Sally Young on researching Australia’s media monsters

Sally Young on researching Australia's media monsters

Sally Young is professor of political science at the University of Melbourne. Media Monsters: The Transformation of Australia’s Newspaper Empires (2023) interrogates the history of Australia's media dynasties and the move from newspaper print to radio and TV and the online world.

She is the author of six previous books on Australian politics and media, including the award-winning Paper Emperors: The Rise of Australia's Newspaper Empires, which Media Monsters follows on from. Her other works include How Australia Decides, Shooting the Picture (with Fay Anderson) and The Persuaders.

Sally Young on researching Australia's 'media monsters'


ASTRID: Sally, you have published six books of non-fiction on Australian politics and media. And in 2023, you have published Media Monsters: The Transformation of Australia's Newspaper Empires. This, of course, follows on from Paper Emperors: the Rise of Australia's Newspaper Empires, which was published in 2019. It won the Colin Roderick Literary Award, and it was also longlisted for the Stella Prize.

I think everyone listening to The Garret is aware of how much the media, as it exists now online and all-pervasive, affects our daily lives. What draws you to the history of Australian media?

SALLY: That's such a big question. I've been studying this now in depth for about 10 years to write these two books. And I guess, what draws me to it is it's just a fascinating way to be able to study politics, history, media and industry and corporations all at the same time. So, in doing these books, those are all the sort of elements that I'm trying to look at.

And newspapers were a fascinating workplace. They were just a real buzz in the city. They had lots of employees, they had all this new technology that, at the time, was considered very radical. They were doing important things and they were the main game in media. So, they were important in politics, society, economics. There was no sphere of life that they didn't really influence. Teir power was really what drew me to studying this, that immense power they had, particularly in the early days before radio or television even.

ASTRID: They had so much power. Intellectually, I knew that. But sitting down to read this, it was kind of confronting at various moments in time. Media Monsters itself covers 1941 until 1972. That was when radio really got going, owned by the newspapers, TV of course came to Australia.

But before we get into a lot of what happened in that period, can you give us the elevator pitch for Media Monsters?

SALLY: This book really covers from the period when Robert Menzies had just been booted out of office in 1941, and he thought the newspaper owners were partly responsible for that. He really blamed them a lot. And then it ends at 1972, because over that time, something has happened and there's new forces at work. And that's the first election where quite a few papers advocate for the Labour Party, and a lot of that is principally to do with Rupert Murdoch, who, at that time, is just rising and just finding his feet politically and was backing Gough Whitlam. So, it's a nice place to begin and end. And in between those years, between 1941 and 1972, the book's really covering a whole lot of newspaper history, political history, economic and social history as well, and trying to really chart a political and corporate history of newspapers over that time.

ASTRID: Now, I read Paper Emperors a few years ago when it came out, and I sat down and I've just read Media Monsters. And despite me thinking I knew the broad brush of how Australian media works, I was shocked at how much the media has influenced directly politics.

And I'm talking about working to get various Prime Ministers elected or thrown out of office, as you just mentioned, but also some Prime Ministers, including Curtin, were journalists themselves in their early careers. How much of this felt like writing a history of media? And how much felt like veering into almost a political biography of how decisions got made?

SALLY: That's the most difficult thing about the book, working out what to leave out. And when you see the size of it, you'll think I didn't leave out much, but I did leave out quite a lot. But trying to work out how to thread all these stories together because it is exactly that.

The parts of it that I really enjoyed the most were the biographical elements, really getting into the untold stories of particularly some of these media executives who had a lot of power, but their names weren't well-known outside of the newspaper industry. Trying to work out who they were and what they were doing and what motivated them and why they devoted their lives. And some of them really did spend, seems like, every waking minute at the office. Just why they were so invested in these things and what sort of power they really had was fascinating. Trying to work out the social connections and just going back deep into archives and papers and letters and things like that is fun.

