Media ownership and regulation: a chronology

Dr Rhonda Jolly
Social Policy Section

1901–1922: broadcasting powers, wartime censorship, the Herald and Weekly Times and Keith Murdoch

On 1 January 1901, when the Australian colonies joined together to form a new nation, the Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth gave federal governments power to make laws with respect to specifically defined areas (section 51).

While there was no stated press power listed in the section of the Constitution which dealt with federal powers, the Government was still able to make laws that affected the press. Constitutional powers which enabled it to do so included: section 51(i)—to make laws in relation to trade and commerce with other countries and among the states and section 51(ii)—the taxation power.

On the other hand, the Constitution gave governments the specific power to make laws concerning ‘postal, telegraphic, telephonic and other like services’. In 1905, the Australian Parliament passed what one commentator notes was a ‘brief yet comprehensive’ Wireless Telegraphy Act (WT Act).[25] This Act gave the federal government control over stations and appliances used for ’transmitting and receiving telegraphic messages by means of electricity without a continuous metallic connection between the transmitter and the receiver’.[26] As the Gippsland Times reported in 1906, the WT Act had been enacted to 'enable the Commonwealth to take advantage of the latest advances in science, and to secure the use of wireless telegraphy for national purposes’.[27] At the time of its passage, ‘neither the desirability of nor the necessity for government control over wireless telegraphy was questioned’.[28]

Prior to World War 1 a number of stations were licensed by the Government to test the transmission of voice signals over radio waves. These stations were subject to military control during the War, but it was not long after the 1918 Armistice that the Government amended the WT Act to give it the same control over wireless telephony as it had over wireless telegraphy.

Newspapers were censored during WWI and some complained that despite government insistence the restrictions were for security reasons, the censorship was politically motivated, particularly in relation to the Government’s stance on conscription.[29]




Document source


January 1901

The Australian Constitution gives the Australian Government power to make laws with respect to ‘postal, telegraphic, telephonic and other like services’.
No specific ‘press power’ listed, but the Government still able to make laws that affect the press.

Specific power over broadcasting: section 51(v).Powers affecting the press: section 51(i)—to make laws in relation to trade and commerce with other countries and among the states—and section 51(ii)—the taxation power.

March 1901
Protectionist Party forms government after first Australian federal election. Edmund Barton becomes Prime Minister. The Protectionists also form government following elections in 1903 and 1906. Alfred Deakin is Prime Minister.[30]

November 1901

Tasmania lobbies the Federal Government to establish point-to-  point wireless telegraphy which would enable direct communication with the mainland.

R Curnow, ‘The origins of Australian broadcasting‘, in R Curnow and I Bedford, Initiative and organisation, FW Cheshire, Sydney, 1963, p. 50.

October 1902

Marconi Company submits a proposal to the Government to connect Australia and New Zealand by radio. The Postmaster-General’s Department opposes the scheme arguing that messages are already transmitted more cheaply by cable.

Curnow, op. cit., p. 51.


The Herald & Weekly Times (HWT) is incorporated as a public company.

Museum Victoria, Herald and Weekly Times information page

October 1905

Wireless Telegraphy Act 1905 (WT Act) is enacted to give control of licensing and operational and technical standards for wireless broadcasting to the Postmaster-General’s Department.[32]

Wireless Telegraphy Act 1905[33]

August 1906

After demonstrations of Morse Code communications, Marconi Company wireless stations are set up in Queenscliff in Victoria and Davenport in Tasmania, and the Government sets aside funding for the development of wireless.

A Chapman, ‘Answer to Question without notice: Supply’ [Questioner: H Wilkes], House of Representatives, Debates, 22 August 1906, pp. 3251–2.

April 1910
The Labor Party, under the leadership of Andrew Fisher, wins the 1910 federal election.

