This week, the ABC marks the 70th anniversary of its first truly independent news bulletin — but it almost never made it to air.
“Independent and up to the minute” is how ABC news promotes itself today.
But when the ABC began broadcasting in 1932, being independent and up to the minute meant going to war with some of the most influential men in the country: the Australian newspaper proprietors.
A cartoon from the Daily Telegraph in 1947, attacking an independent ABC news service as a sham. (ABC Archives)
Back in the 1930s, Sir Keith Murdoch, whose son Rupert went on to found News Corp, was the most powerful media baron in Australia, running newspapers and radio stations.
Even before the ABC made its first broadcast in May 1932, Sir Murdoch was pressuring the Federal Government to change the legislation that created the ABC — in effect, restricting the public broadcaster from collecting its own news.
At that time, there was no radio news on ABC stations in the morning until the announcers had read the newspapers, and in the evening the announcers had to repeat the morning news bulletins — as the newspapers refused to have their evening papers scooped by ABC news broadcasts.
Sally Young, an associate professor at the School of Political Science at the University of Melbourne, said that in the 1930s, the newspapers thought if people were listening to the radio for their news, they wouldn’t buy the afternoon or evening newspapers.
And so the owners tried to restrict the ABC’s activities.
“These were the sort of deals that Murdoch and other newspaper proprietors lobbied to have imposed on the ABC, so it wouldn’t be such a threat to newspapers,” Professor Young said.
Subverting the status quo by scooping the papers
In those days, ABC newsgathering was regulated by a so-called “gentleman’s agreement” with the newspapers, about who had the right to collect news and at what times news could be broadcast.
ABC commissioners and senior management were hesitant to break the agreement because they feared the consequences.
Since 1932, they’d been involved in bitter annual negotiations with the newspaper proprietors about ABC news broadcasts undermining their profitable business model.
One exchange over the timing of news broadcasts was recorded in the minutes of a meeting between Sir Keith Murdoch and ABC general manager Charles Moses, in 1936:
Keith Murdoch: Is 7:00pm the best hour for the evening?
Charles Moses: Yes, that is the best time.
Keith Murdoch: You have taken the best time for yourselves. There must be room for bargaining … It amounts to this: If you can’t alter the hour, the question that concerns us is how much you should pay us. The damages to us are very considerable.
According to Professor Young, who is writing a book on the history of media in Australia, the disruptive new medium of radio was very confusing for newspaper proprietors.
“They were uncertain what it would do,” she said.
ABC federal news editor Frank Dixon was a champion for the independence of the service. (ABC Archives)
The push for an independent ABC news service began in earnest in the late 1930s, when former print journalists like Frank Dixon, who was the ABC’s federal news editor, and soon-to-be war correspondent John Hinde, constantly subverted the aforementioned gentleman’s agreement — much to the annoyance of the newspapers and ABC senior management.
Hinde is regarded as one of the ABC’s best war correspondents in WWII.
Later in life, he was RN’s weekly film reviewer. I was one of several ABC journalists privileged to have known and worked with Hinde, who died in 2006.
He was a brilliant story teller and he’d often tell us of his clashes with ABC management, including his news editor, and the Commonwealth Government censor.
On one occasion prior to WWII, Hinde managed to scoop the newspapers on a developing story in NSW politics.
His scoop was just one of many skirmishes between radio journalists and their newspaper colleagues.
ABC’s first political correspondent frozen out
One of the most famous disputes was about the appointment of Warren Denning, the first ABC political correspondent in Canberra, in 1939.
Denning’s appointment came about because the metropolitan newspapers had refused to cover a speech made by conservative prime minister Joseph Lyons.
Lyons had been personally picked by Murdoch to be prime minister, prior to the conservative landslide election of 1931. But by the late 1930s, Murdoch had become disillusioned.
As the late ABC news historian, Neville Petersen, explained, Murdoch’s decision to ignore Lyons’s speech had consequences.
“Denning’s appointment was greeted with absolute total dismay by the newspapers because it broke the barrier that they had set up against the ABC setting up its own newsgathering service,” he said.
“The newspapers had denied that right to the ABC as one of the provisos of taking news from the newspapers. But they could hardly do anything about Denning’s appointment because the government had insisted on it. So they had to accept that very grudgingly.
“They wouldn’t allow him to attend news conferences … [and from] 1939 to 1941 he had to go and see the prime minister and other ministers separately. He couldn’t go in with the other newspaper reporters and sit amongst them. They wouldn’t allow it.
