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John Winthrop Hackett

John Winthrop Hackett was the editor of the West Australian newpaper. He was also chancellor of the university, president of the public library, museum and art gallery, chancellor of the diocese of Perth, and a member of the Legislative Council.

SINCE the days of Junius, the newspaper press has been "a power behind the Throne." To speak of its puissant influence in moulding the destinies of nations is to utter truisms or to "gild refined gold." To say that it is a popular educator, the champion of the liberties of a free people, an impregnable bulwark of right against wrong, the diffuser of the intelligence of the world, and one the most indispensable possessions of civilised life, does not nearly describe the extent of its dominion as one of the most omnipotent moral forces of the universe. The mirror of the newspaper reflects in its pages every relationship of life, from the cradle to the grave. No other literature is so rapidly produced, so omnipresent its circulation, or is so potent in its possibilities for good or evil; for comparatively few men read books, but everyone eagerly peruses his newspaper. It preserves the purity of public life and disarms oppression, inspires the spirit of patriotism, does homage to the brave, the good, the true, and makes vice ashamed. No other institution has so many functions; none performs its work with greater fidelity or zeal; no agency is better organised, or is directed with a larger share of intellectual power.

From the days when The Times attained the zenith of its fame, in the able hands of Delane and Barnes, there has been much curiosity on the part of the public to learn all that can be gleaned of the personality of successful editors of leading newspapers; for it must be confessed the world is full of newspaper failures. The successful editor is born, not made; and does not court the garish light of personal publicity. He wields he sceptre from behind the mask of anonymity; he is the unseen controller of enterprises of great pith and moment. Such a man is often fine dictator of cabinets, the master-mind of political combinations, upon which fate of parties if, not the welfare of the country, is bound up. He guides the course of legislation, and often fashions history. He has his finger upon the pulse of all the social movements of the day, pleads the cause of justice and humanity, and trumpet-tongued upholds the honour of the crowd. The successful editor is protean in his mental grasp. A man of culture, he has to do far more than merely place the mordant impress of his mind upon his paper. The closet student, the brilliant writer, may be invaluable in a newspaper corps, but much more is required of the capable commander-in-chief. A disciplinarian, versed in knowledge of the world; a keen judge of men, quick to perceive talent, and to set it to its proper task; a worker himself of untiring industry, who can "outwatch the bear"; to maintain the highest efficiency in every department; of even temper, and discriminating, equable judgment—these are only some of the many-sided qualities which must be found in the successful editor. Is it any wonder then that this type of journalist is conspicuous by his rarity?

John Winthrop Hackett has made the West Australian, and during the years that he was building up the fortunes of the paper and those of the weekly Western Mail, he was known to very few of the people of Western Australia, until he was persuaded to enter parliament. A piquancy is added to sketching his portrait, as it is very seldom that a prominent place in the councils of the State is achieved by one whose time and energies are so largely engrossed in the active management and editorial direction of a daily and weekly newspaper. Born in county Dublin, Ireland, John Winthrop Hackett was educated at Trinity College, Dublin University. When old enough to choose a profession he was anxious to qualify for the Bar, and thereupon eagerly pursued his studies in law. He wished to emulate the example of so many of the brilliant orators and pleaders among his countrymen, who practise their profession with success wherever English is spoken. Looking among the prominent lawyers of Australia, we find that the majority were either born in Ireland or are of Irish extraction. In 1874 Mr. Hackett was admitted, and he immediately determined to work out his redemption in law in Australia. He made his way to Sydney and in 1875 was admitted to the New South Wales Bar. After practising in the mother colony for about twelve months he went to Melbourne, and in 1876 was admitted to practise in the Victorian courts. His sojourn in Victoria was more protracted, and he became vice-warden of Trinity College, Melbourne University, and also lecturer on several subjects. But he was not ambitious of enduring fame as a University lecturer or as a barrister, and in 1882 he resigned his appointments in Melbourne and came to Western Australia. Destiny, some writers would say, leads us blindly to a goal. Anyhow, Mr. Hackett was impressed with the hopeful outlook of Western Australia in the early eighties. He did not at first yearn to distinguish himself among the great fraternity of journalists, but chose those more peaceful walks to be found in pastoral pursuits. He was not happy in his choice of country, for the run he took up near the Gascoyne River soon proved itself to be subject to droughts, and miserable and unfruitful in other respects. He relinquished his run. Then he joined Mr. Chas. Harper, M.L.A., in the proprietary of the West Australian, in Perth; Sir Thomas Cockburn Campbell, Bart., being at that time editor.

