1827 - 1908 | VIC | Publisher
Alfred Deakin described David Syme as "one of the greatest men in colonial history". He was Victoria's most powerful newspaperman. As publisher and, effectively, editor of The Age for nearly 50 years from 1860, he shaped government policy on protection for Victorian industry, which created the State's manufacturing base. He campaigned successfully for land rights for settlers, rights for workers, old age pensions, consumer protection laws and other progressive policies. He was known as 'King David' for his influence in the appointment and removal of premiers and ministers.
Born in North Berwick, Scotland, on October 2, 1827, the fourth and youngest son of a stern, Calvinist schoolteacher, David Syme had his first taste of the news business as a proof-reader’s assistant on a Glasgow newspaper. With a sound classical education, but no profession or prospects, he arrived in Melbourne, via a fruitless visit to the Californian gold rush, in 1852. He again tried his luck at gold prospecting, walking to Castlemaine and then to various Victorian diggings, only to have a promising claim near Ballarat jumped by rivals.
The youngest Syme was working as a road contractor in Melbourne when his brother, Ebenezer, in June 1856, bought The Age – launched in 1854 but already financially stricken – for 2,000 pounds. Ebenezer, then editor, offered to sell his brother a half share in this failing enterprise. David accepted in September, 1856, and took a management role, but financial necessity led him to return to his contracting work a year later. He needed to supplement his income, particularly after he married Annabella Johnson in 1858 (she was to produce five sons and four daughters, two of whom died in childhood).
In 1859 Ebenezer fell ill and retired. He died in 1860, and David took over – reluctantly, it is said – as publisher and editor. He remained at the helm for five rumbustious decades (sharing ownership of the paper with his brother’s widow and family for several years, sometimes appointing an editor to attend to the day-to-day production).
The first of those decades was not easy. David Syme threw himself into his struggling enterprise. As he recalled later, he usually breakfasted at his house some five miles from town (near Canterbury Road) at 8.00 am and then rode his horse to the office, staying until the paper went to press at about 2.00 am, when his horse was brought to the door. ”It was rarely indeed that I got to sleep before 3.00 a.m.”
David Syme was not amiable. “I’m a man with few friends,” he remarked. Indeed, the historian Geoffrey Blainey has written that his personality was “an inch or two on the gloomy side of dour” – although, occasionally, “the ghost of a smile was seen to play on his face”.
Perhaps that wintry smile became more frequent, at least in the privacy of his office, as he contemplated The Age’s mounting circulation. When he took over, it stood at about 2000; by 1899, it was 120,000, making it, in proportion to population, the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in the British Empire.
As Michael Cannon points out in a fine anthology, The Australian Thunderer, it was not David Syme, but Ebenezer and his colleagues David Blair and T.L. Bright who set the radical, uncompromising tone of The Age in its editorials between 1854 and 1859 – editorials that were avidly read by the diggers and working class even as they infuriated the colony’s squattocracy and establishment.
Those editorials excoriated the “weak, blundering, culpable” colonial government over the Eureka stockade tragedy, denounced the convict system and the “rotten” system by which the British appointed bumbling colonial governors, advocated free secular education and decent working conditions, defended the right of the Press to name and shame the corrupt and looked forward, hopefully, to Victorians imbibing locally produced wines instead of “muddy, stupefying malt or maddening brandy”.
David Syme’s biographer, C.E Sayers, suggests he held his convictions less passionately than had Ebenezer. But David’s approach was more shrewdly focussed, politically effective and, critically, commercially potent. He was brave, too. Shortly after taking the reins, he reduced the cover price of the paper from sixpence to three pence. Confronted by an advertising boycott by free-trader, commercial opponents of The Age’s radical policies, the paper reduced its price to two pence in 1863, and to a penny in 1868.
Even as revenue, the number of pages and profitability plummeted, circulation soared to 50,000 by late 1868. Advertising followed. So did David Syme’s power to exercise a decisive influence on the pre-federation affairs of the colony. The Age became, and for years remained, a dominant factor in Victorian politics.
Syme pursued his progressive agenda remorselessly, making enemies but also making, and breaking, governments and political careers. He was much feared. Indeed, in his own time, on a smaller stage, Syme was a precursor to the ruthless, manipulative media moguls of American, British and Australian history.
His reputation as “the father of protectionism” is perhaps overblown – others before him had advocated tariff barriers against imports to foster local industry – but he was undoubtedly the policy’s most effective advocate.
Protection was not David Syme’s only cause. To the fury of squatters, he campaigned successfully for land reform to encourage agricultural settlement on Crown land, and for democratic changes to the electoral system and constitution of the obdurately conservative Legislative Council.
He sent Alfred Deakin to India to report on irrigation schemes there. He financed an 1883 expedition to New Guinea by G.E Morrison (later known as “Chinese” Morrison), who filed his report to The Age while recovering from two spear wounds inflicted by natives. In 1901, The Age sent a reporter, William Lambie, to accompany a contingent of Victorian volunteers to cover the Boer War. Alas, Lambie was the first Victorian to be killed in that conflict.
Not content with running a hugely successful newspaper, Syme also became an active and innovative farmer, importing Irish dairy cattle to improve his stock and experimenting with pasture and drainage. He wrote books and articles on political, economic and philosophical issues. He founded a prize for scientific research at the University of Melbourne.
The establishment struck back at Syme. The chief railway commissioner, Richard Speight, enraged at a series of articles in The Age alleging extravagance and incompetence, sued for libel. The first trial ended in jury disagreement. The second, in 1894, lasted 88 sitting days, and produced a verdict for Syme on nine of 10 counts, and a token award of a farthing’s damages for Speight on the other. Speight was ruined. Syme had to pay his own costs, about 50,000 pounds, but won public acclaim.
A striking measure of his power came when the 10 Victorian delegates elected to the 1897 Federal convention were the 10 nominated by The Age. Unsurprising, really. As the lead counsel for the plaintiff had glumly complained to the jury in the railways case, “no government could stand against The Age without being shaken to its centre”. This bitter testimonial must surely have prompted one of David Syme’s bleak and fleeting smiles. He liked winning.
Peter Cole-Adams is a former European correspondent, Associate Editor and Washington correspondent of The Age.
The Age building
First copy of The Age, launched two years before Syme's brother Ebenezer bought the paper.
David Syme, 1908. Courtesy of National Archives of Australia.
David Syme portrait, courtesy of State Library of Victoria
'Syme, David (1827-1908)', C. E. Sayers, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian National University.
'David Syme', Wikipedia (accessed 26/07/2013).
David Syme, A Life, C.E. Sayers, Cheshire, 1965.
125 Years of The Age, Geoffrey Hutton and Les Tanner (Ed.), Thomas Nelson Australia Pty Ltd, 1979.
The Australian Thunderer, The Age after the Gold Rush, 1854-1859, Heritage Publications, Melbourne, 1971.