Sunday, March 17, 2013

Murdoch fears another Murdoch

"This is the first government outside of war time that is contemplating government-sanctioned journalism."

Murdoch's man raised an interesting point this week.

But he didn't explain what did happen during the second world war, and who tried to push it through.

Here's Bruce Page in his 2003 book The Murdoch Archipelago.

The Murdoch he refers to is Rupert father, Keith Murdoch, then chief executive of the Herald and Weekly Times. Theodore Fink is Murdoch's predecessor as chief executive, by then the company's chairman. The prime minister was Robert Menzies.

He is talking here about Keith Murdoch:

"In June 1940, undertaking to relinquish all
his editorial powers meanwhile, he became Menzies'
Director-General of Information. He then asked Menzies for the
means to correct media 'mis-statements', and received sweeping
authority over the content of newspapers, magazines, radio and
theatre. Outrage was universal — except among the Herald
papers, allegedly now disconnected from Murdoch. They remained
silent. Theodore Fink, eighty-five and unwell, called on the
Herald directors to protest. Principles of editorial
independence would be eroded, they said, were they to do so.

Dissociating himself from his own company's behaviour, Fink
called the Murdoch regulations 'an infringement of the rights
and liberties of the public'. His words were published
everywhere — except in the 'Murdoch press'. Public opinion
fiercely supported Fink, and Menzies jettisoned the
Director-General's astonishing programme. Murdoch resigned in
November and rejoined the board — perhaps a bittersweet victory
for Fink, as its swiftness minimised the damage to Murdoch's

RM Younger provides a more detailed acount.

It's in Keith Murdoch, Founder of a Media Empire, also published in 2003:

"KM's appointment earlier in June had coincided with what was
widely seen at that time as Australia's gravest hour, but he
believed it could be Australia's greatest hour if 'decisions
and events ... forge our spirit and weld our heart and mind
into a greater and better nation'...

The brief gave KM access to confidential military
material and included the opportunity for him to attend War
Cabinet meetings. He detached himself from
The Herald and
worked from government offices in Melbourne and Canberra.

The post's responsibilities included not only direction of positive
aspects of morale-building but also censorship — a dichotomy
which was to cause insurmountable problems. Nevertheless, he
took up the task buoyant and optimistic, thinking only of the

"The department will exist to serve the people, and for no other
reason. There will be no conceivable bias or selfish interest,
but only utter devotion to Australia ... everything that can be
done will be done to give the people [a close understanding of
the facts of the war situation] ... As the days pass there will
be a great and clear call to action for very many people, and I
would say that there would be a call to everybody if humble but
necessary national duties get their due honour. By this I mean
that guarding by each person of his or her share of Australia's
indivisible soul, proud encouragement of the fighting man, and
contribution of money or humble toil will be honoured in their
true light as important to Australia's effort.

"...We will try to make all the facts of Australia's own effort
known as soon as they can be told, and we hope that these facts
are in the minds of people before they make their criticisms or
judgements. It is, of course, in nobody's mind that criticism
is to be stifled, but we want constructive criticism based on

In accepting the post, no doubt Murdoch was influenced by his
memories of what the leading London newspapermen — especially
Northcliffe — had done in World War I, when they directed
important national morale-building efforts within the British
Ministry of Information. However, two of his close friends had
contrasting views about the wisdom of his step. Former
journalist Sir Henry Gullett, now a member of the War Cabinet
and the minister assisting Menzies on information matters,
believed KM uniquely suited to the difficult morale-building
task and encouraged him to take up the position, but Lionel
Lindsay, a worldly personal friend with whom KM had maintained
a long association, pointed out to him that it was almost
certain rival newspaper proprietors would resent his
appointment and would mount destructive opposition.

KM was aware of the likely difficulties. 'The War Cabinet has given me
an affrighting list of duties, but, of course, we can only
serve the great efforts of the people themselves,' he told
Argus. He had a philosophy about the part newspapers would be
called upon to play, and he expressed it when he spoke at a
farewell gathering of HWT executives:

"The work of a newspaper is of paramount importance in a
democracy in wartime, and if it were not for [the fact] that I
am going to serve newspapers outside I certainly would not be
leaving you now ...