ASTRID: I noticed as we got closer to the 1970s, a few more affairs kept popping up as well. That was amusing. But a lot happened in Australia at this time, and the newspapers were at the forefront. In 1941, World War II, Australia was at war. The newspapers voluntarily agreed to a form of censorship during the war. And I'm really paraphrasing here, Sally, but they started to fight against censorship and fight for what they considered to be press freedom. Can you talk us through that?

SALLY: Yes. That's an interesting episode because mostly it was by agreement, the way in which the newspapers censored. And they censored themselves, so they were very careful to leave things out that might be damaging to national security or say where troops were. There was a lot of lag time. We wouldn't put up with it these days in terms of how much lag time there was between really important events happening and the public knowing about them and reading about them in the paper. So mostly, they conformed to that.

But then they started to think the Labour Government was censoring them politically. The chief censor at the time, Edward Garnet Bonney, was conflating that he thought anything about harsh criticism of government ministers or anything about strikes or anything that was damaging to public morale and bad for Australia's reputation should be censored as well. He stretched the definition a bit. And some of the papers by this point are quite irritated with the Labour Government, particularly Frank Packer and the Daily Telegraph, no fans of the Labour Government. They want to report about strikes and they want to say criticisms of ministers. And they're finding that's difficult under that regime, and they're feeling hemmed in. They engineer a confrontation to bring this to a head in 1944. And Arthur Calwell is the Minister for Information at the time, and he's the real press nemesis. They build this confrontation, and they really fight back. And they make a lot of mileage out of this that it is a huge battle for press freedom and all this. But of course, there's a lot of things going on behind the scenes and a fair bit of self-interest as well.

ASTRID: There's so much self-interest here. I was horrified – and also could not stop laughing, given where we find ourselves in 2023 – that back in the early 1940s, this was the time when Menzies founded the Liberal Party, which is still existent today, that all happened at a go-ahead dinner with several of the newspaper barons. Quite extraordinary when you think about the culture wars today.

SALLY: I was surprised by that as well, and that it isn't better known. I had to keep looking it up and trying to find more sources to prove this was right, because I thought someone's going to pop up and say surely not. Because Menzies had learnt from his first experience where he had to resign and felt that the newspaper owners were very much involved in that, that they had portrayed him unfairly and so on. He'd learnt to live with the newspaper owners in the intervening years. He'd come to realise that he's going to have to make peace with these people. Some of them would never like him, including Warwick Fairfax. He used to like him, but they fell out, as I talk about in the book. But he really had learnt to live with them.

He was really interested in keeping them on side, to the extent that when he's trying to get this new party up, because the United Australia Party, the one that he had been the leader of, was so discredited by this point, seen as so close to big money and so controlled by it that he feels like a fresh start's absolutely needed. New ideas, stopped being negative, find positive things to say. And there's a dinner party in Melbourne with some mining magnates there, of course, which who seem to be behind everything in the book because they're often behind newspapers. But at the house with mining magnate, and it's got the major press leaders there, and they're basically giving him their permission or assent or encouragement to yes, they'll back this party. And that's what they do.

ASTRID: We're talking about the 1940s, and that might seem like a long time ago, but Rupert Murdoch was coming into his very beginnings of his career at this point. His father was there. And we have Kerry Packer there, whose son is still around in media. This is not outside of a very small handful of families who were at this meeting, who are still those families so influential today.

I'd like to talk about these media barons. I was amused at what Kerry Packer got up to with his brother, Clyde, back in the day. Now, there's a picture in here, and you go through a moment in time when the Packer brothers tried to forcibly take over a printing press. And when I say forcibly, I mean Clyde got ribs broken, Kerry ended up unconscious. They were physically doing the taking over. How did we get there?

SALLY: It would've surprised no one who knew the Packers though, because they were considered the thugs of the industry really. And there's no need to beat around the bush now because Frank and Kerry and Clyde, they were big men, they were amateur boxes, particularly Frank and Kerry. They broke into this building and they tried to take over these printing presses that were going to be very important to fight off Murdoch in the suburbs. And they broke in, they booted out the people in there. There was a safe broken open and documents taken, phone lines cut and there's a fight in the street. And of course, Rupert Murdoch has hired the best thugs in Sydney, younger, fitter, more professional boxers and gangsters, enforcers who'd been fighting for mobsters in the US and were back in Sydney, the locals from the Two-up School.

