By Michael Sawyer: Michael West Media.
Fifty years ago, an Australian government had big plans for the media, seeing it as biased in favour of conservatism and its ownership too narrowly held. Powerful interests saw a sinister attempt to impose state control. With the death of Moss Cass, Australia’s second and last minister for the media, we look at a brave experiment and its legacy.
”I am depicted as a goateed Goebbels, or words to that effect, in seeking to control what the press says and does and so on.
So spoke Australia’s last Minister for the Media, in the House of Representatives, on August 19, 1975. It was a strange insult to level at a man given the name Moses and whose ancestors were eastern European Jews.
Moses Henry ”Moss” Cass was 95 and one of the longest lived members of the 1972-75 Whitlam Labor ministry when he died on February 26. Only three of the 32 men who served in the governments headed by Gough Whitlam remain. They are Bill Hayden, Paul Keating and Doug McClelland. McClelland, now 96, was the first minister for the media, December 1972 to June 1975. Cass took his place and served until the dismissal of the Whitlam government on November 11, 1975. It was not the end of Cass’s interest in media policy, but it was the end of the post of minister for the media.
The two media ministers were frequently accused of trying to breach freedom of the media. ”Has the Minister for the Media seen reports that the Government intends to use the resources of the Department of the Media to influence public opinion?” Cass was challenged in Parliament. He responded, in part: ”We would be numbskulls to try it.”
And here was a minister with a few good words for the ABC:
“I think it is a far-fetched suggestion to imply that somehow or other deep in the bowels of the ABC there is a little cell working away systematically to distort the news reportage and somehow or other to paint the Labor Government in glowing terms consistently and the non-Labor Opposition as an utter monster. My guess is that the ABC often succeeds in displeasing both sides of the House because it is attempting to be as impartial as is humanly possible.”
What did the Department of the Media achieve? One memorable innovation was the abolition of the television licence fee, which Britons still suffer. And colour television, though that was announced before creation of the ministry itself.
For Sydneysiders there was Double J, the city’s first new radio station since 1932, and dedicated to ”the youth audience”. Double J started life in January 1975 at 1539 on the AM dial. Its licence was to be reviewed after a year. By then Cass was gone as minister. The plan was for similar stations to follow in the capitals. The dismissal of the Whitlam government delayed this.
According to the website Milesago:
”The legislative and licensing innovations introduced by the Whitlam’s ministers, Doug McClelland and Dr Moss Cass, enabled Australia to finally catch up with overseas innovations like FM stereo radio and colour TV, and eventually put Australia ahead of the rest of the world in some areas. McClelland and Cass acted to open up both the FM frequency band (then only being used for TV broadcasts) and the AM band, in line with Labor’s policy to promote minority and public access to the media.”
Taking on the newspaper barons
Labor decided on a Ministry of the Media during its long years in opposition between 1949 and 1972. The Left faction of the party in particular saw the newspaper publishers as implacable opponents of the party’s progressive agenda and ripe for challenge. Being dependent on public airwaves, television and radio stations were subject to tight regulation regarding political bias, but took most of their cues in news coverage from the newspapers. It was the high-watermark of newspaper influence on the fate of governments.
The ferociously anti-Labor Herald and Weekly Times group owned the morning papers in Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. But its biggest influence was in Melbourne, where it owned Australia’s biggest selling morning and afternoon newspapers. It’s worth considering the influence it wielded in Australia’s second city. In 1972, in a city of 2.6 million, the tabloid Sun News-Pictorial boasted a circulation of 648,000 and the afternoon broadsheet The Herald, 498,000.
The papers were more passionate about footy than politics, but their coverage did Labor few favours. In particular their cartoonists were apt to portray Labor supporters as bovine unionists afraid of a good day’s work and Whitlam himself as an effete ”trendy” out of touch with the everyday concerns of the people.
The generally well-off readers of The Sydney Morning Herald (owned by the Fairfax family) were served a political coverage delivered with a faintly patrician, superior air. While willing to criticise conservative governments, the broadsheet advocated a Labor government only once in its first 150 years. (And that was related to a commercial dispute with the Menzies government more than any high principle).
The Packer family’s Australian Consolidated Press was unfriendly to Labor too. Even after Frank Packer sold his big-selling Sydney tabloids, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph, to Rupert Murdoch in 1972, he was still able to scold Labor via his influential weekly magazine The Bulletin.
