Revolutionary or Redundant? Farrago Then and Now19 March 2018
Content warning: mentions of sexual assault.
In 1925, the first editorial of Farrago began: “Farrago represents an attempt to infuse a new zest into University life … it seeks to give ample publicity to the doings, sober and scandalous, of student and graduate.”
This inspired statement gave way to a pioneering student publication which has had a central role in Australia’s social and political transformation over the past 93 years. The University of Melbourne’s student newspaper has outlasted many mainstream and student-run publications that were born in the same era, and have subsequently crumbled under the digital revolution. Farrago remains one of the loudest voices in student media today.
Since its inception in 1925, the tension between the radicalism of undergraduate idealism and the political conservatism of the Australian public has played out in Farrago’s pages. Having pioneered a significant role for students in the political arena, Farrago has historically occupied an important place in political dissent. Yet in 2018, the political influence of the students and the universities they represent has diminished. Today, Farrago is unrecognisable to earlier generations. If Farrago reached its zenith in the tumultuous cultural revolution of the ‘60s, has it now completely lost its power as a political tool? Reflecting on this publication’s radical history begs the question, has student media lost its edge?
Hailed as a golden age of student activism, the student press in the ‘60s existed in a time of intense social and political change in Australia. Profound leaps in social progress often played out on University campuses, where students fought for gender equality, Indigenous representation, and rebelled against the horrors of the Vietnam War.
Pete Steedman was a revolutionary force at the helm of Monash’s Lot’s Wife and our own Farrago during this time. Despite conceding that it has been “50 fucking years since I did the thing,” he is critical of today’s student media, deeming it “self-indulgent.”
The ‘60s saw Farrago push the boundaries of the draconian censorship laws of the time. In 1968, the paper, led by Steedman, undertook a huge survey of student’s experiences with abortion and contraception. It found that 90 per cent of those interviewed believed abortion should be legally available. At the time, it carried a charge of infanticide, manslaughter, or murder.
Farrago was continually on the forefront of representing the views of the student body, rather than accepting the prevailing attitudes of the day that were overwhelmingly reflected in the mainstream press. “In the 1960s, you saw this contest of ideas. Students were wildly excited about being at university, this was the beginning of educational egalitarianism,” said Sally Percival Wood, author of Dissent—an in-depth portrayal of the Australian student press in the ‘60s.
“In the ‘60s, they interrogated the mainstream press, they questioned everything,” said Percival Wood.
Some of the material published in that era was, by today’s standards, wildly offensive. In June 1967, Steedman co-edited a joint anti-Vietnam War edition of Lot’s Wife and Farrago. It featured a confronting cartoon in which a bare-chested President Lyndon B. Johnson gestures towards a semi-naked Vietnamese woman sprawled before him, with Chairman Mao nearby on crutches. “Sure, I raped her,” LBJ says. “If I hadn’t done it, he would have.” Such sordid references to rape were of no concern to the censors of the time, who instead took offence at the depiction of the woman’s nipple, demanding it be removed. This was characteristic of the sardonic humour and unprecedented radicalism which flourished in the pages of the student press. You can view the cover here (content warning: sexual assault).
Today, Farrago is radically different. The publication has transformed from a weekly black and white newspaper to a monthly magazine which emphasises student art, photography and a diversity of content from individual perspectives. The implementation of voluntary student unionism contributed significantly to this change in format, due to drastically reduced funding for Australian student publications.
Many of the issues of concern to the student body in 2018 seem to echo those that have previously galvanised the youth of the past. Societal progress has allowed the freedom to discuss issues such as gender equality, Indigenous representation and sexuality more inclusively, giving a platform to previously marginalised voices. There is also an increased focus on the experiences of international students, who in 2016 comprised 36 per cent of the student body.
However, the societal pressure to be inclusive but apolitical has arguably created an environment in student media where voicing individual experiences has become more prominent than meaningful political debate.
Student media must remain a keen observer and critical commentator of the day, perpetually questioning ‘why’ and forcing that discussion over mindless acceptance. That element, at least, our predecessors got right. Today we have a wider range of voices in our student media but have we simultaneously narrowed the scope of discussion? As Percival Wood asks, “What the fuck are you going to talk about then if you can’t upset anyone?”
‘Self-censorship’ is a complex and politically-loaded term. To some, the culture of inclusivity and representation that dominates the student media of today is an important step towards rectifying social inequalities that have plagued our society since before the ‘60s. To others, this emphasis on ‘political correctness’ is an impediment to free speech.
“Political correctness acts like a censor,” said Steedman. “If you’re at university—you’re [there] because you’re supposed to be learning and you’re supposed to have an intellectual outlook. Screaming at someone who you don’t agree with is not an intellectual outlet … it isolates you and creates [more] censorship.”
It is not just the attitudes within the University that have changed since the ‘60s. The broader media landscape that Farrago exists in has dramatically altered. In an era of 24-hour media saturation, the role of student media as a news source is significantly more limited. Our relevance today is no longer as a primary news destination for students who have thousands of media outlets at their disposal. The challenge for a monthly magazine is to engage with a student body that has become disconnected with the university experience. Whilst the original ethos remains, Farrago now captures student life in a manner more reflective of a revolutionised media.
“The internet has made it so much easier to work with content, to break new content quickly and tap into new audiences,” said Martin Ditmann, a former Farrago editor.
This has also impacted student media’s role as an instigator of political change. “I think there are less causes that are mass mobilising students in that kind of traditional constantly actively physical way,” said Ditmann. As hashtags and social media replace the physical protests of the past, today having a presence online outweighs a presence on the streets.
A myriad of issues face students in 2018: rising HECS fees, housing affordability, increased living costs and the declining importance of an undergraduate degree. As Steedman states, “There’s no life anymore.” In an age where life is becoming incrementally harder and we have become more aware of global issues, where is the mass outrage? In an outspoken, interconnected generation, have our actions become so docile that our bark is worse than our bite?
Furthermore, the commercialisation of universities has undoubtedly put an overall emphasis on the bottom line rather than an engaging student experience. “Universities put a lot of pressure on student newspapers to be inclusive, and not be overly political,” Percival Wood reflects.
It is therefore this de-politicisation of campus life that must be prevented. A politically apathetic student body inhibits our capacity to effect change.
It’s easy to look back at the ‘60s through rose-coloured glasses. This era may have been one of profound social progress, but it was also a time characterised by tumultuous issues and an overwhelmingly different technological landscape. Today, the student body at Melbourne University is so dynamic that student media’s capacity to equally represent the issues that galvanise young people is increasingly limited.
Indeed, student media’s most important role is arguably as a training ground for future politicians and journalists.
“If you don’t encourage political debate on both sides of the fence, what kind of politicians are we going to have in the future?” asks Percival Wood.
As this government wages an economic war on our youth and continues to target University students, Farrago and our fellow student publications remain incomparable forces of resistance. Student media has a proud history of refusing to accept the status quo, and we remain vital in our efforts to refute the political narrative. When Australian student editors were locked out of the federal budget in 2017, it was a clear indication that student media remains a force to be reckoned with.
“The student press has long proved the perfect place for an undergraduate to cast the first stone,” concludes Percival Wood in Dissent. Farrago alone boasts numerous politicians, activists and writers who sharpened their pens in the pages of this publication. In today’s ever-changing media landscape, the students of this generation are redefining the meaning and value behind the student experience. Whilst our generation’s place in the history of student media needs to be considered, the bigger question overall may not be ‘have students lost their touch?’ but rather, “has the University lost touch with its students?”