DEPARTMENT OF THE MEDIA
Australian media policy was in the melting pot by the early 1970s. Politically there was bipartisan acceptance of the need for government support to develop a local film industry, and media reform campaigns had emerged in the wake of the Senate Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for Television (known as the Vincent Committee) in 1962–63.
When Labor won power in December 1972, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam created a Department of the Media, which incorporated various media, information and publishing-related agencies drawn from other government departments. The first minister was Senator Douglas McClelland, a former newspaper reporter who had been a member of the Vincent Committee, and the permanent head was James Oswin, former CEO of ATN7. He saw one of the department’s most important tasks as being establishing an ‘Australian look’ for all aspects of the media.
The information functions of the new department had evolved from those of the Department of Information during World War II and continued by the Australian News and Information Bureau (ANIB). Its focus was overseas, with Australian-based journalists supplying articles and information targeted to individual countries and supplied through diplomatic missions. The ANIB became the Australian Information Service (AIS).
Senior staff in the department’s broadcasting division were drawn mainly from the radio and television industry. Although satisfactory as private-enterprise managers, they lacked a working knowledge of public service management, and were soon shown to be naive about inter-departmental negotiations. McClelland failed to alter policies that he had denounced for many years as an opposition senator: the foreign monopolies that had dominated the Australian film industry for years, and monopoly control over the press, radio and television. He made no move towards public licence-renewal hearings for radio and television; he did not act to investigate the feasibility of Labor’s proposed newspaper commission; and he left no coherent broadcasting policy—and in fact resisted its development because of political and departmental in-fighting.
One obstacle that faced the department’s broadcasting division was the independent statutory powers of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB), which was seen by many as ‘captive’ to the existing radio and television stations. The ABCB had inexplicably decided to introduce frequency-modulation (FM) radio in the UHF band, although the rest of the world was using the VHF band. In March 1974, the Independent Inquiry into Frequency Modulation Broadcasting, headed by Sir Francis McLean, rejected the ABCB’s views and recommended that the VHF band be opened to FM radio stations, that a community radio sector be established and that the ABC have an FM network.
At the request of the prime minister, the Priorities Review Staff reported on radio issues in August 1974 and August 1975. The reports expressed many of the highest hopes of people wanting to operate small community radio stations. If they had been adopted, it would have meant emasculating the Media Department. Sections of the second report were leaked to the media but not released; instead, the department basked in the minister’s announcement of new radio licences to public broadcasters, such as ethnic radio, fine music and public access (community radio) stations, and the development of new ABC programming and services such as 2JJ in Sydney (now Triple J) and 3ZZ in Melbourne (a public-access station).
The department approved a points system for Australian content in areas such as drama on commercial television. It moved unsuccessfully to introduce more television channels to most rural areas, which were surviving with just one commercial channel plus the ABC. It was not until the Hawke Labor government aggregated television services from March 1989 that the department’s goals were achieved. The promotion of diversity, access and pluralism in Australian media was achieved by, for example, organising a national conference on public broadcasting in July 1974.
The department enlarged the scope of AIS in July 1973 to include internal information initiatives, such as the formation of the Australian Government Liaison Service to provide a centralised information team for federal ministers, and the introduction of a government bookshops network. In late 1975, AIS became part of the department’s newly formed Australian Office of Information, with John Lleonart as its director.
On 6 June 1975, Dr Moss Cass, former Minister for the Environment, became the Minister for Media, and on 30 June, Jim Spigelman, Whitlam’s principal private secretary, replaced Oswin as head of department. The department existed from 19 December 1972 until 22 December 1975, when the Fraser Coalition government abolished it and split its functions between two departments: Postal and Telecommunications, and Administrative Services.
REF: R. Kirkpatrick, ‘The Government Advocates’ (unpublished paper, 1975, held by NLA).