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An Icon of Australian Journalism
A look at the life of George Ernest Morrison
Stephen Quinn (squinn)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-09-09 12:17 (KST)   
Over the next few weeks China셲 main broadcaster will screen almost four hours of a documentary about Australian journalist George Ernest (쏞hinese) Morrison.

From 1897 to 1912 Morrison was China correspondent for The Times when the newspaper was effectively an arm of the British foreign office. Because of his position and a series of major political events Morrison became the most recognised Australian in the world.

China Central Television claims an audience of about 1,000 million souls, more than the combined audiences for the United States and Europe. Despite the high regard in China, Morrison is almost forgotten in his country of birth.

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A small brass plaque marks his years at Geelong College, where his father was the founding headmaster. In 1932 Chinese people in Australia funded a series of lectures 쐔o honour the great Australian who rendered valuable service to China. The Australian National University took responsibility for the lectures in 1948 and the most recent Morrison memorial lecture was Sept. 6.

But little else honours a truly remarkable life.

It would take thousands of words to detail his achievements so this article will only mention some of the highlights. In 1880, aged 18, Morrison walked almost 1,000 kilometres from Victoria to Adelaide.

Two years later Morrison exposed the practice of 쐀lackbirding in an eight-part series in The Age, after working on one of the ships that lured Pacific islanders aboard and then took them to Australia to work almost as slaves.

That same year Morrison traced the route Burke and Wills had pioneered 22 years earlier, walking 3,254 kilometres in 123 days from north Queensland to Melbourne. Travelling alone and living off the land, Morrison averaged 26.5 kilometres a day. In London, The Times described the journey as 쐎ne of the most remarkable of pedestrian achievements.

Portrait of George Ernest Morrison
©2007 National Library of Australia
At age 23 Morrison led an expedition to walk north across New Guinea, but returned early after being speared twice. No surgeon in Australia would operate and a finger-length spear tip remained in Morrison셲 body for a year before an Edinburgh surgeon removed it. Morrison continued his medical studies in Scotland and worked as a doctor from 1888 to 1894 in Spain, Morocco, the West Indies and Australia.

But journalism was his passion. The year of the Adelaide walk, Morrison wrote to his mother that journalism was 쐔he noblest of all the professions.

In 1894 Morrison셲 career moved to a larger canvas.

In February that year, dressed in Chinese garb, Morrison travelled overland from Shanghai to Rangoon in Burma. His diary reports he sometimes walked 48 kilometres a day. The next year his book "An Australian in China" (subtitled 쏝eing the narrative of a quiet journey across China to Burma) received critical acclaim in England and Moberly Bell, manager of The Times, offered him a trial as the paper셲 China correspondent.

Doe-Kun Xuan has translated Morrison셲 book into Chinese and it was launched to coincide with the television program. Dr Xuan is an editor at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences and wrote her PhD about Morrison. 쏦e was a great man, she told me in Beijing, 쏿nd the Chinese people still respect him highly.

Translator Doe-Kun Xuan (left) and documentary script writer Li Yan
©2007 S. Quinn
In his 1967 biography of Morrison, newspaper editor Cyril Pearl noted that one of Beijing셲 major streets was named after Morrison. People continued to call it 쏤ormer Morrison Street after it was renamed WangFuJing Street.

Dr Xuan and Li Yan showed me where Morrison owned a house on WangFuJing Street, now one of Beijing셲 ritziest shopping malls. Li Yan wrote the script for the documentary and Dr Xuan acted as historical adviser.

Li Yan travelled extensively in Australia last year filming for the program, and is astonished that Australians appear to have forgotten Morrison. 쏻hen he was alive he was the most famous Australian in the world, along with Dame Nellie Melba, she said.

Morrison's Beijing home site which today is a department store.
©2007 S. Quinn
Opera singer Melba was born a year earlier than Morrison, in 1861. She continues to be remembered in her own country. Restaurants have named desserts after her. The first thing people see when they arrive at Avalon airport in Victoria is a bollard sculpture of Melba. Where are the Morrison memorials?

Li Yan interviewed Sydney writer Linda Jaivin for the documentary. Jaivin, fluent in Mandarin, is working on a novel based around an affair Morrison had with an American traveller, 쏮aysie Perkins, in 1903-04. Morrison called Perkins 쐔he most immoral woman he had ever met, and Jaivin has chosen the phrase as the title for her book.

Jaivin described Morrison as "a very complex character." As well as being brave, diligent and well informed, Morrison was vain, gossipy and two-faced: 쏦e regularly wrote the most awful things in his diary about people he socialised with.

Jaivin said Times journalist Lionel James셲 description of Morrison resonated with her -- he was a man of 쐌any-sided greatness who also displayed 쐏eculiar vanity.

James covered the 1904 war between Japan and Russia with Morrison. He noted that people who believed they were close to Morrison 쐗ould suddenly discover a Morrison altogether incomprehensible to them.

A huge department store occupies the site where Morrison셲 home stood in Beijing. Such is the pace of progress and the value of land in Beijing that new, large buildings soon replace smaller ones. Nearby is the area where thousands of Boxers besieged a few hundred troops and diplomats for 55 days during the Boxer Revolution in 1900.

Li Yan showed me the place where Morrison was shot in the right thigh while inspecting the defences on July 16 that year. Despite the wound he dragged a severely wounded British officer, Captain BM Strouts, to safety as snipers continued to shoot at them.

Morrison later wrote in his diary that Strouts body was soaked in blood but the captain remained conscious. Strouts, who died soon after, asked about Morrison셲 wound. 쏧 said mine was unimportant, Morrison wrote. 쏷hen I fainted.

That same day Morrison셲 paper reported that every foreign defender in the diplomatic area had been massacred. The Times report was based on a telegram from the Shanghai correspondent of the Daily Mail, sent the day before and also published in the Daily Mail. The story was a hoax, filed by an American conman named FW Sutterlee.

The Daily Mail had passed the telegram to The Times in good faith. On July 17 The Times published obituaries of Morrison and senior diplomats, noting that no newspaper had ever had 쏿 more able servant than Morrison. The obituary described Morrison셲 judgment as 쐃xtraordinary, amounting almost to intuition.

This event explains the title of the biography Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin published in 2004, "The Man Who Died Twice: The life and adventures of Morrison of Peking."

That book has been translated into Chinese and launched in China this year under the title "Morrison of China." Allen & Unwin, publishers of "The Man Who Died Twice," will re-issue the English version of the book at the end of this year under that title.

As a young journalist Macklin became intrigued by Morrison after reading the Pearl biography. 쏮orrison was one of the great journalists, and he deserves to be better recognised. He used shoe leather to get a story, unlike too many current journalists who only use the telephone and email. And he defined what it was to be a great foreign correspondent.

Morrison served as a cultural bridge between Australia and China, Macklin said. 쏛s China moves more into the Australian consciousness, hopefully Morrison will become more appreciated. It셲 sad he셲 not appreciated in his own country.

Macklin suggested the time was ripe for Australian journalism to devote an award to recognise Morrison셲 achievements. 쏮any Australian journalists know little about the history of their profession.

China셲 main broadcaster and a major publisher consider Morrison worthy of major projects. It셲 time the man was more appreciated in his own country.
Stephen Quinn is associate professor of journalism at Deakin University in Australia. Click here for his Web site.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Stephen Quinn

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