Last week I was on a panel at the Canberra Writers' Festival discussing Sally Young's book, Paper Emperors. The book is an examination of the history of newspapers in Australia in the period between about the 1820s and 1941. (She is working on a new book that will continue into the present).
Paper Emperors is really worth a read, if for no other reason than it reminds us that, despite all the technological change in the way news is gathered and distributed, many of the problems we currently have with journalism have a long history.
For now, I just want to mention one aspect of Young's research.
People often claim, or presume, that there is, or has been, some sort of ideological divide between the Murdoch media and Fairfax, with the former habitually anti-Labor, and the latter more progressive. What Young shows is that, in terms of electoral support, ALL Australian newspapers have been virulently anti-Labor.
For instance, she notes:
By the late 19th century, Australia was developing a reputation for being a ‘working man’s paradise’. Australia’s conservative newspaper owners were concerned about the effects of demands for improved working conditions on the profitability of industries that many were now heavily invested in – including mining, retail, production, agriculture and, of course, the newspaper industry.
On the formation of the Labor Party, the Sydney Morning Herald described ‘the intrusion … of the labour struggle into the field of politics’ as the nation’s ‘greatest peril’.
All this leads into an interesting side discussion about the development of the concept of the 'fourth estate', the idea of the media as a watchdog on power. Young's point is that the concept was really nothing more than a cover to ensure that any partisanship they showed didn't discourage advertising.
She writes that, 'the concept of political independence that underpinned the "fourth estate" was so central to the identity of newspapers that it had to be vehemently proclaimed even when there was much evidence to the contrary.'
And the evidence of anti-Labor bias is overwhelming:
This book concludes in 1941, with Menzies’ resignation, but the political stances of the newspapers need to be viewed in a longer context to see how determinedly conservative the mainstream daily press was, and would remain for decades. From 1922 until 1969, the majority of daily newspapers were conservative (Tables 3.1 and 3.2) – especially in the 1920s–40s, when 85–90 per cent of commercial dailies supported the conservative parties.
Even up to the 1960s, Labor never received the support of a quarter of the Australian daily press.
Instead, for five decades, the conservative parties could count on the backing of a core group of papers that always directed their readers to vote conservative. This group included: the Mercury, the Herald, the Sun News-Pictorial, the Advertiser, the West Australian, and from its formation in 1933, the Courier-Mail.
She continues by saying, 'To this group of core conservative papers can also be added the Daily Telegraph, which never advocated a vote for Labor during this period (although in 1940, under a younger Frank Packer, it was critical of the Menzies government’s war effort and individual ministers...'
And that, 'The Sydney Morning Herald must also be included because it opposed Labor at every election except one – 1961. Likewise, the Sun only supported Labor once, also in 1961, and that was because it was the Sydney Morning Herald’s stablemate by then, so it was ensnared in the Fairfax group’s anti-Menzies campaign that year.'
She points out that even when Labor won its sweeping victory in 1983 under Bob Hawke, The Age was the only paper to endorse the ALP.
Here's a couple more stats:
- Over its seventy-eight-year history, from 1910 until it was closed in 1988, the Sun supported Labor only three times: in 1961, 1984 and 1987.
- In 1961, it was owned by Fairfax and was caught up in its owner’s crusade to bring down Menzies.
- In 1984 and 1987, its support for Labor was in step with other newspapers which also felt they could support Bob Hawke’s pro-business Labor.
- At the state level, the Sydney Morning Herald was even more conservative. It did not support Labor for 112 years, not until 2003.
It is a useful reminder of the hill Labor has to climb at every single election, when the mainstream media is so implacably opposed, almost to their very existence, and at the least, to the idea of them forming government.
Young helpfully provides two tables that sets out all this plainly, and I reproduce them below.