A lecture by Harold White Fellow, Bridget Griffen-Foley, at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 6 December 2003

This lecture was preceded by the launch in Canberra of Bridget Griffen-Foley’s Sir Frank Packer: The Young Master.

It was September 1950 and inflation was rampant. After two decades of struggle and heartbreak, the Depression and war, Australian industry and agriculture were booming. Australia was experiencing full employment, trade unions were campaigning vigorously for improved wages and conditions, the birthrate was rising and the demand for family housing was insatiable as materials were in short supply. On 28 September the Sydney morning newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, splashed an editorial across its front page about the inflationary pressures that were building up in Australia. The iconoclastic editor, Brian Penton, provocatively entitling his editorial ‘The Australian £ is Bleeding to Death’, urged Prime Minister Menzies to ensure that the forthcoming budget gave the Australian pound a more realistic value in relation to sterling, cut unnecessary spending and helped industry to increase productivity. The editorial should have come as no surprise. During the war, Frank Packer’s morning newspaper and its stablemate, The Sunday Telegraph, under the editorship of Penton and Cyril Pearl, had vigorously championed the urban and the cosmopolitan, educated readers about science and modern art, condemned the complacency of the first Menzies government, and consistently advocated the appointment of an all-party national government. The flamboyant intellectualism of the Telegraphs in that crucial decade of the late 1930s through to the 1940s defied, in short, the pejorative meaning that is normally attached to the notion of the ‘tabloid’ newspaper.

But the front-page editorial that appeared in 1950 struck a raw nerve with the prime minister. Menzies had been back at The Lodge for less than a year, the Liberal Party had only been established in 1944 and conservative parties had an unfortunate habit of collapsing under pressure. Menzies, who remained bitter about the press campaign, which he held responsible for destabilising his wartime administration, was moved to write to the proprietor of The Daily Telegraph. And so, in the early days of October 1950, Frank Packer was handed a letter marked ‘strictly personal’ by his intensely loyal secretary, Fairy Faircloth. Seated behind an enormous desk in his office overlooking Hyde Park, with his ferocious but beloved pet dogs salivating on the armchairs, the hulking figure of Frank Packer looked up to see that the letter was from Prime Minister R. G. Menzies. Packer gingerly picked up the missive, which pointed out that the Country Party was opposed to any appreciation of the Australian currency and that the Liberal Party did not want to risk splitting the coalition over the issue. Menzies’ letter concluded:

Your front page article this morning … seems to declare war on me. If this is so, let’s get on with it, while Chifley chuckles … But I prefer understanding to dispute; and political good sense to brawling.

Hence these lines to a man whose good sense I respect, and whose courage I have never publicly (or privately) impugned.

Packer responded immediately, writing to Menzies to explain in more detail the Telegraph’s financial concerns. But the real point of the letter was to reassure the prime minister that Consolidated Press had not declared war on him: Menzies was ‘a great man of international calibre’ who had the confidence of the Australian people; the editorial had certainly not intended to suggest that he lacked personal courage; ‘it would be a brave member of the Liberal Party indeed’ who turned Menzies out of office over the issue of appreciation.

Packer had been dabbling in politics for the last few years, participating in delegations to Canberra to discuss newsprint rationing and meeting with businessmen to consider the formation of a successor to the United Australia Party. But it was not until he received this letter from Menzies in October 1950 that Packer realised that he was now being taken seriously as a political player. In the early years of Consolidated Press the Telegraphs had been, while not apolitical, fairly balanced in their assessments of political developments and election issues, and their crusading style had infuriated—and perhaps stirred into action—politicians on both sides of the ideological spectrum. But Packer and his newspapers had been drifting steadily to the right in recent years. During the war, Lieutenant Frank Packer, in his capacity as director of personnel in the Allied Works Council, had been a consistent target of attack for trade unions and left-wing Laborites; he had become disenchanted with the Chifley government’s newsprint policies; the Soviet Union, the standard-bearer of world communism, was expanding into central and eastern Europe; Australian trade unions were becoming increasingly militant in their industrial campaigns; and the Chifley administration’s failed bid to nationalise banks seemed like a harbinger of more widespread socialisation. In 1944 Packer himself had only been flirting with plans to form a new conservative party and a healthy and vigorous Opposition, but by 1950 he was receptive to the policies and platform of the Liberal Party. Packer took on board the warning that running front-page editorials criticising government policy could improve the ALP’s electoral fortunes, and he realised that it would be foolish to alienate a prime minister with whom he was now in broad political sympathy.