July 1910

Businessman and philanthropist HR Denison forms Sun Newspapers Ltd to take over the publication of papers based in Sydney, the Sunday Sun and the Star (which he renames The Sun). Denison remains chairman of this company until 1940.[34]

HR Denison, Australian Dictionary of Biography entry.

D Zwar, In search of Keith Murdoch, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1980, pp. 17–18.

J Denison, Building a nation: Hugh Robert Denison, author published, Mosman, 2004.

October 1910

Following the recommendations of a Senate Select Committee on press cables, the Government subsidises an independent cable service, the Independent Press Cable Service, for three years. All newspapers are able to subscribe to the service at rates set by the Government.

Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, no. 4, 1911.

January 1911

The Land newspaper for primary producers begins publication. The paper is incorporated in the 1920s, and in the 1970s it expands to purchase rural and regional publications.

V Graham, The story of the Land, 1911–2011, John Dwyer, North Richmond, Victoria, 2011.


After funding is set aside in 1909 for wireless installation, a network of government-operated Morse Code stations is established to transmit telegrams and provide shipping information.

B Carty, On the air: Australian radio history, author published, 2011, p. 2 and Curnow, op. cit., pp. 64–6.

May 1913
The Deakin Liberal Party, under the leadership of Joseph Cook, is elected to office.[35]

July 1913

Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (AWA) is formed from a merger of the Marconi and Telefunken companies. The company becomes a pioneer in early radio broadcasting. Hugh Denison is a major shareholder.

A Moran and C Keating, The A to Z of Australian radio and television, Scarecrow Press, Lanham,  2009, p. xix.

August 1914 In July 1914 the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by Serbian nationalists leads to an Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia, the mobilisation of Russian troops in defence of Serbia and Germany declaring war on Russia and France. When Germany then invades neutral Belgium, Britain declares war on Germany and World War I begins.

September 1914
The Labor Party wins the federal poll. Andrew Fisher is Prime Minister until October 1915 when he is replaced by WM (Billy) Hughes. The Labor Party splits in 1916 over the issue of conscription. Hughes remains Prime Minister, first as head of a National Labor Government (1916–17) and then as the head of a Nationalist Government (from February 1917).



Administration of WT Act is transferred to the Royal Australian Navy during WWI for security purposes.
Experimental radio sets are confiscated by the Navy and licences to operate radios are revoked.

Moran and Keating, op. cit. and Curnow, op. cit., pp. 66–9.


Newspapers are censored for the duration of the War ‘to restrain pro-German and pacifist propaganda’.
Newspaper proprietors and journalists complain that they are unfairly treated as ‘vehemently suspect’ by Australia’s military censors.

G Souter, Company of Heralds: a century and a half of Australian publishing, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1981, pp. 116–7 and P Coleman ‘Censorship’, in B Griffen-Foley, ed., A companion to the Australian media, Australian Scholarly, North Melbourne, 2014, p. 87.

May 1915

John Wren and Benjamin Nathan buy the Brisbane Daily Mail.

John Wren, Australian Dictionary of Biography entry and Zwar, op. cit., p. 81.

April 1916

Ezra Norton inherits the newspaper interests of his father, John Norton, owner of the Sydney weekly tabloid, Truth.

Australian Dictionary of Biography entries for John Norton and Ezra Norton and S Hall, ‘The Norton Family’, in Griffen-Foley, ed., pp. 317–8.

October 1916

John Fairfax and Sons becomes a limited company.

Souter, op. cit., p. 120.

May 1917
The conservative Nationalist Party, a merger between National Labor and the Liberal Party, wins the May federal election.

March 1918

As a result of press complaints about political, rather than security censorship that newspaper proprietors argue is imposed upon them during the second conscription referendum, a board, upon which editors are represented, is set up to advise the government censors.

A muzzled press, The Australian Worker, 22 March 1917, p. 14.

(See also comment in Box 2.)

October 1918

The Government announces in late October 1918 that the press will be required to reduce newsprint consumption by 30 per cent. This restriction is not imposed due to the end of the War.

