DEPARTMENT OF INFORMATION
Established on 12 September 1939, the Department of Information (DOI) built and managed an extensive government media-monitoring and management system. Previously, a Directorate of War Propaganda had been formed shortly before World War I ended, but propaganda had had little effect on Australian war policy at that time. German and Italian broadcasts began to be received in Australia from the early 1930s and raised the prospect of international propaganda. The first Minister for Information was Sir Henry Somer Gullett.
During World War II, the DOI managed propaganda and censorship, and was in charge of bolstering domestic morale. On 18 October 1939, Cabinet approved Gullett’s aims for the department, which were to increase and sustain the faith of the Australian people in the cause for which Australia was engaged in war; promote the interest and thought calculated to support the government in security, money-raising (including taxation) and other general activities; and to directly and indirectly distribute sound facts about all phases of the war through every available channel. The department maintained the Australian News and Information Bureau (ANIB), a Censorship Branch and sections for advertising, broadcasting (including a Short- Wave Broadcasting Division), cinema and photographs.
Initially, the DOI sponsored a network of ‘groups’ to disseminate information and provide feedback on its effectiveness, but this proved unwieldy and was abandoned. The department undertook to produce its own news bulletins, managed production and technical requirements for short-wave broadcasts, oversaw government distribution of information, advertising, and private and mass media censorship, and appointed its own war correspondents, including Kenneth Slessor, the Official War Correspondent.
When Sir Keith Murdoch was appointed the Department’s Director-General of Information in June 1940, concerns increased that government would control all broadcasting. Murdoch’s determination to oversight all radio news and information led to the first national broadcasts in 1940. When Murdoch resigned in December 1940, the Director-General’s position lapsed until E.G. Bonney was appointed in April 1943; he resigned in 1948.
The national (ABC) and commercial radio stations provided morale-boosting broadcasts, war news, war bonds and behavioural advertising without losing day-to-day management of domestic broadcasting. International short-wave broadcasting was wholly initiated and undertaken by the DOI’s Short-Wave Division. These Radio Australia broadcasts used five languages (English, French, Dutch, German and Japanese), and included news bulletins to overseas troops, political propaganda and war publicity. The division also used ‘listening posts’ to monitor other short-wave broadcasts. From January 1942, the ABC managed short-wave broadcasting until it was returned to the DOI in April 1944.
The Department of Commerce’s Cinema Unit was transferred to the DOI in February 1940 to provide material and facilities to newsreel companies. In April 1945, an Australian National Film Board was established to coordinate films for school, adult education, social development and the extension of trade, tourism and immigration. The board was attached to the DOI, which was responsible for the production of films recommended by the board.
The DOI banned some print media (including Communist Party newspapers and Jehovah’s Witness magazines, which promoted conscientious objection), but popular newspapers continued publishing with pre-publication censorship arrangements. The department could compel publication and ration newsprint.
By centralising major press advertising contracts for efficiency reasons, the DOI accrued influence in print media. The diversity of national newspapers led to different approaches to the department’s suppressive and expressive powers. A free news service was welcomed by suburban and country newspapers, but little used by their metropolitan counterparts. The press maintained varying levels of accommodation and contention with the department, although historical commentary has focused on the censorship of the Sydney newspapers in 1944, while Labor’s Arthur Calwell was Minister for Information.
The department’s relations with the metropolitan press—particularly in Sydney—deteriorated under Calwell. On 15 April 1944, when the Daily Telegraph published blank spaces to indicate censored content, the newspaper and its Sunday edition were served with an ‘order to submit’, requiring all publication and distribution to cease. On 16 April, entire editions of Sydney papers were suppressed and Commonwealth Peace Officers were sent to newspaper offices to prevent distribution.
While the DOI was abolished in 1950, its publicity function continued through the ANIB. The National Film Board was maintained and Radio Australia became part of the ABC.
REFs: P. Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939–1941 (1952); J. Hilvert, Blue Pencil Warriors (1984).