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Rising out of Chaos

Illustration by Carina Florea

Chaos. In the week leading up to a Lot’s Wife printing deadline it may seem like the paper’s middle name.

Well, it wasn’t that long ago.

Undoubtedly the greatest keeper of Lot’s Wife stories is past Monash student, Pete Steedman. A former federal parliamentary member for Casey and Executive Director of not-for-profit company Ausmusic, Steedman reported for, edited and revolutionised both Lot’s Wife and its predecessor, Chaos, during his time at Monash.

“Monash had this incredible reputation of being radical,” he says. “When you sum it down…the only thing radical was what was coming out of Lot’s Wife!”

The revolutionary nature of Monash student press reflected the environment into which it was born. Monash University was founded in 1958, the only new university at that time to ‘start up from scratch’, not evolving from a pre existing TAFE or college. “That’s what makes [Monash] so unique,” Steedman says. “There was no peer group, no establishment, no ground rules, no laws, just fucking mud everywhere. You didn’t have anybody to lead you into university or explain anything, you created everything on the spot.”

The paper students created was truly their own. During O-Week 1962 a bold tabloid hit the Monash campus. Chaos. A world away from today’s glossy magazine, Chaos was first and foremost a newspaper. Highly political and controversial, Steedman recollects writing articles “attacking the coppers, attacking the university, attacking everybody.” Covering contemporary social issues from police brutality to the existence of God, Chaos was known for doing its research. “Chaos didn’t act as propaganda, it showed all sides of an argument,” Steedman says. Its capacity to generate debate and therefore influence students is what Steedman believes made it dangerous, as people were able to learn from it, trust it and adopt new ideas.

In 1964 the paper was edited by a new team including Emeritus Professor Ross Fitzgerald, now an Australian academic, historian, writer and political commentator. The group “decided they were going to be…revolutionary” and the blank spaces where articles should have appeared in editions of their paper are a testament to this. “Because the printers wouldn’t publish some of their bullshit they left spaces and then published the articles in separate sheets,” Steedman says.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the printers of The Age, who printed Chaos and then Lot’s Wife, acted as a censor on student press. Further restrictions by this conservative printer in 1965 saw the editing team search for another company and discover a small printer in Waverley. This was one of the first printing presses in Victoria to use off set printing, then a modern technique whereby inked images were transferred (or “off set”) from a metal plate to a rubber blanket and pressed onto the printing surface. Always ahead of its game, in 1965 Monash also boasted the first colour student newspaper in Australia.

Steedman was never put off by the university’s attempts to censor him. “I didn’t cop that [censorship],” he says. “I asked the uni what are you going to do about it?” But Steedman’s refusal to keep quiet had consequences reaching further than just university disciplinary action. During later periods of editing at Melbourne University’s Farrago, Steedman received a ‘D-Notice’ stating he had threatened the defence of the country. The article in question, which was pulled off the printing press and denied publication, had been written by a welfare officer in the Northern Territory and discussed the way Aboriginals were being treated in the 1960s. “That article was harmless but I was served a ‘D-Notice’ by the Federal Police,” he says.

As a child of the 60s, it’s no surprise that Chaos, soon to become Lot’s Wife, reported extensively on the Vietnam War and conscription. The 1965 National Forum on Vietnam was held at Monash University and hosted a string of high-profile names, including leading anti-war figure Dr Jim Cairns and External Affairs Minister and later Governor-General, Paul Hasluck. The Forum was covered in detail in Lot’s Wife by co-editors at the time, Phillip Frazer and Peter Moylan, but it wasn’t just students who did the reporting. Lecturers and university staff were often published in Chaos and Lot’s Wife, such as senior politics lecturer Max Teichmann’s contribution to the conscription debate and economic lecturer Ian Ward’s article on Vietnam.

But it wasn’t all politics. “The highlight of the year, which of course upsets people now, was the Miss Monash contest,” Steedman says. While photos of Miss Science, Miss Engineering and Miss Economics would not be accepted now, Steedman insists the some of the most prominent feminists of the day were crowned Miss Monash at some point.

In 1964, Chaos was renamed Lot’s Wife by the now prominent science fiction author and science writer, Damien Broderick. Supposedly a move to tidy up the paper, Steedman states “Damien had this thing about not looking back.” In the Old Testament, Lot and his wife fled the destruction of Sodom with God’s promise to spare them if they left behind their burning town without a backwards glance. Lot’s wife, upon looking back, was turned into a pillar of salt for not obeying God’s orders. While the new title suggested a fresh start, the paper’s content remained as radical as ever. In the first Lot’s Wife edition, a front page report on an inquiry into police brutality in Sydney towards eight university students showed that the paper had no intention of backing down from questioning authority.

According to Steedman, Lot’s Wife gradually became less hard news and more “the youth package”, reviewing everything from music and concerts to fashion. “This is Barrie Humphries when he first started up,” Steedman says, pointing to an article promoting his stage act, Excuse I. “Mrs Everidge had just started,” Steedman notes. “Humphries invented her in the late 50s.”

1966 saw the relationship between Lot’s Wife and Farrago come to share more in common that just their status as university newspapers. As Lot’s Wife editor, Steedman joined forces with the University of Melbourne’s Ian Robinson to create a highly controversial joint Lot’s Wife/Farrago edition. “That really upset [the students],” Steedman says. Pooling resources gave the publication the money to print more articles and develop more content. The front cover set the tone for an anti-Vietnam War issue, with a cartoon in which US president Lyndon B. Johnson confessed to “raping Vietnam” but sought justification in that if he had not, Chairman Mao, portrayed on crutches, would have done so.

While the original tabloids Chaos and Lot’s Wife seem vastly different from today’s glossy publications, they share a similar ethos, allowing all students the chance to write.

“I never censored anybody,” Steedman says of his time as editor. “Everybody got a go.”

Despite evolving and differing political and social issues since those early days, there are certain student concerns which are unlikely to fade. “This was an article attacking parking,” Steedman says with a laugh pointing to the faded, yellowing clipping. It seems there are some things about Monash life that never change…

Kate Mani

The author Kate Mani

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