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«Abstract This paper provides an assessment of the role of Australian newspaper proprietors, most notably, Sir Keith Murdoch, Lloyd Dumas and Eric ...»

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Australian newspaper proprietors and freedom of the press, 1940-1950

Denis Cryle

ARC funded project

Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, Australia

‘Rousing the British-speaking world’ 2


This paper provides an assessment of the role of Australian newspaper proprietors,

most notably, Sir Keith Murdoch, Lloyd Dumas and Eric Kennedy, in campaigning

for the freedom of the press in opposition to the proposed United Nations Covenants and its Geneva Conference of 1948. Drawing upon extensive private and Commonwealth Press Union correspondence, it outlines the main steps taken by Australian proprietors and seeks to explain the range of factors, internal and international, which led to their intense lobbying of the Press Union and other press organizations, both British and American, in the context of the United Nations, the Cold War and the Press Union’s own conferences of 1946 and 1950. The author has conducted a nationally funded study on the Press Union in conjunction with Britishbased Indian scholar Dr Chandrika Kaul.

This paper provides an assessment of the prominent role played by Australian newspaper proprietors, most notably, Sir Keith Murdoch, Lloyd Dumas and Eric Kennedy, in campaigning for freedom of the press in opposition to the war-time Labor government, in the first instance, and subsequently against the proposed United Nations’ Freedom of Information Covenant during 1948. It begins by briefly outlining the domestic war-time situation, including divisions within the newspaper industry, before examining the escalation and internationalisation of the Australian campaign in the post war period. Drawing upon extensive private correspondence, it outlines the active steps taken by Australian proprietors in the latter instance, and seeks to explain the range of factors, internal as well as international, which drove them to lobby the British Council of the Press Union, Dominion newspaper interests and those in the United States.

This analysis will build upon previous work by the author and other media historians (Kaul, 2006) in examining the complex role of the Press Union, including the willingness of the Dominion press and its delegations to use the Press Union as a vehicle for private and political interests, as well as larger Commonwealth concerns (Cryle, 2002). While its lavish Imperial Press Conferences across the British-speaking world appear increasingly predictable in their format and agendas, driven as they were by social intercourse and an opportunity to fraternise with high society (Cryle, 2007), they were also underpinned by important issues of politics, business and diplomacy.

As such, these quinquennial gatherings provided colonial proprietors and politicians with valuable opportunities for networking within and beyond their respective delegations. Theodor Fink, in the 1920s and Keith Murdoch in the 1940s each played

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a guiding role in the selection of local delegates and in setting particular agendas and issues for conference discussion. It is clear, moreover, from the Murdoch-Dumas correspondence, that such agendas were set well in advance of the Imperial Press Conferences and a measure of support galvanised both internally and within the British-based Council of Press Union. In this respect, its voluminous conference proceedings, valuable as they are for comparative and historical purposes, have less to say explicitly about the often intense lobbying which preceded them. For this reason, a study of the post-war episode attempted here, relies primarily for source material upon private correspondence between the major local protagonists, not all of whom chose to attend the conference events.

Previous studies of the Press Union and its antipodean delegations have highlighted the willingness of the Australians, in particular, to aggressively pursue their own interests, often in conjunction with their Newspaper Proprietors’ Association, in order to extract competitive concessions on cable charges and wireless facilities. In this context, one of the key players of this study, Lloyd Dumas, an editor for the Herald group and close confident of Keith Murdoch, had already played a significant part as editor-manager of the Sun-Herald cable service in London (Dumas, 1969, p.38).

Subsequently as senior executive of the Adelaide Advertiser, he exhibited unswerving loyalty to Murdoch, while his access to the Press Union in London would prove invaluable in the sustained post-war campaign. As evidence of their close working relationship, Dumas was appointed acting manager of the Herald and Weekly Times group during Murdoch’s brief but unpopular period as Director General of Information in 1940 (Younger, 2003, p.372). But domestic issues and local frustrations with the war-time constraints placed upon the newspaper industry had equally played a part in igniting the campaign for press freedom at home and abroad.

A feature of the Australian Imperial Press Conference delegations, less conspicuous in their New Zealand or Canadian counterparts, was their competitiveness and divisiveness, a trait which also threatened their cohesion and effectiveness (Potter, 2003, pp.142-144). In part this was due to the historical absence of a single Press Association in Australia and to the exclusive tactics of the various Sydney-Melbourne newspaper combinations who controlled the flow of cable news. (Cryle, 2006).

Despite the merger of two rival associations in the late 1930s (1937), divisions

Australian Media Traditions 2007‘Rousing the British-speaking world’ 4

resurfaced over the rationing and stockpiling of newsprint during World War 2.

Murdoch, writing to Press Union Chairman, John Astor, explained how the Australian industry had again divided into rival associations when the Fairfax and Syme families split with the Melbourne Herald and other Sydney papers over the issue. The two Herald groups, Murdoch’s Melbourne-based HWT and Fairfax in Sydney, controlled Australian Newsprint Mills, the Tasmanian-based venture which, after intensive experimentation in the 1930s, was in a position to supply local newsprint to hardpressed newspapers as the war-time shipping and import crisis intensified (Souter, 1981, p.539). By early 1941, when newsprint imports and production came under the provisions of the National Security Act, Australian Newsprint Mills had begun to produce its own paper but was not yet in a position to fully meet domestic demand. In following months, press pagination declined as much as 50 per cent from 1938-39 levels, while metropolitan titles fell as much as 60 per cent (Kirkpatrick, 2001, p.7).