Menzies, for his part, aimed to negate the criticisms of the proprietor who controlled the morning newspaper with the biggest circulation in the most populous state of Australia. Since its formation in 1944, the Liberal Party had placed great importance on ‘public relations’. Menzies had realised the need for a first-class press officer to match John Curtin’s legendary aide, Don Rodgers; the party had organised commercial radio broadcasts and radio fireside chats by Menzies; and in 1947 the federal president, R. G. Casey, had lured the services of the Hansehn-Rubensohn advertising agency from Labor. While market research surveys had shown, since the 1930s, that The Daily Telegraph appealed most to C and D class readers—that is, middle and lower-class readers—it was only in the second half of the 1940s that the newspaper overtook the circulation of the prestigious Sydney Morning Herald. Liberal politicians came to realise that if they could cultivate Packer’s support, he could help to deliver votes from people who would not normally support the conservatives. In 1949 a New South Wales party official privately noted that the Telegraph ‘is most important to us because it has the largest circulation in the state and undoubtedly is read by more swinging voters than any other paper’.

In 1950 Packer seized the opportunity to cultivate his personal relationship with the prime minister and move further into networks of power and influence. It seems that self-interest fuelled Menzies’ desire to cultivate the support of the press proprietor. For his part, Packer, who had earned his fortune through some rather controversial business transactions in the rough-and-tumble newspaper market and was energetic and intelligent rather than intellectual, admired men like Menzies who were patrician, well-educated and bastions of the Establishment. There is evidence to suggest that Packer was angling for a knighthood, that Menzies’ sometimes regarded Packer’s approaches about the awarding of television licences and official concessions for America’s Cup challenges as a nuisance, and that there were some frissons, particularly in their early association. Nevertheless, it is clear that, as the years passed, Packer became increasingly anxious to earn the affection and respect as well as the gratitude of the prime minister.

For two decades, Packer enjoyed a close, if at times turbulent, relationship with the Liberal Party. He offered Menzies and his party the editorial and material support of the Telegraphs and, later, the television stations TCN-9 in Sydney and GTV-9 in Melbourne. Before its infamous role in the demise of John Gorton and the rise of Billy McMahon, the Consolidated Press group editorially endorsed the Liberal Party, broadcast policy speeches in peak viewing time, offered the Coalition (at times unwanted) advice on issues such as full employment, informed Menzies about the political manoeuvres of rival newspaper companies such as John Fairfax, and offered cheap or free advertising to the Liberal Party and, later, the Democratic Labor Party, which directed its preferences away from the ALP.

In early 1964, Sir Frank actually approached Menzies offering his services in some sort of political or diplomatic post. Packer said that he was looking for a change after 28 years of managing the Telegraph and he wanted to move into a field where there was an opportunity to do something ‘creative’. In a list of his ‘pluses’ and ‘minuses’, Packer admitted that he was more used to giving than working to orders, his sense of humour was often misunderstood, and he would attract criticism from Labor politicians. Menzies must have known that appointing the always controversial Packer to an official position would indeed provoke widespread condemnation. Nevertheless, Menzies was anxious not to alienate the powerful media proprietor. By the end of May, he had gently persuaded Packer that ‘for a variety of reasons’ it was not possible to accept his offer. Packer appears to have been mollified by Menzies’ handling of the situation, thanking the prime minister for his ‘very nice’ and ‘softly phrased’ response. It is surely no coincidence that it was at this very time that Menzies agreed to help the elder son of his most loyal media supporter. Clyde Packer was about to enter the New South Wales Legislative Council, thus providing a direct link between Consolidated Press and the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party, and he met with Menzies to discuss the drafting of his maiden speech.

It was finding the first surviving exchange between Menzies and Frank Packer in 1950 that sparked my interest in the relationship between the media and politics in Australia. I discovered that the Menzies Collection in the National Library contains over 100 letters between Australia’s longest-serving prime minister and one of its first real ‘media barons’. The Menzies Papers, coupled with the voluminous papers of the Liberal Party federal secretariat, also housed here, help illuminate the extent and the nature of the relationship between the party, Consolidated Press and Frank Packer.

I began this fellowship at the National Library, then, by working on the collections I already had some familiarity with. My fellowship topic actually seeks to broaden my focus from Consolidated Press to other Australian media companies. My third book, to be entitled Party Games: Australian Politicians and the Media from War to Dismissal, will address the relationship between Australia’s four major media companies—Consolidated Press, John Fairfax & Sons, News Ltd and the Herald & Weekly Times—and politics from 1945 to 1975.

