On 15 July 1964, the day of its first publication, the Australian carried on its front page a programmatic editorial: a mission statement drafted by its young proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. ‘Here is Australia’s first truly national newspaper’, the editorial declared. The new paper would be independent, outspoken and free from ties to factions or interests of any kind. Above all, it announced, ‘we shall encourage those feelings and movements in public and private life which elevate the individual and advance the nation’s welfare’.
Almost as striking as the masthead’s survival through times of political and economic turbulence for half a century is the persistence in its content today of this consistent approach to the development of Australia and to the business of presenting ideas to readers—an elite group who ‘as thinking men and women would have a profound influence on the future’. This was the promise of the Australian: access to an inner circle of enlightenment.
Progress was the defining theme of the newspaper in its first decade, under a range of distinctive editors. Murdoch’s initial appointment was Max Newton, a Cambridge-trained economist and libertarian. The two quarrelled, and control soon passed to Adrian Deamer, a socially engaged, campaigning editor. Under his guidance, the Australian’s first reputation was established. It was the newspaper that saw potential in the nation’s present; it spoke for a distinctive Australian culture, a new society, founded on well-managed migration inflows, on resources, on traditions transcended and given fresh life. This ‘development romanticism’ was often to the fore in those years, if shadowed by the steely commitment to the idea of market economics one might expect at the heart of a fast-growing global media empire.
The title swiftly broke new ground. There was a dedicated arts page, the first of its kind in the country; there were high-grade critics and reviewers; feature writers flocked to the paper. How to expand this beach-head in the quality market? After the experiment of the Sunday Australian (1971–72), Murdoch, now resident in London, and key editors made plans to launch a high-end weekend edition derived from the great broadsheet models of the British press. It was a successful debut: the Weekend Australian (est. 1977) and all other in-depth Saturday editions in today’s market follow in its wake, and have adapted its initial formula: quality investigative journalism and high-bourgeois advertising spreads.
Increasingly, the Australian was a brand whose time had come: it was the symbol of a knowledge class, it stood for a new national compact and new social attitudes and it backed Labor leader Gough Whitlam in the lead-up to the 1972 election. But the love of newspapers and their proprietors is conditional. When 1975 came round, the world economy was in crisis and the government in Canberra was in chaos. The Australian campaigned with ferocity to unseat Whitlam. This bid to overturn established power was a token both of the newspaper’s seriousness and of its potency. But it was deeply unpopular with the Whitlam government’s committed backers, and with large elements of the knowledge class whose members formed the Australian’s core readership. Journalists on the paper went on strike; there was uproar. The Dismissal and the subsequent Coalition victory whipped up a bitter political climate. For the best part of a generation, the Australian was seen as the newspaper that had betrayed the progressive cause.
Under the stabilising editorial hand of Les Hollings (1923–2003), a period of recovery and repositioning began. It was a long haul. Hollings, a man of great thoroughness and decency, remained at the helm in various guises from mid-1975 until almost the end of 1988. He provided a backbone: kindly leadership, moderate beliefs, the punctilious professional values of the trained Fleet Street sub-editor, all married to a self-conscious Australian nationalism. The Australian’s stand-point in those years was a hazy, centrist middle ground: its politics fluctuated from critical support for both the Fraser Coalition and Hawke Labor administrations to abrupt bouts of radical conservative enthusiasm—like the bizarre backing it gave to the 1987 ‘Joh for Canberra’ campaign.
The paper’s metropolitan readership had dipped with the defection of the 1975 cohort, to be replaced by a scattering of professionals in the mid-range towns and cities of the regions. Circulation stayed in the vicinity of 100,000 for the weekday edition, and 300,000 for the weekend. This seemed at the time to be a ceiling of a kind: market shifts and corporate dictates would soon make it so. In 1987, after intense duelling between rival bidders, Murdoch swooped to buy the Herald and Weekly Times. This gave him a national chain of titles, which he turned into a family of tabloids.