“But they demanded from [the time of Denning’s appointment] on, there would be no repetition of that, [and] that no other news gatherers would be posted around Australia.
“The ABC though was given a great opportunity, because Denning’s appointment in Canberra allowed them to supplement the Canberra office and very soon, at the beginning of the war, the ABC was totally independent for its Canberra news from the newspapers.”
Public trust in ABC cemented by WWII
Despite the restrictions on the taxpayer-funded broadcaster, World War II greatly expanded the ABC’s newsgathering role.
Radio technology meant that Australians didn’t have to wait for the newspapers to print and deliver news of key battles and the experiences of Australians fighting overseas.
The bombing of Darwin was just one of the many events reported on by the ABC during WWII. (Supplied:Australian War Memorial/ref – 042870)
The ABC’s federal news editor of the day, Dixon, was proud of the organisation’s ability to out-scoop its print rivals.
“Among other scoops which we broadcast during the war was Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the bombing of Darwin, General Gordon Bennett’s escape from Singapore, the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, the Allied victory in the Coral Sea, the death of President Roosevelt, and the surrender, first of Germany and then in Japan,” he later told documentary makers.
“It was an ABC reporter who first interviewed General Douglas MacArthur on his arrival in Australia; and it was through an ABC microphone that the general broadcast his famous message ‘I came through and I shall return’.”
In the early 1940s, an international advertising agency did a background report for the newspaper proprietors. The report concluded that radio was increasingly becoming the preferred source of news interpretation.
And public opinion surveys indicated the public now trusted radio news commentary more than an editorial or an opinion piece in a newspaper.
So when WWII ended, the pro-independence movement made its move.
A parliamentary committee was set up to investigate the prospect of an independent news service — and this new battle, in a war that had been going on for over a decade, was just as bitter as those that had come before it.
The leader of the opposition, Robert Menzies, argued that an independent news service would not be better than what was already supplied by the papers and would be a waste of public money.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
‘Waste of money’ a familiar refrain
According to Professor Young, the “waste of taxpayers’ money” theme has been the fall-back argument for newspaper proprietors since the ABC began broadcasting in 1932.
“[It is] remarkable the similarities with the situation going on now,” she said.
“Now the contested space is digital and the ABC is a threat in digital, as it was in broadcasting back in the 1930s.
“The newspaper proprietors were very keen to have a say in how radio was going to work and ended up getting the first commercial radio licences so they immediately had a foothold into a new medium.
“And the ABC was a real competitor and a real threat both to the newspapers and their new commercial radio interests.”
When Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood spoke before a parliamentary inquiry on the future of journalism in May this year, the arguments he used weren’t much different to those put before parliament in 1946 by his predecessors.
Mr Hywood said he was not “anti-ABC”, but was concerned about the public broadcaster “using taxpayer money to drive traffic to its news websites by paying to boost Google search results”.
“These tactics make it harder for online readers to find news articles from companies such as Fairfax that rely on advertising revenue to support journalism,” Mr Hywood told the committee.
“Why the ABC is taking money out of the system I don’t understand.”
‘The news you don’t have to fetch and carry’
Mr Hywood’s sentiments are similar to those expressed by Menzies following the war.
But the ABC’s federal news editor Dixon and his supporters convinced the Labor government of the day to end the press versus radio war in Australia.
An advertisement run in the papers on May 31, 1947, for the start of the ABC’s independent news service. (ABC Archives)
Dixon understood the newspaper business, as before joining the ABC he’d been the editor of a country newspaper.
One of the reasons he was so vehemently in favour of an independent ABC news service was that he felt metropolitan newspapers had neglected regional Australia.
And whatever the newspapers could do, the ABC could do better, according to Dixon.
In the end, government members defended the setting up of the independent service, pointing out that the ABC produced its own concerts, plays, talks, school broadcasts and sporting programs — and there was no reason it should not also be independent in the preparation and broadcasting of news.
For too long the daily press of the capital cities had dictated what the people heard, as well as what they read.
In August 1946, the ABC News Services Bill was passed by both houses of federal parliament, paving the way for the creation of an independent news service that was no longer dependent on the newspapers.
And so the first independent ABC news broadcast went to air on Sunday June 1, 1947, with this preamble broadcast beforehand:
“This is the news that you don’t have to fetch and carry. It comes to you with the turn of the knob that a child can turn. Nobody has to bring it home, it is there. It is the butterfly that flies into your net. The view you can get without having to go to your window.”