Sunday, June 14, 2009


During times of war, the Government of the day is invariably conscious of how the local media is portraying the war, and above all, very concerned about the publishing or broadcasting of any material that might benefit the enemy.

During World War 2 in Australia, one of the Ministerial portfolios was “Minister for Information”, who had sweeping powers with regard to censorship, and indeed was directly in control of an important public official, the Commonwealth Censor.

In 1944, the Minister for Information was Arthur Calwell, who was serving under the then Prime Minister, John Curtin. Calwell was a highly talented politician who would eventually go on to lead the Labor party in opposition, only to miss out on becoming Prime Minister during the Federal Elections of 1961 by the narrowest of margins. Perhaps if his relations with the press had been better, things might have ended differently.

Left: Arthur Calwell - a photograph taken in 1940
(Click image to enlarge)
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Calwell was somewhat awkward in appearance and speech, and was endlessly lampooned in the newspapers, sometimes appearing in cartoons as some sort of giant parrot. Perhaps it was partly because of this, or for other unknown reasons, he detested newspapers and the media barons who ran them.

Earlier in the war, Calwell had stated “I am no believer of the so called liberty of the Press, which actually amounts to liberty for certain newspaper proprietors, who assume the right the exploit the nation and boost their own circulation”. (It is likely that many modern politicians would agree, but few would publicly express this view today).

In 1944, Sydney had begun to recover from the depths of wartime depression. Two years before, it had been a grim picture. Thousands of Australian soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured fighting the Germans and the Japanese in widespread theatres of combat. Darwin had been bombed and Sydney Harbour penetrated by Japanese submarines, convincing many that invasion was imminent, and real estate prices across the eastern suburbs plummeted as people fled inland from the coast.

However in the following two years the Allies gradually got the upper hand, and by 1944 it was considered unlikely that there would now be a Japanese invasion. The emphasis of the media gradually returned more to domestic issues.

The media of the day consisted of daily newspapers, magazines and the radio – television was 12 years way, and concepts such as privately owned computers and the Internet were too far fetched even for science fiction writers.

Daily newspapers were by far the most influential media, with a typical Sydneysider’s workday beginning with the Sydney Morning Herald or the Daily Telegraph, and then for the trip home on the train or tram, the Sun or the Daily Mirror were the universal choices.

These newspapers were run by powerful media barons, including Frank Packer (Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph), Warwick Fairfax (Sydney Morning Herald), Ezra Norton (Daily Mirror), and Hugh Denison (The Sun). There was no love lost between these groups, with frequent circulation and editorial battles erupting amongst them, but they comprised most of the notoriously tough jungle of the Sydney daily newspaper scene.

However, a rather remarkable series of events was to unite these rivals in a way perhaps never seen before or since, and those events were precipitated by the Sydney Morning Herald in 1944.

In America, with the war finally running the way of the Allies, censorship had been relaxed, but in Australia, it was, if anything, tightened during 1944. Rupert Henderson, who was general manager of the Sydney Morning Herald, issued a statement that
“…..because of censorship, many American war correspondents have left Australia, and this was one reason why America is not properly informed on Australia’s policies”. Also “……that Australian correspondents have not been able to inform their papers truly of Australia’s effort”.

This statement infuriated Calwell who, in turn, issued his own release, accusing Henderson of lying and exaggerating, and threatened to call him before a Parliamentary Censorship Enquiry Committee.

When the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph proposed to run the story, together with Henderson’s response to Calwell, the Censor directed that all copy must be submitted to him before publication. The copy was then returned, but with Henderson’s reply heavily edited.

The Telegraph, under Frank Packer’s personal direction, then ran the story, but with blank spaces placed where the Censor had cut out information. This was a threat to one of the Censor’s most important powers – that of withholding the fact that censorship had ever taken place, and was a declaration of war on the power of the Censor.

Events then escalated quickly. Calwell ordered that all copy from the Daily Telegraph be submitted to the Censor on a daily basis before publication, and the placing of blank spaces was forbidden. The other newspapers joined in the struggle and several confrontations occurred when the Commonwealth Police arrived to prevent the distribution of newspapers, and on at least two occasions, allegedly holding newspaper staff at gunpoint. The Telegraph’s printing presses were shut down by the police, but a small number of papers were produced in midnight printing runs at the old Labour Daily plant at the corner of Brisbane and Goulburn streets in Surry Hills. (This building is still there).

Calwell became so infuriated that he ordered the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald off the streets altogether, followed soon after by the Melbourne Herald and the Adelaide News. This precipitated street protests in which hundreds of university students marched through Sydney streets, converging on the Censor’s office and demanding the reopening of the newspapers. There were minor clashes and a few arrests.

Frank Packer, a tough and pugnacious character, had not been idle. He convened a meeting of all the different newspaper heads in the Daily Telegraph boardroom in Castlereagh Street, where it was decided to mount a High Court challenge to the rulings of the Censor. The High Court quickly upheld this challenge and the papers were soon back on the streets.

A meeting of the full Federal Cabinet, which was about to issue a statement backing Calwell and denigrating the newspapers, was hurriedly called off when the High Court ruling came through. The crisis was over.

It was an awesome display of the power of the press, with the newspaper proprietors easily defeating an elected Cabinet Minister. The lesson of this has not been lost on following generations of politicians, who now go to great lengths to ensure generally peaceful relationships with the media. An army of PR staff and “spinmeisters” of all persuasions are employed to maintain this status quo, and it seems unlikely that such open warfare between government and press will ever occur again in Australia.

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