Finding Tharunka

For such a commitment to the anniversary of Tharunka, it’s a bit ironic that there isn’t actually much information on how it began. When we started this project, there wasn’t much that we could find about the origins of the newspaper. Looking through archival records, and old magazines, you get the big picture of how it began, but none of the details.

Getting this project off the ground was initially pretty painful. Finding old editors and writers from an era long gone is difficult, and getting into contact with them is even harder. At first, we tried to find the original editors. Dead. What about the guy who wrote a book on the history of UNSW? Dead again. Any other historians who wrote on student press? One, and she died recently. Ok what about the larrikins Richard Neville and Martin Sharp? Both dead. Frank Moorehouse passed away before we started the project, and Peter Kingston died before we were going to reach out to him. But there were many people we did reach out to who graciously accepted and told us their stories.

What we found most interesting about these stories was that they showed the ephemerality of the newspaper. With each newer generation of Tharunka comes different people, ideas and attitudes towards writing. But the one constant across the decades of Tharunka is in its eternal dissatisfaction with the status quo. Right from the very start.

In the ‘50s, the University of NSW was struggling to find its own identity in the shadow of Sydney University. It was a transitionary moment for UNSW, shedding its identity as a technical college, and opting to become a larger generalist sister university to Sydney Uni. This transition was also reflected in Tharunka’s beginnings. The newspaper marked the formation of a new union – the UNSW Student’s Union.

It combined the ‘University of Technology Society of Students’ with the older ‘Sydney Technical College Union’. Both previous unions had student newspapers, Unilogic and Unity News, which were discontinued around the same time Tharunka started. These older newspapers were pretty stock-standard, and acted mostly as notice-boards for on-campus news. And then came Tharunka.

There isn’t much detail on how the transition happened, but the consolidation of the previous newspapers seemed to pave the way for Tharunka to be the prime source of spreading news. Not only was it a way for students to get their news on campus, but it was also a way for UNSW to actually establish its identity through its student body. To have student voices, opinions and issues heard; to embody their discontent and eschew any sense of reverence for the university that housed it.

When students founded the publication, they wanted a ‘truly Australian technical word’ as a reflection of the technical nature of the university itself. And so, as is repeated in many editions of Tharunka, the name for the publication was ostensibly derived from a Central Australian Aboriginal word meaning ‘message stick’.   Harold Spies, who was the last editor of Unity News and the first editor of Tharunka alongside Sid Dunk, said that he was given the editorship because he had something to say, rather than a flair for writing.

It’s clear from Tharunka’s first and ever-relevant headline that this was the case.  “Students sold down the river… again”.  And with that, Tharunka took hold on the students at the university. Its functionality was completely different to today, acting as a source for disseminating campus news and announcements, a noticeboard, a means of advertising goods to students, discussing student life and university sports. This functionality has shifted and morphed throughout the decades, acting as a witness to change not only to the history of the university, but also to student political activism in Australia.   Initially, Tharunka was in keeping with the style of previous student union newspapers, however in the ‘60s it grew more radical in its writing and issues, with Richard Neville and Martin Sharp pushing past the boundaries of traditional student newspapers.

They moved on to co-found (alongside Richard Walsh) Australia’s countercultural magazine Oz as an extension of their ideas and dissent in Tharunka. Issues of sexual liberation, censorship and the counterculture came to the fore during this time, and reached their peak in 1970 with the arrest of editor Wendy Bacon for publishing ‘The Ballad of Eskimo Nell’. Tharunka had also published a literary supplement with the help of Frank Moorehouse, to combat censorship of works in Australian media deemed too ‘obscene’ for the public.

Tharunka wasn’t just a newspaper for students, but a part of the underground press that fought against principles of censorship. During this time, you’ll find a lot of contributors to Tharunka who became prominent figures in the media and journalism landscape, Peter Kingston, Liz Fell, Jenny Coopes and Graeme Dunstan.

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s Tharunka came to be more focused on its student constituency, still with its trademark irreverence and often making a splash in the news. But moving into the late 2000s, student news began to face similar problems that traditional media did – the pervasiveness of social media and rise of alternative digital platforms meant that adaptation was necessary. Like many, Tharunka has struggled to maintain its relevance on campus. It’s now a matter for students to figure out how a student newspaper can be relevant and how to get their opinions heard. But what separates Tharunka from other, newer forms of media is its history of irreverence.

That’s what student news was always about.

Tharunka Editors compiling a new edition (1976)

Photographic Material Courtesy of UNSW Archives