Media ownership and regulation: a chronology

Dr Rhonda Jolly
Social Policy Section

1939–1949: censorship, the Broadcasting Act, licences and a regulator

Throughout World war 11, both the press and broadcasters were subject to considerable government censorship. This imposition caused great angst. Commercial broadcasters were particularly aggrieved, objecting to what they considered was an unnecessarily overriding authority invested in the Postmaster-General’s Department. They were also concerned about what they saw as excessive legislative power wielded over the media by government ministers.

During the war, a new Act to regulate broadcasting was introduced—the Australian Broadcasting Act 1942 (the Broadcasting Act). This Act gave the Government power to regulate commercial broadcasting and to cover the national services delivered by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (the ABC). The ABC had evolved from the Class A stations established under the open radio system in the 1920s. The Broadcasting Act gave ministers for communications power to grant and renew commercial broadcasting licences. It also introduced requirements with which broadcasters had to comply, such as programming standards and Australian content quotas.

After a number of claims were made of ministerial political patronage in granting licences, broadcasters called for the establishment of an independent regulatory authority to limit the potential for government interference in the allocation of licensing and programming decisions. In 1948, the Broadcasting Act was amended to establish a regulatory body, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB), which was charged with ensuring that broadcasting services were developed and operated in the public interest.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, despite regulatory attempts calculated to slow media concentration, companies such as the Herald and Weekly Times, Fairfax and Frank Packer’s Consolidated Press manoeuvred to buy and sell assets and to outwit each other in taking greater control of various media in the process.

Figure 3: early ABC broadcasting

Figure 3: early ABC broadcasting

Source: ABC archives[54]


