This newspaper’s origins lie in the Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, a weekly founded in January 1833 by Charles Macfaull (1800–46). Macfaull’s widow Elizabeth sold the paper on to Arthur Shenton (1816–71), who twice renamed it as the Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (1848–64) and the Perth Gazette and Western Australian Times (1864–74), each time recommencing with volume 1, number 1.
Competition was provided by a more conservative weekly, the Inquirer and Commercial News (1840–1901). After Shenton’s death in 1871, his widow entrusted the editorship to William Hullick, who was too radical for the Perth establishment. A syndicate of local businessmen bought the newspaper, and in July 1874 made another fresh start, changing its name to the Western Australian Times. In November 1879, two members of the syndicate, Charles Harper and Sir Thomas Cockburn-Campbell, assumed sole control and proclaimed a totally distinct line of policy, symbolised by moving to biweekly publication and yet another change of name to the West Australian. It has survived under this guise to the present day, claiming continuity with the original Perth Gazette of 1833, and thus to be the oldest newspaper in Australia apart from the Sydney Morning Herald.
Harper and Cockburn-Campbell were joined in 1883 by an Anglo-Irish lawyer, (Sir) (John) Winthrop Hackett, as business manager; he took over from Cockburn-Campbell as editor and managing partner from 1887. The new ownership converted the paper into a tri-weekly in 1883 and a daily in 1885. Harper and Hackett established the Western Mail (1885–1955), a weekly digest of the West Australian catering for rural readers. In his early years as editor, Hackett embroiled the West Australian in several lawsuits, including an unsuccessful suit for libel brought by J.B. Gribble, whom Hackett termed ‘a lying, canting humbug’ because he alleged abuses against Aboriginal people by pastoral workers. With the coming of responsible government in 1890, the editorial style gradually mellowed, although Hackett pushed a successful campaign against government support for church schools.
The 1890s gold rush quadrupled Western Australia’s population, and the West Australian seized the opportunity to become the state’s premier journal of record. Modern printing and distribution technology was introduced, advertising rates were trimmed and the Western Mail featured photographs and cartoons. Credited with influencing Premier Sir John Forrest (1890–1901), the West Australian supported his bold developmental policies, but only belatedly supported Australian Federation.
After 1901, Hackett’s editorials strenuously opposed reform of the conservative Legislative Council, but otherwise aimed for a balance. They played an important role in increasing support for Western Australia’s cultural institutions.
After Harper’s death in 1912, Hackett became sole proprietor until his death in 1916. His traditions were continued by (Sir) Alfred Langler, journalist and administrator of the Hackett estate, who encountered a period of industrial disruption and political turmoil, but consolidated growth until the sale of the West Australian and the Western Mail in 1926 to West Australian Newspapers Limited (WAN), a Melbourne company with links to the Herald and Weekly Times (HWT). Editorial control remained in Perth. In 1933, production moved to custom-built premises at Newspaper House in St Georges Terrace. A weekly aimed at radio listeners, the Broadcaster, was launched. Together with the Western Mail, it provided a welcome outlet for local creative writers. With the acquisition of the afternoon daily, the Daily News (1882–1990), WAN achieved a near-monopoly.
World War II was followed by a period of modernisation, personified by the dynamic James Macartney, managing editor from 1951 to 1966. In 1947, the West Australian abandoned its broadsheet format to become a tabloid. Two years later, news replaced advertisements on the front page. A women’s magazine, Milady, survived only three years (1948–51). In the second half of the 1950s, the Broadcaster ceased publication and the Western Mail was transformed into the Countryman. The West Australian began to publish zoned suburban supplements.
The firm was awarded one of the first commercial television licences in Perth (TVW7), opening in 1958. Journalists from WAN gained prominence through coverage of the Monte Bello Island atomic tests in 1952–56, the Empire Games in Perth in 1962 and the discovery in the 1960s of a number of 17th- and 18th-century Dutch shipwrecks off the Western Australian coast.
In 1969, WAN was taken over by the HWT, necessitating the sale of TVW7 in 1970 to conform to media ownership restrictions. Editorial policy continued to support the Coalition dominating state politics between 1959 and 1983. An energetic advocate of development in the North-West, the West Australian applauded the mineral boom of the 1960s and 1970s, but failed to please the mining magnate Lang Hancock, who backed a short-lived daily, the Independent Sun (1973).
Improved computer technology fostered the appearance in the late 1970s and early 1980s of several independent suburban newspapers, sustained by advertising revenue and delivered free to householders’ letterboxes. The West Australian responded by dropping its suburban supplements and starting the West Advertiser (1984–85) as competition. Robert Holmes à Court’s Bell Group entered the field, launching a daily reviving the name of the Western Mail (1980– ).
Competition for readers was fought out against the heady background of the ‘WA Inc’ years of the later 1980s. In 1985, most of the independent suburban newspapers sold out to the Community Newspaper Group, owned by West Australian Newspapers Holdings and News Limited, owners of Perth’s only Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Times. In 1987, the Bell Group managed to take over West Australian Newspapers. Control of the Bell Group soon shifted from Holmes à Court to Alan Bond, but after his commercial empire became enmeshed in difficulties in 1989, a group of senior journalists ran the West Australian for a few years before ownership moved to a public company whose directors were mainly drawn from the Perth business community.
Since 1993, WAN has retained its Perth-based character, moving to new custom-built premises in suburban Osborne Park. Because of media regulations, News Limited has been unable, and Fairfax Media unwilling, to attempt a takeover, and the most significant shift in ownership was the move in 2008 by Kerry Stokes—already a major shareholder in the Seven Network and the Canberra Times—to acquire the largest stake in WAN.
Combining a lively awareness of local issues with a sufficient coverage of international news, adhering to a moderate, and far from uncritical, right-of-centre political position, the West Australian in recent years has achieved one of the best records of any Australian newspaper in maintaining its circulation—it averaged 178,385 for the weekday edition in 2013—in the face of increasing online competition.
REFs: West Australian, 5 January 1933; O.K. Battye, ‘History of the West Australian Newspaper’, Battye Family Papers (SLWA).