Saturday, 22 February 2014

Clunes 1873: A problematic press

It is clear that most historical accounts of the Clunes riot are peppered with errors of fact. Whether it was the purpose of the strike, the number of Chinese involved, the nature of the clash or how many coaches there were, historians have tended to provide contradictory information. The colonial media gives important information on events in Clunes but some reports were clearly less reliable than others.[1] In Melbourne, the Argus, the Age and the Australasian, the sources most often cited by historians covered the issue but so too did the Daily Telegraph, the Herald, the Weekly Times and the Leader. There were also pieces in regional newspapers, including the Ballarat Evening Standard, the Castlemaine Leader, the Geelong Advertiser, the Mount Alexander Mail and the Bendigo Advertiser.

How did they obtain news? Within Victoria the rival accounts of three regional newspapers were telegraphed out and reprinted across the colony. For example, the Clunes Guardian’s report[2] appeared in the Castlemaine Representative, the Ballarat Star’s in the Mount Alexander Mail, and the Ballarat Courier’s in the Geelong Advertiser. The sources that colonial newspapers used were often unattributed and reports were commonly presented with the by-line ‘From Our Correspondent’. This was the case with article carried in both the Age and the Argus on which Manning Clark, Andrew Markus, Eric Rolls and other historians rely. Other papers across Victoria took secondary material telegraphed from Melbourne and many compiled articles later in the week from a jumble of different sources that probably arrived by post. For example, the Pleasant Creek News at Ararat took its news direct from the Ballarat Courier and the Clunes Guardian while most rural papers such as the Ovens & Murray Advertiser at distant Beechworth relied on second- or even third-hand information. As a result, the ‘reports’ deteriorated in quality and what occurred in Clunes developed from an ‘incident’ into a ‘ferocious uprising’.

In addition to the problem of embroidering news of what happened at Clunes, newspapers frequently took a particular editorial stance. Most rural newspapers were sympathetic to the miners apart from the conservative Ballarat Evening Post that sided with management painting the striking miners in the most anarchistic colours

Employers have a perfect right to purchase their labor in the cheapest market’.[3]

Although other regional newspapers were calling what had taken place a ‘Miners’ Demonstration’, the ‘Clunes Disturbance’ or the ‘Clunes Incident’, the same issue of the Evening Post carried an unattributed report from the Clunes Guardian under the inflammatory heading ‘Anti-Chinese Riot’, the first newspaper in the colonies to do so.

The Ballarat Star is an important source and not only because it interviewed two eyewitnesses from the coach party for its initial report of 10 December. While the Evening Post sided with the Lothair Company and the Courier with the miners, the Star was the only Ballarat newspaper that attempted a non-partisan line. Its editors were aware that news may be distorted and in addition to a further analysis of the riot, on Friday 12 December printed without comment entire paragraphs reporting on Clunes extracted from other newspapers in Melbourne and central Victoria. This made very clear to readers that embellishments were appearing in the media beyond Ballarat. The following morning the Star went further and, in a daring editorial, took issue with the Melbourne Age that shifted its position each day, siding with the company one morning then the townspeople the next. The Star suggested that the Age’s coverage of the incident was unreliable and contradictory backed up with quotations to support its case, accused the paper of having a political agenda and editorialising instead of reporting. However, the Star’s criticisms apparently had little effect and were subsequently largely overlooked by historians.

In Melbourne, with only minor changes, on 10 December, both the Age[4] and the Argus[5] printed the same unattributed piece from the Clunes Guardian. The next day, both papers printed editorials admonishing the miners. The Argus also carried a second report from the Clunes Guardian, while the Age ran the report from the Ballarat Courier with full attribution. The Argus dropped the issue on Friday 12 December, although the Age ran a further editorial retracting the previous day’s position and now pleading the case for the miners and also published the second report from the Clunes Guardian, also with an attribution.

The Herald and the Daily Telegraph attempted a broad coverage. An evening broadsheet, the Herald broke the news to Melburnians late on 9 December with a paragraph written from brief telegrams from the Ballarat Courier and the Creswick Advertiser. The following day, it ran the morning’s report without attribution from the Ballarat Courier and, under the caption ‘Riots at Clunes: Attack on Police by Crowds of Miners and Their Wives’ printed the attributed Ballarat Star’s report. On Thursday 11 December, the Herald attacked other newspapers for criticising the miners suggesting that if they were going to support the Lothair mine’s actions then those papers should themselves use cheap Asian labour. The Herald also filled a column on the opposite page with attributed paragraphs taken from the Bendigo Advertiser, the Geelong Advertiser and the Ballarat Courier, followed by a general comment on cheap foreign labour.[6] On 10 December, the Daily Telegraph ran attributed reports from the Clunes Guardian and the Ballarat Courier, as well as material condensed from the Creswick Advertiser. This was followed the next day by a full report from the Ballarat Star and a further long piece from the Clunes Guardian on the Friday. The Daily Telegraph also suggested in its editorials that the Clunes incident was inspired by a similar miners’ strike and picket line that had crippled Stawell about sixty miles to the west a few months before. The only difference was the ethnicity of the blacklegs: at Stawell they had been European, not Chinese.