Faced with the serious loss of revenue which resulted from their reduced size, the two Herald groups split over which commercial strategies to meet the crisis. While the appetite for war news guaranteed sales, a trend recognised by Murdoch and the HWT’s decision to reduce advertising space, Fairfax, on the other hand, opted to reduce its news content to retain its lucrative advertisements. This became a significant point of difference between the joint Australian Newspaper Mills owners, one which persisted during and after the war (Griffen-Foley, 2000, p.170). Dumas, then President of the Australian Newspaper Conference, recalled the “vigorous

opposition” of the Fairfax and Syme families to Murdoch’s views, adding that:

Personally, I thought the two leading classified papers had made out a good case, but my association with the Melbourne Herald forced me into that camp, when a compromise could not be reached (Dumas, 1969, p.59).

Caught between Murdoch and other metropolitan proprietors on this occasion Dumas regretted that “Australian newspapers are controlled by men with strong personalities and vigorous methods of asserting themselves” (1969, p.58).

Even before the Curtin Labor government came to power in late 1941, in an atmosphere of national crisis, press freedom and government regulation became catchcries to unite the Australian newspaper factions both during and after the war.

Well before the celebrated Sydney clashes of 1944 with the censorship authorities,

Australian Media Traditions 2007‘Rousing the British-speaking world’ 5

Australian press proprietors employed the public relations firm of J. Walter Thompson in 1941 to mount a sustained campaign on their behalf over the injustice of newsprint rationing, and the gazetting of regulations to control media outlets (Dumas MS, 2 July 1941). Despite outlays of more than one thousand pounds, the campaign was not a great success and Murdoch’s Herald group baulked at prolonging it in favour of the personal lobbying which had proved effective with Curtin’s predecessor, Robert Menzies. With most ANPA members favouring a renewed publicity campaign against regulation in early 1942 (Dumas MS, 2 January 1942), Murdoch remained at odds with many of his fellow publishers over political strategy and preferred to lobby Curtin and his Ministers in person. As Director-General of Information under Menzies, he was a forceful lobbyist of senior politicians. His unpopularity in that role over the unsuccessful introduction of measures requiring newspapers to correct errors, made him an unlikely spearhead of the post-war United Nations campaign and serves to explain Dumas’ ongoing role as go-between across the different industry factions and organisations.

Nevertheless, the protracted sense of siege under the Labor wartime administration of Curtin and Evatt, as a result of newsprint rationing, undoubtedly motivated a resolution on press freedom proposed by the Australian press delegation at the 1946 Imperial Press Conference convened in London (Cryle, 2004, p.6). At the same time, Murdoch and other Australian delegates in attendance were expected to report back to the Australian industry on British attitudes towards a series of important new post-war developments which would elevate the issue of press freedom to international significance and reunite Australian newspaper proprietors in the process. One of these developments, the landmark establishment of a Royal Commission into the press by the British Labor government in 1947, was to be overshadowed by moves within the United Nations to “incorporate the principle of Freedom of Information into its Charter” (Cryle, 2004, p.9) at its 1948 conference. Rather than upholding Western attitudes, such an exercise, in the eyes of the Australians, constituted a manifesto for self-determination by General Assembly members, along newly emerging NorthSouth lines.

In the early war years, strong personalities and the prospect of ever-dwindling newsprint supplies exacerbated divisions within the Australian industry. If Keith

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Murdoch wielded influence within the Australian Newspaper Commission (ANC), Eric Kennedy, managing director of the Sun newspaper chain, led the rival Australian Newspaper Proprietors Association (ANPA) which by now included such groups as Packer’s Consolidated Press and Denison’s Associated Papers (Griffen-Foley, 2000, p.118). In their dealings with the two Herald managers, Murdoch and Henderson, Packer and Denison were each inclined to aggressive individualism. Although Murdoch and Dumas had supported Packer’s bid for the presidency of the ANC before the war, he was neither trusted nor liked by his established print rivals (Souter, 1980, p.116). But it was Ezra Norton, of Truth and Sportsman notoriety, who tested the patience of the war-time industry still further by applying for a licence to publish a new paper, the Daily Mirror, at a time when newsprint austerity was forcing most papers to drastically reduce their pagination. When Senator McLeay, the Minister for Trade and Customs, initially acceded to Norton’s request, Sydney papers protested vehemently and had the decision overturned (Souter, 1980, p. 187).

Divisions created by official prevarication over the Mirror request and by Norton’s insistent lobbying of Labor ministers were compounded by the unwillingness of Murdoch and the Melbourne press to support the Sydney protests. In April 1940, Murdoch penned an angry note to Hugh Denison, owner of the Sun group, over

personal criticism for failing to support the Sydney cause. Murdoch was adamant that:

“All or nearly all of the Federal Government are against you, the leading Canberra officials are against you, and the protest cannot succeed” and he went on to justify his

own position on the grounds that:

in this matter, the Liberty of the Press is involved. If the power of the Customs department is to be invoked to limit newspapers, then we are at the beginning of the destruction of the freedom of the press (Murdoch MS, 27 April 1940).

Their exchange confirmed ongoing differences not only between Sydney and Melbourne interests but also between broadsheet and tabloid owners, in so far as Murdoch had allegedly voiced criticism of Denison and his Sydney Sun for “wasteful” use of newsprint.

Despite their control over Australian Newsprint Mills, neither of the Herald owners was comfortable with the Labor government’s move in 1942 to regulate the use and

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