Reporting of foreign news is evident from Australia’s earliest news-sheets—as are the limitations of doing so. The first edition of the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser in 1803 included news of ‘a wife-selling at Manchester’. Personal letters, shipping news and reprints from colonial papers were key sources of international news in the early colonial period. Wellington’s victory at Waterloo in June 1815 was not reported in Australia until January 1816.
In the colonial period, there was an extraordinary demand for news from ‘home’ and competition for overseas news had an ongoing impact on the structure of Australian press. In the late 1800s, eastern colonial newspapers formed a combine to manage this competition. This continued into the 1930s with the formation of Australian Associated Press (AAP).
Foreign news continued to be distributed via traders and travellers well into the 20th century. News arrived faster with better transportation: the Suez Canal, opened in 1869, shortened the distance between Australia and Europe, and steamships began to replace sails in the 1880s. Media was electrified, and from 1872 the Overland Telegraph Line helped connect Europe and Australia. However, telegrams were expensive and slow, and the press service was secondary to more profitable delivery of commercial information, private telegrams and telegraphed remittances. Consequently, telegraph and cable news tended to supplement overseas newspaper reports with background material.
While costs gradually reduced following the introduction of wireless telegraphy in 1927, expensive cable rates thwarted systematic international reporting. Inter-empire telegraphic cable favoured communication with London. Monopoly companies charged exorbitant fees for connecting services.
Differentiation in international news provided competitive advantages for Australian metropolitan papers, and the Age and the Argus in Melbourne developed supplementary services. In 1895, these combined to form the Australian Press Association (also known as the United Cable Association or UCA), which secured exclusive rights to distribute Reuters news in Australia. UCA journalists gathered news at the London offices of Reuters and cabled it to Australia. Reuters had enormous power as the main source of news and played agencies against each other until the major metropolitan newspapers formed Australian Associated Press in 1935 to be the exclusive agent for Reuters news in Australia.
There was little systematic gathering of international news by Australian reporters for a national audience until after World War II, when technological developments—including an opening of Australia to world via telecommunications—facilitated foreign news reporting.
The exceptions in colonial foreign reporting concerned conflict, commerce and cricket.
Imperial military operations against the Maori in New Zealand led to the earliest eyewitness correspondent reports. In 1863, the Argus sent Howard Willoughby to cover the Maori Wars. In 1878, the Sydney Morning Herald sent John Stanley James to New Caledonia to report on an uprising against the French. A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson reported the Boer War for various Australian newspapers between 1899 and 1900.
Trade and commerce shaped early foreign reporting. In 1886, James reported on the Indian and Colonial Royal Exhibition in London for the Argus. Early Australian newspapers addressed readers’ interests in Pacific affairs and the business opportunities associated with European plantations and missions in the Pacific Islands. At this time, islanders were kidnapped to work as slaves on Australian and Fijian plantations. The Age publisher David Syme chose a young journalist, George Ernest Morrison, to join an expedition from Queensland to the Pacific in 1882 to expose the trade. Later, ‘Chinese’ Morrison became an influential journalist based in Asia for the London Times.
Reports on commercial activities from traveller-investors were sometimes fictionalised to further investor interest; however, it was often men in business who had the independent means for such travel. In the 1870s, James Hingston (1830–1902), a Melbourne-based investor, travelled overland through India, the Middle East, and Asia including Japan, China, Singapore and Java. The Argus published his travel writing fortnightly. Occasionally newspapers commissioned foreign reporting. After financing Morrison’s trip to the Pacific, the Age supported Alfred Deakin to visit India and Ceylon, and published his subsequent articles. In 1901, the Sydney Morning Herald commissioned reports from Banjo Paterson as he toured Asia on his way to Europe. This tradition of commissioning traveling writers continued into the 1930s. Frank Clune reported on his Asian and New Guinea travels for the ABC.
Australian cricket tours to England provided opportunities for foreign reporting. Prior to international regulation of cricket in the early 1900s, commercial promoters ran these tours. A number of early editors and journalists in Sydney were cricketers, and supported the tours—and themselves—with cricket writing. Professional journalists, such as Donald Macdonald of the Argus, also travelled with the teams. McDonald accompanied more than 40 such tours from the 1880s until the 1920s.