These are all the real tough nuts of Sydney. And they round up and take on the Packers. And some of their men flee that they brought with them, and then there's a fight and they get booted out of the building. So it is pretty remarkable.

ASTRID: It is remarkable. And I have a question now about the Murdochs, Keith Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch's father. I have a quote in here, ‘Characteristic of what critics felt was Murdoch's slide into megalomania in his 60s. Murdoch believes that Menzies' 1949 victory was in no small measure due to his own efforts’.

Two questions come from that. Firstly, what was he doing to think that he was involved in another Prime Ministerial election? But also, Rupert Monarch is still around and in control of newspapers today. His father, working in his 60s, people of the day thought he had slid into megalomania and was doing a little bit too much with the newspapers.

SALLY: Funny how history repeats, isn't it? At the end of Keith Murdoch's life, he was a different figure than in his earlier years, as happens to everyone. But in his younger days, he was this journalist who had huge respect. He was considered absolutely brilliant as an editor and a journalist at the time. And then as a media executive, he expands The Herald and Weekly Times, and he does all these things and he is held in great esteem in the industry. But at the end of his life, it's not well-known that even within the industry, within his own workplace and even some of the other newspaper owners are really looking at Keith Murdoch and thinking, ‘What is going on here?’ That he's not quite in touch with the political scene, with his own workplace and the politics inside that workplace. He's really trying to hang on, even though he's not well, physically, and his credibility is somewhat dented. So, he's not making great decisions at the end of his life, and he's backing some wrong horses. And it all sounds very familiar all these decades later.

ASTRID: It really does. And that brings me to asking about TV and radio because while these media barons really got their foothold in terms of power and influence in the newspaper business, they went into radio and then TV.

SALLY: Yeah, that's right. And I hadn't realised how strongly connected they were. When Keith Murdoch was at the peak of his powers and he thought he'd put Joe Lyons in office. So in the 1930s, they're getting radio licences and Keith Murdoch's at the forefront of that, getting them in capital cities that are important to him, particularly in Melbourne. They get a few key radio stations. By the time we get to leading up to television that this positions them very well to say, ‘Well, here's another broadcasting medium. And really, we as newspapers and radio licensees, are the perfect people to be running television in Australia, commercial television’. So firstly, there's a battle over that. Are we going to have just public broadcasting like in the UK? Or are we going to have commercial television like in the US? And of course, the newspapers are very much, ‘Well, let's have commercial television, absolutely need it and we'll do it for you’. And in fact, we're the only ones who can do that well.

I had not realised that out of the first 11 commercial television licences that they all went to newspaper groups, some more involved in those groups than others, but every one of them had one of these major newspaper groups. So now they're not just newspapers and magazines and radio stations, many of them, but also television stations, the big ones. And this really separates out the ones that are going to do well from this point on, from the ones who are going to be left behind. Because the television licence is big money. Big money to start it up, but even bigger money that you can get through commercial advertising. The ones that do it well are starting to really rake in money at this point and power. It's a powerful medium.

ASTRID: And of course, those in television end up... This is beyond the scope of the book, but we remember their names now because they end up online, social media et cetera. I do wonder, are you writing another book?

SALLY: Yes. I say that with some hesitancy because I feel a bit tired after these two big books. So originally, this was supposed to be one book covering from the start of newspapers or maybe even a bit later up to now. I'm still going 10 years later, and I've done from 1803 to 1972. But now I need to pick up the story. And it gets harder as time becomes more recent. So there's more people who remember, more people to interview, different sources that you need. People can sue you because they're still alive. All of these are different issues that I'm confronting about volume three. But yes, I hope to get to volume three.

ASTRID: I would really like to read volume three. You can help me understand how the world has changed and is changing around me. When we think about the move from newspapers, radio, TV and into what communication is now, what are the lessons that we need to take as a society from what these industries and what these families were doing 50 years ago, 80 years ago?

