Moscow-based journalist and University of Melbourne academic John Helmer, who edited Farrago in 1964 when it was a weekly broadsheet newspaper, said the publication today was “not of interest to and not attempting to involve students of different ethnic groups”.
“If I were the editor of Farrago now, I would certainly have enormous coverage of Sri Lankan, Indian, Chinese, Malay and Singaporean affairs,” Mr Helmer said. “Maybe I’m mistaken but . . . Farrago to me looks lily-white and I can’t understand why that’s the case.”
His criticism comes on the eve of Farrago’s 90th anniversary year. The publication was launched in 1925 and its many editors have included students who built careers in writing and politics, among them novelists Christos Tsiolkas and Name Le, journalists Kate Legge, Morag Fraser and James Button, historian Geoffrey Blainey and the former Labor political heavyweight Lindsay Tanner.
Mr Helmer said that the racial mix on campus of foreign and domestic, oriental and Caucasian students was a very different environment to that which existed when he was editor but those ethnic changes weren’t reflected in today’s Farrago.
“You’ve got to know and address your audience,” he said. “If you ignore the Asian and foreign students, you have an audience of less than 5000 out of a population of near 20 [thousand].
“[It’s like] you’ve shot one leg off and pulled out one of your eyes … it makes no sense to me, it’s no longer journalism, it’s magazine work.”
Mr Helmer said that 1964 was a big year in terms of the Vietnam War but, equally, a lot of important things were happening today.
‘You’ve got to know and address your audience. If you ignore the Asian and foreign students, you have an audience of less than 5000 out of a population of near 20 [thousand].’ — former Farrago editor John Helmer
He compared the issue of refugees and its controversial affect on Australia with the 1964 frontline issues of apartheid and immigration restrictions on people of colour.
“You couldn’t pick up an issue of Farrago without those things of very great importance and debate of all sides,” he continued. “But we thought Australian mattered. If you read Farrago now, you might question how many times the word Australia appears.”
Kevin Hawkins, one of Farrago’s four current editors, responded that Mr Helmer’s criticism was valid but that it had not been the editors’ intention to ignore such voices.
He said Farrago’s aim was to appeal to a diverse range of students but conceded that the magazine needed to make more of an effort to represent the international student population.
“This year we’ve really tried to make a conscious effort of ensuring we represent a range of student voices in terms of the political spectrum, whereas we haven’t been as deliberate with representing different ethnic voices,” he said. “But it’s definitely something for us to think about over the rest of the year.”
Mr Hawkins said Farrago this year broke the news about international students and their limited access to travel concession cards, and published a story about their efforts to break into the job market.
‘It’s worth re-iterating that we are now a magazine and our purpose has shifted from what it was 50 years ago.’ — Farrago co-editor Kevin Hawkins
He said he was not wanting to sound defensive but it was difficult to please all readers.
The editors were doing a “fair-job” at representing domestic students of different ethnicities, he claimed, at least in regard to Farrago’s writers and illustrators.
“It’s worth re-iterating that we are now a magazine and our purpose has shifted from what it was 50 years ago,” Mr Hawkins said.
“Farrago can be a place for breaking news and doing journalism but it’s also a place where young writers and illustrators gain experience and exposure.”
Mr Hawkins added that the Farrago editors tred to cover political issues in a way that did not “yell political views at you but gives you things to think about”.
“Our articles on asylum seekers and the university’s investment in fossil fuels in edition three are good examples: and I was really happy to publish a piece in our second edition challenging the carbon tax.
“It wasn’t a position that I particularly agreed with but by reading it I became more informed about the issue and it helped me adopt a position.
“If our readers can have the same experience by reading Farrago then I feel we’re doing our job right.”