This was a win for the little guy who did something special with his life but who has always struggled for recognition
An ANU law scholar’s research has led to the induction into the Australian Media Hall of Fame of a 19th century printer who was the first newspaperman in Australia jailed for libel by a vindictive colonial government.
The many years of work by defamation lawyer and senior lecturer Craig Collins culminated with the formal honour for Andrew Bent in Melbourne in November 2018 – research that earlier revealed Mr Collins was Mr Bent’s great, great, great, great grandson.
“This was a win for the little guy who did something special with his life but who has always struggled for recognition,” Mr Collins says of Mr Bent’s induction alongside some of Australia’s giants of contemporary journalism.
“Quite literally, we think Mr Bent was probably less than five feet tall and he was described as 'lame, little and ugly' with 'a low Cockney accent' - so a most unlikely recipient of such an honour.”
Michael Smith, Chair of the Advisory Board to the Media Hall of Fame and former editor of The Age newspaper, called Mr Bent’s story “perhaps our most important discovery” in the Hall’s history.
“At around 1.40 pm on 4 June 1824 in Hobart, [Mr Bent] sent his presses rolling without referring the pages to the government censor, thus beginning the fight to establish a free Press,” Mr Smith told the audience.
“Andrew Bent won the fight for freedom of the Press and soon other papers were being published free of government censorship.
“But he won it only after being financially ruined by a vindictive colonial administration and becoming the first editor to be jailed for libel.
It’s on the shoulders of people like these that today’s outstanding journalists stand.”
Mr Collins decided to build on his media law career and channel his interest in Australian history and legal history into letting Australia in the 21st century know about a significant but forgotten 19th century figure.
“Researching Andrew Bent and the birth of the free press in Australia has been extremely challenging, over a long period.” Mr Collins explains.
“The documentary record is fragmented and dispersed. My own starting point was Bent's libel cases, based on contemporary newspaper reports as no official case reports were kept, most of which were helpfully digitised by the Macquarie Law School project on Colonial Case Law.
“The most significant breakthrough came from being contacted by Sally Bloomfield, a former librarian at the National Library of Australia.
“With our common interests, we compared notes and combined efforts through collaboration, which has been incredibly rewarding. Sally works wonders with Trove and at the various state and national archives, with a great knack for finding gold nuggets that no-one else could possibly find.”
The research effort involved hours of trawling through public and university libraries and archives in the United Kingdom as well as the private collections of Sir Walter Scott and the St Bride Foundation, time Mr Collins says was well-spent.
“Some of Bent's printing output is rare and virtually priceless, including Australia's first book of general literature, a little book about the bushranger, Michael Howe.”
Learning he was related to the subject of his research project was an unexpected find.
“My family did not know of the connection to Andrew Bent until I discovered it, quite by accident, while researching the history of defamation law at the Melbourne University library about 20 years ago,” Mr Collins recalls.
“Volume one of the Australian Dictionary of Biography virtually fell off the shelf into my hands and I looked up 'Bent' as one of the surnames from my family tree.
“I was working as a defamation lawyer at the time and there was a spine-tingling moment connecting my work with historic, ancestral battles for free speech.”
“As a convict from the London underworld, Bent's origins were obscure and he died destitute in the Sydney Benevolent Asylum,” his great, great, great, great-grandson says.
“So, unlike some more well-heeled figures from colonial Australia, there was no neatly packaged and indexed box of papers and correspondence for us to work through.”
Mr Collins says Mr Bent’s story is gripping and significant for Australia’s media and legal histories.
“The free press came about in Australia in a most unexpected way - in a manner which could only emerge from our common law heritage and the idea of the 'freeborn Briton'.
“This still has implications for us today. There are elements of personal courage and stupidity as well as larger themes and contests around power, law and freedom, and also how communities can prosper or disintegrate.”
Mr Bent paid a heavy price for initiating the free press and was likely made the 'fall-guy' for others who stood to benefit from his actions, Mr Collins says.
“But, once established, colonial governments had to adapt away from 'command and control' models of governance.
“Mr Bent's lifespan from 1790 to 1851 runs closely parallel with the evolution of Australia from its European origins as a penal settlement through to the gold rush and colonial democracies.”
Mr Collins and a family member are collaborating on Mr Bent’s biography.
“I'd like to see more students and Australians in general understand and value our common law freedoms - perhaps even as much as those who came out here by ship, whether in chains or otherwise,” Mr Collins says.
Click here for more details of The Andrew Bent Project.