With over one in five Australians born outside the country, and two in five having an overseas-born parent, links to the wider world are integral to the national landscape. With over 150 national-origin and 200 language groups, Australia has a very complex language, information and communication pattern, and our ethnic or diasporic press plays a crucial role in the survival and maintenance of multicultural social relations.
The ethnic press performs a number of overlapping roles, ranging from providing information in the heritage language on settlement and adaptation to Australia, to sustaining contact with countries or languages of origin, and building or rebuilding community. If we think of nations as ‘imaginary communities’, then the press sustains the imagination and refreshes the sense of identity and association among its readers.
Studies of the ethnic press going back over half a century have documented the nature of the interface formed between settlers, the dynamics of their countries of origin and the wider society. During periods of conflict, some papers have been closed down or come under security censorship—such as the German press (the oldest, Die Deutsche Post, est. 1848) during World War I, and the German and Italian press during World War II. As the digital media have flourished and the makeup of immigrant communities has changed, the ethnic print media have had to reposition themselves in acknowledgement of the technical transformation and the new capacities of online media, and the changing needs of communities.
In an analysis of the ethnic press by Ata and Ryan in the late 1980s, 16 language groups were examined. Four broad functions, drawing on a study by Gilson and Zubrzycki some 20 years earlier, were proposed: the maintenance of cultural identity, communication of Australian news, orientation to Australia and acting as a brake on assimilation. The tension between opening Australia to immigrants and protecting them from Australia showed in the emphasis on nostalgia for older communities, on the focus in some communities on struggles in the homeland and on building an ethno-Australian identity based on commitment to the new land. In the 1980s, the Arabic and Vietnamese papers were deeply involved in homeland politics, while the Polish sustained a dogged anti-communism. The Jewish press was not so much ethnic as politico-religious, with a focus on support for Israel.
The first Italian papers were developed for émigré political activists at the turn of the 20th century. While they did not last long, as more Italians arrived new outlets were established—though they were hampered by the rural dispersal and low literacy of Italian workers, most of whom spoke dialect. By the 1920s, the Italian-language press had expanded, supported by the new fascist government. Anti-fascist papers were more popular in the remote mining camps and canefields. Sydney’s weekly La Fiamma (1947– ) grew by the 1960s to a circulation of 44,000. Melbourne’s Il Globo (1959– ) began as a weekly, then went daily in 1978. It bought out La Fiamma in 1985 as Melbourne became the bigger of the two Italian communities. Both papers focused on sustaining community and advertising the passing of former migrants.
Long-time Il Globo editor Nino Randazzo was also a political activist, elected in 2006 as Senator from Africa, Australia and Asia to the Italian Parliament. Randazzo had been a strong advocate of defending the reputation of Italo-Australians (against the common Mafia stereotypes) and promoting a wider multiculturalism. With the advent of digital access, the papers retained their hard-copy circulation, with Il Globo selling 30,000 copies, while it also offered an online service, including an English-language magazine designed to appeal to the second and third generations.
The Greek-language press has been more controversial. In the 75 years to 1989, some 24 Greek-language papers were launched in Australia, beginning with Australis (est. 1913) and still available as Vima Tis Ekklisias.
By the 1980s, the spread of papers reflected a range of allegiances. Many of the papers had first appeared when the Australian government released restrictions on publication in ‘foreign languages’ in 1956; by 1989, three publishers controlled most of the outlets. The Media Press group, run by Theo Skalkos since the early 1960s, grew to some prominence in the 1970s as the printer of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, especially the Australian. By the 1990s, Skalkos had spread out into more than 80 magazines and papers in 40 ethnic languages, and began Greek radio and television programs. Media Press was placed in receivership in 2003, leading to the closure of his Greek Herald and Al-Barak (Arabic) mastheads.
The primary focus of the Greek press has been the maintenance of Greek language and culture, and the sponsoring of philo-hellenic activities and discussions. The left of centre Neos Kosmos (1957– ) now focuses its activities through the online edition, gearing itself towards later-generation young Greek-Australian readers. Government advertising of services for older Australians provides a significant part of the income supporting some of these outlets.
The ethnic press have undergone some profound transformations, partly because the earlier communities have aged. In 2013, the NSW Community Relations Commission listed more than 140 different daily, weekly and monthly newspapers in over 40 languages across Australia. Its own service provides daily summaries to clients in 11 languages. There are 22 Indian papers, 13 Chinese, 10 Arabic and Korean, nine Turkish, eight Vietnamese and seven Greek outlets, with languages ranging from Armenian to Urdu. Such diversity reveals quite a complex pattern between and within language groups.
Two contemporary examples, the Arabic and the Chinese press, represent important but very different challenges to the press in Australia. The Arabs are drawn from a multinational background, with religious differences, and a diversity of countries, regimes and political struggles. By 2012, the Arab spring of the previous year had torn apart the taken-for-granted crescent of conservative dictatorships, and opened up a future of deep uncertainty with many Australian reverberations.
The study from 1986 selected three Lebanese Arabic papers—El Telegraph (1970– ) (then 10,000–15,000 circulation with a total Lebanese population of 56,000) and two weeklies of the left and Christian right. With the outbreak of the civil war in 1975, the papers moved from local communal news and information to a much more active engagement with the homeland and partisan identification. El Telegraph tended to report stories on both Muslims and Christians—by the mid-1980s, the left was strongly supporting the Palestinian cause against Israel, while the Maronite supported the Israelis and the South Lebanon Christian army. However, El Telegraph advised its communal writers not to submit copy that might stimulate sectarian unrest and hostility.
