RADIO NEWS COMMENTATORS
Australian news commentators, a feature of both the ABC and commercial radio, typically focused on domestic politics and international affairs. They were drawn from a variety of backgrounds, including journalism and universities; Wireless Weekly ruminated in 1936 that ‘playful professors were pleased to be let off the academic chain’. Some commentators had diverse on-air roles: Captain J.M. Prentice, a former Army officer, was familiar to Sydney children as ‘Uncle Jack’ on 2BL and 2UW. He presented classical music along with anti-communist and pro-Japanese talks.
Offering limited news services during the inter-war years, stations encouraged the art of news commentary. Some of this was anonymous. The News Behind the News began on national ABC relay from Melbourne in 1932. ‘The Watchman’ was E.A. Mann, who in the 1929 federal election had lost the seat of Perth after helping to bring down the leader of the Nationalists, S.M. Bruce. What became the ABC appointed a ‘lectures manager’, but he was an early casualty of the Depression and was replaced by a National Talks Advisory Committee, composed of academics who were experienced in speaking on air.
In the commercial sector, Dr W.G. Goddard emerged as a prominent commentator. On 4BC Brisbane and other Queensland stations from 1934, Goddard advocated that listeners establish ‘Round Table Clubs’ for the discussion of international affairs. In 1935, the Workers’ Weekly accused another commentator (‘A Plan Speaking Man’), on Sydney’s Catholic station 2SM, of encouraging the formation of a fascist state. The 2GB News Review, heard nightly from 1937, was promoted as ‘fearless in exposing hypocrisy, sham, and subterfuge’. Truth exposed 2GB’s ‘Reviewer’ as the editor of the Sunday Sun, Eric Baume. R.G. Watt, secretary of the Australian League of Nations Union, embraced radio’s role in his almost Wellsian mission of ‘world education’, and his talks on Sydney ABC and commercial radio were discursive rather than opinionated.
According to Percy Spender, assistant federal Treasurer, commentators were ‘men of ability’ who were in ‘direct touch with the people’. Baume and 2GB’s Charles Cousens were open about being provocative. ‘At least when people attack me, I have made them think,’ remarked Baume. In 1938, ‘The Sentinel’ (Major-General Sir Thomas Blamey) began presenting Sunday-night commentaries on 3UZ Melbourne. Blamey warned of the dangers posed by Germany and Japan until October 1939, when he resigned to take command of the Second AIF. He had obviously been signed to compete with ‘The Watchman’, whose booming voice and denunciations of appeasement were well known throughout the nation.
By late 1938, Baume’s condemnation of appeasement were attracting, in the words of a nervous Associated Newspapers Ltd executive, ‘a lot of criticism in Canberra’, as well as complaints from the German consul-general. Associated Newspapers responded by refusing its editors the right to broadcast. In December, the Postmaster-General (PMG), A.G. Cameron, briefly revoked the licence of Sydney labour station 2KY after objecting to J.K. Morley’s criticism of the Lyons Coalition government’s action over the strike of wharf labourers at Port Kembla, and his allegations of government interference with trade union communications.
From September 1939, Mann was subject to censorship on the orders of the Menzies Coalition government. Goddard’s wartime talks, which criticised Australia’s defence preparedness, also came under surveillance. The PMG floated the possibility of a regulation that would compel all news commentators to reveal their identities. In late 1940, having been named in parliament and deprived of his regular session, Mann resigned from the ABC—and was immediately snapped up by 3UZ and affiliated stations. A 1943 survey showed that half the people in Sydney listened to ‘The Watchman’ at lunchtime on 2UW, compared with 28 per cent who tuned in to his more temperate successors on 2FC.
That year, the ABC launched News Review, modelled on the BBC’s program of the same name. It featured recordings from war correspondents, interviews and short commentaries. During the war, the voices of women became more prominent on air. In 1939–40, Joseph Lyons’ widow, Dame Enid, presented Sunday-night talks on the Macquarie Network. In 1942, former Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies turned to 2UE Sydney and 3AW Melbourne to keep himself before the public and refine his political philosophy, famously speaking about ‘The Forgotten People’ in 1944.
After a period in military intelligence during the war, Captain Prentice wrote bulletins for a proto-fascist auxiliary and returned to 2UW, where he despatched letters on ‘J.M. Prentice—World Affairs’ letterhead. W.G. Goddard’s commentaries seem to have continued on 2UW and 4BC until the early 1950s, but his campaign for an honour in recognition of his wartime broadcasting activities was ignored by the Menzies government. Regardless of their political leanings, intelligence connections and shameless self-promotion, the pair’s interests in Asia brought a unique perspective to Australia’s commercial airwaves for three decades.
In 1952, Eric Baume returned to 2GB to present This I Believe. The ‘talk jockeys’ profiled by the Bulletin in 1965, including Baume and Frank Chamberlain (who presented Canberra Comment on the Macquarie Network) and newer recruits like Carolyn Bernsten and Dorothy Gordon Jenner (‘Andrea’), occupied a kind of middle ground between news commentators, disc jockeys and talkback hosts. Two years later, talkback radio was legalised, ushering in a new generation of radio presenters, and new forms of political communication on Australian radio.
REFs: B. Griffen-Foley, Changing Stations (2009); K.S. Inglis, This is the ABC (1983).