LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
It was a letter to the editor that sent Australia to war in Sudan in 1885. It was in letters to editors that the bushranger Ned Kelly, the bank robber Darcy Dugan and the last person to be hanged in Australia, Ronald Ryan, put to the public their sides of their respective stories. The last letter the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt ever wrote was to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, on 4 April 1848. And, less famous but more life-affirming—and a textbook example of the power and importance of the press—a letter to the editor in 1863 freed a vet, Mr Melville of Maitland, from unjust incarceration in an asylum.
Letters to the editor have always filled vital roles in newspapers as sources of news, inspiration, humour and, most importantly, readers’ voices. They arrive in all forms, from toilet paper (Ryan to Melbourne’s Truth in 1967) to a scrap of newspaper (Melville to the Sydney Empire); from embossed letterheads to the back of an unpaid bill. (In the 21st century, with the immediacy of email overtaking ‘snail mail’, whether Ryan’s choice of stationery would ever make it to a letters editor’s desk is a chilling thought.)
They can inspire: in February 1885, Sir Edward Strickland’s letter in the Sydney Morning Herald urging support for Britain in its war in Sudan rallied the good folk of New South Wales, and by the end of March, a contingent had reached Suakin.
They can put a case: Dugan’s letter to Sydney’s Daily Mirror in December 1949 declared that far from being a ‘desperado’, he had never possessed a gun and had never assaulted anyone.
They can be a last chance: Melville had been declared insane and blocked in all efforts to clear his name. It was not until his smuggled-out letter was published that he was freed.
In the early years of the colony, letter-writers never had it so good—until a ship arrived from England with ‘fresh’ news (up to three months old). In the Sydney Herald in 1831, hundreds of words were published, uncut and untouched, under the headline ‘Original correspondence’, on topics ranging from blight in Hunter Valley grapevines to the state of roads in the Illawarra; from the treatment of Aborigines to horse stealing. In a sign of things to come, there were complaints about printing and typographical errors, angry missives decrying misinformation about the pros and cons of vaccinating children and, in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser in 1834, a furious subscriber rounded on editors of the Herald, the original Australian, the Gazette and the Monitor for boasting and fighting among themselves, using their journalists’ names: ‘We want news; we don’t give one fig about who is editor or joint editor.’
The Sydney Herald printed an editorial in July 1831 on letters with ‘feigned signatures which [have] prevented their insertion. We beg to inform our correspondents that we cannot attend to anonymous writers … but … assure them the transmission of their names … shall be a profound secret.’
But when the ships sailed into Sydney Harbour bearing British newspapers, the letters were suddenly expendable, replaced by a ‘Notice to correspondents’—‘We are sorry we cannot insert the numerous contributions we have received, and beg our friends to observe that it arises, not from disrespect but necessity,’ the Sydney Herald declared on 6 June 1831.
As the colony grew and generated more news, the space for letters to the editor grew smaller. And in 1872, when undersea cables linked Australia to Bombay via Singapore and China, news arrived within hours, meaning letters were often relegated to ‘fillers’ scattered throughout the papers. They began to be used on merit, rather than length: bright and newsy got upfront spots; dull but worthy made their way to the back.
Perhaps ‘the Jerilderie letter’, signed by Ned Kelly in 1879 and written to Samuel Gill, editor of the Jerilderie and Urana Gazette, could take the award for the longest publication delay. It did not get a run until 1930, when it was printed in Adelaide’s Register News-Pictorial.
By the late 1940s, most papers were more formatted so readers would know where to find things, and letters were being grouped under their own banner. Increasingly from the late 1950s, letters earned a spot on or near the leader page. Rather than being an optional extra, editors had accepted that readers were keen not only to have a say but also to know what fellow readers were thinking. Eventually, most leader pages went to just three elements: editorials, letters and the editorial cartoonist.
By the mid- to late 1990s, the ability to send letters by fax and emails from computers had led to the diminution of handwritten letters. By then, editors were encouraging ‘on the news’, shorter submissions, and copperplate was replaced by Times Roman.
Some correspondents, such as Bill Mitchell, have become familiar names to Australian newspaper readers. Compilations of letters from correspondents including Frank Hainsworth (2004, 2006) and Ian D. Lindsay (2001) have appeared, along with books of letters illuminating the social history of towns, including Toowoomba and Gisborne. Fairfax Media has published Best Letters to the Editor (2006) and unpublished letters to the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald (2013).
Although the methods of submission have changed dramatically, some topics are perennial: roads, health, crime, justice. Maybe some day, just as a letter from ‘North Shore’ lamented the demise of the bottle-oh’s cry in December 1951, there will be a letter bemoaning the loss of the postman’s whistle.
REFs: A. Savvas (comp.), Over a Century of News from the Archives of Truth (1993); G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981).