The New Adventures Of Old Matilda


Once upon a time, there was a magazine called Matilda which published political humour and satire. Continuing our series on the challenges faced by independent media in Australia, we asked Matilda founder and former editor Robbie Swan to tell us about the ups and downs of the magazine. In case you’re wondering, there’s no blood relationship between Matilda and And now that our time is running out, it’s to our chagrin that we acknowledge that although we lived much longer than Matilda, we received far fewer defamation writs. May the Curse of the Gnome comfort you as it did us …

Let’s face it. What most separates left-leaning journalism from conservative writing is humour.

When was the last time you saw Gerard Henderson crack a smile? Exactly. Ever heard Andrew Bolt LOL? Of course not? He smirks. Smirking is not laughter. It’s an attempted smile through clenched teeth and narrowing eyes. John Howard was a master at it.

Piers Akerman … well he sometimes feigns jolliness but so did Russ Hinze. Friar Tuck was a master at it but underneath that cassock he was just a bitter and twisted old priest who liked a tipple.

Politically conservative writers all graduate from the shitty-liver school of journalism and the only humour they know how to report on is the tickertape around a bull market. Barry Humphries is the notable rare exception.

Our dearly beloved and lately lamented has carried the political humour and satire flag almost on her own of late. It’s an honourable but lonely tradition. Having been the editor of another crashed and burned Australian humour and satire magazine in the mid 1980s, I can vouch for the link between political persuasion and humour.

Like Nation Review, Matilda was financed off the back of a trucking company. Roger Lilford’s alternative removalist firm, Tommy Tortoise, had broad shoulders and a thick skin to start with. They would need it for the move to larrikin publishing. Matilda attracted 16 defamation writs for her sharp satirical tongue in her short 14-month life. Like most humour and satire magazines she was born into a period of intense political vacuum — in this instance the "Hoover" period of the Hawke era. In setting up back then, I was acutely aware of the fierce recourse to the writ to which Australian politicians had become accustomed. Many of them had swimming pools and new cars jokingly dedicated to the media organisations they had successfully sued.

I was, however, comforted by that international hex that often fell on would-be suers: the Curse of the Gnome. The Curse is one of those intangible but very real paybacks that nature organises — rather than the local hit-man. It’s a bit like pointing the bone in Australian Aboriginal culture but in this case it’s the funny-bone that you point. It was first given form by England’s Private Eye magazine in the late 1960s as a sort of funny-fatwah that its patron, the Lord Gnome, would put on those who sued. On one level, litigants inevitably got tangled up in their own legal webs. But the really sticky business was that of trying to treat humour seriously in that most serious of forums — the court room. As we will see, the Pommy curse travelled well to Australia.

So we got together with a couple of young Turks from the local legal profession — one of whom is now a Supreme Court Judge — and gave them 3 per cent of the publishing company in return for a company structure that was guaranteed to deflect 99 per cent of the defamation writs that our humour and satire might attract. The structure involved the use of two dollar companies which both used dollar annual licence fees to authorise the publication of the magazine. When enough writs had been accumulated by company A, it was dropped in favour of company B. At the bottom of this little corporate sniper was a unit trust with a couple of trustees who enjoyed a laugh. Any small publishers who would like the details can email me.

The package proved very successful — so successful in fact, that when Matilda folded, the two young barristers who set it up couldn’t get their legal fees out of it!

But I digress.

Predictably, our first threat was from the Silver Bodgie himself, then PM Bob Hawke. He was having an affair at a coastal love-shack with a well-known Christian writer called Blanche D’Alpuget. We felt that he should have been around Parliament running the ship of state, so we challenged him. The reply from his solicitors was as quick as it was hilarious. Our article "imputed serious misbehaviour" on behalf of the PM, was "obviously designed to cause him embarrassment" and to cause "considerable stress" to his long-suffering wife, Hazel.

Hang on. Fast forward to the front page of the Daily Mirror in March 1989: "I Was Unfaithful to Hazel!" And the Illawarra Mercury blared "Blanche Gets Her Man: Romance Blossoms at South Coast Hideaway" in January 1995. And we caused considerable stress to Hazel?

