Brisbane’s daily newspaper, the Courier-Mail, began life as the four-page Moreton Bay Courier on 20 June 1846, established only four years after Brisbane was declared a free colony. It was the work of founding editor Arthur Sidney Lyon (1817–61) and Sydney-based publisher James Swan.
While the population of Brisbane at the time of the newspaper’s establishment was small (around 1000), increasing industry and shipping activity dominated the pages. Like all newspapers of the era, the Moreton Bay Courier featured entirely classified advertisements and notices on its front page, and it was not until 1938 that news replaced them. In the early years, the main news—which usually began somewhere on page two—dealt with the politics of the colony, addresses from senior figures in Great Britain, news from the Catholic Church, horse racing results and comments on attendance at recent race meets.
An initial readership of an estimated 200 only 12 months after the Moreton Bay Courier was established had increased fivefold in 10 years to about 1000 in 1858. In 1861, the newspaper changed its masthead to become simply the Courier, and while originally published as a weekly, it evolved in the ensuing years to become a daily under the ownership of Thomas Blacket Stephens. He also changed the four-page newspaper into a six-page publication. Stephens quickly changed the masthead again after only three years, to the Brisbane Courier.
Well-known editors during the formative years of the newspaper in the late 19th and early 20th centuries included Theophilus Pugh, who created Pugh’s Queensland Almanac (1862–1927), and John James Knight, who wrote a descriptive history, In the Early Days (1895), covering the publication’s formation and development.
In 1933, the Brisbane Courier saw a significant change, when former war correspondent and newspaper proprietor Sir Keith Murdoch merged John Wren’s Brisbane-based Daily Mail (est. 1903) with the Brisbane Courier to become the Courier-Mail. Along with Herald and Weekly Times (HWT) publications, which Murdoch headed, the Courier-Mail was one of the first papers to run regular polls on political issues. This was due to the close relationship between Murdoch and pollster Roy Morgan, who operated out of the HWT offices in Melbourne. From the 1940s to the 1970s, about 40 per cent of all newspapers sold in Australia were published by the HWT group.
It was during the latter part of this period that the conservative Country Party, and then the National Party, gained a stranglehold on Queensland politics. Indeed, the Courier and then the Murdoch-owned Courier-Mail were considered conservative publications, with Queensland historian Ross Fitzgerald referring to them as distinctly ‘anti-Labor’ during the major strikes of the 1920s and 1930s. During the ultra-conservative era of the Bjelke-Petersen government, the Courier-Mail operated somewhat uncritically, even supporting Bjelke-Petersen’s legislation to ban street protest in 1977.
Courier-Mail journalists during this era were fed a diet of regular media releases, and given access to extensive travel with the Premier, leading to sometimes gentle and often quite overt manipulation of coverage. Bjelke-Petersen famously referred to this as ‘feeding the chooks’, a practice that continued through until the mid-1980s.
A sense developed that after Harry Gordon took over as editor-in-chief of Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd in 1980, a less conservative and slightly more liberal line was taken. However, it was not until ABC Television investigative journalist Chris Masters, along with Courier-Mail investigative journalist Phil Dickie, pursued inquiries that led to the watershed Fitzgerald Inquiry (1987–89) into police corruption that this era in the Courier-Mail’s history came to an end. Indeed, it was around this time that Rupert Murdoch moved in on his father’s old company and sought to absorb the HWT into the News Limited stable. This successful takeover in 1987 led to one of the most significant media ownership changes in Australian history, and ultimately delivered the Courier-Mail a monopoly in the Brisbane market. Murdoch had introduced the Daily Sun in 1982 to compete with the two existing HWT titles, the Courier-Mail and the afternoon tabloid, the Brisbane Telegraph. In 1988, as a result of the News Limited takeover, the Telegraph closed. The Daily Sun became an afternoon daily (the Sun) for three years before closing in 1991.
After achieving monopoly, the Courier-Mail’s readership increased for a time but then declined, in line with trends in newspaper readership. In the late 1990s, editor Chris Mitchell achieved notoriety for the newspaper when he embarked on an ill-fated attempt to ‘out’ respected Australian historian Manning Clark as a ‘Soviet agent of influence’.
By the early 2000s, the Courier-Mail’s classified advertising and readership were severely impacted by the internet and a changing media landscape. In response, the newspaper moved from its traditional broadsheet to a tabloid format (described by editor David Fagan as a ‘compact’) in March 2006. The newspaper had already introduced a glossy weekend supplement, QWeekend, in 2005, and the move to tabloid format saw an increased emphasis on supplements—travel, culture and lifestyle. Fagan insisted that there would be no difference in the newspaper’s commitment to covering serious news, but research since has identified a significant increase in display advertising and a shrinking news hole.
Since 2007, the Courier-Mail has experienced daily newspaper competition again, with the Fairfax company introducing the Brisbanetimes.com.au to the market—but this newspaper is entirely online.
REFs: A. Davies, ‘Queensland’s Pioneer Journals and Journalists’, presented to Historical Society of Queensland (1941); R. Fitzgerald, From 1915 to the Early 1980s (1984).