Cables of the latest news, sent by Morse code from Europe, began appearing in the British press after the opening of a submarine cable across the English Channel between Dover and Calais in 1851. In that same year, Paul Julius Reuter set up his agency in London as a collection and distribution point for telegraphic news. News cables published in London newspapers began to arrive in Australia from the 1850s. These brief snippets of information, often about the state of war in Europe, caused anxiety in the Australian colonies since their import was unclear until the arrival of another mail ship with full reports—usually a month later.
Australia was linked to the rest of the world via the Overland Telegraph Line in 1872. News from Europe, which had previously taken up to 50 days to arrive, could now arrive in 24 hours. Major newspapers in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide formed alliances in order to jointly secure daily supplies of cable news from Reuters or other London-based sources. The high cost of telegrams limited such services to around 50 words per day. Regular cable breakdowns during the 1870s made the flow of news from London highly unreliable.
Newspapers also complained that the introduction of cable news, while increasing their costs, had not greatly increased their circulation. While the timeliness of cable news was appreciated by readers, there was also persistent criticism. Former Argus editor and Victorian politician, George Higinbotham, commenting in the 1890s, thought that news in short telegrams was ‘absolutely worthless except to stimulate a feverish and unhealthy curiosity’. On the positive side, the advent of cable news shifted the focus of journalism on to factual rather than opinionated reporting. High telegraphy costs, charged on a per word basis, led news agencies to compress messages prior to transmission using what became known as ‘cablese’. These messages needed to be expanded by cable experts in newsrooms to make them fit for publication. This was still the practice in 1938 when Australian Associated Press (AAP) published a service manual illustrating the art of unravelling cablese. AAP’s use of cablese fell away after the opening of the high-capacity Commonwealth Pacific Cable System (COMPAC) in 1964.
From the 1870s to the 1940s, the Australian press consistently lobbied governments and international cable companies for reduced cable press rates, often appealing to the role the press could play in promoting understanding across the British empire. In 1886, a special press rate was set for cables between Britain and Australia of 2 shillings and 8 pence per word, which was less than a third of the prevailing ordinary rate. Dramatic reductions came after the advent of radio telegraphy. By 1935, the Empire press rate was 4 pence per word; in 1941, it was reduced to a penny a word.
As long-distance communication improved, extended cabled reports largely replaced traditional correspondence. In a typical 1905 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, cable news occupied two columns on page 6. It comprised about 25 brief reports of between one and four paragraphs. While these covered news from around the world, they were all date-lined London. In a typical 1950 edition, cable news, sourced from AAP and staff correspondents, included full reports of up to 20 paragraphs, which could—if newsworthy enough—be presented as prominently as domestic stories. Date-lines included the major cities of Europe, Asia and the United States. In the contemporary world of ubiquitous electronic communication, the term ‘cable news’ has become a redundant category, though news agencies, such as AAP, continue to play a major role in news production and distribution.
REF: AAP, On the Wire (2010).