In the 1998 federal election campaign, it seemed that the role of the media was given almost as much attention as the policies of Australia’s major political parties. There were numerous accusations of ‘bias’ levelled at the ABC for its coverage of the campaign. Footage of Kerry Packer, declaring that Labor needed another three years in the wilderness, led one night’s television news bulletins, while photographs of James Packer sitting next to Peter Costello were splashed across the following morning’s front pages. These two incidents prompted renewed speculation amongst some media outlets, letters pages and talkback radio programs that Packer expected something in return—that is, a change in cross-media ownership laws—for supporting the Liberal Party.

But despite the public fascination with the activities of the Murdoch and Packer families—most recently illustrated by the attention given to Kerry’s kidney transplant—and seemingly endless speculation about the fate of the Fairfax group, almost no attention has been given to how media companies and political correspondents have interacted with politicians and political parties in Australia. My focus is on the postwar years, when a series of essentially parochial newspaper structures matured into national print and television institutions. My book will conclude in 1975 with the dismissal of the Whitlam government and the first journalists’ strike in Australian history (at News Ltd) over the issue of editorial independence. Addressing the post-1975 period in detail would be almost impossible, given the 30-year restriction on archival material, although I will include an epilogue surveying more recent developments.

As this is such a big topic, I have decided to arrange my book episodically. I will be dealing, chronologically, with a series of episodes that provide insights into how the interactions between the companies—by which I mean their proprietors, their executives, their managements and their political correspondents—affected the politicians and political apparatchiks during the years in consideration. An early chapter, for example, will centre on a vitriolic exchange between Menzies and Keith Murdoch in 1947, when the politician savaged the managing director of the Melbourne Herald for publishing a Gallup poll that suggested Menzies’ leadership was a handicap to the infant Liberal Party. This episode, which is based on the papers of Menzies, Murdoch and his colleague Sir Lloyd Dumas, all of them held in the National Library, will be used to raise broader questions about the role of public opinion polls in the political process. Other chapters will focus on the role played by Fairfax’s J.D. Pringle and Alan Reid in ‘breaking’ the story of the influence of the Industrial Groups and B. A. Santamaria in the ALP in 1954; the way in which the Liberal Party attempted to exploit the potential usefulness—and overcome the pitfalls—of television in the 1958 election; the unprecedented support The Sydney Morning Herald gave to Arthur Calwell and the ALP in 1961; the way in which Packer involved his former editor Donald Horne to promote the worth of Bob Askin in the hotly contested New South Wales election of 1965; the closeness of the relationships between Packer and McMahon on the one hand, and Rupert Murdoch and Gorton on the other, in the battle for the leadership of the Liberal party; how Graham Perkin and Ranald Macdonald managed to pre-empt the Syme board in 1972 and bring out The Age in support of Gough Whitlam; and the Murdoch’s role in the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

Many of these chapters will be based, in large part, on the records of the National Library of Australia. During my time here I have benefited greatly from working on the papers of the Liberal Party and Labor Party federal secretariats, and the papers of politicians including Menzies, Billy Snedden, Frederick Osborne, Arthur Calwell, Al Grassby and Tom Uren. Likewise, the manuscript collections of media proprietors and executives including Keith Murdoch, Rohan Rivett, Graham Perkin, Colin Bednall and Colin Bingham have been similarly useful. The papers of political correspondents and leader writers such as Alan Reid (a key figure!), Harold Cox, Kenneth Slessor and Gavin Souter have been supplemented by an excellent collection of oral history interviews. The Oral History unit here contains the best collection of interviews with journalists in the country, and I am still wading through the transcripts and tapes of interviews with Reid, Cox, Pringle, Horne, J.A. Alexander, Frank Chamberlain, Ian Fitchett, Mungo McCallum and George Godfrey.

Before I began research here early this year the media and politics project was really nothing more than an idea, so I am grateful for the opportunity to work on such a rich body of material. This research in the National Library has also helped me to identify important ‘gaps’, so I will now be in a position to conduct archival research and interviews interstate on, for example, the early political machinations of Rupert Murdoch. The National Library manuscript collections, oral history interviews and parliamentary and newspaper files have also given me ideas for more than just one new book. For example, I will almost certainly investigate the life of Edgar Holt further. Holt interests me because he made a shift from journalism—he was one of the bright, bold young journalists lured to the Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1936—to become a long-serving Liberal Party public relations officer and the author of a rather sycophantic but eminently readable profile of Menzies entitled Politics Is People. Whether I will act on my conviction that a history of the public relations industry in Australia is long overdue is another question.