"In the policy-making and direction of the
Department of Information, my tasks are going to be of a
peculiarly unpleasant type. It is not an easy job to find and
stir the inner thoughts of men, or go deeper and try to touch
the spirit. It is very difficult, and of course carries with it
a considerable share of danger."

In outlining his ideas to the War Cabinet on 19 June, KM said
his conception of the Department of Information was that 'it
should be a Department of expression, except in respect of
information of use to the enemy. If criticism would be damaging
to the national war effort, it should be suppressed.' In a
suggestion that foreshadowed his later move to bring
opinion-polling to The Herald, Murdoch said it would be
valuable to establish a service for ascertaining what a typical
cross-section of the public mind is thinking on important

It was important, he also told the War Cabinet,
that a regulation should be passed 'to insist on a journal
publishing the truth in an appropriate form if required to do
so'. He submitted proposals for active campaigns covering radio
and the print media. The essential thrust of these proposals
was that he would have the right to insist that a publication
or a broadcasting station present the facts to correct any
misleading or inaccurate information. After the War Cabinet had
endorsed the plan, on 1 July KM convened a conference with
newspaper editors to draw out their views.The editors were
vocal on the shortcomings of censorship, but they were wary of
the proposal for enforced publication of 'corrections'. KM
explained that he was concerned about 'wilfully biased' news
and put the view that it would be better to adopt the
corrections method than to install an elaborate regime of
censorship. The newspapers remained unimpressed; it was one
thing to designate what they should not publish, another to
compel publication of particular material. Even Sir George
Knowles, the government chief law officer, saw some
difficulties in the new plan. He told KM the regulation 'is
going a long way' and although he did not doubt that it would
not be operated to demand excessive space, he nevertheless felt
that 'if made in the form suggested, its verbiage may be
criticised'. In spite of the warning, KM decided to let the
regulation stand.

Clearly the dominant issue at stake was the
newspapers' belief that their contents could come under
government control — and all KM's denials that this was the
intention or the implication were swept aside.

Meanwhile, the practical difficulties of developing a sound
organisation were quickly apparent. As well as having a small
staff in the department's editorial division, KM was anxious to
enlist the best available help in presenting authentic
material, and wrote to Professor Copland, the Commonwealth
Prices Commissioner, asking him how best the department could
help publicise the significance of the war on the economic

Copland provided him with notes setting out a program to
achieve this aim, but the difficulties facing the department in
getting things done meant that it would be six months before
the plan was taken up. After two months in the post, KM became
aware of the mounting pressures he faced, and in his reply to
Copland he wrote: 'I am still immersed in a labyrinth of vested
interests which make it extremely difficult to be effective.'

Those vested interests were to be found both in the bureaucracy of
established departments and, most potently, among the major
newspaper proprietors, who were not happy with the Government's
choice of KM. to exercise some degree of authority over their
exclusive domain.

The most contentious phase of the Murdoch
administration began when drastic powers were assumed under
national security regulations gazetted with his authority on 17
July to force the publication by newspapers of any matter
'necessary or expedient for the defence of Australia or the
efficient prosecution of the war'. Similar powers were given to
him as Director-General over all radio stations and cinemas.
The only opposition to the regulations came from the

An explanatory statement by Prime Minister Menzies
said the regulations made the Director-General's decision final
regarding which particular position, space or time was to be
allotted to the corrective item to be published, broadcast or
exhibited. Menzies gave an assurance that although the powers
were broad they would be sparingly used and applied only in
cases in which a newspaper was guilty of persisting in blatant
misrepresentation of the true position. John Curtin, as Leader
of the Opposition, was cautious in his comment that use of the
new powers called for the Opposition's 'utmost watchfulness'.
Others were less restrained: the NSW Minister of Justice,
Vernon Treatt, said he viewed . such powers with concern, while
the Premier of Victoria, Albert Dunstan, declared: 'This is
establishing a dictatorship.'

