On 1 May 2021, the Hobart Friends of the ABC held an event to highlight World Press Freedom Day. In doing so they paid tribute to one of the pioneers of a free press in Tasmania, and indeed the nation, by naming it the Andrew Bent Memorial Lunch. I felt privileged to be invited to this well attended event, and it was wonderful to see Bent accorded some of the recognition he did not always receive in his lifetime.
In 2018 Andrew Bent was inducted posthumously into the Australian Media Hall of Fame. Had he known about the black tie dinner in Melbourne which honoured the 2018 crop of inductees he might have been rather bemused. He probably would have felt much more at home at this lunch in Hobart which was held at the Shambles Brewery, just a little way up the road from where he had his printing office in Elizabeth Street. It was also an appropriate venue because the very early numbers of the Hobart Town Gazette (1816) promoted the growing of hops, and brewing of ale. One cannot help reflecting also, without dwelling too much on it, that ‘shambles’ is a rather appropriate description of the latter part of Bent’s career.
John Pascoe Fawkner described Bent as a ‘sober man’ but that term was probably a relative one in early Hobart. There is evidence that he was a convivial man who enjoyed chewing the fat at the local watering holes. His editor, Evan Henry Thomas, appointed in 1824 after Bent had unceremoniously sacked the incumbent, was married to the landlady of the Cat and Fiddle. In the eighteen thirties Bent was a ‘particular friend’ of John Moses, who kept the St. John’s Tavern (later the Globe) on the corner of Collins and Murray streets. While Bent no doubt enjoyed a glass of ale, his tipple of choice was probably gin, if two little notes to the shop written in 1820 are anything to go by. These survive in the Calder papers in the State Library of Victoria. One was to Maria Lord, asking for a pound of butter and some pigtail tobacco; the other, to a different establishment, ordered two gallons of gin!
The event began with introductory remarks by committee chair Peter Tatham. Then Bert Spinks (below, left) gave an informative and entertaining account of Andrew Bent’s career and significance.
The keynote speaker was Australian media icon and chair of the ABC, Ita Buttrose, who, in an eloquent and wide ranging address, discussed numerous issues related to press freedom. These included the important role of the ABC in our democracy and the need for better funding for it. She also touched on the demise of numerous regional and local newspapers, the current dire state of press freedom globally, and Australia’s own rather disappointing ranking in international comparisons on this issue. She stressed the importance, in proposals for defamation law reform, of providing protection for public interest journalism and whistle blowers – a topic which would have resonated with Andrew Bent. During and after lunch the audience was entertained by musical performances from Michael Fortescue, Emily Sheppard, Georgia Shine and Ben Salter. I would like to thank the organising committee, the speakers and musicians, as well as the Shambles brewery for making such an enjoyable and memorable event possible.
A celebratory song from 1829
In October 1827 a local Act had placed the newspaper press under restrictions. These included a requirement that all newspapers be licensed at the Governor’s pleasure. Targeted specifically at Bent because of the perceived ‘baneful influence’ of his Colonial Times, it very nearly succeeded in both shutting him up and shutting him down. Bent applied repeatedly for a license for the Times, and was repeatedly refused. The Executive Council, noting his wicked and rancorous spirit, deemed him a dangerous and unsafe person to be entrusted with the conduct of a public print. Strong words indeed. To get around the Act he issued the Times as a gratis advertising sheet and in 1828 commenced a monthly magazine, the Colonial Advocate. After spending a month in gaol, and only being released after agreeing to give up the Advocate, he concluded that it was time to give up.
At the eleventh hour he was saved by a despatch from Downing Street, ordering Governor Arthur to repeal the licence portion of the Act, as incompatible with the principles of English law. Arthur now faced the prospect of having to make a highly embarrassing back down. The Executive Council minutes from this time show that some of the council members, and indeed Arthur himself, feared that announcing the repeal by proclamation would result in a jubilant outcry from the opposition press and this would unsettle the populace, and even lead to ‘public tumult.’ They did all they could to wriggle out but the crown law officers advised that a proclamation was mandatory. So, with Arthur gloomily prognosticating that every evil consequence was likely to result, the best they could do was to make the announcement late on Christmas Eve. They need not have been too worried. Although Anthony Fenn Kemp patriotically named one of his newly imported horses ‘Liberty of the Press,’ the reaction was fairly muted, even in Bent’s rejuvenated newspaper.
Bent, however, probably thinking back to the glory days of the Sorell dinners, felt the public owed him something, and a few not too subtle hints began to appear in the Colonial Times. The editor was ‘credibly informed’ that when Mr. Gellibrand got back from Sydney there would be a grand public dinner to celebrate the restoration of liberty of the press. The next week the paper suggested that the ‘Dallas Arms’ on the New Town Road would be an ideal venue, and a correspondent signing himself ‘Civicus’ sent in a song for the occasion. The idea seems to have fizzled out at this point, no doubt to Bent’s disappointment, so if he could have known about the Memorial Lunch he would have been tickled pink.
Here is the (not very good) song as printed in the Colonial Times. If anybody can work out the intended tune please do let me know.