Media ownership and regulation: a chronology

Dr Rhonda Jolly
Social Policy Section

1923–1938: sealed and open radio systems, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, consolidating the Murdoch, Packer and Fairfax dynasties and a Royal Commission

The first public demonstrations of broadcasting took place in Sydney in 1919 and soon after this event the Government began to investigate how a broadcasting system could function and how it should be regulated. Following a series of meetings held during 1922 and a conference convened in 1923, agreement was reached between the Government and media interests that radio should be supervised by the Postmaster-General’s Department to ensure that undesirable matter was not broadcast over the airways.

From the onset, there were those who doubted if the Government would be able to retain absolute control over the new medium.[43]

The owners of newspapers were not enthusiastic about the arrival of radio; some claimed it was likely that broadcasters would ‘pirate’ print news stories without providing compensation to sources. They were assured by the Government—‘rather naively’ according to one historian—that this would not occur.[44]

Radio became available to the public in 1923 when what was called a ‘sealed set’ system of broadcasting was introduced. Under this system listeners paid subscriptions to have their radio sets ‘sealed’ to a particular station or stations. Listeners also had to pay a government licence fee. Only four stations commenced operation under the sealed system, however, and only 1,400 listeners bought subscriptions.[45] In short, the sealed system was an outstanding failure. It was replaced in 1924 with an ‘open’ system. The new system comprised two groups of stations—Class A and Class B stations.

Class A stations received revenue from licence fees paid by listeners and from limited advertising. All revenues for Class B stations came from advertising.[46] In 1929, the Federal Government acquired all Class A stations which were then operated by the Postmaster-General’s Department with programming supplied by the Australian Broadcasting Company.

Figure 2: radio: entertainment to the home

Figure 2: radio: entertainment to the home

Source: Langhans[47]

In 1927, a Royal Commission investigated the radio broadcasting system as it existed and concluded that direct government control over broadcasting was inadvisable. At the same time, the Commission was convinced that the system would benefit from co-operation between Class A and Class B stations and from an overarching supervision by the Postmaster-General’s Department. The Commission made a number of important recommendations with regards to the administration of the system, including those relating to broadcasters’ licence fees and what conditions should apply to location, power and frequency, operating conditions and advertising.

At the time the first radio licence was issued there were 26 capital city newspapers published on a daily basis. These were controlled by 21 independent owners.[48] But once radio licences were issued it became clear that these were dominated by major newspaper owners. Consequently, it was not long before public concern was expressed about increasing ownership concentration. In response to such concerns, the Government introduced regulation under the WT Act to restrict the number of commercial broadcasting stations that could be owned by an individual or by a company. There were immediate protests from media proprietors about the unfairness of these restrictions, but while the Government relaxed its original proposal, limits on ownership were a reality for media owners from 1935.[49]

The genesis of the Murdoch and Packer media dynasties can be traced to the first years of the twentieth century. In 1921 Keith Murdoch, on his return to Australia after reporting the Gallipoli campaign and working as managing editor of the United Cable Service for Hugh Denison, had taken up the post of editor of the Melbourne Herald. By 1926, he had begun to create a media empire for the Herald and Weekly Times group through his purchase of the West Australian in Perth and the Advertiser in Adelaide. He also purchased a personal share in Queensland newspapers in partnership with entrepreneur John Wren.

In 1908, Robert Clyde Packer began working as a journalist. By 1919 he was part of the partnership that founded Smith’s Weekly. In 1923, as part owner of the Daily Guardian, he introduced his son Frank to the world of print and to his business partner, EG Theodore, who was to become Frank’s mentor and associate in establishing Consolidated Press.[50]

The post-WWI period for John Fairfax and Sons was one of ups and downs, but it also saw the Fairfax family firmly entrenched as one of Australia’s media dynasties. The Fairfax flagship, the Sydney Morning Herald, was a leader in innovation in printing processes—the company was part of the group that formed Australian Associated Press and began the Australian newsprint industry. And, from March 1930, Fairfax came under the guidance of Warwick Fairfax, who remained in control of the firm for 47 years.