In explaining the reasons for the
regulations, KM said the purpose was to get a wide publication
and understanding of the truth about the war and Australia's
national position and problems. He added:

"As regards publications, the censorship lies within this
department's duty but I hate suppression as we all do, and
would much prefer when possible to correct some bad position by
a statement of the truth which will answer and destroy the
untruth. The regulations give us the right to require a journal
to publish our statements in the type and position which will
adequately and comparatively present the truth as against the
untruth which we are chasing. I should think we would use this
power little, if at all, because reputable newspapers take
pains to avoid untruth, and when they fall
into mistakes correct them ... I believe this is better than
suppression by censorship. I believe in freedom of the Press,
and I am trying to preserve that freedom as against censorship."

In spite of Murdoch's assurances, there was virtually
unanimous condemnation by newspaper proprietors of the sweeping
powers assumed under the regulations. Most were opposed in
principle to any limitation on the independence of newspapers
in deciding contents;
The Sydney Morning Herald considered the
regulation's power to control the use of space as an
abrogation of property rights. The paper splashed its
front-page report of KM's 'drastic powers to compel the
publication by newspapers of any matter necessary or expedient
for the defence of Australia or the efficient prosecution of
the war'. These powers, the headline suggested, conferred on
the Government the 'power to commandeer space'. Next day, the
paper's editorial, entitled 'A bludgeon for the press',
thundered against what it dubbed 'the creation of a Propaganda
Department designed to remedy supposed deficiencies in the
win-the-war spirit of the public'. Drawing upon the
leader-writer's most vituperative rhetoric, the editorial saw
the regulation as 'a betrayal of that trust which has already
done the Government incalculable harm and may end in doing it
irreparable injury, if the mischief is not corrected in time'

The most hurtful attack came from within the HWT, when KM.'s
own chairman used the issue as a weapon in internal company
power play. Sir Keith's place as managing director at HWT had
been filled by Lloyd Dumas, managing director of
Advertiser, who was quick to take a leading role in trying to
calm the fears of the other newspapers over the regulations.
Dumas considered that these 'regulations to control newspapers'
were unfortunately worded, but he understood that Murdoch's
objective was 'to make it possible for the Government to get
statements, particularly correcting statements, into certain
publications which were anti-Government and in some cases,
anti-war'. Dumas believed the regulations had been made broader
than intended; he prepared an editorial for
The Herald saying
that it was an unnecessary piece of interference with the press
but it obviously had been drawn up hurriedly to meet some need.

Most damagingly for KM, the octogenarian HWT chairman, Theodore
Fink, immediately expressed his dissatisfaction with the
paper's editorial stance. He told Dumas that
The Herald must
wholeheartedly attack the regulations in the same way
The Age
The Argus had been doing. Instead, Dumas found support
within the HWT board for his more conciliatory view;
The Herald/i>
then ran an editorial urging that the regulation be withdrawn
and redrafted. In an effort to further his compromise Dumas
phoned Murdoch in Canberra, as well as the main Sydney
proprietors and
The Age and The Argus in Melbourne, before
finally preparing a revised version of the regulations that
would still give the Government the power of correction it
sought but would give no other powers of control over the
press. His effort appeared to succeed when the newspapers
agreed to accept his draft proposal. Next morning
The Age and
The Argus suggested the confrontation was over. In its
editorial headed 'Retrieving a blunder'
The Sydney Morning
Herald revisited what it described as 'a nation-wide outburst
of alarm and resentment' and added a touch of hyperbole in
seeing the withdrawal of this 'autocratic attack upon the
corner-stone of the free civilisation which [the war] is
designed to save' as a necessary part of checking 'the
pretensions of bureaucrats'.'

However, no one had realised the
extent to which Theodore Fink would go to upset this
arrangement. Two days later he wrote an article, which he
signed as chairman of the Australian section of the
Commonwealth Press Union, and submitted it to
The Age and
Argus, both of which published it. A copy of the article was
also handed to George Taylor, editor of
The Sun News-Pictorial,
by Fink's son, Thorold, but after discussion with HWT board
members Harry Giddy and George Caro, it was decided at an
executive level to withhold its publication.

