1847 - 1919 | VIC | Reporter
Brodzky was Victoria's first significant muckraker. The Polish migrant Herald reporter started Table Talk magazine in 1885 with a racy mix of gossip, social notes, politics, the arts and literature. When the land boom busted into Depression, Brodzky was years ahead of the daily newspapers in exposing the corruption and secret deals in the banks and financial institutions run by some of Melbourne's most prominent citizens. He revealed the names of land boomers who tried to hide their identities in "secret compositions" with their creditors who received tiny payouts.
Born in Poland, Brodzky was a student in Paris when the Prussian War broke out. He served as a volunteer in the French Army in 1870-71, then migrated with 47 other passengers on the 1100-ton Sussex on its 28th voyage to Australia. The ship ran aground at Barwon Heads and Brodsky was rowed ashore in his undershirt and trousers, with only a few shillings in his pocket.
Within 20 years, Brodzky had become the most important investigative reporter of the 19th century. Victorian historian Michael Cannon went further: “His work forms a record of individual public service which, it is safe to say, has never been surpassed anywhere in the world.” Brodzky exposed the political hypocrisy, secrecy, manipulations and individuals involved in the most corrupt period of Victorian history.
Brodzky’s first job in Melbourne was teaching languages, then he went to Rockhampton and became a journalist with a local paper before signing on as a reporter with the Sydney Evening News. His first scoop in Sydney was securing an interview in jail with the bushranger Captain Moonlite.
The Evening News sent him to Melbourne to cover the International Exhibition of 1880, a coup for Marvellous Melbourne, which had become the fastest-growing city in the world on the back of gold, silver and abundant land and opportunity.
While in Melbourne, Brodzky reported on the biggest running story of the times: the crimes, trial and execution of Ned Kelly.
Brodzky stayed in Melbourne to be with his new bride who was related to the wealthy Fink family. Brodsky met his wife’s cousin Theodore Fink (remember that name) who helped him get a job on the The Herald. Brodzky was a fine reporter who also filed for The Daily Telegraph of London, but applied for bankruptcy (with Fink’s help) when he lost a slander case he launched against a Jewish rabbi.
Fink came to Brodzky’s rescue again in 1885 by contributing to the capital for Brodzky to launch Table Talk, a racy new publication based on gossip, fashion, society notes and the arts. It was the first publication to recognise and vigorously promote Melbourne’s Impressionist artists Condor, Streeton and McCubbin. Later, it developed punchy political and financial pages. The paper championed causes such as social justice, women’s rights and firearms control.
By now, Melbourne was in the grip of a land boom with foreign money pouring in to take advantage of rising interest rates and a population seduced by speculative opportunities. The Melbourne dailies enjoyed record advertising revenue from real estate marketing and land company floats. Alone in the media, Brodzky recognised the inevitable outcome, noting that 100,000 allotments were sold in one year when there were only 35,000 householders in Melbourne; if everyone in Melbourne bought a second house, there would still be an astonishing glut.
Corrupt MPs were part of the boom, buying up land and then lobbying for public transport services to push up the price. Then they changed the laws to protect themselves in the event of a crash. Lawyers, led by Theodore Fink, manipulated slack insolvency laws to allow prominent citizens to settle debts for tiny payouts while remaining out of the public spotlight and maintaining private assets through “secret compositions”. Amongst the notable land boomers were Premier James Munro, real estate agent William Baillieu and Fink’s brother Benjamin, who had perhaps Australia’s most spectacular insolvency with debts of more than a million pounds. He settled with his creditors for a halfpenny in the pound. He made legal history when he settled with creditors twice in one year, both in secret.
Brodzky began publishing details of these “secret compositions” with astonishing detail that could only come from official records. Theodore Fink was almost certainly one of his sources and it is notable that Brodzky for years went soft on Fink, even though he was the legal architect of the schemes that helped the land boomers avoid publicity and shame. Fink was able to hide his substantial shareholding in The Herald from the grasp of creditors; later he became chairman of the newspaper company and sponsored the rise of Keith Murdoch at The Herald.
Brodzky’s campaigning exposed some of Melbourne’s most famous citizens and explained how two of Melbourne’s biggest banks, The Mercantile Bank and the Federal Bank, crashed because of shameful corruption and financial manipulation. His exposures eventually led to prosecutions of directors and reform of Victoria’s insolvency laws.
In 1902, Brodzky published an article accusing ALP Leader Frederick Bromley of ”whitewashing” a criminal and falsely reporting the theft of 150 pounds from his home. Bromley sued and Brodzky lost. His assets were seized and he ended up in the Insolvency Court. For a few months, Brodzky worked for John Norton (proprietor of the muckraking Melbourne Truth) then he went to San Francisco and worked on The Examiner until the 1906 earthquake. Then it was off to New York, then London and back to New York where he died in 1919.
Michael Smith is a former editor of The Age and chair of the Melbourne Press Club's advisory panel on the Australian Media Hall of Fame.
Portrait of Maurice Brodzky.
Table Talk magazine, courtesy of State Library Victoria Pictures Collection.
Portrait of Maurice Brodzky by Aby Altson. Courtesy Henry Lew, author of Five Walking Sticks.
The Five Walking Sticks, Henry R Lew, AMCL Publications, Melbourne, 2000.
The Land Boomers, Michael Cannon, Melbourne University Press, 1967.