Milestones Details Document source
1923 Twenty six capital city newspapers are published on a daily basis. These are controlled by 21 independent owners.
As radio stations are established ownership of these is dominated by the major print owners.
H Mayer, The press in Australia, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1964, p. 31.
May 1923 After calls from the Association for Development of Wireless in Australia, a conference to discuss the introduction of radio is convened. The conference endorses a so-called ‘sealed’ set of wireless broadcasting. P Greeves, The dawn of Australia’s radio broadcasting, Electronics Australia, 1993, p. 22.
July–November 1923 The sealed set system of broadcasting (in amplitude modulation, that is, AM) is established under regulations made under the WT Act. Four stations commence operation, one of which, 2SB (later to become 2BL), is supported by newspaper owner Joynton Smith. Wireless Telegraphy Regulations 1923 (No. 97) and R Langhans, The first twelve months of radio broadcasting in Australia: 1923–1924, Historical Radio Society of Australia, 2013 and Greeves, op. cit., p. 26.
July 1923 John Langdon Bonython sells the Adelaide Express to James Davidson who establishes an afternoon tabloid, the News, and a public company, News Ltd. EJ Prest, ‘Advertiser (Adelaide)’ in Griffen-Foley, (ed.), op. cit., p. 3 and Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for James Edward Davidson.
July 1924 New regulations are introduced for an open set system for radio to replace the sealed set system. Wireless Telegraphy Regulations 1924 (No. 101) and Langhans, op. cit.
1924 Decimus Mott, a member of the Mott family, which had been involved in print since 1856 when they began Albury’s (NSW) first paper, purchases a group of suburban newspapers distributed in Melbourne. Mott develops the Leader Group of newspapers from this purchase. R Kirkpatrick, ‘Mott family’ and N Richardson, ‘Leader community newspapers’, in Griffen-Foley, ed., op. cit., pp. 240 and 281.
March 1925 2FC makes what is thought to be the first ever broadcast of a parliamentary debate when it covers a session of the NSW Legislative Assembly. Moran and Keating, op. cit., p. xxi.
April 1925 Denison closes the Melbourne Evening Sun after suffering heavy financial losses and sells the Sun News-Pictorial to HWT. Singleton Argus, 28 April 1925, p. 4.
May 1925 The first ratings-like survey taken by the Argus newspaper reveals radio audience preferences are for programming that features brass band, orchestral or instrumental music. Wireless broadcasting. Programming preferences’, The Argus, 30 May 1925, p. 35.
November 1925
Anti-Labor parties retain government in a sweeping election victory.
January 1926 The Government appoints a Royal Commission, chaired by JH Hammond, to investigate all aspects of wireless broadcasting. Royal Commission on Wireless, Report of the Royal Commission on Wireless, (Hammond Commission), HJ Green, Government Printer for the State of Victoria, Melbourne, 1927.[51]
September 1926 Murdoch and HWT syndicate (which includes WL Baillieu and Theodore Fink) buys the West Australian from the estate of John Hackett.
The syndicate forms the public company West Australian Newspapers (WAN). In the early 1930s Keith Murdoch disposes of the syndicate's interest in WAN.[52]
John Hackett and Theodore Fink, Australian Dictionary of Biography entries.
September 1926 Thomas Shakespeare launches the Canberra Times as a weekly paper (eight months before Parliament House is opened in Canberra). Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for Thomas Mitchell Shakespeare
January–March 1927 A newspaper tax is imposed by the NSW Government (the Lang Government). This is declared invalid by the High Court in March. Macquarie encyclopedia, op. cit., p. 520 and John Fairfax & Sons Ltd v New South Wales (1927) 39 CLR 139 [1927] HCA 3
October 1927 Report of the Hammond Royal Commission is released. The report does not recommend substantial administrative changes to the broadcasting system. It rejects the concept of direct control over broadcasting by government, but it supports the ideas of cooperation between stations and a monitoring role for the Postmaster-General’s Department. It makes recommendations with regards to the amount and distribution of licence fees as well as the location, power, frequency and operating conditions of stations and advertising restrictions and requirements. Hammond Commission, op. cit. and Greeves, op. cit., p. 53.
June 1928 Australian Federation of Broadcasting Stations is formed. Wireless: station rivalry’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 June 1928, p. 10.
July 1928 Federal Government announces that it will take over all A class radio stations. Greeves, op. cit., p. 60.
November 1928
Bruce Coalition Government returns to office with a reduced majority.
December 1928 HWT-Murdoch-led syndicate buys South Australia’s oldest paper, the Adelaide Register and Langdon Bonython’s Adelaide Advertiser. The Register closes in 1931. Langdon Bonython, Australian Dictionary of Biography entry and ‘Adelaide “Register” sold’, The Daily News 14 December 1928, p. 2.
