism programme at Massey University in Wellington.

 

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