Murdoch, already approaching 20 years as a media player, was sympathetic to Labor, but such sympathies were seen more in his national broadsheet, The Australian, than in the two Telegraphs.
The Age in Melbourne, owned by the Syme family in partnership with Fairfax, had courted a progressive readership under editor Graham Perkin. The broadsheet was one of only two major titles to advocate a vote for Whitlam at the 1972 election, along The Australian (which did it twice). After 23 years of rule by one-party it’s hard to imagine that the other press magnates could contemplate the notion of an alternative government. Labor had its work cut out.
High ambition, low blows
In his 1972 policy speech, Whitlam said: ”Radio and television will be transferred from the Postmaster-General’s Department to a Department for the Media.” His opponent, Liberal prime minister William McMahon, saw an opening. He told the National Press Club, just days before the election: ”I am committed to a free press as an essential element of a democracy and I would always want to preserve it. And I make the non-promise. We will not establish a ministry for the media.”
Like many initiatives of the Whitlam government, the Department of Media was ambitious, starry-eyed and unwieldy. Its first remit (‘’Matters related to the news, information and entertainment media’’) seems too open-ended.
As described by Whitlam biographer Jenny Hocking, this was a department ”not seen in any guise since Arthur Calwell’s conscientious but contentious handling of the wartime Department of Information.” That was 30 years earlier. Top public servants shied away, and at the end of its life it was under the administration of a bureaucratic tyro, future NSW chief justice James Spigelman, who was 29 years old. For three years, vision and vagueness, idealism and ineptitude, bumped along side by side.
The department and its ministers found few friends. As has been observed of political idealists, those who feel threatened are quick to mobilise, while those who might benefit don’t even know yet. ”I never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel,” said somebody witty (not Mark Twain) and the Whitlam government picked a lot of arguments with a lot of barrel owners.
Even the ”King of Television”, Graham Kennedy, sounded off, as the worsening economy crimped the media ministers’ ambitions for greater local production. In 1975, ”the King”, relying on his huge platform both in the public and the industry, called for the portfolio to be abolished, but not before hammering the man Cass would soon replace:
”Senator Douglas McClelland. He’s really copping it in the press at the moment. All this week every paper you pick up, there’s a roast of the senator. And like most Australians, I hate to kick a man when he’s down. But in Doug McClelland’s case I happily make an exception. He has failed, and he knows it too. Now the public know it. This misguided minister took credit for a mythical boom in television production – now there is no boom. Employment in television production is down, this year, by over 30%, and that’s a fact. … We are all suffering from the lack of local content at the moment. I’m being thrashed in the surveys because constantly being thrown up against me are shows like the Academy Awards, imported films and cheap television series, all purchased for a few hundred dollars from the Yanks. When I say a few hundred dollars, by the time it’s amortised over the network, that’s how much the program costs. Now we can’t compete with the price of these shows …
”I can speak for a lot of my colleagues in this industry and several other industries in the entertainment field when I demand here tonight nationally that Senator McClelland be dismissed from office and I would suggest most strongly that the portfolio itself be dropped.”
Tough controls or a gentle nudge?
McClelland was moved to another portfolio soon afterwards, but under Cass ensured the government’s ambitions for media reform remained strong. As chronicled by Hocking, a brief discussion paper was released in August 1975, canvassing options for press reform, including an inquiry into the media and the creation of a voluntary Press Council to be chaired by a judge. Most alarmingly for the press barons, the paper mused on the creation of a body that would publish a national newspaper ”to provide a balanced account of all news items”.
Murdoch called the discussion paper ”sinister”. Even Graham Perkin called it ”an act of pure vandalism”. And they were the newspaper chiefs who had supported Labor in 1972.
But there is little in the recorded statements by Cass that indicate a burning desire to bring the media to heel. Most of the time he seemed to be regarding events with a philosophical detachment:
I am not going to cavil about what at times appears to me to be biased reporting by newspapers because I am aware that honourable members on the other side of the House have the same view sometimes about the newspapers. This is a fact of life; I do not even cry about it as far as the newspapers are concerned.
On another occasion he said:
If there is a media report which is in some way complimentary to us we are all absolutely certain that it is completely correct and totally unbiased. We are all the same. However, if any one of us makes a bit of a slip in the eyes of the reporter, again irrespective of the medium, we are convinced that it is a totally biased report against us. That is a failing that we all have, of course.