On the weekend after the event, Melbourne’s three Saturday weeklies, the Leader, the Weekly Times and the Australasian, published their analyses of events. The Leader, while condemning the hostilities, insisted that it was a labour problem that had run out of hand. The paper suggested, referring to Sunday work

Their protest no man will say was an unreasonable one...The Chinese laborer has no Sunday, no home, no family and he is willing to sell his labor cheap.[7]

Quoting a late despatch from the Clunes Guardian, it insisted that the erosion of working conditions was the crux of the issue. To support this position, the Leader outlined the dispute at the Lothair mine summarising the proposed changes to wages and rosters and pointing to concerns over the expansion of working hours into Sunday; the troubles were about defending the Sabbath, not repelling the Chinese. The Leader also referred to recent actions at Stawell, where blacklegs had also been brought in from Ballarat to break a picket line. On that occasion the authorities had turned a blind eye when strike-breakers were attacked and expelled from the town.

It must not be forgotten that a few weeks ago acts of wanton violence were committed in another district under the very noses of the police...They that sow the storm must expect to reap the whirlwind, and the power that would stand unmoved while a miner was being assaulted, as at Stawell, might be expected to nod approvingly...The Clunes miners remembering this little episode may have felt that they enjoyed immunity, in the indifference of the authorities, from interference...

Hinting at vested interests, the paper asked why the government had sent police into Clunes when it had done nothing at Stawell. Like the Australasian, the Leader did not believe that an ethnic riot had taken place. It was a repeat of Stawell, a confrontation over working conditions and to argue otherwise was to misread the situation. The coverage in the influential Weekly Times with its wide circulation in rural Victoria consisted of a long disapproving editorial dismissing the issues that had prompted the action

...we neither know nor care exactly which of these two views [that is, the company’s and the miners’] is the correct one...The question simply resolves itself into one of law and order versus violence and mob rule.’[8]

The paper failed to summarise the events leading up to or during the incident. Its view was that ‘Cornish Communism’ and ‘American Rowdyism’ had infected the townspeople, who had erected barricades and engaged in a ‘fierce fight’ with the authorities. Its approach was polemical not factual.

The Australasian printed the unattributed report of the incident from the Clunes Guardian already used mid-week by the Age, the Argus and the Daily Telegraph. It also ran a half-column editorial that condemned the hostilities and, selectively quoting from various reports, mocked the suggestion now circulating that the fracas was motivated by fears of ‘moral pollution’ should the Chinese settle in Clunes. Its editors dismissed this as a flimsy excuse devised by apologists to conceal the real motives. For the Australasian what had happened at Clunes was not a race riot at all, but evidence of a slide into lawless bullying and mob rule in rural Victoria.

Nevertheless, the wild ‘anti-Chinese riot’ interpretation was taking a hold on the broader community and far outside Victoria it increasingly became the only explanation that mattered. The scale of the confrontation and its motives were submerged as Australian newspapers printed colourful descriptions of a tumultuous uprising by a brutish mob. Most had the miners and their wives assaulting the Chinese, although according to the Sydney Mail there had been a ‘collision’ between miners and the police so great that the latter were ‘compelled to retreat’. Some journals had staff artists run up illustrations purporting to show the event. The Australian Sketcher printed one a fortnight later, a small innocuous scene showing a crowd of respectably attired matrons tossing stones at a policeman on top of a distant coach. The most extreme image appeared three weeks after the event in the Illustrated Australian News that ran a large engraving of the supposed Clunes barricade with a single coach surrounded by troopers on foot who are being beaten and clubbed by a dark seething mob.

This media alarm highlighted a broad response across the country that ran counter to accepted historical interpretations. Weaving through many historians’ references to the Clunes incident is an implied testimony of the shameless prejudice of colonial Australia. It is not difficult to find evidence of the colonial media’s aversion for ‘the Celestials’. Yet newspapers did not support taking action against them and far from rejoicing at the suggestion that there had been an anti-Chinese uprising, the national media were condemnatory. For example, the staff of the Brisbane Courier Mail followed its brief telegraphed reports with a long editorial praising Chinese for their industry and sobriety and censuring those who would take up arms against them

This may be a temporary victory for the Clunes miners over the Lothario Company [sic] and the Chinese: but, unquestionably, it is a disgrace to the colony, and a defeat to the law, that may lead to very serious consequences.[9]

In paper after paper, editors and journalists wrote of events at Clunes with a mixture of repugnance and alarm.


[1] Cryle, Denis, (ed.), Disreputable Profession: Journalists and Journalism in Colonial Australia, (Central Queensland University Press), 1997, is a valuable collection of papers on the general issue of colonial newspapers. See also, Webby, Elizabeth, ‘Australia’, in Vann, J. Don and VanArsdel, Rosemary T., Periodicals of Queen Victoria’s Empire: An Exploration, (Mansell), 1996, pp. 19-60.

[2] No known copies of the Clunes Guardian for late 1873 survive but its two long despatches, one on the morning’s disturbance and another on a town meeting late in the day were widely reprinted in the colonial press.

[3] Evening Post, 10 December 1873.

[4] ‘Serious Disturbance at Clunes’, Age, 10 December 1873.

[5] ‘Chinese Labour at Clunes’, Argus, 10 December 1873.

[6] ‘Contemporary Opinion--The Clunes Riots’, Herald, 11 December 1873.

[7] Leader, 13 December 1873.

[8] ‘Mob Law’, Weekly Times, 13 December 1873.

[9] Brisbane Courier Mail, 13 December 1873, p. 4.

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