An editor of independent disposition

Dunedin in the late 1850s. Photo: ODT files
Dunedin in the late 1850s. Photo: ODT files

In this extract from a new book, Lasting Impressions: The story of New Zealand’s newspapers, 1840-1920, by Ian F. Grant, an Anglican attempts to establish a masthead in Presbyterian Dunedin.

The Otago Association's leaders planned their settlement with great care, and a considerable dollop of idealism, even producing eight numbers of the Otago Journal in Edinburgh to inform those interested in the settlement's progress. Although they did not make any provision for a newspaper in Dunedin, the Association's John McGlashan had assured Henry Graham he would receive support if he began one. There was, as it turned out, considerable naivety in McGlashan's assurance.

"A printer from Carlisle, Graham arrived in Dunedin in September 1848 bringing with him a wife, family, types, and a printing press.'' The first fortnightly issue of the Otago News appeared on 13 December, nine months after the first settlers arrived.

The paper's motto - "There's pippins and cheese to come'' - was completely lacking in Presbyterian earnestness, but then Graham, an Anglican, was not enthusiastic about the Free Church of Scotland or, for that matter, with the settlement's links to the New Zealand Company. He had, as Patrick Day puts it: "... . a personal dislike of both the class nature of the New Zealand Company settlements and the religious exclusivism of Otago''. He had no financial backing, had to produce the paper entirely on his own, lacked any sympathetic connection with the settlement's leadership, and his instincts were working class ones.

As A. H. McLintock summed up:

"Although Graham was slow to realise the fact, his prospects from the outset were hopeless. He was handicapped by two grave factors, that he was an Englishman and, worse, no Free Churchman. In effect, this meant that the Otago press was controlled by an'alien' who could not be expected to understand the peculiar merits of the Otago class settlement.''

Captain William Cargill  dominated Otago during the 1850s, his autocratic and inflexible approach...
Captain William Cargill dominated Otago during the 1850s, his autocratic and inflexible approach - if not his intolerance of Anglicanism - possibly necessary during the province’s early struggle to survive. He died in 1860. PHOTO: ATL: 1/2-005014-F
Despite this, Wellington's NZ Spectator acknowledged the arrival of the first issue in January 1849 in a generally positive manner.

"It is rather more than half the size of the Spectator, and contains three columns in each page. It is very neatly and carefully got up, and promises to become a useful addition to the New Zealand press. We regret we can find no extract referring to local affairs of sufficient interest to furnish our readers with a'taste of its quality', but we must abide our time, since we are assured better things are in store ...''

Early issues gave an idea of the size of the community the paper was attempting to survive in.

"Our population, in the town alone, is nearly 500; including 18 land proprietors, 20 storekeepers, 24 carpenters, sawyers, etc, and about 100 labourers. At Port Chalmers, Andersons Bay, the Half-way Bush and Taeiri, and Moyneaus, we have a population of about 160; including 16 land proprietors, 9 carpenters, etc, and 16 shepherds and labourers.''

With no co-operation from Captain William Cargill or colleagues, Graham followed his instincts and, in his fourth issue, supported a working men's petition for a shorter working day - 10 hours was the norm in Scotland - arguing that longer hours seriously affected labourers' attempts at self-improvement.

More troubling to the settlement's leaders was his subsequent assertion that Otago was suitable only for grazing and not for agriculture as had been widely promoted.

"On looking at the map of the Otago district, it cannot fail to strike the eye of every unprejudiced observer, that our prosperity as a town must entirely depend upon herds of cattle and flocks of sheep; in fact, that we do not possess, in any part of the district, land suited for the success of agricultural pursuits. ... Allowing then, that the Otago district is essentially a grazing district ... . why have the New Zealand Company, or Free Church Association (if they are distinct), not acted on this knowledge, and sent such a class of free immigrants out as would have proved a valuable acquisition to the purchasers of land and stock?''

Graham accused the Free Church Association and the New Zealand Company of deliberately misleading propaganda and, for good measure, questioned Captain Cargill's ability. Cargill, in turn, claimed that much of what Graham wrote was biased and often untrue. It was, in fact, irrelevant whether Graham was right - as he was - or not. As McLintock wrote:

"He had dared to challenge the authorities, he had dared to criticize the policy of close settlement under the watchful eye of its moral police. He was to pay dearly for his rashness.''

There was no conciliatory attempt by the leadership to provide Graham with information that might have modified his reliance on rumour and prejudice. Instead, battle lines were drawn more rigidly with the cancellation of 40 subscriptions and official advertising. As Ross Harvey has estimated the paper's circulation never exceeded 80 copies. This was a severe blow to Graham's already shaky finances that were necessarily propped up with job printing and stationery sales.