Sydney letter, Kapunda Herald, 29 November 1918, p. 4.

November 1918
WW1 ends at 11am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 when Germany signs an armistice that had been prepared by Britain and France.

March 1919

Smith’s Newspapers is established by Claude McKay, James Joynton Smith and Robert Clyde Packer (Frank Packer’s father). The company publishes Smith’s Weekly to 1950.

Australian Dictionary of Biography entries for Claude McKay, Joynton Smith and Robert Clyde Packer

August 1919

AWA publicly broadcasts music and speech in Sydney (and in October 1920 to parliamentarians in Melbourne). AWA establishes the first direct radio communication between Australia and the United Kingdom.

Carty, op. cit., p. 2 and Curnow, op. cit., p. 93.

September 1919

The WT Act is amended to give the Federal Government the same control over wireless telephony (voice transmissions) as it has over wireless telegraphy.

Wireless Telegraphy Act 1919.

December 1919
Billy Hughes’ Nationalists, aided by conservative country parties, form government following the election.

October 1920

Control of wireless administration is returned from the Navy to the Postmaster-General’s Department.

B Fraser and A Atkinson, (eds), Macquarie encyclopedia of Australian events, rev. edn, Macquarie Library, 1997, p. 526.

January 1921

The ‘Hughes Proclamation’ extends the remit of the Customs Act 1901 to ban communist and Sinn Fein publications which are deemed as seditious.[36]

Coleman, op. cit.


The first radio licence is issued to Charles MacLurcan for 2CM in Sydney.

Radio Heritage Foundation.


Station 3ME, the forerunner of Radio Australia, begins broadcasting.

Carty, op. cit., p. 1.


Keith Murdoch becomes editor of the Herald and Weekly Times company (HWT).[37]

Keith Murdoch, Australian Dictionary of Biography entry.

March 1922

The Federal Government signs an agreement with AWA to develop, manufacture and sell radio equipment. The Government is a shareholder in the company.

Moran and Keating, op. cit., p. xx, Curnow, op. cit., pp. 80–5 and J Given ‘Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd’ in Griffen-Foley, ed., op. cit., p. 22.

September 1922

HR Denison attempts to challenge Murdoch’s HWT in the Melbourne market by producing the Sun News-Pictorial and, later, the Evening Sun.

Denison, Building a nation, op. cit., p. 67.


Postmaster General WG Gibson arranges meetings with interest groups, the intent of which is to devise a system that will support radio broadcasting.

Curnow, op. cit. p. 94.

December 1922
Coalition of anti-Labor parties wins the federal election—the Bruce-Page Nationalist-Country Coalition Government sworn in with Stanley Bruce as Prime Minister.

Box 2: Parliamentary protest: censorship of the press

Comment on restrictions of press freedom by William Findalyson (Labor Member for Brisbane, 1910–1919), 8 February 1917:[38]

‘Is it not about time that the stupid press censorship in Australia was stopped? Is it not about time that instead of the words about freedom in Australia flowing so glibly from the lips of the Prime Minister he allowed us to get back to the first qualification in regard to freedom, and that is a free speech and a free press?

There is no other country in the world to-day—and I make no exception—where there is a greater limitation on speech and on the press than in Australia. Yet the archpriest of the whole thing is the man who most glibly talks about freedom and liberty.

I want to protest most vigorously against the continuation of this press censorship, which is stupid, which is foolish, which is only breeding trouble. One of these days the system will burst, and the Government that is responsible for the system, and particularly the Minister who is responsible for its existence, will have to answer to an outraged public for the limitation which he imposed on the press and the people at a time when we should have free, frank, and full discussion.

If anything that ought to be said is stopped by a stupid press censorship, you may be certain that the more you dam the current of people's thoughts, you are only hastening for yourselves the time when the dam will burst, and a flood will overwhelm you ...

