The slogan that helped sweep Gough Whitlam into office as Australia’s prime minister in 1972 has become his epitaph this week, as newspapers across Australia paid tribute to the former Labor leader.
It’s Time and variations on the theme were spread across front pages including The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, The Herald Sun and the Mercury.
Mr Whitlam’s self-deprecating humour was also on display from The Sydney Morning Herald’s front page quote (“Dying will happen some time. As you know, I plan for the ages, not just for this life.”) to numerous cartoons bringing to life his assertion that upon meeting God, he “would of course address him as an equal”.
With news of his death emerging around 8am on Tuesday morning, stories gained momentum online throughout the day before backing up in print on Wednesday, with 16-page wraps from the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, an 8-page wrap from The Australian and taking over EGN in other mastheads.
As divisive as Mr Whitlam was in power, in death there was universal praise for his achievements, with a lesser focus on his failings.
To The Australian he was an “enhancer, transformative leader and ceaseless provocateur, [who] often gave flight to the nation’s collective imagination. But his manifest human flaws ultimately brought him and his ambitious project crashing down to earth.”
The Sydney Morning Herald looked back upon its initial misgivings with fondness. It noted that it is difficult now to realise how confronting Whitlam’s vision was to the Australia of the 1960s and early 70s. It continued: “It says so much about Whitlam’s achievements that the Australian people, and indeed the Herald, grew very quickly to embrace his vision of modern Australia, and now hold it so close to their hearts.”
The Australian Financial Review didn’t cover over Whitlam’s flaws, describing his dismissal as his “defining moment”. “Gough Whitlam was a striking and imperious political leader who shaped modern Australia more than any other of his generation,” it said. “But the giant had tragic flaws – an impatient ‘crash through or crash’ reformer who was unwilling to tailor his social program to the available economic cloth.”
The Herald Sun dubbed Whitlam “well-meaning” but “divisive”.
The Australian provided robust online coverage of Whitlam’s death with a dedicated section on its homepage, armed not only with prepared obituary material but the skills to create immersive profiles following the 50 days of editorial celebration for the paper’s 50th anniversary in July.
“That gave us the confidence to do that for other stories,” digital editor Rodney Dalton said. “When it came to after that project finished, we didn’t want to waste that knowledge.”
The result was the cornerstone of the coverage, an immersive version of a piece by Mike Steketee which was broken up with quotes, illustrations, video, a photo gallery and an interactive timeline of Whitlam’s life as readers scrolled down the page.
“The thing about digital is nobody [can] just put up a 3000 word piece and expect people to read through it. What we learnt with the 50th birthday is people are much more likely to stay with the story if there are pictures and other things to engage them.”
Engagement was very strong, with time spent on site jumping – particularly on mobile, “which was interesting because normally it is ‘snack and move on’,” Mr Dalton noted.
“Digital gives us new ways of doing what we’ve traditionally done in print.”
Editor of The Age, Andrew Holden, said the paper had a range of stories prepared.
“Because of the timing, the major stories we had went online immediately as well as a live blog from the Canberra gallery team.” The feed was shared with The Sydney Morning Herald.
“We reconfigured the paper so we could do a 16 page wrap – an 8 page wrap was already within the system in case this happened.”
The Age shared a pool of images with the Herald but each wrap was designed independently to give the papers a different look, with pieces by Mungo McCallum, a political writer from Whitlam’s era and Mark Kenny two of the key items.
“We brought the letters and opinion pages into the wrap and devoted all letters to Gough Whitlam… we had no problem filling 1.5 pages of letters – both positive and negative.
“On an occasion like this, you try to do your best for such a significant figure – it’s a key moment and we want to leave a mark.”