It is one more example of the quiet contributions Fraser made to Australian public life, and of his sustained interest in the capacity of the news media to contribute to the democratic process.
This interest was longstanding, and was most publicly exemplified by his high-profile involvement in the “Maintain Your Age” campaign in 1991-92, when The Age newspaper was on the auction block and looked as if it might fall into the corrupt embrace of the late British newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell.
The campaign’s name was a play on the slogan “Maintain Your Rage”, the catchcry of the Labor Party after The Dismissal on 11 November 1975, in which Fraser displaced Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister by the intervention of the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. How fitting, then, that the campaign to save The Age should be one of the earliest instances of a rapprochement between the two.
Fraser was a man of strong liberal principles, among them a belief in the primacy of the individual and of individual human, civil and political rights. He recognised the necessity of a free press to the protection of these rights and to the proper functioning of democracy, and he became concerned when the digital revolution began to undermine the capacity of the established press to fulfil this democratic necessity.
By that time, he had developed a strong professional relationship with his biographer, Dr Margaret Simons, who in December 2011 became Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. In fact, he had been influential in persuading her to take the position, and the idea that the Centre should set up an online newspaper emerged during discussions between them.
It perhaps does not come as a surprise, then, to learn that the title The Citizen was the product of a debate in which Fraser was involved. The title exactly reflected Fraser’s ideal of the role of the press as a vital contributor to citizenship, an ideal shared by Simons and the Centre as a whole.
Money was needed, however, and Fraser hosted a lunch to which he invited a small number of friends who he thought might be in a position to help. One of the guests at that lunch, who has always preferred anonymity, put up $30,000 to get the website off the ground. Without that support, The Citizen would in all likelihood not exist.
Fraser’s support did not stop there. He willingly gave interviews to the Master of Journalism students working on The Citizen, including one to Rose Iser for an article concerning what Australia knew — and what it did — about the famine in East Timor between 1977 and 1979, a famine induced by the Indonesian military and which occurred during Fraser’s prime ministership.
The whole question of Australian-Indonesian relations over East Timor was the subject of intense controversy in Australia throughout the 1970s and for decades afterwards. It cannot have been an easy interview for Fraser, but he did it unflinchingly, albeit with arguments to buttress his position.
He admired resilience and determination in others. In a telling little anecdote at his funeral in the Scots Church, Collins Street, Melbourne today (March 27,2015), one of his granddaughters, Rachael Fraser, spoke of how she and her granddad had not agreed on everything. She, for example, preferred Roger Federer as a tennis player: granddad had preferred Raphael Nadal for his indomitable courage.
► Denis Muller is a senior research fellow and lecturer in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, and a former associate editor of The Age (1986-93).