From meagre beginnings as a four-page penny paper, the Daily Telegraph became the largest selling daily newspaper in New South Wales. Launched on 1 July 1879 by a consortium of 10 Sydney and Melbourne businessmen, the broadsheet was a rival to the established Sydney Morning Herald. The Telegraph almost folded in 1883 when the Victorian co-owners wanted to pull out of the venture. A subsequent re-structure, the appointment of Frederick William Ward as editor and a relaunch on 1 January 1884 underpinned the paper’s initial success.
While still broadsheet in format, the Telegraph was the first Australian daily to embrace design elements of the New Journalism. Eleven months after the relaunch, the paper scooped the world by revealing the German annexation of northern New Guinea. By the end of the decade, the pro-free trade and anti-Labor Telegraph was outselling its rival, but there was trouble ahead. In May 1890, a disagreement over proposed management influence on editorial policy prompted the resignation of three senior editorial staff, including Ward. He did return as editor for 11 years from 1903 until 1914, but further editorial changes followed and by 1920 the paper had become a dull imitation of the Sydney Morning Herald.
As the Great Depression loomed, the Daily Telegraph experienced mediocre sales and ownership changes. In 1927, it was acquired by Sun Newspapers Ltd, transformed into a pictorial tabloid and renamed the Daily Telegraph News Pictorial, becoming for a short time the Daily Pictorial. In 1929, Sun Newspapers was amalgamated with S. Bennett Ltd, publishers of the Evening News, to form Associated Newspapers Ltd. In 1931, under chairman Sir Hugh Denison, the paper was reinvented, returning to broadsheet format with its old name, the Daily Telegraph, restored. ‘Daily’ was dropped from the title in 1934, and the paper was the first in Australia to publish a rotogravure pictorial supplement.
Two years later, the newly formed Consolidated Press Ltd, an amalgamation of Sydney Newspapers Ltd and Associated Newspapers, with (Sir) Frank Packer as deputy chairman and managing director, came to its rescue. Packer spent money on the title, increased the number of pages and hired leading journalists, including former Melbourne Herald editor Sydney Deamer. Promoting itself as ‘thoroughly modern’, the revitalised Daily Telegraph won public support and sales rose. In November 1939, the Sunday Telegraph was launched with Cyril Pearl as editor.
The often controversial novelist and journalist Brian Penton was promoted to the Daily Telegraph editorship in 1941, replacing C.S. McNulty, who had taken over from Deamer in 1939. Penton and Pearl led the Telegraphs through a stellar era, attacking Australian political and intellectual complacency, promoting local literature and art, and resisting wartime censorship. Throughout the 1940s, the papers led public debate and were never far from controversy. Due to newsprint rationing, the papers were published in tabloid format from the early 1940s. In 1946, the Daily Telegraph overtook the Sydney Morning Herald in circulation. Four years later, Pearl gave up his editorship to concentrate on the company’s new A.M. magazine. Penton died the following year. The Telegraphs lost flair but little clout, and became more closely directed by Frank Packer.
As Packer’s news empire grew, so did his influence. Over the next two decades, the Telegraphs moved much further to the right. In 1963, Daily Telegraph journalist Alan Reid set a precedent in Australian political journalism with his ‘36 unknown men’ (later re-told as ‘faceless men’) pictorial scoop, which implied that Labor opposition leader Arthur Calwell and deputy Gough Whitlam were ‘waiting for instructions’ from the ALP federal executive.
The Telegraph’s political influence under Packer climaxed with the 1969 Liberal Party leadership spill, when the Telegraph-supported (Sir) William McMahon replaced (Sir) John Gorton as prime minister.
There was less confidence behind the scenes: the Telegraphs were losing more than $1 million a year when sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited for $15 million in June 1972. The Daily Telegraph became a companion paper to News’ Sydney afternoon tabloid, the Daily Mirror. The Sunday Telegraph was combined with the fledgling Sunday Australian. Under Murdoch, the Telegraphs threw their weight behind the election of Labor under Whitlam at the 1972 election. The support was short-lived, and by 1975 the Telegraphs were strident in their attacks on the Whitlam government.
The Daily Telegraph’s influence on the federal political agenda is considerable but, as a Sydney-based newspaper, its greatest sphere of power has been in New South Wales. The Telegraph is regarded as the agenda-setter for commercial radio and television news. Particularly under Colin ‘Col’ Allan (editor, editor-in-chief 1993–2001), the paper developed a close relationship with state Labor and was frequently fed political leaks.
Allan reinvigorated the Telegraph. In 1990, the paper had been renamed the Telegraph Mirror following the closure of the Daily Mirror. In 1993, Allan controversially dropped ‘Mirror’ from the title, but answered critics by retaining high sales through a revamped ‘24-hour newspaper’ with new columnists and more editorial splashes. Allan was at the helm when a 1997 front-page splash on poor final-year results at a Sydney high school led to defamation payments of more than $2 million.
The Daily Telegraph was again drawn into controversy when, under editor David Penberthy, it decided to publish allegations of misconduct against the state Liberal opposition leader, John Brogden, in 2005. The paper was forced to defend its decision following Brogden’s subsequent resignation and attempted suicide.
In August 2013, Col Allan was recalled to Australia from the New York Post to oversee News Limited’s federal election coverage. The Telegraph overtly campaigned for a return to conservative government, printing a front cover photo-composition portraying Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as an inept Nazi commander from the 1960s television program Hogan’s Heroes.
Like most newspapers, circulation of the Daily Telegraph print edition has steadily decreased since the advent of the internet. Content from the newspaper first went online in 1996, while a Telegraph app for iPhone and Android was launched in May 2012. A year later, a metered paywall was introduced for online content.
REFs: B. Griffen-Foley, The House of Packer (1999); R.B. Walker, Yesterday’s News (1980).
MARGARET VAN HEEKEREN