1929–30 The Federal Government acquires all A class radio stations. These are then operated by the Postmaster-General’s Department with programming supplied by the Australian Broadcasting Company. Class B stations are designated as commercial stations. They continue to be regulated by the WT Act. B Griffen-Foley, Changing stations: the story of Australian commercial radio, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2009, Chapter 1.
1929 Eight national (formerly A Class and 13 commercial (formerly B Class)) radio licences in operation. Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB), First Annual Report, LF Johnson, Commonwealth Government Printer, 1949, p. 5.
September 1929 HR Denison forms Associated Newspapers, with Sun Newspapers and the Daily Telegraph News Pictorial, which Denison had acquired in December 1927, as subsidiaries. Associated Newspapers also buys the Sunday Guardian and Daily Guardian from Smith’s Newspapers.[53] Denison, op. cit., p. 75 and Australian Dictionary of Biography entries, HR Denison, S Bennett and Joynton Smith
October 1929
A landslide election victory to the Labor Party, which is led by James Scullin.
October 1929
On 29 October 1929, Black Tuesday, over 16 million shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange in a single day. Billions of dollars are lost and the economic devastation caused by the Crash of 1929 is a crucial factor which leads to the Great Depression (1929–39).
1930 There are twenty capital city daily newspapers published and twelve independent owners. Mayer, op. cit., p. 31.
March 1930 Warwick Fairfax is appointed managing director of John Fairfax and Sons Ltd. He is to control Fairfax for 47 years. Warwick Fairfax, Australian Dictionary of Biography entry.
June 1930 Following the untimely death of James Edward Davidson, the owners of the Adelaide News (News Ltd) seek financial assistance from HWT to continue operating. Keith Murdoch demands voting rights in the company in return for assistance. This gives him control of the company, which his son Rupert later inherits. Zwar, op. cit., p. 84.
December 1930 AWA opens 2AY, Albury. It later manages a number of stations (including 2CH, Sydney, for the Council of Churches) on behalf of the owners. Moran and Keating, op. cit., p. xxii.
1930 Australian Federation of Broadcasting Stations renamed Australian Federation of Commercial Broadcasters. The group, with 33 members, intends to present a unified industry approach to government on broadcasting matters. Copyright and royalty issues are its first lobbying concerns. Commercial Radio Australia website and Macquarie encyclopedia, op. cit., p. 527 and B Griffen-Foley, ‘Commercial Radio Australia’, in Griffen-Foley, ed., op. cit., pp. 101–02.
December 1931
The Labor Government is defeated at the polls. The United Australia Party (UAP), under the leadership of Joseph Lyons, is able to form government without having to rely on a coalition with the Country Party.
July 1932 The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) is established. The ABC is to control national stations. Newspaper owners, in particular the owners of the HWT under Murdoch’s editorship, are opposed to the ABC broadcasting a news service. Australian Broadcasting Commission Act 1932Federal session: Broadcasting Bill: read third time’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 May 1932, p. 15 and TDC Roberts, Before Rupert: Keith Murdoch and the birth of a dynasty, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2015, pp. 209–14.
November 1932 Frank Packer and EG Theodore (as owners of Sydney Newspapers) make a deal with Hugh Denison that they will not attempt to begin publishing an afternoon paper in Sydney for seven years. Proceeds from the deal allow Packer and Theodore to begin publication of a women’s magazine—the Australian Women’s Weekly. Frank Packer and EG Theodore, Australian Dictionary of Biography entries and RS Whitington, Sir Frank: the Frank Packer story, Cassell, North Melbourne, 1971, Chapter 6.
March 1933 Fairfax acquires shares in Sydney radio station 2GB. Souter, op. cit., p. 314.
June 1933 Frank Packer and EG Theodore publish the first issue of the Australian Women’s Weekly. Whitington, op. cit., p. 126.[54]
August 1933 Keith Murdoch and entrepreneur John Wren merge their newspaper interests in Brisbane to form Queensland Newspapers and the Brisbane Courier and Daily Mail are amalgamated into the Courier-Mail. Zwar, op. cit., p. 81 and Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for John Wren.
1933 The Albert family and associates’ Australian Broadcasting Company acquires the licence for commercial radio station 2UW. By 1956, the company had changed its name and the Alberts had bought out their partners and expanded its holdings to seven commercial radio stations, including 2UW in Sydney and 3DB in Melbourne.[55] Albert family website
September 1934
United Australia Party wins federal election. It forms a coalition with the Country Party following the election. Joseph Lyons remains Prime Minister.
July 1935 Australian Associated Press (AAP) is established through the amalgamation of Australian Press Association, run by John Fairfax, Edward Wilson and Lauchlan MacKinnon of the Melbourne Argus and the HWT Cable Service. S Forde and J Johnston, ‘Australian Associated Press’, in Griffen-Foley, ed., op. cit., p. 39 and Australian Dictionary of Biography entries for Edward Wilson and Lauchlan Mackinnon.