SALLY: I think there's a temptation to say, ‘Well, that's over and that's the past’. But I think there are still a lot of lessons. We still have Rupert Murdoch. He'll be the last press baron. You're not going to make a fortune or have the political influence out of a newspaper anymore. We won't see new ones start up, and we haven't for some time.

The media world has changed a great deal. But what hasn't changed is, I think, the biggest lesson for me is keep an eye on this, don't ever presume that this is under control or that it's all free or all as it appears. Or that when the press says, ‘We're neutral and we're just reporting politics and we are not really a player in this space’. Question everything. We know that they had immense power in the past.

Now, there are different groups, digital giants. And we need to ask the same questions about them and the information that's reaching us. It's a whole different world now.

When I look at what I critique in the book from their behaviour, they had something called journalism, and they had some standards and they had a reputation to protect. And some of them were very serious about that, and they tried to separate editorial from opinion. They merged it a lot. And there were other ways that they certainly got their opinion across, both in their newspapers and behind the scenes, no doubt. That's what the books are all about.

But there was still this sense of them saying one thing and doing another. And I think we absolutely need to be careful about sources of news, where we're getting information from, who's behind it, what is their purpose, who are they. All those questions I think still need to be asked.

ASTRID: This question is going to reflect obviously what I've been thinking about, my preoccupations with AI and what it means for the communication industries these days. But in the latter chapters of Media Monsters set in the early 1970s, you are really looking at automation entering the newsroom. And I think there was a stat, 20,000 typist jobs were lost in one year, probably all or mostly women. Because suddenly, computers or early versions of computers were in newsrooms. And over time, of course, that eventually got into the print room itself, and printing became a lot more automated. Really large job losses. There were strikes and management was breaking the strikes and putting temporary papers out and all sorts of really brutal tactics. Reading this, I'm like, ‘God, is that what's ahead of us now in the 2020s?’

SALLY: I think AI is a huge issue for journalism and media and information communication. And we don't even understand what we need to be asking about it yet. But what I know from looking at this history is number one, employers want cheaper ways of doing things. And AI, if they can use that, instead of journalists who need a salary and superannuation and you ask a lot of questions and might not like how you change their copy.

And if you can get AI to do some of that work, I have no doubt that they will do that because it's cheaper, and in exactly the same way that we saw all these technological innovations come in and why they bring them in. There's no reason that AI can't take a basic NewsWire report of an event and spin it to the left or spin it to the right or ramp up the drama or dial it down.

It's just going to be a matter of tone that AI can clearly do now. This is a whole new world. And I think having a look at all the transitions you're saying about the strikes and those things, I doubt we'll probably see the same sort of things. And even with some of the, as you say, women's jobs went first. So a lot of the automation they tried out, they got rid of women who were big in the tying up of newspapers, bundling them and tying them up and things like that.

Their jobs were the first to go because they're always the ones who have less unionised, less in a position to complain. So now the way journalism has changed, we've lost so many journalists over the last 10, 15 years, especially in recent times, I think the workforce is going to be different. And the ones that really fought back against the changes were the printers because they were very unionised, very well paid. They were the ones that the employers were really trying to get rid of, and especially Rupert Murdoch later in the UK. But now, you wonder who's left to protest and how much good it will do, and whether they'll be able to stop any of these before it's... And it's coming in without any thought. This happened, the changes I'm talking about, there was time for thought, but now it's all happening so fast.

ASTRID: God, that's depressing, Sally.

Changing tack onto something a little bit less stressful. You are a professor at the University of Melbourne, and we are recording in this cute little podcasting studio in the Baillieu Library. And of course, there's a library named after that family because they were also part of the Melbourne establishment and the newspaper business. What did you find in the archives? Because you couldn't have written these books without spending a lot of time in the archives either here, maybe the State Library Victoria, elsewhere.