Before we adjourned last year, the Prime Minister promised that the restriction on the press would be withdrawn. He gave a most solemn assurance that there would be no restriction on the press or on the platform, yet day after day returned soldiers are afraid to speak.

I have a letter from a returned soldier, in which he says “One of these days I will be able to tell you some things, and they will be of use to you, but I dare not speak now”.

I say here now, as I said eighteen months ago, that the biggest obstacle to recruiting is the way in which returned soldiers are being treated, the way in which their mouths are being closed; the way in which they are prevented from saying what they ought to say in regard to their treatment.

I am not going to make an appeal to the Prime Minister to withdraw the restriction on the press and on free speech. I only make the statement that it is a disgrace to Australia, and that someday the people will reward the Prime Minister for his outrageous conduct’.


  • R Curnow, ‘The origins of Australian broadcasting‘, in R Curnow and I Bedford, Initiative and organisation, FW Cheshire, Sydney, 1963, p. 53.
  • A Barnard, ‘AWA, the radio traders and the government in early radio’, in A Moran, (ed), Stay tuned: the Australian broadcasting reader, Allen and Unwin, North Sydney, 1992, p. 5.
  • Work of the Deakin Government’, Gippsland Times, 26 November 1906, p. 3, accessed 20 January 2015.
  • Curnow, ‘The origins of Australian broadcasting ‘, op. cit., p. 53.
  • Souter, Company of Heralds, op. cit., pp.116–7, cites memorandum reproduced in Volume XI of the official war history.
  • For a detailed analysis of Australian federal elections referred to in this chronology, see S Barber and S Johnson, Federal election results 1901–2014, Research paper series 2014–15, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 17 July 2014, accessed 20 January 2015.
  • Note: in some instances specific months in which events occurred have not been recorded in the primary or secondary sources I consulted. Such events will be listed at the end of the entries for each year cited in the chronology.
  • This legislation was also prompted by recommendations from the commander of the Australian naval station for the setting up of wireless installations on the Australian coast, Curnow, ‘The origins of Australian broadcasting‘, op. cit., p. 52.
  • Note: while this chronology refers to significant pieces of legislation, other legal instruments and court cases have affected broadcasting and print media ownership and control. The chronology does not attempt to include every piece of relevant legislation or regulatory documents.
  • Denison was originally the managing director of a tobacco manufacturing business. He had loaned £100,000 to the Australian Newspaper Company, publisher of the Star in 1908. Within a year of the loan, the company went into liquidation and Denison took over the running of the paper.
  • While the Deakin Liberal Party, which was a merger of anti-socialist and Protectionist groups, is clearly a forerunner of the current Liberal Party, it is not the same Party. The current Party was formed by Robert Menzies in 1944.
  • Customs Proclamation No 24 (T&C 21/B/365), Gazette, 3 February 1921 (No 11 of 1921) and Customs Proclamation No 37 (T&C 21/B/5230), dated 16 June 1921, Gazette, 23 June 1921 (No 55 of 1921). References as cited in R Douglas, ‘Saving Australia from sedition: customs, the Attorney General’s Department and the administration of peacetime political censorship’, Federal Law Review, 30, 1, 2002, p. 141.
  • Murdoch began his career in newspapers working for David Syme. In 1914 after his application for appointment as an official Australian war correspondent went to C EW Bean, in 1915 as managing editor of the United Cable Service (of the Sun and Melbourne Herald) in London he reported first hand on the progress of the Gallipoli campaign. His report praised the Australian forces at Gallipoli and attacked the performance of the British army at all levels. After WWI Murdoch returned to Australia and In 1920 he was hired by Theodore Fink, chairman of Herald and Weekly Times Ltd (HWT), as chief editor. In March 1924 he became managing director of HWT.
  • W Findlayson, ‘Supply Bill (No. 4) 1916-17’, House of Representatives, Debates, 8 February 1917, accessed 12 June 2015. Note: for ease of reading, paragraphs have been inserted in the original text.


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