The following is an interview between Professor Matthew Ricketson and author of Paper Emperors, Professor Sally Young.
Media history in Australia is a field that has developed substantially in the past two decades or so, the fruits of which were evident in A Companion to the Australian Media published in 2014. What do you think are the main additions to our knowledge that come from Paper Emperors?
I think Paper Emperors puts a lot of different pieces of a very large puzzle together. It adds to our knowledge about Australia’s major newspaper groups and how they developed, but it also reveals the owners behind those groups, and their approach to politics and to journalism.
We already knew some specific and important things from great work that had already been performed by other scholars and authors. They had performed research on individual owners or specific newspapers, on press-politics relationships at particular points in time, or on particular politicians and some elections. But I was trying to put everything together, find out new information and map the connections between newspapers, journalism and politics over time and in a large context, that is, in terms of how media and communications developed, along with the development of Australian industries and Australian politics and public life.
I hope the book has contributed in that way and allows a better understanding of how the many different elements fit together. I wanted it to be a one-stop shop for anyone in the future who is curious about how newspapers developed and the role they played in politics. I can imagine a time – not too many generations from now – when it is difficult for anyone to remember reading a printed newspaper or why they were so important. I think the book offers a lot of new detail about that but it also contributes broadly to debates about the role of journalism and the media in a democracy.
The Murdoch family and its role in the history of the media have received even more attention. What did you find out about the early history of News Limited that we didn’t already know?
I found out that it was secretly started by a mining company! This is not knowledge that the company will welcome but I lay out the evidence in a chapter that reveals all that I found out about its hidden origins. Some of the clues were always there, staring us right in the face. Others I had to track down through corporate documents lodged nearly a hundred years ago, including working out its shareholder structure and finding lists of its original shareholders and corporate advisers. I was then able to trace their addresses straight back to Collins House, Melbourne – the epicentre of mining and metals in Australia and home of Australia’s largest industrial complex.
The portrait that emerges in your book of the 150 or so years up to the 1940s is of media companies which, by and large, in their reporting did not seem to feel a need to separate their commercial interests from that of the general public. This behaviour has been observed and documented in recent decades but not so much for the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Do you agree, and if so, were you surprised by this finding in your research?
I agree, and I was surprised to find that it was sometimes so blatant. Many of the major newspaper owners of the late 19th and early 20th century were also politicians and businessmen at the same time. They played these roles concurrently – and to their advantage – in a way that was so at odds with their public claims that newspapers were an independent, neutral ‘fourth estate’. Publicly, they encouraged the concept that newspapers were separate from politics and acting in the public interest. Privately, that was far from the truth. I was also surprised at the lengths that newspaper owners and executives went to hide their ownership of newspapers in several important cases (but perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised given that there were still claims of this into recent times).
What can we learn about the media industries today from your history of Australia’s newspaper empires?
It tells us about the origins of today’s media companies – including News Limited/News Corporation and Fairfax/Nine. And it tells us to keep asking questions about who owns media and for what purpose – their interests or ours? Too much of our thinking about media and journalism has directed our attention solely towards journalists – and also too much of the blame has been pointed in that direction when things go wrong. We still need to think about the contexts in which journalists work and the organisational cultures that set the tone and parameters for their journalism. This includes new digital media outlets. Who owns them and why? What other interests do they have, and how might those interests affect the information we receive from them? Those questions are as important to ask into the 2020s as they were in the 1820s or 1920s.
In your research you appear to have used the NLA’s Trove extensively to find out how media companies reported on their own commercial activities. How useful was this resource for you, and to what extent did it help you find information that had eluded the attention of previous historians?
The NLA’s TROVE is a national treasure. I couldn’t have written Paper Emperors without it. We are so fortunate to have this incredible online repository available to the public for free in Australia. In other countries, there is no similar resource that has such comprehensive coverage of newspapers – or researchers have to pay to access something that is not even half as good as TROVE.
During the years I was writing Paper Emperors, I spent a lot of time on TROVE, using it to find biographical details, to check facts and dates, and to work out connections between key figures in the book. Sometimes the best information was the unexpected. For example, I was able to build up a picture of social connections by typing in different names and working out, from the social columns of the day, how some of my key characters were mixing in the same circles, attending the same balls, parties and other high society events. A lot of socialising – and newspaper business – was done at the racetrack as well! TROVE was also great for working out industrial connections, such as which company boards the key figures were on at which point in time. This also gave me important clues, for example about corporate motivations during the Depression.
As you say, I also used TROVE to examine how newspapers covered their own industry and activities – plus the many other industries that newspaper owners were involved in, such as sugar, gas, mining, banking and finance. I could find information very quickly and cross-reference it with other sources in a way that a historian of the press simply could not do before 2009 when the NLA started digitising newspapers and TROVE was born.
Are you planning a second volume, to bring the history up closer to the present day? If you are, do you envisage any particular issues in researching and writing about contemporary or near contemporary events?
Yes, I am currently working on the next volume. This second book will pick up the story from 1942 and bring it forward to the present day. Where Paper Emperors focused on the rise of the newspaper empires, this next book will chart their long decline. It will tell the story from their dominant position in the 1940s, through their expansion into television in the 1950s-1960s, their uneven survival during the chaos of the 1980s, and the fateful choices they made during the arrival of digital in the 1990s-early 2000s. The book will conclude by documenting their decline in the 2010s, as they bear the brunt of digital disruption and face a formidable opponent they call ‘FANG’ (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google).
One tricky part of writing this next book is that, TROVE’s coverage of most of the major newspapers stops at 1954 (due to copyright restrictions). And other databases like Factiva and Lexis-Nexis only started digitising newspapers in the 1990s. So there is a gap between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s that I have to fill using ‘old-fashioned’ techniques such as microfilm and press clippings in individual collections. That is time consuming.
The other major issue I have was best described by a former editor of a newspaper recently. He had read Paper Emperors and when I told him I was writing the follow-up volume he responded ‘I hope you have a good lawyer’! All of the powerful people I was writing about in the first book were dead, but now I have to take into account the ‘chilling effect’ of Australia’s defamation law when writing about living people. That it is a challenge but it is also an advantage because I can do interviews for this book and find out information from people who were directly involved in the events I’m writing about. When I was doing the research for Paper Emperors, how I wished that Keith Murdoch could talk me through all of the complicated corporate documents I had. He would have been able to tell me exactly what I was looking at!
The opening sentence of Paper Emperors is: “Newspapers have found it very difficult to tell the truth about themselves”. Do you think that has changed at all in recent decades?
I think it is still very difficult. As I’ve been doing interviews for the next book, I have noticed that some former journalists and editors, even people who are long retired and out of the industry, do not wish to be quoted about what they think or what they saw. The power of the press barons casts a very long shadow.
Sally Young is Professor of Political Science at The University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on Australian politics and media. She was an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow between 2014-17 investigating press power in Australia.
Matthew Ricketson is Professor of Communication at Deakin University and author of Telling True Stories (Allen & Unwin).