Further complications arose when the Sydney newspapers picked up the
Fink statement that he `wish[ed] to dissociate [himself] from
the views expressed in HWT publications in favour of the
regulations'. The
Herald board met, with Thorold Fink
deputising for his father, who was confined to his bed; it was
agreed the Dumas version should run as The Herald's editorial
view. However, the differences ran deep, and the unpleasantness
that developed over the issue lingered, as Dumas recalled when
he wrote: 'Mr Fink tried in other ways to undermine Sir Keith
while he was out of the office and I was deputising for him'.

After considerable difficulty a new regulation was drafted
with provision that an offending newspaper could avoid
compulsory correction by complying voluntarily with a request for
publication of 'a statement correcting the statement previously
made [by it]'.

Despite the dust settling over the
regulations, behind the scenes resistance simmered among
Australia's powerful family proprietors Fairfax, Packer and
Norton in Sydney and Syme in Melbourne). Chance weakened KM's
position when Sir Henry Gullett, who was assisting Menzies on
information matters, was among three ministers killed in an air
accident in Canberra in October 1940, leaving KM without his
most stalwart ally in federal Cabinet.

Murdoch was concerned that the Department had so quickly become caught
up in political gamesmanship. A chief protagonist of the attack
was Arthur Calwell, who entered the federal Parliament in 1940
after a quarter of a century as a political activist steeped in
socialist dogma while working within Victoria's public service.
Calwell had spent years in preparation for a parliamentary
career by understudying the federal member for Melbourne, whose
political heir he became. Calwell had a long-standing grudge
against Murdoch dating back to 1934 when he agreed to the
settlement of an untried libel action following a slighting
reference to him; soon after taking his parliamentary seat
Calwell railed against Sir Keith's role as Director-General of

In the face of increasing pressure of newspaper
opinion, Menzies withdrew his support. By October Murdoch
realised his position was untenable, and decided to resign. He
advised a meeting of the War Advisory Council on 30 October
that this was his intent. Shedden's pencilled Minutes noted:

"Retirement of D.G. — reason given by Sir K. Murdoch:-

Sir K Murdoch's influence. and work can be greater in his
group of papers than as DG.

Opposition of Sydney press."

He consoled himself that the editorial division of the
Department of Information had gained a reasonably sound
footing. Menzies made a public statement on 14 November
expressing appreciation of Murdoch's 'generous and honorary
work' and acknowledging that his experience, ability and energy
had been invaluable.' The prime minister noted that Sir Keith
would remain associated with the department in an advisory capacity,
particularly in relation to its overseas activities in the
establishment of representation offices abroad.

Out of the controversy questions had been
raised about the value of the information service. When KM
reviewed the work of the department at a session of the War
Advisory Council, it expressed approval, of the extensive
reorganisation he had initiated. Wider and more intensive
activities were expected to include greater extension overseas,
especially in the United States. Some months later, as a result
of KM's initiative, the Australian News and Information Bureau
was established in New York to provide material to the media
that would strengthen understanding of Australia's viewpoint
and promote knowledge of Australia among Americans.

In his public appreciation of KM's work Menzies took a laudatory

The work of the department has been completely reorganised and
is now well established. Sir Keith Murdoch, who came in to
assist the government in this reorganisation, now feels that he
could, in future, make a more effective contribution to the
strengthening of public opinion and the winning of the war by
resuming active association with his newspaper interests.

"Ministers have expressed the keenest appreciation of the work
done by Sir Keith and were naturally anxious for him to
continue. They have, however, as a result of discussion, agreed
that the future work of the department can proceed on lines
which are now largely settled and with machinery which is
running smoothly, and that in the circumstances [he] should be
released ...

"I desire to say how greatly the Government has
appreciated Sir Keith Murdoch's generous and entirely honorary
work. He is one of the outstanding newspapermen of the British
Empire and his great experience, ability and energy have been
invaluable to us."

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