October 1935 In response to concerns about increasing ownership concentration, regulation is made under the WT Act to restrict the number of commercial broadcasting stations that can be owned by an individual or company. Initially, the rule limits ownership of radio stations to one metropolitan in any one state, a total of two metropolitan stations, three stations in any one state and five stations throughout the country (rule 104).
Following immediate protests about these changes from commercial broadcasters, the rule is rescinded and a new rule (Statutory rule 120) is introduced (in November 1935). This rule increases the limits of ownership of stations to four in any one state and eight throughout the country, but keeps the restriction of only one metropolitan station per state.
Wireless Telegraphy Regulations 1935 (Nos. 104 and 120). ‘Government control of broadcasting‘, The Advertiser (Adelaide), 31 October 1935, p. 18.
October 1935 Broadcasters express concern about the extent of government control over radio and the lack of mechanisms to allow appeals about decisions that are made by the Postmaster-General’s Department. Radio control: protest against new regulations’, The Canberra Times, 30 October 1935, p. 3.
December 1935 The High Court rules that the Federal Government has the power under the Constitution to regulate ‘broadcasting’ (under section 51(v)).[56] R v Brislan  (1935) 54 CLR 262  [1935] HCA 78 ‘Control of broadcasting: Commonwealth powers upheld’, The Argus, 18 December 1935, p. 8.
1936 Nineteen capital city newspapers published.
Twelve independent owners—Denison’s Associated Newspapers, the Shakespeare family’s Canberra Times, Fairfax, HWT, Consolidated Press, the Syme Company, Davies Brothers, John Norton’s Truth newspapers, West Australian Newspapers, Murdoch’s News Ltd and Wilson and McKinnon (owners of the Argus) and the British firm, International Publishing Corporation.
M Goot, Newspaper circulation in Australia, 1932–77, in P Spearritt and D Walker, (eds), Australian popular culture, George Allen and Unwin, North Sydney, 1979, p. 213.
January 1936 Frank Packer and EG Theodore make an unsuccessful offer to buy Ezra Norton’s Truth.
Packer and Theodore then buy the Daily Telegraph from Hugh Denison on terms that they not establish a Sunday paper for three years.
All three go into partnership as Consolidated Press.
Whitington, op. cit.
January 1936 ABC announces that listeners can purchase a booklet on cricket through its radio stations. Commercial broadcasters and newspaper publishers accuse the national broadcaster of ‘invading the publishing field’. ‘Editorial’, Broadcasting Business, 9 January 1936 in I McKay, Broadcasting in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1957, p. 121.
September 1936 Commentary on the ABC’s The Watchman program (the Watchman was the on-air identity of commentator EA Mann) at times in conflict with Lyons Government policy.
The Government applies pressure to the broadcaster to censor the program.
A Thomas, ‘Political pressure in the ABC’, in Moran, op. cit.
1936 Journalist Eric White forms Cumberland Newspapers. N Richardson, ‘Cumberland Newspapers’, in Griffen-Foley, ed., op. cit., p. 126.
October 1937
The Lyons Government returned to power at the election held on 23 October.
December 1937 Radio licences in Australia reach the one million mark. Sixty two per cent of licences in metropolitan areas. 1,000,000 radio licences’, The Argus, 17 December 1937, p. 2.
March 1938 Australian Newsprint Mills established by eight publishers. Directors include Denison, Murdoch and Fairfax. P Chadwick, Media mates: carving up Australia’s media, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1989, p. xxiv and ‘Australian Newsprint Mills’, The West Australian, 16 March 1938, p. 14.
June 1938 Keith Murdoch makes an offer on behalf of HWT for an interest in Consolidated Press. This is rejected by Packer and Theodore. Whitington, op. cit., pp. 144–5.
July 1938 HR Denison founds, and becomes chair of, Macquarie Broadcasting Services, which controls 15 radio stations, including 2GB (Sydney), 3AW (Melbourne) 5DN (Adelaide) and 2CA (Canberra). Networking is promoted as being able to give advertisers better coverage and value for money. Denison, Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, op. cit.
December 1938 Radio licence of Sydney station 2KY, which is controlled by the NSW Labour Council, is cancelled. No reason is given, but the station had criticised the Lyons Government a number of times. After apologising for its ‘past offences’, 2KY’s licence is renewed. Closing of 2KY’, The Mercury (Hobart), 23 December 1938, p. 6 and ‘Views of 2KY commentator’, Worker (Brisbane), 27 December 1938, p. 1 and Griffen-Foley, Changing stations, op. cit., pp. 362–63.
Box 3: Hammond Royal Commission: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it
In 1927, the Hammond Royal Commission commented after a nine-month investigation into all aspects of wireless: ‘Having given the matter exhaustive consideration the commission has come to the conclusion that very little change in the existing system is advisable at the present time.’ With regards to the future of wireless, the Commission added:

