PRESS, NORTHERN TERRITORY
The earliest Northern Territory newspaper was the Moonta Herald, published on board the ship that brought the South Australian Surveyor General, George Goyder, to the Territory’s capital (until 1911 called Palmerston) in 1869.
The first machine-printed newspaper was the weekly Northern Territory Times and Gazette, initially published on 7 November 1873 from a government office in Darwin under the editorship of Richard Wells and owned by a consortium registered as The Northern Territory Newspaper and Telegraphic Agency Company Ltd. A new office and a printing press were later established in Mitchell Street. The paper survived until 28 June 1932, although in the late 1870s some issues were only two pages long. The many colourful characters who worked for the publication included Vaiben Solomon, who owned the paper between 1885 and 1890 and represented the Territory in the South Australian parliament. His clear and frequently dramatic editorials reflected his conservative political beliefs. Other editors included Joseph Skelton, George Mayhew, Charles Kirkland, Edward Foster and Jessie Litchfield. Litchfield overcame strong local objections to a woman being appointed when she took over in 1930. In a small and often deeply divided town, some editors were threatened with violence, and copies of the newspaper were torn up and burnt when it expressed views disliked by sections of the community. Kirkland was controversially imprisoned in 1913 after being found guilty of contempt of court for an article in which he criticised a judge. The paper closed after being purchased by the Northern Standard.
Between 1883 and 1890, Mayhew and Kirkland published a rival Darwin newspaper, the North Australian. They then purchased the Northern Territory Times and Gazette from Solomon and amalgamated the two newspapers into the Northern Territory Times and Gazette, which became the Northern Territory Times in 1927. During the period in which both papers operated, they frequently published very different versions of the same events and were fierce rivals.
The Northern Standard first appeared on 19 February 1921, published in Darwin with trade union support and partly financed by a union levy. It was transferred to the North Australian Workers’ Union in 1928. For most of the time before World War II, its editor was Don McKinnon. The ‘Moscow Times’, as it was known, was very much the voice of the union movement, and opinions other than its own were not given prominence. An editorial in May 1946 stated that the paper ‘does not pretend, as do most organs of the free press to be neutral in the battle of life, and to present an unbiased view of current affairs’. From that year, it often supported communist positions. Prominent Darwin journalist Douglas Lockwood argued that by then it ‘still less reflected the moods of the town’, leading to ‘a lack of confidence of the townspeople’.
The Northern Standard was the only Territory newspaper between 1932 and 1941, except for the brief appearance of the communist Proletarian in 1934. In October 1941, with large numbers of soldiers stationed in Darwin, the weekly Army News commenced. This may have resulted partly from the Northern Standard publishing a special issue on 2 September 1941 reporting in detail on a soldiers’ riot in Darwin that caused serious property damage. The army, however, was also concerned about the Northern Standard because of its supposed sympathy for communism. When Darwin was bombed for the first time in February 1942, the Northern Standard suspended publication until February 1946 and the Army News remained the sole Territory paper until the war finished.
The Sydney public relations firm Eric White Associates started the Northern Territory News on 8 February 1952 as a weekly tabloid to counter-balance the Northern Standard, which it forced out of business in 1955. Initial efforts by the federal government to counter the Standard’s influence had been shelved in 1942, and revived in 1949. News Limited purchased the Northern Territory News in 1964, building it up to six days a week by 1979. Especially under the editorship (1955–73) of the flamboyant Jim Bowditch, the paper was politically active and, in spite of its origins, on occasions quite radical. It advocated greater self-governance powers for the Northern Territory and supported the Gurindji people’s land claims following their walk-off from Wave Hill Station in 1966.
On 7 October 1984, News Limited began publication of the Sunday Territorian. After the early 1970s, various smaller newspapers—such as the weekly Darwin Star—attempted to challenge the dominance of the Northern Territory News but with little success. Between 1992 and 2005, the Northern Territory University/Charles Darwin University Student Union in Darwin published the monthly the Big Spit and Delirra. Online news outlet NT Independent launched in March 2020.
In July 1946, the Territory’s second largest town, Alice Springs, acquired its first newspaper, the Dead Heart? Ten months later, on 24 May 1947, it was replaced by the twice-weekly Centralian Advocate, owned by the well-known local businessman C.H. ‘Pop’ Chapman, with Walter Allan as its short-lived first editor. Jim Bowditch was editor between 1950 and 1954, using the paper to fight for the right of Aboriginal people with white heritage to receive full citizenship. During the 1950s, the Centralian Advocate experienced frequent ownership changes and numerous production issues. News Limited took over the Centralian Advocate in 1966, providing access to much more capital than had been available previously. The paper showed little concern with the wider world, maintaining a strong local focus and not being afraid on occasions to criticise the Alice Springs Town Council or significant commercial interests. In September 1968, it attacked the local tourist industry, saying that tourist accommodation in Alice Springs was generally poor and service standards were abysmal.
The Alice Springs Times, which claimed to ‘carry the torch for northern development’, had a brief existence between September 1965 and August 1966. The weekly Alice Springs News—which is still being published—began in March 1994, but with a considerably smaller circulation than the Centralian Advocate.
In the post-World War II period, the Territory’s smaller towns also acquired newspapers as their populations increased. These included the Tennant and District Times (Tennant Creek, est. 1978), the Alyangula Newsletter (1980–89), the Jabiru Rag (est. 1982), the Katherine Times (est. 1983), the Barkly Regional (Tennant Creek, 1985–89), the Eylandt Echo (Groote Eylandt, est. 1989), the Arafura Times (Nhulunbuy, est. 1996) and the Palmerston Sun (est. 2000). From the 1970s, the Territory also saw numerous, often transitory, ‘throw-away’ newspapers. The most important of these was the weekly Darwin Sun, which began publication in March 2000.
The history of the Northern Territory press is poorly documented. Information in various secondary sources is uneven, impressionistic and sometimes contradictory. Three brief historical surveys (by Barbara James, Alan Davis and Rod Kirkpatrick), together with the Northern Territory Library’s annotated list of newspapers and magazines, all on the Library’s website, provide the only overviews.
DAVID CARMENT and BARBARA JAMES