In the late colonial/early Federation period, news contributors were expatriates writing for British or American papers, or stringers on English-language newspapers in imperial trading ports. An Australian by birth, W.H. Donald reported from China for American newspapers and occasionally sent stories to Australia.
Alice Henry, an expatriate journalist living in Chicago, wrote on labour issues and feminism for widely distributed trade union journals between 1908 and 1915. Later, Peter Russo, an Australian academic who lived in Japan, wrote on the culture of that country until he returned shortly before the outbreak of the Pacific war in 1939. In 1946–47, he was a correspondent for the Argus in Hong Kong.
In 1909, following a Senate select inquiry, the Commonwealth government sought to break UCA’s monopoly on international cable news to Australia by providing subsidies to assist diversification. A new company, the United Cable Service, centred on the Sydney Sun and the Melbourne Herald, was formed. With World War I, (Sir) Keith Murdoch was hired to establish the service in London. Along with C.E.W. Bean, the official war correspondent, he reported news from Europe via cable. In the late 1920s, as wireless undercut cable delivery costs, the cable companies dropped their prices significantly. An enterprising Dorothy Jenner took advantage of this, initially writing a feature on a bull-fight in Majorca while travelling with her aunt. Then, in the early 1930s, Jenner supplied weekly entertainment news from New York for the Sun in Sydney under her pen name, ‘Andrea’.
In October 1935, the ABC used sound effects in a news broadcast about the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Newspaper reports roundly criticised this, and the commission subsequently restricted news to the spoken word. In August 1937, the ABC’s federal news director, Frank Dixon, arranged for a journalist in Shanghai to provide news from China. By December, the Japanese had sacked Shanghai and cables were considerably delayed.
World War II saw increasing state intervention in international communication, including nationalisation of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd’s wireless receiving services and opening direct communication links to the United States. Until then, news had been delivered to Australia across the Pacific Ocean via an imperial connection at Vancouver.
During the war, more Australian journalists were posted overseas than ever before. The Sydney Morning Herald sent 23 war correspondents to various fronts and the Daily Telegraph 14, while the ABC sent 18 journalists into the field. A small number of women were also sent to gather news overseas. The Australian Women’s Weekly’s Adele Shelton-Smith reported on Australian troops stationed in Malaya prior to the Japanese invasion. Dorothy Jenner, who had returned to Australia from New York, was appointed by the Sun in September 1941 to report from Asia. She was in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded in 1942, and was interned for four years. Elizabeth Riddell opened and ran the Daily Mirror’s New York bureau.
Experience during the war increased Australian journalists’ appetite for international reporting. Journalists such as Richard Hughes saw that Asia offered exciting international stories. Hughes left Australia in 1945 to base himself initially in Japan and then Hong Kong, reporting for primarily for European but also Australian newspapers.
After the war, Australian journalists began to have a more direct role in reporting to national audiences. The Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC), formed in 1946, oversaw the dismantling of the expensive imperial cable system. OTC managed international telephone and telegraph services, including cable, wireless and eventually satellite channels, facilitating cheaper, more efficient communications.
In 1947, AAP finalised an agreement with Reuters to share bureaus in Asia. Denis Warner was appointed to oversee the Tokyo AAP–Reuters office (1947–49). Between 1949 and 1955, he was based in Asia as a ‘roving correspondent’ for the Melbourne Herald. Following the war, Australia looked to build independent links with Asian and Pacific nations. Journalists with experience in the region became influential commentators, and were sought out by policy-makers for their insights. In particular, Warner’s experience in Asia and that of Peter Hastings with Australian Consolidated Press in Papua New Guinea and later as foreign editor at John Fairfax & Sons made significant contributions to foreign policy debates.
