Sunday, November 30, 2003

The Sydney Morning Herald and its response to WWI

This is an extract from my thesis: The Sydney Morning Herald and the Debate on Allied War Aims

The Revolution of Appearances
by Jessica Perini

As a response to the radical anti-war challenges of 1917, the Sydney Morning Herald utilised time honoured patriotic themes, appealing to most people’s loyalty to the Empire. This fog of patriotism was often used by the Herald to avoid addressing certain difficult issues such as the inhumanities of British Imperialism in India and her naval blockade of Germany. The Germans were stereotyped as the omnipresent ‘Hun’, barbarians, baby killers, or thieves wishing to plunder the whole world for its treasures. The war was seen as a battle between might and right, good and evil, and Satan and Christ. Any offer of peace from the Germans, whether it be from the socialists or the militarists, was depicted as coming from this evil source whereby destructive intentions were hidden.

At first the Herald’s rhetoric and argument were scarcely very sophisticated. Negative themes prevailed. Even in Australia, people who were perceived as ‘disloyalists’, such as politically active workers and Irish Catholics, were alienated by the Herald, which failed to realise the value of their allegiance. In both conscription campaigns these groups were characterised as ‘Sinn Feiners’ and members of the ‘I.W.W.’ These name calling tactics, no doubt, assisted in the failure of the referendums as workers, Irishmen and Catholics alike, flocked to people such as Archbishop Mannix, who understood and appealed to their insecurities and needs.

The Herald ’s negative tactics were in keeping with the Federal Government’s ‘Win-the-War’ policy. In principle, the policy dictated that any attempt made by a party (other than the leading Entente figureheads) to secure a ‘premature’ negotiated peace before the Entente’s victory, must be discredited. The Herald adhered to this policy throughout 1917.

The Herald ’s rhetoric, however, did evolve during this period. It changed tack as did other conservatives in order to keep abreast of the tide of progressive political thinking that swept the world under the influence of Lenin and Wilson. At first, the Herald denied the need for any definition of Allied war aims, the simplistic ideal of right verses might would suffice, it argued. However, as pressures pushed conservatives into stating their aims the Herald was forced to accept the necessity. Once the Allied leaders had stated these aims in January 1917 they were able to be scrutinised by the people of the world. The case for the Herald now became more complicated. Instead of trumpeting the hollow cliches concerning good against evil, the paper now had to defend the full range of British imperialistic aims. It did so by applying the racist argument of the ‘cause of civilisation’, denying the Germans a place of power above white European society, and stating that the Germans were not fit to rule over any race. Only the British and the Australians had such high strength of moral character.

As Wilson’s role became more important in the effective defeat of Germany, so too did his rhetoric. Wilson was depicted as the epitome of democracy. His statements of American war aims evangelised this ideal along with the idea of ‘self determination’ and the defence of small nations. The Allies, in an attempt to show the world the unity of the Entente, took up his language and his arguments regarding war aims. In an attempt to look progressive, the Sydney Morning Herald also adopted his position, whilst painfully aware that some of its aspects did not coincide with certain Entente aims. The Herald’s aim, therefore, was to attempt to reconcile the ideals of the Entente with those of Wilsonianism. For the Herald, which had actively supported and praised the autocratic Russian Tsar only months before, this was not easy, and involved some uncomfortable verbal gymnastics.

The democratic banner that the Herald now purported to fly in fact constituted a revolution of appearances. It was not taken on in practice by the writers of the Herald. The aim of winning the war was still seen by this paper as an ideal to be achieved above any democratic principle. Strikes, anti-conscription rallies and pacifist elements in society were still seen as purely disloyal. Their democratic right to present such opinions was denied.

The Herald also continued to advocate the special concerns of the Australian Government. Hughes’ attempt to placate the Irish Republicans was supported in the pages of the Herald which also urged action on the issue of Irish Home Rule. This was a surprising departure on the part of the Herald which normally always took the view of the British Government. Apparently on this occasion the Herald’s perception of Australian political requirements outweighed its usual unquestioning loyalty to the London. Similarly, the Herald’s views of Australia’s possession of the former German colonies was guided by the boisterous advocacy of Billy Hughes who sought to stiffen the official British position.

The Herald ’s continued and unwavering loyalty towards Hughes during the greater part of 1917, made its decision to drop support for him after the failure of the second referendum all the more dramatic. The Herald explained its decision by stating that the Australian people had decided against the referendum due to their fear of living under a dictatorship. The Wilsonian ideal of democracy now necessitated the removal of an undemocratic Australian leader, allowing someone more in tune with the people’s needs to step up onto the platform. The defeat of the referendum and the subsequent call by the Herald for Hughes to step down illustrated how great a blow was the loss of the referendum for this paper. Subsequently it realised that it must pursue policies which were more in line with the values of the population, and recognised immediately the popular appeal of the seemingly progressive Wilsonian slogans.

With war weariness on the rise all around the world the cries for a negotiated peace sounded in the ears of progressive and conservative politicians alike. Most leaders of the Entente sought to fight the war until victory so that their economic, military and social supremacy could rank highly above that of the Central Powers. Conservative papers thus had the task of justifying the prolongation of the war to the people of their nations. The Sydney Morning Herald was among the many that attempted to dodge, weave and manipulate arguments in support of a continued effort despite the many calls against it. In the light of the rejection of both conscription referenda, it may be argued that the success of the Herald in promoting the resilient patriotism was equivocal. The only election in the period saw the return of a government determined to see the war through at any cost. However, the Australian people refused to give their government a blank cheque covering the expenditure of soldier’s lives. This surely indicates that a majority of people still harboured reservations concerning the aims of the Allied coalition. This study of the Sydney Morning Herald may well provide a clue. The Herald’s sudden promotion of the war as a great democratic crusade in the fourth year of war, was simply unconvincing, in the light of its previous support for the sacred Imperial cause. The arguments constituting its revolution of appearances were far too transparent.


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