By Julia Horne, University Historian, the University of Sydney
It was a privilege to view the first issue of Honi Soit in the University of Sydney Library’s Rare Books & Special Collections; a date with the past, a time to reflect on change and continuity in the University, Australia and the world. They are bound in volumes, well preserved (as you would expect), but nonetheless showing the signs of age, and ever more vulnerable to human touch.
If not quite the Magna Carta, this student newspaper is a compact of sorts that enshrines the right of university students to speak their minds on issues without fear or favour. The first editor, Arthur Crouch, an Arts graduate, put it this way: ‘Our criticism – and criticism will frequently form the theme of our journal – will be constructive, and for the good of all.’ Some 24 years later, the editor, Edmund Campion, expressed similar sentiments: ‘Do not expect Honi Soit to sit on the fence during 1953’, a tradition that has mostly continued down the decades. Forthright, opinionated, defiant, rebellious and bold, these are the hallmarks of the University of Sydney’s student newspaper.
The early Australian student newspapers
Honi Soit was first published on 3 May 1929. It was the second student newspaper in Australia after Melbourne’s Farrago (1925), and just before Western Australia’s Pelican (1930), Queensland’s Semper Floreat (1932) and Adelaide’s On Dit (1932). At four pages long, it was not yet the weekly newspaper it became. But it arrived on the scene brazenly with barely a cent to its name yet free to students and the public-at-large. Funded by what the editorial team assured its readers was ethical advertising – Tooth’s lager, Conn’s Saxophones and David Jones (Sydney’s grand old department store) – this ‘weekly’ appeared only nine times in 1929, its publication disrupted whenever the coffers ran dry. Yet its weekly format was crucial to the newspaper’s aims to ‘serve the student body of the university’.
Fast paced, timely, independent
Until then, Sydney’s student publications were different beasts. The venerable student magazine, Hermes (1886), thrived in the slower if stately lane of prose, poetry and essays, and the Union Recorder (1921) provided a weekly round-up of university and sporting events. The fast-paced Honi Soit, on the other hand, was to borrow the journalistic standards of the great ‘dailies’ and report news in a timely and independent fashion to inform undergraduates about social and political issues vital to their lives as students. There have been times when Honi Soit’s editorial independence has been challenged; a period of censorship by the Student Representative Council is said to have reigned in the 1930s, for example. Yet over the decades Honi Soit has largely lived up to the standards of independent and fair journalism even when sparks have flown. And as a journalistic training ground, well, even a brief look at its editorial teams reveals the likes of Donald Horne, Murray Sayle, Julie-Anne Ford, Lillian Roxon, Edmund Campion, Myfanwy Gollan, Clive James, Richard Walsh and Laurie Oakes, to say nothing of the younger Honi generations.
About the University and beyond
The guts of Honi Soit news reporting have always been about the University itself. Issues range from demands to reform University and undergraduate governing bodies, to coverage of student politics (including the 1953 scandal of a rigged student election), protests, and calls to improve student facilities and services. Yet to deliver on the goal of the fully informed student, Honi Soit has long broadened its coverage to report on thought-provoking public lectures and debates held at the University as well as provide social, cultural and political commentary on the world at large. Also, it has often prompted discussion on various matters of burning personal interest to the lives of university students. In the first issue, an article about social etiquette appeared: ‘Should Men Pay Women Students’ Tram Fares?’. Debate raged in the letters columns for weeks thereafter without ever resolving the question. More seriously, communism, morality, nuclear disarmament, obscenity, Petrov, politics, sexuality, sex, vegetarianism, the Vietnam War, Whitlam’s dismissal … all this and more has graced the pages of Honi Soit providing an often alternative view, certainly a more youthful view, of the world around us.
In short, Honi Soit is a treasure trove of well-written, enlightening, often humorous,
material about Australia, society, politics and youth culture. As I turned the pages of the first issue, fragile paper browning with age, edges torn, my fingers trembling in case I ripped it further, I realised how digital technology might be history’s salvation, thus the importance of transferring such priceless material to a digitised format. In this case, the digitisation is so good that we can see every wrinkle and tear of an ageing beauty. But we do so in the knowledge that more people than ever will now also have the pleasure of reading the past within the pages of Honi Soit.