‘Various schemes for the future control of broadcasting have been suggested to the Commission. [One of these is] direct control of broadcasting stations by the Government ... In our opinion such a scheme is inadvisable as experience already shows that when Governments are placed in charge of the means of disseminating news, they are apt to use such means for the purposes of political propaganda.’[57]

  • Curnow, op. cit., p. 98.
  • The Argus, 25 May 1923, cited on p. 10 in Curnow, op. cit., p. 98.
  • Curnow, op. cit., p. 101.
  • R Langhans, The first twelve months of radio broadcasting in Australia: 1923–1924, Historical Radio Society of Australia, 2013, accessed 15 December 2014.
  • Ibid. Note: advertisement taken from the Wireless Weekly, 29 August 1924.
  • Mayer, op. cit., p. 21.
  • Under Wireless Telegraphy Regulations 1935 (Nos. 104 and 120).
  • B Griffen-Foley, Sir Frank Packer: the young master: a biography, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2000, Chapter 5.
  • Where links are not provided to parliamentary papers cited in this chronology, a number of the papers can be accessed online by interrogating the Senate Tabled Papers database
  • In 1833, Charles Macfaull launched the Perth Gazette & Western Journal which, in 1885, under new owners, was renamed the West Australian.
  • One of the subsidiaries owned by S Bennet also published the Women’s Budget. This publication was incorporated into Associated Newspaper Holdings and was later renamed Woman’s Day, Denison, op. cit., p. 75.
  • See also copies of early Australian Women’s Weekly publications at the National Library of Australia’s Trove website, accessed 15 December 2015.
  • The Australian Broadcasting Company had run A class radio stations under contract from the Government from July 1929 to the end of June 1932.  The Scullin Labor Government decided not to renew the company's contract and intended to establish a public corporation to operate a  national service. After Labor suffered defeat in January 1932, the United Australia Party Government introduced similar legislation to establish the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC).
  • The High Court heard whether Dulcie Williams, a defendant in proceedings before the Court of Petty Sessions at Sydney, was rightly convicted for maintaining without authorisation by or under the Wireless Telegraphy Act an appliance for the purpose of receiving messages by wireless telegraphy contrary to the Wireless Telegraphy Act.
  • Royal Commission on Wireless, Report of the Royal Commission on Wireless, (Hammond Commission), HJ Green, Government Printer for the State of Victoria, Melbourne, 1927, pp. vi and 4.


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