DENNING, WARREN EDWIN (1906–75)
Warren Denning was pivotal in making the ABC News national and independent. His pioneering books on federal politics inspired a succession of journalist-historians from the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery.
Born in Perth, Denning started work with Parramatta’s Cumberland Times at the age of 16. He covered the first five years of the federal parliament in Canberra as correspondent for the Sydney Labor Daily and then the Melbourne Argus. After stints in Sydney and Melbourne, he returned to Canberra in 1937 with Australian United Press.
In May 1939, Frank Dixon, the ABC’s federal news director, appointed Denning as the first staff correspondent in Canberra. This was a major breakthrough; previously the press proprietors had strongly resisted moves by the ABC to create its own reporting capability and the ABC depended almost entirely on material culled and edited from the dailies and Australian Associated Press. In March 1939, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons publicly lashed the ABC for broadcasting a questionable item on defence plans copied from a newspaper, and demanded that the ABC should have its own Canberra correspondent. Dixon’s choice of Denning was inspired.
The advent of the Curtin Labor government in 1941 and the war against Japan transformed the role of ABC News. On Denning’s initiative, 10 days after Pearl Harbor, his Canberra bureau produced a daily bulletin of national news, which was read from Canberra ahead of the overseas news read from Sydney. At Curtin’s behest, Denning’s bulletin became the nucleus of a vastly expanded service of five daily bulletins.
Denning’s close relations with Curtin helped drive this expansion. As opposition leader, Curtin had told Dixon that ‘only when the ABC had an independent service would the Labor Party get impartial treatment’. Curtin’s hopes became a statutory reality after his death, when the Chifley government amended the Australian Broadcasting Act 1942 in 1946, obliging the ABC to use its own staff for Australian news.
Over the next 20 years, Denning served as ABC News editor in Brisbane, Hobart and Sydney, but two of his books, Inside Parliament (1946) and The Road to Canberra (1947), expressed his love of the national capital. In 1937 Denning had published Caucus Crisis, an account of the fall of the Scullin Labor government, an ‘insider’ account of Caucus in-fighting. Denning’s essentially tragic vision of Labor, its idealism fatally flawed by opportunism, has influenced the literature of Australian politics ever since.
REF: K.S. Inglis, This is the ABC (1983).