A generation later, the largest-selling Arabic-language newspaper was still the Bankstown-based El Telegraph, founded by controversial ALP politician ‘Eddie’ Obeid. Obeid came to Australia at the age of six, left school early and moved through a number of businesses before the newspaper found its platform. The growth of El Telegraph paralleled the rapid rise in the population, first of Lebanese Arabic speakers (whose numbers rose rapidly after the civil war in the mid-1970s), then later of Iraqis (mainly asylum seekers and refugees, both Christians and Muslims). While Obeid comes from the majority Christian Maronite community, the paper, under editor Tony Kazzi, serves both Christian and Muslim congregations. The editorial focus positions readers as part of Australian society, to which they should adapt and integrate.
El Telegraph sold some 35,000 copies three times a week, increasing to five days a week in 2012. The paper reached around 25 per cent of the Arabic-reading population, about half of whom are Muslim and 20 per cent Iraqi. In 2010, Obeid sold El Telegraph to the Australian Middle East Media (AMEM) group, which ran the bilingual weeklies Al Anwar (launched in 2006 as a news magazine) and An-Noujoum (1998– ).
In November 2011, the AMEM group also opened a partnership with the Lebanese government National News Agency, while building its online presence. El Telegraph also offers an online presence, but only in relation to Australian news, most of which is translated directly from agencies or the mainstream Australian press. Thus the digest function (covering at least 10 Arabic papers each day) can only be accessed through the print version. El Telegraph has also sought to build its Iraqi following, in part by drawing on unofficial stringers incarcerated in immigration detention centres around the country. It has thus been able to report on activities and issues inside the centres, often providing in- formation for families and the wider community not available in the mainstream media.
The Arabic press is thus pan-ethnic and language based, facing strong competition from the online media, and cable and satellite tele- vision such as the Qatar-based Al Jazeera and the Saudi-based Al Arabiya. However, unlike many English-language papers, El Telegraph has increased its circulation and coverage in the print version.
The Chinese-language press reflects another pan-national audience with far longer ties to Australia. The first Chinese-language newspaper, the English and Chinese Advertiser, appeared on the Victorian goldfields in about 1856. By Federation there were major Chinese newspapers in Melbourne and Sydney, with the first Chinese-backed paper being the Chinese Australian Herald (1894–1923). These served a threefold purpose—to provide information and rally engagement with political issues in Australia, especially Federation; to provide homeland information; and to rally political support for various parties in China. As the Nationalist revolution developed in 1911, a significant number of papers were set up. However, as the White Australia policy cut deeply into the numbers of Chinese readers, the newspapers declined. It was not until after the settlement in Australia of significant numbers of mainland Chinese after the Tiananmen events of 1989 that there occurred a resurgence in Chinese-language press. The first outlets primarily served the Hong Kong and Taiwanese communities, using traditional vertical print and elaborate characters; later publications served People’s Republic of China (PRC) immigrants, set horizontally in simplified characters.
A critical change has resulted from the PRC government policy of supporting those outlets that reflect its viewpoint. While the papers (especially the Hong Kong-based Sing Tao, est. 1977) have their own publishing strategies, PRC pressure and influence have been significant. As the Chinese relationship with Australia is complex on many levels, the Chinese press walks through these issues with great delicacy, apart from the Falung Gong paper Epoch Times (2001– ). The range and impact of the Chinese press are difficult to gauge, because few have their circulation audited, and many readers access them online. The Australian Chinese Daily (1987– ), started by Hong Kong immigrants, shifted from Chinese vertical style to Western horizontal format in 1990, commencing colour printing in 1997 in time for the Hong Kong handover to the PRC. It publishes 20,000 copies daily, but its website, providing access to news specifically relating to Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, as well as Australia, receives many more hits.
The Australian New Express Daily (ANED, 2004– ) has particular links to both Australian and Chinese political life; it parallels the Guangzhou paper New Express Daily. Launched by millionaire publisher Dr Chau Chak Wing, ANED is closely linked to (but separate from) the Chinese government and does not carry any content critical of the Chinese government. The paper employs English-language editorial consultants to improve journalistic standards. Although it is not audited in Australia, ANED is generally regarded as the third largest Australian-Chinese paper after Sing Tao and the Chinese Herald, though circulation becomes a less meaningful criterion of impact with web- based delivery. The paper has little independent local coverage, taking its content from the mainstream press, wire-service feeds and media releases. However it does provide a ‘getting to understand Australia’ section.
The expansion of globalisation has significantly transformed the form and consumption patters of the ethnic press, as well as the patterns of mobility and inter-country movement for readers. The broad functions identified in the 1960s and explored further in the 1980s remain a crucial part of the contemporary dynamic. However, whereas ethnic media once provided an almost sole portal into events in the countries of origin, the current media environment has become more pluralistic. In such a competitive context, the ethnic press has had to find new modes of attracting and retaining audiences, to provide value for advertisers. Some may have other sources of funds.
El Telegraph is a long-established paper that is adapting to the times and optimising its advantages. Its editorial focus remains the process of its readers’ integration into Australia. ANED reflects a much more recent emergence, with less attachment to the integration process, and more acceptance of the constant global mobility occurring in the Chinese–reading population. Both have woven their hard-copy editions into the continuous 24/7 world of internet media; both have struck a relationship with their heritage national government news service as a key source of home country news. While both are clearly commercial exercises, the commerce and ideology have become inseparable.
REFs: A. Ata and C. Ryan (eds), The Ethnic Press in Australia (1989); G. Gilson and J. Zubrzycki, Foreign Press in Australia (1966).