Mr. Hackett brought all his energies into play in his new position, and by his enterprise in the commercial and literary departments he made the West Australian a much more powerful organ than it had hitherto been. Immediately upon his advent he signalised the occasion by converting the paper—then a tri-weekly—into a daily newspaper, and extended its sphere of influence in various ways. Then he established the Weekly Mail, which has come to be the chief weekly paper in the colony. He grew more and more a part of the newspapers, and in 1888, when Sir T. C. Campbell retired, he took the editorial chair, and thenceforward the West Australian became almost the whole of his existence. Indeed, the progress made by the West Australian since 1888 emphatically represents his life. It was now that all his latent energy and literary ability were brought into action, and he so impressed his personality on his paper as editor and manager that it represented the aspirations of the people of the colony. He saw whither Western Australia was tending, and his useful pen constantly advocated the cause of responsible government. Sir T. C. Campbell had been opposed to the granting of a new constitution, but upon Mr. Hackett taking his place the leading articles showed that the West Australian was at one with the majority of residents in advocating the much desired boon. Two years' pertinacious agitation in presenting every aspect of the question clearly before the people of the colony and Home Government, brought about the happy consummation in 1890. Mr. Hackett's services to Western Australia in this regard cannot be lightly estimated; and it is a pleasing augury that the intervening years have seen the colony expand to an extent almost unparalleled in history. It is an interesting fact that after he began this crusade at every election to the old Legislative Council a member pledged to the change was returned. Such is the power of the press in successful hands.

As some reward for his services in this direction, the first action of the Forrest Government on taking office under the new constitution was to appoint Mr. Hackett a nominee member of the new Legislative Council. When in 1894 the Council became wholly elective on the population basis of 60,000, he was returned senior member for the South-Western Province, which embraces Bunbury and its surrounding districts. As senior member the Hon. Mr. Hackett does not retire until 1900. He was delegated to represent Western Australia at the historical Federation Convention held in Sydney in 1891, and he took an active part in the proceedings. His deliveries on the notable occasion were marked by brilliancy, and his views carried much weight with the assembled delegates. He was also appointed a member of the Federal Council of Australia, which body strives earnestly to unite all the colonies into a nation. Thus, in public, in private, or in the editorial chair of the West Australian, Mr. Hackett has laboured constantly for his adopted country. His facile pen and his utterances in the House have shown him to be progressive in politics. Broadly speaking, he is a supporter of the Forrest Government, but he has differed with Sir John in certain questions, such as education. He so successfully diffused his opinions on this subject that, after a campaign of two years' duration, Sir John capitulated, and the education system of Western Australia was brought into line with that of the sister colonies. He has on more than one occasion been offered a portfolio, but declined owing to the demands on his time which the newspaper makes. He has now, with the exception of the president, Sir George Shenton, held his seat longer than any member of the Legislative Council.

Since his connection with the West Australian, the Hon. Mr. Hackett has identified himself with every movement that he considers beneficient to the colony. He has been active in church, masonic, and educational matters. In masonry he is a Past District Grand Senior Warden. During the present year of writing (1896) he is chairman of the Board of Governors of the High School, and a member of the Anglican Diocesan Council and Synod. He was one of the first committee nominated to take charge of the Victoria Public Library and Museum, president of the Acclimatisation Committee, and is also a member of numbers of other committees. In 1883 he was created a Justice of the Peace.

In some respects Mr. Hackett is a reserved man. A weighty and eloquent speaker, and a writer of great power, it is well for Western Australia that all his ambitions and hopes have now to do with the colony. His speeches prove him to be a purist in language, and there is probably no more eloquent man before the public in our midst. His individuality has been indelibly impressed on the public mind, and will leave a lasting mark on history. With the aid of such men, these first few years of autonomy—the most important in the colony's history—are sure to lay a stable foundation, upon which a noble structure shall be reared. Mr. Hackett is one of the dominating powers of Western Australia.

References and Links

Hasluck, Paul 1978, 'The founding of the Society: some personal reminiscences', Early Days, vol. 8, part 1: 7-22.

Kimberly, W.B. 1897, History of West Australia: A Narrative Of Her Past Together With Biographies Of Her Leading Men, Niven, Melbourne. Available online from Wikisource.

Photo by Greenham & Evans, from Kimberly, 1897.

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