James Macandew in what has been described as New Zealand’s first political cartoon/caricature,...
James Macandew in what has been described as New Zealand’s first political cartoon/caricature, drawn by James Brown, a Dunedin engraver, in 1852. PHOTO: THE UNAUTHORIZED VERSION: A CARTOON HISTORY OF NEW ZEALAND, P9

DESPITE this, six months later, in early June, Graham moved to weekly publication, even enlarging the paper.

"To those who consider 6d a week too much to expend on a newspaper, we say, combine together, and in two's and three's you will easily obtain your point of cheapness, and confer an additional advantage on the publisher. Co-operation has done much for the labouring man at home, and it is a system which may be pursued with still greater advantage here.''

Initially, Graham's views were widely and sympathetically reported in other Colony papers.

The New Zealander wrote: "Our young and promising contemporary the Otago News has not only outlived Captain Cargill's despotic attempt either to crush or to reduce it to a slavish serfdom to his own will, but has enlarged its size; comes out weekly instead of fortnightly; and is bidding fair to take a respectable place amongst the Colonial journals.''

However, a November 1849 memorial signed by virtually every adult male in Dunedin gave editors pause. It stated that the Otago community had no sympathy for the views expressed by the Otago News. The Wellington Independent editorialised:

"If the Liberty of the Press is to be protected, we submit that the liberty of the purchasers and readers of newspapers is to be protected also; and we know of no ground on which a party is to be compelled to purchase and circulate 40 copies of a paper which in common with nearly a whole community he considers as propagating falsehood and being highly injurious to himself and fellow colonists. If you commence dealing with a shopkeeper or even encourage him to open shop in the belief that he will supply you with sound goods, you are certainly at liberty to withdraw your custom when you find he deals in rotten apples or stinking fish ...''

Further, there was certainly no automatic acceptance of Graham's subsequent claim that "every sinister movement was resorted to, and every tortuous path attempted to compass an additional signature'' in gathering the memorial's 147 signatures.

During the settlement's struggling and sometimes chaotic early years the Otago News survived as the focal point for opposition, on several fronts, to Dunedin's leadership until, in April 1850, Henry Graham had had enough and announced his departure. Doubtless to his surprise, he was encouraged to continue, not by the unbending Cargill but by those appreciating his advocacy for representative government and genuine concern for the welfare of the embryonic settlement.

"A meeting of the friends and supporters of Mr. Graham the Proprietor of the Otago News has been held, at which a subscription of 80 was presented to him as an inducement to remain in that Settlement another twelve months, by which time it was hoped the settlement would increase sufficiently to allow of the paper being well supported.''

Now very ill with consumption, he carried on producing his paper every 10 days, still promoting the working man's interests as vigorously as before. His antipathy towards Cargill did not waver either, calling him "our modern Shylock'' when he resisted labourers' demands for higher wages. The last issue of the Otago News appeared on 21 December 1850.

"... . Matters more personal to ourselves, and which should, in some cases, never have appeared brought us into collision very early in our career with the heads of the Church and the Company here, and our pecuniary prospects have borne a tinge of darkness in consequence ...'man cannot live upon grass alone'. So long as health lasted, the struggle was not unequal, or its results depressing; but when sickness laid its heavy finger upon us, it was time to say the word 'Adieu', and to draw our labours to a close.''

Graham died in February 1851.

Meanwhile, James Macandrew, who had been in correspondence with Dunedin before sailing south, was interested in establishing a newspaper. As R. J. Bunce wrote:

"He knew that the editor of the only newspaper, the Otago News, was so antagonistic to the leadership of the Settlement that when his critical copy returned to the United Kingdom it undermined the marketing of the new settlement. Macandrew was equipped to meet these challenges and sailed carrying'a large amount in specie for the establishment of a Bank and Type &c for a newspaper'.''

Dunedin's leaders had learned valuable, if painful, lessons from the Otago News' two divisive years as the settlement's only newspaper. In the event, 11 of Dunedin's leading citizens - including Macandrew - subscribed the necessary capital and the "stock, plant and goodwill of the defunct News were at once secured''.

In early February 1851, the Otago Witness, a fortnightly newspaper of a very different stripe, made its first appearance. It committed itself, in the first issue, to principles comfortably in accord with those of Otago's founders. It was no co-incidence that the first editor was everything Graham had not been. Care was also taken to avoid one-man crusades.

"... .where there is but one newspaper, the guardianship of these views and principles is too much to be entrusted to any one man, and it will therefore be placed in the hands of a Committee ...''

The book

Lasting Impressions: The story of New Zealand’s newspapers, 1840-1920, by Ian F. Grant, is published by Fraser Books.

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