Media ownership and regulation: a chronology

Dr Rhonda Jolly
Social Policy Section

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 frivolous nonsense.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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 media.

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 present.

Colonial publications

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. [4] 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.[5] 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’.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

Chief Justice of the colony, Francis Forbes, declared much of Darling’s legislation repugnant:

... every 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.[11]

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’.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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 economics’.[16] 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.[17]

The first newspaper published in Victoria in 1838 by John Pascoe Fawkner was the handwritten Melbourne Advertiser.[18] 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.[19]

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 Company.[20]

In 1830, the first West Australian ‘newspapers’ appeared—one of which was a handwritten sheet pinned to a tree.[21] 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).[22] 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.[23]

Figure 1: The Sydney Morning Herald reports on the federation of the Australian colonies

Figure 1: The Sydney Morning Herald reports on the federation of the Australian colonies

Source:  The Sydney Morning Herald[24]

  • H Mayer, The Press in Australia, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1964, p. 10. Mayer cites HM Green ‘Australia’s first newspaper and its founder’ in JA Ferguson, AG Foster and HM Green, The Howes and their press, Sydney, 1936, p. 94.
  • Ibid., p. 31.
  • R Harding-Smith, Media ownership and regulation in Australia, Centre for Policy Development, Sydney, 2011, accessed 11 December 2014.
  • A printing press had been transported to the colony with the First Fleet in 1788. It was used at first only for the printing of government orders and proclamations, but after George Howe became the government printer in 1802 he obtained the permission of Governor King to collect materials  and to publish  them in the form of a weekly newspaper—subject to the Governor’s approval. More information on Howe can be found in JV Byrnes, ‘George Howe’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1, 1966, accessed 11 December 2014.
  • Australian Newspaper History Group Newsletter (ANHG), 21 February 2003.
  • HM Green, ‘Australia’s first newspaper and its founder’ in Ferguson et al., in Mayer, op. cit., p. 10.
  • HM Green, ‘George Howe: Australia’s first newspaper’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 1935, p. 10, accessed 13 March 2015
  • FC Green, ‘John Davies’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 4, 1972, accessed 11 December 2014.
  • M Persse, ‘William Charles Wentworth’ and CH Currey, ‘Robert Wardell’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2, 1967, accessed 11 December 2014.
  • It should be added that Darling had been severely criticised by the Australian in a number of instances. One of these was his handling of the Suds and Thompson case, which involved two soldiers who had committed a crime to escape military service. Incidences of crimes committed by the lower ranks had increased as a result of a growing perception among emancipists and expirees in the colony had more opportunity to acquire wealth than soldiers on a military engagement. Suds and Thompson were sentenced to seven years' transportation to a secondary penal colony, but Governor Darling determined to make an example of the men and increased the punishment to seven years' hard labour. Darling also placed the prisoners in heavier than normal chains with an additional spiked collar attached to ankle fetters so that neither man could stand fully upright or lie down. It was claimed this punishment resulted in Suds’ death. The Australian accused Darling of torture and abuse of authority. The Library Committee of the Commonwealth of Australia, Historical Records of Australia, series 1, Governors‘ despatches to and from England, Volume XIIL, January 1827 – February 1828, William Applegate Gullick, Government Printer, Sydney, 1920, accessed 11 December 2014..
  • E Campbell, ‘Colonial legislation and the laws of England’, University of Tasmania Law Review,2(2)?, 1965, pp. 148–75, accessed 13 January 2015.
  • Ibid.
  • JV Byrnes, ‘Alfred Ward Stephens’ and ‘William McGarvie’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2, 1967, accessed 13 January 2015.
  • JO Fairfax, ‘John Fairfax’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 4, 1972 and GJ Abbott, ‘Charles Kemp’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2, 1967, accessed 20 January 2015
  • V Isaacs and R Kirkpatrick, Two hundred years of Sydney newspapers: a short history, Rural Press, North Richmond, New South Wales (NSW), 2003, accessed 26 August 2014.
  • Ibid.
  • G Souter, Company of Heralds: a century and a half of Australian publishing, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1981, pp. 35 and 57.
  • H Anderson, ‘John Pascoe Faulkner’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1, 1966, accessed 26 August 2014.
  • CE Sayers, ‘David Syme’ and ‘Ebenezer Syme’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 6, 1976, accessed 13 January 2015.
  • Article in M Lyons and J Arnold, eds, A history of the book in Australia 1891–1945: a national culture in a colonised market, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2001.
  • State Library of Western Australia, ‘More about newspapers in Western Australia’, accessed 26 August 2015.
  • See a more detailed early press timeline (1802–1850) compiled by R Kirkpatrick on the National Library of Australia website, accessed 12 June 2015 and EJ Prest, Sir John Langdon Bonython: newspaper proprietor, politician and philanthropist, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2011.
  • Mayer, op. cit., p. 11.
  • It is interesting that not even for such a momentous event was advertising taken off the first four pages of the paper. The report appeared on page five of the 1 January 1901 edition.


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