One of the interesting offshoots of Australian history - and there have been many over time - is the continuing, indeed expanding interest in the media history of this country. It is a line of inquiry which entices the amateur and local historian, the antiquarian, the journalist past and present as well as academics of various persuasions - to the point that a Centre for Media History has now been formed in the wake of another very stimulating Australian Media Traditions Conference late last year.
For an ambitious academic like myself, interested in writing the history of a relatively new but influential newspaper like Murdoch’s Australian, there is the initial incentive of having less material to plough through, although the history of a daily paper, particularly an expanding one, is still a tall order to document over more than a decade. Eventually, I settled on 25 years as my time-frame in an attempt to understand the evolution of an, at times, controversial publication.
But I also encountered a significant problem for a newspaper historian, namely how to characterise The Australian. Was it a liberal paper, radical, conservative or all three? It was at least two of these, perhaps all three - avidly read and distributed by anti-Vietnam activists, liberal in its early politics then violently anti-Labor and advocate of the New Right, before moving back to the centre of the political spectrum in the early 1990’s.
Whatever could be said of it, The Australian wore its heart on its sleeve and remained an ideologically-driven publication with a long history of campaigning behind it - an inveterate stirrer to use the Australian vernacular.
Grappling in the process with three eventful decades of post-war history (1964-1989), I proposed several hypotheses about The Oz over time. Was its wrath and vigour the result of a chronic insecurity complex, coupled with a sustained sense of impending closure? A case of shouting louder in order to be heard? And if so, was this because of its small readership in comparison with state papers like The Age in Melbourne or The Herald in Sydney? Or could its shrillness be attributed to the adoption of populist techniques borrowed from Murdoch tabloids to sell the paper at all costs?
Both theories appeared plausible but left me somewhat dissatisfied. Another influential journalistic development to be considered was the growth of opinion journalism, of by-lines and of competition with media like television. It invaded not only the opinion-editorial pages of The Australian but also the business and culture columns of the paper, making it a publication with unusually porous walls between its various segments. Australian journalists and editors were well aware of this phenomenon, one which produced tensions between old hands and a new breed of “prima donna” opinion makers.
The tempestuous career of Paddy McGuinness, recently acknowledged in Australian obituaries (January 31, 2008 and February 5, 2008), was but one example of this successful trend towards opinion making rather than factual reporting, influenced as it was from the first by the still more tempestuous career of its founding editor and enfant terrible, Maxwell Newton. If such is indeed the true tradition of The Australian, then it had little to do with an engrained inferiority complex and more to do with a superiority complex, championed increasingly by radically conservative ideologues to this day.
By 1990, the end of the period of my study, there was still ample evidence that The Australian’s long march to viability rated as one of the group’s significant achievements - celebrated in 1989, at the time of its 15th anniversary, and most recently in the full page advertisement taken out in the paper (Weekend Australian December 15-16, 2007) at the time of Murdoch’s successful Wall Street Journal bid.
Yet for those who believe The Australian and its past constitute merely, “the ideological education of young Murdoch”, to coin Donald Horne’s autobiographical phrase, there is an ever-present danger of simplification in assuming the operation of a corporate monolith and reading the thoughts of Chairman Rupert into its very utterance.
Even for Murdoch’s critics - and there have been many born both inside and outside the organisation - the equation of ownership with control in matters of content raises problems. Not that there isn’t clear evidence for proprietorial interaction on specific issues, but this does not in itself equate with conformity to a single political line. Rather it acts as a verbal directive, a set of unwritten guidelines within which editors and journalists had at times to operate - a practice of calculated guesswork filtered by editors and executives on location.
If one accepts that Murdoch remains a complex and elusive figure, one has to ask whether it is worth trying to reduce The Australian to biography when so many biographers have already undertaken the task with such wide ranging results.
Rather it is more useful, in my view, to understand The Australian and its, at times, erratic development as the prolonged outcome of creative tensions, involving Murdoch, his executives, editors, journalists and production staff, and featuring a variety of these players at any one time.
Murdoch himself fostered creative tension, at times openly within the organisation, through rival appointments within and across the group. Such tensions were also fostered from below, as the national strikes of 1975-76 and 1979-82 clearly indicate. To understand these complex forces in the history of the paper, one has to look more widely to the experiences of the journalists, editors and executives, at times, united in the desire to get the paper out, at other times, deeply divided over editorial policy as well as workplace change.
Finally, it should not be forgotten, in telling the wider and more interesting story of The Australian, that creative tensions are the very stuff of newspaper production and editorial decision-making. It is something that Murdoch himself never lets his editors forget. They stand or fall (often the latter) on the strength of their self defence. It is this dynamic aspect of The Australian’s production which fascinates the historian.
In the absence of written directives - Murdoch was above all a phone manager - there was and still is a powerful oral culture and mythology to be tapped about the organisation. For the cautious chronicler, the enterprise is riddled with gaps and contradictions and devoid of much necessary documentation. But for the challenged - of which I am one - there is an important and often dramatic story about the post-war transformation of a nation to be told through the accounts of its many contributors and the columns of the paper itself.