Extract from Paper Emperors: The rise of Australia's newspaper empires by Sally Young
Newspapers have found it very difficult to tell the truth about themselves. David Bowman, the former editor of two Australian newspapers, observed that ‘Newspapers will expose many things but seldom each other’. Academic scholar James Carey noted along similar lines that: ‘The newspaper does not, perhaps it cannot, turn upon itself the factual scrutiny, the critical acumen, the descriptive language, that it regularly devotes to other institutions’. Media economist Robert G Picard also pointed out that ‘journalists have never covered their own industry with the same interest and vigor that they have covered other industries’.
For a journalist to criticise their own proprietor, or apply the techniques of investigative journalism to their owner’s business affairs, is still a career-limiting move today. But the phenomenon is broader than that. An evocative phrase in a letter captures the approach of ‘respectable’ newspapers (some of the wilder Sydney papers were exceptions). The letter was written in 1945, by John Butters, the chair of Associated Newspapers Ltd (publisher of the Sydney Sun newspaper), to the general manager of the HWT. Butters complained that the HWT’s newspapers – the Herald and the Sun News-Pictorial – had been reporting on his whereabouts. In the past, he said, the HWT’s papers had ‘been good enough not to mention my arrival in or departure from Melbourne’, but ‘something slipped on the occasion of my last visit … and my presence was mentioned’. Butters asked, ‘On the general principle that “dog does not eat dog” ’, ‘[w]ould you be so kind as to have a word with the two Editors and ask them if they would let me off?’
Although Butters was from a separate media company, the HWT directed its reporters to never mention his Melbourne visits, and this was even written into the company’s all-important style guide (that reporters had to follow and which usually focused on matters of spelling and writing style). It is impossible to imagine that an ordinary citizen would have such success if they asked a newspaper to respect their privacy.
Because newspapers have done such a poor job at reporting on themselves (‘dog does not eat dog’), there is a big gap in our knowledge about who owned newspapers and why. Publicly, newspapers were usually silent about the machinations of their owners, while privately, some newspaper owners were prone to overestimate their influence. Lord Northcliffe, the pioneer of popular newspapers in the United Kingdom, and a mentor to Keith Murdoch, once said that his newspapers were so powerful ‘we can cause the whole country to think with us overnight whenever we say the word’. That was obviously an exaggeration, but one of the more interesting aspects of press power is how widely assumed it was, and especially within the political class. In Australia, this was not an uninformed view. An unusually high number of national leaders had experience of how press power worked from the inside. Among the prime ministers who had worked for, or been an owner or part owner of, a newspaper, were Alfred Deakin, Chris Watson, Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes, Joe Lyons (very briefly), John Curtin and Ben Chifley.
Politicians were keenly aware that, even if newspaper industry dogs did not eat each other, they did regularly bite their political opponents, and there was a long history of anxiety about that. Napoleon Bonaparte once said he feared ‘four hostile newspapers’ more ‘than a thousand bayonets’. It was even worse for politicians who had to contest elections and were constantly fearful about the consequences of negative publicity. In the United States, a wellknown political saying (often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain) warned: ‘Never pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrel’. Australian politicians had more to fear than most in this regard, because Australia’s press proprietors were unusually powerful. In no other western democracy did such a small number of newspaper owners build up such dominant media companies.
Only a few maverick politicians dared to pick a fight with Australia’s powerful press barons. Archdale Parkhill and Eric Harrison were two, and both feature in this book. Later, there was Arthur Calwell, Moss Cass and Stephen Conroy. But this was unusual behaviour. Most politicians instead viewed self-preservation and the good will of the press as synonymous. Robert Menzies summed up this mindset in the mid-1930s when the future prime minister was then the attorney-general. By then, it was obvious that the country’s largest and most powerful newspaper groups were also becoming dominant in radio broadcasting. Menzies was asked in private if his government was ever going to do something to curtail them. He replied frankly: ‘We haven’t the guts’.
Sally Young's book Paper Emperors: The rise of Australia's newspaper empires will be published by NewSouth in March 2019.