Milestones Details Document source
April 1939
Joseph Lyons dies in office. Earle Page serves as caretaker Prime Minister until the UAP elects Robert Menzies as leader on 26 April 1939
August 1939 National security regulations are introduced. These include regulations to control radio and cable services. The Department of Information controls news and information. National security: the new regulations’, The West Australian, 26 August 1939, p. 18 and Zwar, op. cit., p. 93.
September 1939
World War II begins when Britain and France declare war on Germany following its invasion of Poland.
September 1939 After commentary on the ABC by ‘The Watchman’, which criticises the British policy response to the invasion of Poland by Germany, the Government directs the broadcaster to ensure its programs contain only factual observations. ‘At home and abroad’, 21 September 1939 and telephone conversation reported in memorandum from W Cleary, ABC Chairman, to all Commissioners and the General Manager, 21 September 1939, as quoted in A Thomas, ‘Political pressure in the ABC’, in Moran, op. cit., p. 70.
November 1939 Frank Packer and EG Theodore launch the Sunday Telegraph in opposition to Denison’s Sunday Sun and Norton’s Truth. Whitington, op. cit., p. 146.
December 1939 Radio Australia (known as Australia Calling until 1945), commences short-wave broadcasting in English, French, Dutch and Spanish. Carty, op. cit., p. 3.
1940 Twenty-six national and 100 commercial radio licences in operation. ABCB, First Annual Report, op. cit., p. 5.
June 1940 To prevent Era Norton from buying the Sydney Labor paper Daily News and converting it to an evening paper, Consolidated Press buys it and incorporates it into the Daily Telegraph. Whitington, op. cit., p. 151.
June 1940 Keith Murdoch is appointed Director General of Information by Prime Minister Menzies. Murdoch is criticised by his peers for supporting proposed media regulation which they see as a dangerous attack on the press. Murdoch resigns his position after four months. Chadwick, op. cit., p. xxiv and Roberts, op. cit., pp. 227–9.
September 1940
Coalition at first retains power after the September 1940 election with the support of two independents, but by October, the independents withdraw their backing and Labor’s John Curtin becomes Prime Minister.[55]
January 1941 Four broadcasting licences—2HD (Newcastle), 4AT (Atherton), 5AK (Adelaide) and 5AU (Port Augusta)—are withdrawn under national security regulations because of their supposed association with the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group which has been declared illegal under the same regulations. Radio stations closed: federal order to four’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 January 1941, p. 7 and ‘Banned radio station: licences lost’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 February 1941, p. 17.
February 1941 Under conditions in the National Security Act passed in 1939, controls are imposed on newspaper production and importation of newsprint. This reduces the amount of paper allowed for production by 35 per cent. Newsprint rationing comes into effect 1 July 1941.[56] National Security Act 1939 and B Griffen-Foley, Sir Frank Packer: the young master: a biography, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2000, p. 118.
May 1941 The Government agrees in principle to grant a newsprint licence to begin publication of a new paper, the Daily Mirror. It reverses this decision, but later changes its mind and the Daily Mirror commences as a Sydney afternoon newspaper, despite the wartime newsprint restrictions imposed on existing publications. Frank Packer resigns Chairmanship of Australian Newspapers Conference in protest. Australian Newspaper History Group (ANHG), Newsletter, 15, November 2001, p. 20, Ezra Norton, Australian Dictionary of Biography entry and Whitington, op. cit., pp. 150–1.
December 1941 Four radio stations ordered to close after they broadcast information concerning the presumed sinking of HMAS Sydney.[57] Ban on radio stations’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 December 1941, p. 6.
March 1942 Report of the Joint Committee on Wireless Broadcasting (the Gibson Committee) is published.
The Committee notes that while the powers of regulation for commercial broadcasting given to the Postmaster-General are considerable, they are also inappropriate in dealing with minor offences—powers were only to revoke a licence or to caution a broadcaster. It recommends that new legislation is introduced to regulate commercial broadcasting.
Other matters raised by the Committee include: -          concern that misuse of the power and influence of radio broadcasting should not corrode the fabric of the nation and -          concern there is little ownership of broadcasting licences outside the newspaper world—directly or indirectly newspapers own or control 44 per cent of commercial stations. The report also looks at the development of networks of stations and recommends that a Parliamentary Committee on Broadcasting monitors these to ensure that a monopolistic situation does not develop.
Joint Committee on Wireless Broadcasting, Report of the Joint Committee on Wireless Broadcasting, (Gibson Committee), LF Johnson, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, 1942.
April 1942 All imports of newsprint suspended so shipping space can be devoted to war time goods.
Rationing is relaxed in October 1943.
Newsprint rationing gives broadcasting a financial boost as advertisers turn from print to radio.
Newsprint import inquiry sought’, The Courier Mail, 5 November 1942, p. 2 and ‘Increased issue of newsprint’, The Argus, 30 September 1943, p. 2 and Carty, op. cit., p. 6.
May 1942 Keith Murdoch becomes Chairman of HWT. ‘Sir Keith Murdoch Herald Chairman’, News (Adelaide), 1 May 1942, p. 5.
June 1942 Passage of the Australian Broadcasting Act 1942 (the Broadcasting Act).
Regulation of commercial stations is transferred from the WT Act and the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act is repealed so that the Broadcasting Act covers both commercial and national services. Program standards are required under section 60(1) of the Broadcasting Act so that commercial licensees provide programs that are ‘to the satisfaction’ of the Minister.
The Minister is given the power to grant, renew and otherwise make decisions with regards to licensing.
Section 88(2) requires that at least 2½ per cent of music broadcast on any stations is devoted to broadcasting the works of Australian composers.
Section 114 requires broadcasters to use Australians in the production of programs ‘as far as possible’.
The Broadcasting Act requires the complete blackout of electoral broadcasting 72 hours before an election.
Sections 100 and 122 of the Broadcasting Act require that advertisements relating to medicine cannot be broadcast unless approved by the Director-General of Health or the Minister responsible for broadcasting.
Australian Broadcasting Act 1942
Australian Broadcasting Act: important changes’, Westralian Worker, 26 June 1942, p. 2.
June 1942 Commercial Broadcasting Stations Licence Fees Act is passed. Licences granted to commercial broadcasters on conditions determined by the relevant minister. Licences are £25 per annum plus one half of one per cent of gross earnings of any stations which in the preceding year had made a profit. Commercial Broadcasting Stations Licence Fees Act 1942
1942 Walter Grant becomes a major shareholder of Western Broadcasters owner of 2DU (Dubbo)—the company is later to become Grant Broadcasters. B Griffen-Foley, ‘Grant Family’, in Griffen-Foley, ed., op. cit., p. 196.
March 1943 The first report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Broadcasting, established by the Broadcasting Act, is delivered. Committee suggests that widening its terms of reference is advisable. Accusations made in the media that the committee is seeking control over broadcasting and that it wants to usurp policy functions previously undertaken by the ABC. Broadcasting dangers’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 April 1943, p. 6.