The decolonisation process following the war increased Australian government concern about the need for timely information and the influence of communism. External Affairs Minister (Lord) R.G. Casey supported increasing the presence of AAP and ABC journalists in the region. He argued that the wartime propaganda broadcaster, Radio Australia (RA), had a role to present Australian values in Asia. The ABC, which managed RA, suggested a broader reporting role would be more effective. The government agreed, and the ABC set up a news bureau in Singapore in 1957. Colin Mason was the first South-East Asian Representative. At the same time, New Zealander (Dame) Christine Cole reported for the ABC from Jakarta. Later that year, the Singapore office began to manage Visnews, a British initiative to establish an international television news agency, which became one of the most effective and respected international news providers and employed Australian camera operators such as Neil Davis.
Television also arrived in Australia in 1956. Initially it was too expensive and complicated to broadcast international news to Australia. Visnews provided footage to Australian commercial television stations on subscription, much of it shot by ABC camera operators.
The 1960s saw an incredible growth in Australians reporting international news, especially in Asia. The Sydney Morning Herald maintained freelance journalist Peter Robinson in Tokyo for a decade (1954–64). By 1965, the Melbourne Herald had five journalists in London, three in New York and full-time correspondents in Paris, Rome Singapore and Rabaul. It employed stringers or freelancers in many other cities. In 1966, the Sydney Morning Herald posted Margaret Jones to the United States, although she had to resign and pay her own airfare, then be re-employed in the Washington bureau. The ABC increased its international presence, opening bureaux in various Asian cities, including Jakarta (1959), Kuala Lumpur (1963), Saigon (1965), and Tokyo and New Delhi (1966). The 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games was covered by the ABC and commercial stations, in cooperation with the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK). Daily reports were compiled in Tokyo and rushed by plane to Australia for transmission within 24 hours. Commercial radio’s focus on entertainment left little scope for international reporting, however 5AD Adelaide sent disc jockey Bob Francis to Vietnam for a week in 1968 to report on the lives of ‘diggers’.
Plane delivery was the most common way to transport television footage. Radio could be delivered over telephone lines; however, the lines often had to be booked up to a day in advance. There was a ban on Australian radio broadcasters using trunk lines and international telephone lines for live broadcasting until early 1962. This protected government investments in telephones from competition by radio.
From 1965, Australia was served by satellite delivered information via Intelsat, with daily satellite news reports available from 1966. Satellite delivered news and, from the 1970s, lighter and more mobile electronic news-gathering (ENG) technology that combined sound and vision recording, doing away with the requirement for a sound operator in the field, made television news cheaper and faster. In 1983, the Los Angeles offices of Australian television networks Nine and Seven were using a trans-Pacific satellite service to beam stories direct to their studios in Sydney.
The introduction of satellite telephones meant voice reports could be delivered far more efficiently. However, the requirement for uploading television footage made correspondents’ reports vulnerable to control and intercession. Satellite links were expensive, and provided only small windows for transmission, which could curtail reports.
Nine’s 60 Minutes has been reporting from around the world since 1979. SBS’s Dateline (1984– ) was followed by the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent (1992– ). ABC Radio programs include The World Today and the weekly Correspondents Report.
Since the 1980s, more and more women foreign correspondents have emerged, particularly at the ABC, including Helene Chung, Monica Attard, Jane Hutcheon, Sally Sara and Zoe Daniel.
In 1998, SBS took advantage of smaller digital cameras to send reporters into the field without a crew. This innovative response to financial constraints led SBS to pioneer newsroom-directed video journalism.
Computer editing in the field, and filing across the internet, have increased the flexibility of foreign correspondents to deliver news. In addition, smaller cameras and recorders, and a more ‘media savvy’ population, have seen non-professional ‘reporters’ provide international news.
In 2011, the ABC’s Four Corners combined a video recording by animal welfare activists with its own recording and reporting to produce a program that led to shutting down live cattle exports from Australia to Indonesia. Frequently footage from mobile phones shot by amateurs is used in reporting international news stories on Australian television.
Funding cuts and changes to news delivery, largely due to the formation of a 24-hour news channel, have continued to impact on the ABC’s international news bureaux. While a rationalisation of services was averted in 2010, similar cuts were threatened with Commonwealth budget reductions in 2014.
REFs: J. Bonwick, Early Struggles of the Australian Press (1890); G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981); D. Warner, ‘The Foreign Correspondent’, in L. Revill and C. Roderick (eds), The Journalist’s Craft (1965).