Our legal advice was to make sure that we always had "something up our sleeve", which we clearly did in this case. But the preservation of political satire was best assured by the publication of the PM’s pompous legal letter in the next edition of the magazine! This was the first time that a publication in Australia had dared to publish the terms under which it was being sued — let alone promote them and poke fun at the authors of the writs. You see, lawyers can’t cope with humour and satire in the course of their daily work. Like Rottweilers, they expect fear and retreat in the face of a defamation writ that could potentially be worth $200,000 to $300,000. When they saw mocking and mirth they were confused and embarrassed — and they retreated. The tradition continued and many an opportunistic litigator was put off by his own waffle and bullshit when confronted with it.

Only two people were successful in actually forcing Matilda into the courts over her peculiar brand of humour and satire.

Dr Geoffrey Edelsten, a Sydney doctor who turned his surgeries into Liberace-like living rooms and bought football teams for his wife, took exception to our allegations that he was a bird-smuggler and a drug-dealer. (Although I believe our criticism of his two pink Porsches and his triple fronted Spanish manse bothered him almost as much — but he couldn’t sue us for simply claiming that he led an ersatz lifestyle.)

Of course, we published his lawyer’s letters. We even invited him to attend our annual Matilda Awards Night and pick up the Fluffy Toilet Seat award. But although Dr Edelsten was losing interest in Matilda, he still pursued me personally for another two years, eventually forcing a bailiff to corner me while I was on air at 2UE with Phillip Adams.

The strange thing was though, that as we were about to enter the NSW Supreme Court the next day, the good doctor’s barristers had second thoughts when they saw hitherto unpublished Royal Commission documents in my hand. They called the case off in front of a very irate judge. Dr Edelsten later went on to complete a successful jail term with the Curse of the Gnome stamped all over his papers.

The second court case involved a Queensland Supreme Court judge Angelo Vasta, who sued for an article entitled "Vastabation". The article was written by a now well-known broadsheet newspaper editor. Through the use of satirical portraiture, he suggested that the judge may have erred in passing judgment in a murder trial. Vasta sued (and was awarded damages) but as a result of the ensuing court case he ended up perjuring himself and revealing an undeclared interest in his Liberal MP brother-in-law’s toilet paper company and became the first Supreme Court judge in Queensland history to get the sack

After the case had concluded we dashed off a long missive on double-strength Sorbent to the unemployed judge and signed it with the Lord Gnome’s signature.

Defamation writs and threats also arrived for the most obscure reasons. One well-known rural politician wanted an apology for the fact that he was clearly identified in a spoof on the old look-what-fell-out-of-my-Glomesh-handbag ad and a cartoon that ran alongside it.

The Builders Labourers Federation claimed that we had defamed them for running, without comment, what we thought was a particularly flattering photo of their debating team.

And of course the monarchists took a different route. They sent a copy of the cover of our last issue to the chief censor, claiming that a picture of a lamb sniffing up Lady Di’s skirt was obscene. It was probably ahead of its time in 1986 but it pales into insignificance these days compared to the covers of Woman’s Day.

Neither the doctor, the judge, the politician, the worker nor the royalist were ever going to get anything from Matilda but by suing our production houses, our printers, distributors and newsagents they added considerable force to a mounting national boycott of Matilda, something we had not intended. Letters from all the big brave corporate giants in Australia like Gordon and Gotch and the Newsagents Association started arriving daily at the offices of little old Matilda magazine.

The final blow was delivered by the local government who had been leaned upon by both the federal government and by associates of the many people who had been satirised by Matilda over the past year and a half. Yes, we were evicted from our premises for supposedly failing to comply with local zoning operations which did not permit the running of a political humour and satire magazine from 77 Dominion Circuit in Canberra. More to the point was that this address was 50 metres from the front door of The Lodge and the incumbent Lord of the Manor was exercising his dominion.

But even after Matilda‘s demise the censorship of its laughter still continued.

We bequeathed a large proportion of the publication’s original cartoon collection to the Museum of Australia — including Matilda‘s Satirical Flag Competition. The flag collection went on open display at the opening of Old Parliament House a few years ago but to our astonishment the winner of the competition was not there. John Byrne’s immortalisation of the great Australian tradition of baring all (affectionately known as the brown eye) was deemed obscene and anti-Japanese by the censors at the Museum and was consigned to the bowels of the building forever. Thank heavens the National Library took the rest and still have it on open display for all to see.

Long live the noble tradition of publishing by the billabong.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.