July 1943 Second report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Broadcasting recommends that there should be ministerial control over arrangements which involve broadcasting stations organising into networks. The Committee believes such control would help ensure networking does not lead to monopoly control of commercial broadcasting. ABCB, Second Annual Report, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, 1949, p. 6.
August 1943
Labor retains government at the federal poll.
November 1943 Following a number of censorship breaches, Frank Packer’s Telegraph is ordered by the government censor to submit all copy for approval before publication. An undertaking given by the paper to observe censorship ‘on certain conditions’ leads to the order being revoked. The paper continues to be involved in censorship controversy during the war years. B Griffen-Foley, Sir Frank Packer, op. cit., pp. 147–8.
April–October 1944 Dispute erupts between the government censor, (supported by the Information Minister, Arthur Calwell), and Sydney newspaper proprietors over wartime censorship.
The papers accuse the Government of trying to ‘out Goebbel Goebbels’ by censoring reports which it assesses as dangerous to public morale. The papers defy the censor by printing material they are ordered not to publish.
During Sydney newspaper printers’ strike (over the 40-hour week campaign) publishers produce a composite newspaper. Minister Calwell suggests the composite paper is unlicensed.
Federal police stop deliveries and the High Court grants an injunction, after which discussions between the Government and the papers result in a compromise whereby only matters of defence security are subject to censorship.
Souter, Company of Heralds, op. cit., p. 238 and various reports including:
Mr Calwell runs true to form’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 October 1944, p. 2.
November 1944 The Government asks the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Broadcasting to report on the manner in which, and to what extent, television should be incorporated into Australia’s broadcasting system. Parliamentary Standing Committee on Broadcasting, Twelfth report: relating to Frequency Modulation broadcasting, television broadcasting and facsimile broadcasting, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, 1946, p. 4.
1944 Anderson Analysis of Broadcasting and McNair Survey companies begin audience surveys. I MacKay, Broadcasting in Australia, op. cit., p. 171.
May and August 1945
World War II ends in Europe (May) and the Pacific (August).
October 1945 Postmaster-Generals’ meeting adopts general principles for broadcast of children’s programs. Children’s radio’, The West Australian, 9 October 1945, p. 4.
July 1946 The Broadcasting Act is amended to require that the ABC record and broadcast parliamentary proceedings. Parliamentary Proceedings Broadcasting Act 1946
August 1946 The Broadcasting Act is amended to provide for regulation controlling the operation of broadcasting networks and requiring commercial broadcasters to obtain permission from the Postmaster-General before acquiring shares in a network company or entering into an agreement with a network company for sharing programs or advertisements. Australian Broadcasting Act 1946
September 1946 Joseph (Ben) Chifley leads Labor to a comfortable victory at the 1946 election.
1946 Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters (FARB) publishes a broadcasting practice standard. Griffen-Foley, Changing stations, op. cit., reference to FARB meeting with ABCB, p. 44.
1947 Government decides that no action should be taken to introduce television services. A Curthoys, ‘The getting of television’, in A Curthoys and J Merritt, eds, Better dead than red: Australia’s first Cold War 1945–1959, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1986, p. 126.
June 1947 ABC begins an independent news service. A Barker, What happened when: a chronology of Australia from 1788, fourth edn, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 2000, p. 265.
August 1947 Newspaper proprietors warn the Government that its policy of continued rationing of newsprint is likely to lead to widespread job losses in the industry. Griffen-Foley, Sir Frank Packer, op. cit., p. 169.
September 1948 Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) is established by an amendment to the Broadcasting Act. The ABCB is to ensure that broadcasting services are developed and operated with regards to the public interest.
In so doing, the ABCB is given directions to ensure a reasonable variety of programs are broadcast, religious programs are broadcast ‘for adequate periods’ and the broadcast of political or controversial matter is on an equitable basis. It is also given power to regulate advertising and the hours of service of broadcasting stations.
Commercial broadcasting stations are restricted to using Amplitude Modulation (AM) for broadcasting.[58]
(ABCB commences operations in March 1949).
Australian Broadcasting Act 1948
November 1948 Packer and Theodore convert Consolidated Press to a public company and acquire all Associated Newspapers’ shares. ”Telegraph” public company plan’, Cessnock Eagle and South Maitland Recorder, 12 November 1948, p. 7.
1948 Experimental Frequency Modulation (FM) radio stations set up and allowed to operate, but Government prevents receivers being sold to the general public. Reports that the Government favours FM to be broadcast only by the ABC.[59] P Marcato, ‘FM radio’, in Griffen-Foley, ed., op. cit., p. 174 and ‘The government looks at radio’, News (Adelaide), 5 May 1948, p. 2.
March 1949 Subject to certain conditions the ABCB allows advertisements to be broadcast on Sundays. ABCB, Fourth Annual Report, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, 1949, p. 23.
June 1949 ABCB reports to the Government that television services should be established in the six capital cities as soon as the necessary arrangements can be made. The Board proposes to impose transmission and program standards. ABCB, First Annual Report, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, 1949, p. 9.
June 1949 British Mirror Group buys the Melbourne Argus. Chadwick, op. cit., p. xxvi and ‘New “Argus” control’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 June 1949, p. 3.
December 1949
The 1949 election sees Robert Menzies lead the Liberal Party, in close cooperation with the Country Party, to victory.
1949 Sir Keith Murdoch buys HWT shares in the Adelaide News and offers first option on his shares in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail to HWT. Chadwick, op. cit., p. xxvi.

  • Picture shows an October 1937 synthetic broadcast of the First Rugby Test from Leeds, United Kingdom, at the ABC’s 2BL Studios. Within ten minutes of the actual happening in England, the particular phase of play outlined in the cable is described by the Commission's Sporting Editor (Bill Phillips) left, aided by sound effects controlled by Jack Butler. ABC archives, accessed 16 March 2015.
  • Curtin died in office 5 July 1945 and Joseph (Ben) Chifley was sworn in as Prime Minister13 July.
  • Australian Newsprint Mills in Tasmania began producing newsprint in February 1941.
  • The HMAS Sydney was sunk on 19 November 1941 after a battle with the German raider Kormoran. The Prime Minister confirmed the sinking on 1 December.
  • Amplitude modulation (AM) is the method of combining radio carrier waves and electric waves so that the amplitude of the carrier waves varies to match the change in the electric waves. The AM band of the electromagnetic spectrum is between 535 KHz and 1705 KHz.
  • Frequency modulation (FM) conveys information over a carrier wave by varying its frequency rather than amplitude.


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