Lyndon Megarrity reviews Sally Young’s Media Monsters: The Transformation of Australia’s Newspaper Empires, (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2023).
The underlying theme of this fine publication is “Perception becomes reality”. Whereas twenty-first century journalists and media moguls have created a self-fulfilling prophecy by repeatedly talking down newspapers as “a dying medium”, newspaper owners between 1941 and 1972 had such a sense of entitlement and confidence in their power that politicians were often conned into believing the media influence of the emperors of newsprint was greater than what it was. Media Monsters tells the story of the increasing concentration of media ownership during the mid twentieth century in Australia, which saw a handful of media proprietors gain control over the country’s major metropolitan newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations.
It is no easy task to document the twists and turns of internal staff disputes, business deals and the somewhat uneasy alliances which political titans such as John Curtin, Arthur Calwell, Robert Menzies and Gough Whitlam forged with the newspaper industry. Young was fortunate to have access to journalist and media executive Colin Bednall’s unpublished memoirs, which give insights into the world of Australian press barons. His account is especially useful for the transformation of Australia’s media landscape as newspaper owners adjusted to the introduction of television.
The author’s detailed study includes many insights that will interest political historians, journalists and the general reader. Alongside the main text are a selection of text boxes on such topics as the role of women in the newspaper sector in the post-war years, the evolution of the printing process and the beginnings of talkback radio in the 1960s. These short pieces provide useful historical context which helps the reader better understand the post-war media environment—a world which contrasts sharply with the New Media focus of today.
Significantly, Young dispels the myth of all-powerful newspaper barons. For instance, while all metropolitan newspapers except the Daily Mirror backed the new Liberal Party in the 1946 federal election because of the party’s favourable taxation policies, the incumbent Chifley Labor Government, which preached austerity, actually won. Similarly, Young shows that the notion that Rupert Murdoch’s pro-Whitlam campaigns in his newspapers were crucial to Whitlam’s victory in 1972 is at best overplayed:
“A suspicion that Murdoch had hitched himself to a sure-fire winner in 1972 was boosted by the fact that the biggest swing to Labor had occurred in Victoria, where he did not even own a daily paper.” (p. 460)
Elsewhere, Young makes the crucial point that high circulation is not always the key to the longevity of a successful newspaper. The Argus was a case in point. At the time of its closure in 1957, it had a higher circulation than the Age. Its most recent owners, the British Daily Mirror Group, had reimagined it as a more left-wing paper which appealed to people in the less affluent parts of Melbourne. Unfortunately, this demographic was not appealing to advertisers wanting to sell products to consumers who did not need to watch their pennies.
Historians will find sections of the book which may challenge their understanding of the post-war years. For example, the author notes that the Catholic Church was a considerable shareholder in the Herald and Weekly Times (HWT) group of papers, and leading Melbourne church identity Archbishop Daniel Mannix also held shares. Young raises the intriguing possibility that the media coverage of Mannix may have partially created his historical importance:
“The HWT newspapers devoted space to recording Mannix’s activities and his views, including on state-federal relations … Was this attention justified because Mannix was a powerful and newsworthy figure, or had his connection with the HWT … contributed to making Mannix a powerful and newsworthy figure?” (p. 165)
Arguably, the most compelling “Media Monster” covered in the book is Frank Packer of Consolidated Press. It is clear from Young’s account that Packer in his prime had sound business instincts. Despite being very much a “man’s man”, he understood the importance of the female reader, if only as an increasingly important target for consumer advertising. For example, in 1950, Packer had the foresight and confidence to increasingly print the pages of the Australian Women’s Weekly in colour, building the circulation up to 800,000. Packer acknowledged that it was the “milk cow” of his business operation. Packer told his editor in chief David McNicoll: “It’s the bloody Weekly that’s paying your salary … She’s got to be very, very gently nurtured.” (p. 187) Disturbingly, however, Packer also used his position to indulge his personal whims. As ultimate boss of the TCN-9 television station, Frank Packer forced a technician to twice run a horse race from the previous day, disrupting the normal broadcast to prove to a dinner guest that his horse Foresight had performed adequately on the racetrack. It appeared to be of no concern to Packer that he was interrupting a John Wayne movie!
The only serious criticism I have of the book is the limited coverage of regional newspapers. During the 1960s, the chief metropolitan media players started to buy up regional, local and suburban newspapers. In recent decades, this intense media concentration has ultimately led to the mass closure of many long-lasting country papers which were now deemed an impediment to the bottom line of big media corporations in the internet age.
For the most part, this is well-written book on the history of Australian media that deserves to be widely read. It is a balanced and thoughtful account which shows that although media tycoons could be monstrous, they at least had a love of newspapers and fostered some fine editors and journalists (although some would fall out of favour over time). Further, while the New Media and TV remain reliant on newspapers for much of their breaking news in the 2020s, there is still hope for a revival of print.