When Cass made his ”goateed Goebbels” remark he was answering a question about the enforced two-hour closure of a Tasmanian television station (TVT6) for breaching the rules on advertising content. It seems Cass was anxious not to take the station off air, being fully aware that his political opponents and media tycoons saw the entire concept of Ministry for the Media as Orwellian.
One gets the impression that this sort of in-the-weeds regulation was exasperating the minister. ”Why waste money having people sitting in front of television sets timing the length of advertisements if when one discovers that someone has broadcast an advertisement for longer than he should have, one does nothing about it?” Cass told the House.
At one stage the station was to be given a chance to stay on air but donate the two hours of advertising revenue to charity.
‘’However, I subsequently learned – I cannot vouch for this, but I have been told – that the station representatives were leant on by somebody and told not to do this sort of thing. They had to stand up and resist the monster from Canberra, I take it. So, in my view, I had no alternative but to flick them with a feather duster. That is all it was really; let us face it. I could have taken the station off the air for a whole week. The suspension was for only two hours to make the point. If all the commercial networks are in an uproar about it, I am perfectly happy to meet them and discuss alternative proposals so that we can introduce a Bill into this House to change the Act.’’
An experiment never to be repeated
But the Whitlam government’s antipathies to the print barons blazed right up to its end. On October 15, 1975, Whitlam rejected calls for a new election, saying: ”I make it clear that the government will not yield to pressure. We will not yield to blackmail. We will not be panicked. We will not turn over the government of this country to vested interests, pressure groups and newspaper proprietors whose tactics would destroy the standards and traditions of parliamentary government.”
That was the day opposition leader Malcolm Fraser announced a strategy to delay Labor’s budget in the Senate, leading to a constitutional crisis and the eventual sacking of the government – events that the party still blame, partly, on the hostility of the media environment.
The Whitlam government was dismissed by Governor-General John Kerr on November 11, 1975. The Coalition caretaker government was not allowed to change the structure of the ministry, so the Department of the Media sat pat for five weeks under its caretaker minister, Reg Withers, later to make his name as a political head kicker.
Once confirmed as prime minister by the election of December 13, Malcolm Fraser wielded the axe. In a statement headed ”Major changes in ministerial and departmental responsibilities and functions,” Fraser announced the abolition of the department. What functions were to remain were absorbed into the blandly named Department of Administrative Affairs. Whitlam’s Department of the Media had lasted three years and three days.
The first Labor government after Whitlam, in 1983, was anxious to distance itself from the chaotic elements and brutal fate of Whitlam’s men. A minister for the media presented too big a target. If it was to take on the hated media proprietors, it would open itself to yet more attacks from the concentrated media market. The Department of the Media was not revived. Under the Labor government of 1983-96, Murdoch, beginning with the takeover of the Herald and Weekly Times group, would increase his dominance of Australian newspapers.
Governments have always intervened in media matters, of course, and they didn’t stop in 1975. For a start, they set ownership limits. For many years media proprietors were forbidden from owning a newspaper and television station in the same market. In fact much of the ownership structure of ”legacy media” has been brought about by manoeuvring around the rules brought in by governments that believed they were engendering ownership diversity. There is no scope in this article, but in brief, the story of interventions in the media by governments is the story of proprietors finding ways to deflect attempts to level the playing field. Today, the biggest ones don’t acknowledge that they are publishers at all.
Just for fun, when you Google ”Australia ministry of media” today, the first result is www.pm.gov.au (”Media Centre / Prime Minister of Australia”). The control of the media narrative has never been closer to government than it is today, with its ”drops” to favoured outlets. ”Sinister” all right.
There’s a lot more Cass packed in to 95 years. His parents fled the anti-Jewish pogroms in Tsarist Russia. He was a doctor who trained in London in open-heart surgery. He built the first heart-lung machine in Australia. He campaigned for abortion law reform. He and fellow Left faction Labor MPs publicly burnt the National Service cards of unwilling conscripts to the Vietnam War. He was minister for the environment and a key player in Labor’s development of Medicare. His late daughter Deborah was a professor of international law and is remembered in an award for writers of a migrant background. He was an atheist. He was a founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, which criticised Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
And he had one heck of a goatee.
Thanks to these sources: Wikipedia / National Archives / Historical Hansard / WhitlamDismissal.com / Rodney Tiffen / Milesago / Jenny Hocking: Gough Whitlam; His Time.
Mark Sawyer is a journalist with Michael West Media. He has extensive experience in print and digital media in Sydney, Melbourne and rural Australia.