SALLY: Yeah, around the country. Being in archives is one of my favourite parts of the book, or looking up old newspaper articles even, I find fun. And because we have such good sources now, you can do a lot that we couldn't do years ago. But yes, in terms of the archives, I found good things in private papers of some of the key figures. The best ones are sometimes there who are just one stage removed from the action because they don't know the significance of what they're writing down, so they're less censoring themselves and things like that. But even editors' papers and journalists' papers and their diaries, things like this. There's quite a few in the National Library and in State Libraries in Victoria, New South Wales and elsewhere. You can find really good sources.

But yes, you're absolutely right, the Baillieu family loomed large, and especially in the first book, just because they were behind The Herald and Weekly Times and it spread around the country. And wherever they were going, and particularly with mining businesses, that's often the cities and states they were interested in, were ones where they had business interests.

And they had business interests all over this country. And I hadn't realised how powerful that Collins House industrial complex was, and less so in this book when you get to the '40s. But it's still there and the power balance is shifting and the banks are more a big player in this book as well.

ASTRID: I'm interested in who you wrote the book for. I love non-fiction. I read both Paper Emperors and Media Monsters. They're about 400 pages each with at least 100 pages of references and the index. Who did you write for? And how do you balance that line between academic writing, which this is not, but also accessible general reading, non-fiction?

SALLY: Part of me just wanted to get it down on paper. In a way, I was just thinking I just want to write what I find out because I'm fascinated by this and I hope someone will read it one day. And it's on the record, they can't say that this didn't happen or we don't know anything about this. I imagine the books would sit there in a library in some sense.

And I kept wondering, ‘Will anyone care about newspapers in 20 years' time, 50 years' time?’ I think of my own daughters, and they wouldn't pick up a newspaper. It's just such a foreign... it's going to shift very much that there's a certain generation who remember newspapers when they were big and they had lots of information and they were very powerful and you knew the names of well-known journalists.

It was different. So that's going to change. But I really hoped that someone would just find it as enjoyable as I did writing it, which was just finding out things that all seemed to connect so well together. And it's got a bit of drama in it. There's the families and dramatic things happened in newspapers. They were exciting places. And I remember one former journalist was saying to me, ‘It was a fun place, it was exciting. It was just something always happening’.

And it's just that kind of world that's interesting. And I enjoyed finding out information and putting it in there. But I did think this is a bit big ask of a reader. These are pretty big books. But I tried to write in a way that brought out what was most human and most interesting. And they are dramatic events, so they sort of write themselves in some sense too.

ASTRID: They're dramatic events, but also the people creating the news, they were always so invested in it. There was so much happening behind the scenes of whatever made it to the front page. It's the 20th century, writ large. Although, Sally, we find ourselves in the 21st century. Looking back from your vantage point now, what are some of the things that really surprised you?

SALLY: Just how involved in politics they were, and just how hypocritical they were in many respects, which is kind of the underlying thing that was driving me, was to say I was a newspaper reader in the 1990s, and I remember I really was inspired by the reporting on politics, and it's what made me become a political scientist. And I was always interested in newspaper representations of politics. And it just really made my blood boil in some senses, how they would say to their readers one thing, but they never really told the real story behind it. To the extent in the previous book, I talk about The Argus ran its own candidates for election secretly. This is about as extremely involved as you can get in politics without declaring.

And a lot of these, even in this book in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and the early 1970s, they're so involved because these are policy decisions that are going to affect their businesses. To pretend otherwise is really disingenuous. And I suppose, I was shocked at how involved, how some of the owners and proprietors and executives would send journalists out as media envoys, who were participating in politics, directing things or trying to obstruct other things.

But that was the story that they never wrote up in their papers. And if they had, it would've been more interesting, much more interesting and complete record of history that they knew more than they said, or they were writing things up a certain way for a particular purpose. But they treat their readers with a bit of contempt that they never reveal that.

ASTRID: They're always writing the first version of history in their own favour.

SALLY: Exactly.

ASTRID: Sally, it has been a real pleasure to talk to you today. Congratulations on Media Monsters.

SALLY: Thank you so much.