Sally Young, Paper Emperors: The Rise of Australia’s Newspaper Empires

NewSouth Books, 654 pp., ISBN: 9781742234984, p/bk, AUS$39.99

Sally Young’s new book, Paper Emperors: The Rise of Australia’s Newspaper Empires (2019), is stunning.

The history of print media is messy. It is more than just lists of mastheads, their publication runs and circulation figures. So much more than the big names and their political leanings. More, too, than the neat stories that newspapers might tell of themselves. Indeed, “because newspapers have done such a poor job at reporting on themselves (‘dog does not eat dog’), there is a big gap in our knowledge about who owned newspapers and why” (p. 2). Newspaper histories are complex, and contested, tales of men (and the occassional woman) and the never-ending competition for influence, prestige and power. The best historians of this field (Bridget Griffen-Foley, Murray Goot, Gavin Souter, Jeannine Baker and Margaret Van Heekeren) make media history look easy with a vast array of articles and books that offer fascinating narratives of—to adapt one of Andrew Pettegree’s book titles—how we, as Australians, came to know about ourselves.1

Young also makes the job of presenting a sweeping media history, in this case a saga that spans from 1803 until 1941, look like a straightforward task. She documents the most powerful newspaper empires to emerge over a period of almost 140 years: Associated Newspapers; the Herald and Weekly Times; John Fairfax & Sons; News Limited (then News Corp); and Consolidated Press. Exploring these major players on the Australian media landscape shifts the narrative of news histories away from individual journalists or a single set of stories, and successfully “turns the spotlight onto newspaper owners, their corporate connections and their political interests” (p. 5).

One of Young’s talents is to take the details, the elements of histories many of us take for granted, and generate meaning. A great example of this is her telling of the story of George Howe, the convict-turned-Government-Printer. Howe’s brief career as a thief, his arrival in Sydney as a convict, his taking over of the Government’s run-down and generally unreliable printing press, his publication of Australia’s first book (New South Wales General Standing Orders, 1802) and his establishment of Australia’s first newspaper (The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 1803-42) is a narrative that appears in numerous works. It is a tale of triumph in challenging circumstances and of personal redemption. Routinely mentioned in biographies of Howe, is the printer’s role in helping to establish the Bank of New South Wales. Under Young’s pen, this has much more meaning than a petty criminal becoming a respectable citizen; this connects “the Australian press with banks from the beginning” (p. 22). And so the story of the “Paper Emperors” begins with the owners of the first newspapers to appear in Sydney also being “bank proprietors and landowners … part of a commercial-legal middle class that was seeking greater authority in a military-controlled penal settlement” (pp. 19-20). From here, Young unpacks how papers and politics have become irreversably intertwined, the early fight for freedom of the press and how newspapers distributed information but also served the ambitions of their owners.

Documenting the foundations of the printed press in Australia sets the scene for the true “Emperors” to take centre stage, including the emergence of Hugh Denison, John Fairfax, Keith Murdoch and RC Packer. The competition for pre-eminence has, at times, been brutal, a reflection of the absolute fearlessness of these men. After Edward Hall founded The Monitor (1826-41), he published fierce critiques (with the odd factual error) and was prosecuted for libel six times, yet he managed to keep “publishing, even from prison” (p. 17). Andrew Bent, a publisher in Van Diemen’s Land, also continued to publish from a gaol cell (p. 17). Both Hall and Bent took on the government as easily as they faced their peers. Fast forward to the mid-twentieth century and newspaper proprietors were not just defying authority but actively undermining it. Young quotes Colin Bednall, an experienced and savvy newspaper man, who observed in his unpublished autobiograpy that:

“[The Emperors] were always talking of having somebody killed. The victim might be a politician, a trades union official or an industrialist or some former employee who had go too big for their comfort. For them ‘to kill’ was not actual murder, but close to it.” (p. 541)

Young’s work is not a murder mystery but it is certainly a thriller. We know the end of the story (or think we do) but we do not really appreciate how that end came about: being guided by Young we cannot wait to get there, to really understand the who, how, why and when. Each page reveals the drama of what is at stake and what people are prepared to risk to achieve their goals, making this account of Australia’s newspaper history absolutely compelling.

Exceptional research by Young, with the support of a very talented team, and Young’s wonderful prose makes Paper Emperors a fantastic book. There are a few well-chosen images, extensive notes and a comprehensive index.

Papers Emperors should be on the reading list for every course on media history and is an essential text for anyone who is curious about the rise, and rise, of the media industry in Australia.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, March 2019

Visit the publisher’s website here.

Share This