1 February 2016
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Dr Rhonda Jolly
Social Policy Section
The first newspaper was printed in Australia less than
two decades after the First Fleet arrived in 1788. The paper was subject to
government censorship, and as a consequence, one commentator has (somewhat
harshly perhaps) described its reporting as a mixture of sycophancy and
Government censorship of the press decreased from 1824 onwards, and the print
media has since that time for the most part enjoyed considerable freedom from
specific government regulation. Government actions, however, in relation to
broadcasting control and ownership and with respect to other issues, such as
wartime censorship, have affected the way in which Australian newspapers
conduct their business.
As for the broadcasting media, there were specific
broadcasting powers included in the Australian Constitution, and one of the
earliest pieces of federal legislation expressly imposed licensing, operational
and technical standards, albeit that in 1901 there were no actual broadcast
media in operation. From the 1920s, when radio stations first began to
broadcast to the public, they were subject to government restrictions in a
number of forms, including licensing requirements.
At the time of the first radio broadcasts there were
many and varied media voices—26 capital city daily newspapers were published
for example, and 21 of these were independently owned. Diversity
of ownership began to diminish from the mid-1920s, however, and by the 1930s,
media concentration had reached a stage where government became concerned that
the lack of diversity in media voices was not adequately serving the public
interest. Consequently, from that time, various governments have attempted to
address media concentration by regulatory means—some by strengthening, others
by relaxing it. However, despite these strategies, Australia now has one of the
most concentrated media environments in the world.
This chronology traces the story of media ownership
concentration and control since 1901 and the government policies and
regulations that have responded to, or attempted to pre-empt the trend towards
concentration that has occurred since the 1920s.It provides an outline and
brief explanation of, and where possible, links to government investigations
and regulatory frameworks for the media since Federation. In so doing, it
illustrates the ways in which regulations have affected, and in turn have been
affected by, changes in ownership and control of both print and broadcasting
The chronology will be published in three parts. Part
one traces the development of the media from colonial times to the end of 1971.
Part two of the chronology continues the story from 1972 to the end of 1995.
The final part of the chronology deals with the period from 1996 to the
Australia’s first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette and
New South Wales Advertiser, was initially published by George Howe, the
second New South Wales Government Printer, on 5 March 1803. 
The Gazette, which was
printed with government ink, on government paper and by a government printing
press, was not surprisingly, subject to strict government control.
Eminent media academic, Henry Mayer, noted in his assessment of the press in
Australia in 1964 that it was claimed the paper’s content was a mixture of
‘fulsome flattery of Government officials’ and ‘inane twaddle’.
Another assessment of the Gazette’s content is shown in Box 1 below:
Box 1: the object of publishing the Gazette
The Sydney Morning Herald reported in
1935 on the origins of the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser:
... in pursuance of Governor King's desire
‘that the settlers and inhabitants at large should be benefited by useful
information being dispersed among them’, [Howe] was entrusted with the
foundation and conduct—under censorial supervision—of our newspaper.
A second object of King's was the more
efficacious publication of Government orders and proclamations, and these, or
in their absence in any particular week—for the paper appeared only
weekly—some important advertisement, constituted the introduction and
principal part of the opening page.
The rest of the paper consisted of local
news, dressed up humorously whenever there was any excuse and sometimes when
there was none; overseas news cut out of English papers or built up out of
private letters and verbal information obtained from the latest arrivals by
ship; advertisements, practical and instructive articles, and letters, many
of which obviously originated in the printing office.
There was for some years no lead article,
though the first issue of the Gazette contained an ‘address’ to the
reader, and other similar communications appeared now and then, particularly
when Howe felt obliged to urge upon his subscribers the fact that he could
not live and supply them without money.
From 1810, other newspapers began to appear in
the colonies. The first of these was the short-lived Derwent Star, and
another was the Van Diemen’s Land Intelligencer (1814), both published
in Tasmania. In July 1854, John
Davies, who had been convicted of fraud
in 1830 and sentenced to transportation for seven years, established the Hobarton Mercury.
It was renamed The Mercury in 1860. The newspaper was owned by the
Davies family until March 1988 when it became a wholly owned subsidiary of Rupert
Murdoch’s News Ltd.