The dynamics of News Corporation now changed. So too did the Australian: a new era began—its third incarnation. News chief executive Ken Cowley had forged an understanding with his leading commentator, Paul Kelly, the dominant political journalist of the long Hawke–Keating reformist government’s reign. In 1991, Kelly took over as editor-in-chief of the Australian with a mandate to reshape the title. All newspapers are emanations of the personality directing them. This was so to an unusual degree of Kelly’s Australian: his temper was rational, his outlook national. Kelly also knew how to delegate. The paper became a home to the country’s best long-form writers, it opened foreign bureaux and it set policy debates. The republic, multiculturalism, micro-economic reform, reconciliation: these were its meat and drink. It was on the rise even as its rivals fell.
Kelly was a close student of power: in a striking fashion, his Australian was both the chief reflecting mirror of the political process and a shaping check on its chief actors. This period was the high-point for the Australian’s role as monitoring angel of the national project. The clarity in the paper’s tone stemmed from a particular value-realm, which in turn descended from its social centre of gravity: a defining current—still evident, though often misconstrued. Rather than simply or solely conservative in tilt, the Australian bears the influence of a small, distinctive milieu: secular Catholic in culture, intellectual in orientation, social democratic, with national ideals and a commitment to communal bonds at its core. Hence, for example, the paper’s long-term interest in Indigenous advancement, both as a moral and a national agenda priority—an interest scarcely typical of conventional centre or right politics. This special thread is consistent in the recent history of the Australian. It survived the interregnum years following Kelly’s departure from the editorship in 1996 and return to his writing rostrum. It lurks as a veiled continuo in the latest long-lasting editorial reign, that of Chris Mitchell (1956– ), editor-in-chief since 2002.
If ever an editor was groomed for the part, it was Mitchell, who had been shaped as a legendary chief sub-editor, night editor and deputy to Kelly before taking the Brisbane Courier-Mail and remaking it as a modern, policy-engaged newspaper with a voice on the national stage. This apprenticeship served, it was back to Sydney: the Australian’s fourth and most recent phase had begun. Mitchell was at ease with politicians and reform proponents, confident in Murdoch’s backing, contrarian, caught up in the play of ideas and contentions: he ran an expansive paper against a backdrop of broadsheet contraction and collapse. Soon he was the unchallenged king of high-end Australian media.
The Australian became a renewed focus of controversies. It was the news-setter. It critiqued Coalition Prime Minister John Howard’s decline, and picked up Labor leader Kevin Rudd’s ascending current early, and backed him, then subjected both his regime and the Julia Gillard succession to sustained and pitiless oversight. For much of the Labor half-decade from 2008 to 2013, it was the intellectual opposition as well as the chief theatre of policy debate—an unusual role. In a sense, a cycle of history was being replayed from the 1975 era: radical government takes power, and strong hopes are pinned on it; those hopes are disappointed, so a campaigning national interest paper goes on the march.
But Mitchell faced struggles just as intense on two other fronts: internal and structural. The world was moving online, including advertising and its revenue. Print-based business models were in tatters. The Australian, more interested in ideas than platforms, was slow to adapt. Eventually it took the paywall route and built a strong iPad site. Staff cuts were savage across the media sector. Fairfax Media’s print titles had withered. ABC free websites were the main rivals of the Australian now, together with a range of publicly funded online opinion forums. News Limited’s managers increasingly felt themselves to be running a 24-hour infotainment enterprise. The Australian seemed a natural candidate for homogenisation into a cross-product news flow. Fierce corporate manoeuvres ensued. Mitchell prevailed, and the mid-term autonomy of the Australian, Rupert Murdoch’s favourite child, seemed once more assured.
Such is the title today: agenda-making, at the heart of federal politics and national debate, a rolling presentation of events and positions, constant in tone, evolving in form—an ideal clothed in words that has endured for five decades.
In 2013, circulation stood at 116,655 for the Australian, and 254,891 for the Weekend Australian.
REF: D. Cryle, Murdoch’s Flagship (2008).