Tharunka Gets Fucked

Tharunka recently sat down with Ken Burke, ex-solicitor of the Student Union and “ageless student disentangler” as the Sydney Morning Herald once reported. We spoke about his many interactions with the student paper. He started with the union on the 21st of April 1974, and worked continuously for it and its successors up until 2020, providing a free legal service for students at UNSW (his services were put to good use when a Foundation Day prank strayed a little too close to larceny in 1992).

In speaking about Tharunka throughout the years, Ken opined: “Tharunka was always around, it was then published as a newspaper instead of a magazine. I’d pick it up and read it; if the editors were around I’d knock around with them. There was a bar underneath where the Student Union offices were, which was heavily frequented by one and all. It was a pretty free and easy place to work back then. Tharunka was much more racy, but everything was more racy back in the ‘70s. In the Union and Guild days, Tharunka was what you’d expect a student newspaper to be. A really good, irreverent paper. That’s what you look for.. irreverence.”

In speaking about Tharunka’s shock-value during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Ken said: “Back in the 1960s, people were much easier to shock. The ‘60s in Australia didn’t start until very late in the decade, it was just a continuation of the ‘50s, which were boring. You have no idea how boring it was to be a young person in the ‘50s. There was just nothing open at all, and you were expected to go to church on Sundays”. So, Tharunka took that boredom, and helped shake the foundations obscenity laws, stretching even into the ‘80s.

“One of the stories I remember was the Vice-Squad raided the Art Gallery of NSW and seized a painting which caused a great fuss. All the usual suspects were around, it was all very predictable. It was a really out-there painting, by a guy called Juan Davila. It was the most homo-erotic painting I’ve ever seen, it was on an epic scale. John Amy was the editor of Tharunka at the time, and he wanted to publish it. No mainstream media would touch it with a bargepole. So, he said to me “what do you think, is it alright to publish it?”

I said, “Fuck it, let’s just go for it!”. It caused a great amusement for everyone, but it didn’t attract any attention from the authorities so that was a step forward for the fight against censorship. Another story cost Tharunka and the Student Union a lot of money, one report from 1990 estimated legal costs of $78,000.

“It was never my job to do legal checks on Tharunka before it went out, it was just sometimes people would come to me and ask if it was alright. There was a Director of Student Publications, and if they had any doubts, they’d ask “what do you think of this Ken?”, My inclination was always to give it the tick. On this occasion, I didn’t see the stuff and they published something which was colossally defamatory about someone who was quite high up at the university.

It was a pretty red-hot article, and it was quite specific. It involved a prominent figure in the university and suggested a homosexual relationship with an external contractor, and he was giving contracts on favourable terms because of that. The most defamatory part was the question of the corrupt behaviour – but the illustrations they published were really out there. We got the letter and saw them and said “Shit… this is terrible!”. It was fair dinkum, he was gonna play for keeps.

They were demanding an apology. I said, “You better publish an apology”, and Tharunka published something which was as far from an apology as you could get, which poured kerosene on the fire. They instituted proceedings against us; we briefed someone who thought it was all pretty amusing, but it was unfortunately really expensive. In the end we had to settle and it cost us a fair bit of money. If it had gone to court, Tharunka’s rather amusing response to the letter for an apology wouldn’t have helped.”

“Litigating… it’s the old story, you go into court a bull and come out a sausage.”

Tharunka Volume 28 No. 5 (1982)

Photographic Material Courtesy of Tharunka