Few in the media grasped the power of Keating’s Redfern speech that day in 1992

When Paul Keating stood up in Sydney’s Redfern Park in 1992 and said “we committed the murders; we took the children from their mothers”, the media did not entirely grasp the significance of his words.

Only the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times ran the then-prime minister’s landmark Redfern speech on page one. The Australian newspaper relegated its report the next day to page four with the headline “PM blames whites for black malaise”. The Herald Sun ran it on page 11 with the headline “PM ‘a hero’ for blast on racism”.

For a junior Herald reporter that day, it was to be an assignment where I truly got to write the “first rough draft of history”. Only I had no idea of that as I headed down to inner-city Redfern on the morning of 10 December 1992. There was no sense that a landmark event was about to happen as the press waited in the sun for Keating to start his 17-minute speech, written the night before by legendary speechwriter Don Watson.

It was a vastly different media landscape 30 years ago. Print was king and there were no digital newspapers, no social media, no 24-hour news channels. The Herald and the Age were owned by Fairfax and did not share copy. They had separate reports of the speech written by different reporters. The Canberra Times was owned by Kerry Stokes, the chairman of Seven West Media.

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It would be another four years before Sky News Australia was available on Foxtel and 18 until the ABC started up its rolling news channel. The Herald, still a broadsheet and funded by the rivers of gold from classified print advertising, only began to dabble in online news in 1995 when it launched Computers Online, an internet version of its weekly computer section.

Apart from radio and nightly TV news bulletins, the news was delivered the next day when the newspapers hit the streets.

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Without social media, the news that a sitting prime minister had admitted it was the colonisers who “did the dispossessing” did not spread as fast as it might in today’s climate. Keating’s office had not backgrounded journalists about the contents of the speech.

It was a Thursday when the 24th prime minister of Australia addressed the largely Aboriginal crowd at a community event to launch the international year of the world’s Indigenous peoples.

The crowd, filled with local Aboriginal kids and their carers, was a little noisy when Keating began to speak but fell silent, eventually cheering when he reached the key points.

“We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life,” Keating said. “We brought the diseases, the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.”

Back in the Herald office, the news desk was briefed and they recognised it was the strongest statement ever made by an Australian leader about the dispossession of the Indigenous population and put the story on page one.

The Australian followed up its first report on Friday with comprehensive coverage in the Weekend Australian and an editorial on Monday.

In 2020 researchers who looked into 45 years of print coverage of Aboriginal initiatives for self-determination, were critical of the Australian’s coverage of the Redfern speech for referring to Indigenous people as “stoneagers” who could not survive “the age of discovery” unchanged.

“The Australian argues that this [Redfern] statement really refers to the past, that contemporary Australians should not feel guilty,” they wrote.

  • Amanda Meade is Guardian Australia’s media correspondent