Until 1824, any papers published were censored
by colonial authorities, but this situation began to change with the
publication of the first issue
of the Australian (not the current title of that name) which was
declared to be published ‘without prior restraint’ by William Charles Wentworth
and Robert Wardell.
From 1826 to 1830, the Governor of New South Wales
(NSW), Ralph Darling, attempted to legislate to licence newspapers and to
impose stamp duties on publications. Governor Darling argued that censorship of
the press was imperative because newspapers caused discontent among the
colony’s convicts, thereby imperilling the safety of the colony.
Chief Justice of the colony, Francis Forbes, declared
much of Darling’s legislation repugnant:
free man has the right of using the common trade of printing and publishing
newspapers; by the proposed bill this right is confined to such persons only as
the Governor may deem proper. By the laws of England, the liberty of the press
is regarded as a constitutional privilege, which liberty consists in exemption
from previous restraint - by the proposed bill a preliminary licence is
required which is to destroy the freedom of the press and to place it at the
discretion of the Government.
Darling’s attempt to introduce stamp duty was also
rejected by Justice Forbes who saw the proposed legislation as ‘an indirect
attempt to deprive newspaper publishers of their trade’.
In April 1831, the first issue of the Sydney Herald
(now Australia’s oldest continuously published newspaper) was published by
Alfred Ward Stephens, Frederick Michael Stokes and William McGarvie.
The Herald first appeared as a weekly publication, but it became a daily
in 1840, a year before it was purchased by John Fairfax, in partnership
with Charles Kemp.
In 1842, the paper changed its title to the Sydney Morning Herald. After
Kemp sold his interest in the paper to Fairfax in 1853, the paper continued to
be published by the Fairfax family company for 137 years.
According to Victor Isaacs’ and Rod
Kirkpatrick’s history of Sydney newspapers, the
Sydney Herald ‘struck a chord with the upper class of the growing
colony’ and it soon overhauled its competitors in sales and advertising.
The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) continued to espouse ‘strong
views about what was “right and proper”’ and for over a hundred years it ‘could
be relied upon as the upholder of conservative views on politics, society and
In the nineteenth century the SMH espoused such views on issues ranging
from what it saw as a waste of public money, on proposals for Aboriginal
welfare to condemnation of the ‘wanton aggression against authority’ at the
Eureka Stockade in 1854.
The first newspaper published in Victoria in 1838 by
John Pascoe Fawkner was the handwritten Melbourne Advertiser.
And although this illegal publication lasted only a few months, a number of
other publications followed the launch of Faulkner’s enterprise. While all were
launched in anticipation of success, many lacked the capital needed to survive.
There were, of course, some notable exceptions, one of which, the Port
Phillip Herald, began in 1840. In 1849 the Port Phillip Herald,
changed its name to the Melbourne Morning Herald and in 1868 it was
bought by David Syme, joint owner with his brother Ebenezer, of another
Melbourne publication, the Age.
The Age, which had been founded in 1854 by the
mercantile company, Francis Cook, and bought by Ebenezer Syme in June 1856, was
yet another exception. Ebenezer Syme was joined by his brother in his
publishing enterprise in 1857 and within five years the paper had become
commercially successful. The Age remained in family hands until 1983,
when it was sold by David Syme’s great-grandson, Ranald Macdonald, to the Fairfax
In 1830, the first West Australian ‘newspapers’
appeared—one of which was a handwritten sheet pinned to a tree. By 1833,
the Perth Gazette and West Australian Journal was being printed. In
1836, the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register began
publication. The South Australian Advertiser, later to become the Advertiser,
began publication in 1858. The Advertiser was eventually one of three
papers owned by John Langdon Bonython, its stablemates being the Adelaide
Express (an evening daily) and the Chronicle (a weekly).
In Brisbane, the predecessor of the Courier Mail was established in 1846
as the Moreton Bay Courier. This paper changed its masthead to the Courier
in 1861 and merged with the Daily Mail (which had been established in
1903) in 1933 to form the Courier Mail.
Near the end of the nineteenth century (in 1892) there
were 599 metropolitan daily and weekly, suburban and country newspapers and
magazines published in Australia. Of these, 466 were published in country
areas. In NSW alone in 1900 there were more than 200 newspapers published.
Figure 1: The Sydney Morning Herald reports on
the federation of the Australian colonies
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
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