BALL, WILLIAM MACMAHON (1901–86)
Broadcaster, academic and diplomat W. Macmahon Ball (‘Mac’) was the epitome of a 20th-century Australian left-leaning public figure who chose to be fair and true in tough times.
He wrote articles on international affairs for the Melbourne Herald, seeking disarmament and the peaceful settlement of international differences. While he came to reject the communist-inspired World Peace Congress (1936), he remained outspoken in defence of democratic freedoms and detested censorship.
In 1932, he secured a lecturing post with the University of Melbourne. He also spent time with the BBC, studying its methods of programming talks, and collecting and broadcasting world news between 1938 and 1939. During this time, Ball wrote Press, Radio and World Affairs: Australia’s Outlook (1938), and began giving talks for the ABC.
He joined the Department of Information, established as Australia’s civil propaganda and censorship agency during World War II. From June 1940, Ball managed its pioneering Short-Wave Broadcasting Division, the predecessor of Radio Australia.
Ball’s approach to broadcasting overseas avoided crude propaganda and disinformation, but journalists and censors in the department regarded Ball’s stance as defeatist and weak, with chief publicity censor Edmund Garnett Bonney viewing it as undermining his main message of victory. Following recommendations by the Joint Parliamentary Committee into Broadcasting (the Gibson Committee), Ball’s division was transferred to the ABC in July 1942.
Many of Ball’s broadcasts were in foreign languages, and those preparing the broadcasts had to understand their audiences. The culture of the service created by his specialist staff was encouraged by Ball, but a later director characterised (and criticised) the short-wave service between 1940 and 1944 as ‘run by academics rather than trained broadcasters’. Fearing he would lose his autonomy, in April 1944 Ball resigned his post after the new Minister for Information, Arthur Calwell, moved his division back to the department.
After the war, Ball took on diplomatic duties, but his frank and balanced approach upset officials, including Minister for External Affairs Dr H.V. Evatt, and Ball saw that career end in turmoil and resignation.
From 1949, he returned to the University of Melbourne as Foundation Chair of Political Science, remaining there until January 1968 and continuing his ABC commentaries. He was appointed AC in 1978.
REFs: J. Hilvert, Blue Pencil Warriors (1984); E. Vickery, ‘Telling Australia’s Story to the World: The Department of Information 1939–1950’ (PhD thesis, 2003).