Paper Emperors: The rise of Australia’s newspaper empires

Reviewed By  Janet Mawdesley       March 29, 2019


Author  Sally Young

Distributor:      New South Books
ISBN:                 9781742234984
Publisher:         UNSW Press
Release Date:   March 2019  


The sheer volume if information presented in this masterful work Paper Emperors from Sally Young is overwhelming in its historic content, fascinating in its political deviousness and absorbing when you consider the timespan is a mere 140 years, ranging from 1803 to 1943.

The opening words ‘Newspapers have found it very difficult to tell the truth about themselves’ captures the interest immediately, as it is a truth many would find hard to disagree with, and a truth which has always underpinned the world of newspapers, or to coin a phrase the Fourth Estate, for the political clout that is exercised with significant social influence.

In this comprehensive look at who owned and used Australia’s papers to political advantage, Sally Young opens a pandora’s box into the very real world of crime, politics, strategy, ruthlessness, financial gain, bankruptcy and manipulation that is seldom seen, let alone touted in the papers, as they are notorious for hiding their own sins deep.

Newspapers are powerful empires created out of the printed word, allowing and presenting the facts to form public opinion, destroy opponents and influence so many aspects of society, all in the pursuit of incredible power touted under the catch phrase ‘the public have a right to know’.

But looking back to 1803, to the beginning of newspapers in Australia, it is hardly surprising when you consider the first owners where convicts, bankers, lawyers and politicians. George Howe, under government supervision and restriction established the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Government mouthpieces used to deliver the latest proclamations to the citizens of what was a largely penal colony. George Howe was a ticket-of-leave convict who went on to gain great wealth and respectability in a country slowly emerging from its convict culture.

Until radio was invented and became a commercial proposition in 1920, Newspapers were the lifeblood of information flow throughout Australia, shaping the thoughts, political direction and feelings of a Nation, the owners using the prestige and power in a manner of ways, to influence policy and politics, to amass great wealth and build empires.

But amongst the murky history some great figures were emerging in Keith Murdoch and Rupert Packer; ruthless men with drive and ambition, men who built two of the most influential newspaper and media empires of the times, Australian Consolidated Press and Herald and Weekly Times (Fairfax and News Corporation).

So many of the smaller papers that flourished pre-radio eventually folded, or were absorbed into a larger group, leaving the field wide open to the larger conglomerates forming in the years between 1920 and 1940.

Better than a crime novel or work of fiction, Paper Emperors is factual, revealing a new way of understanding how real power when used as leverage will bring down governments, formulate public policy and opinion, generally to the very real confusion of the public, of whom they strive to keep informed of the ‘real’ facts as touted by them!

Brilliant and compulsive reading this is a tour de force finalising with the Appendix which gives a thumbnail perspective of the major newspapers discussed in the body of the book, their rise and fall or amalgamation, which nicely ties up some of the loose ends until 2018.

Enthralling reading, Paper Emperors presents in great details another fascinating, murky and intriguing aspect of Australian History. A must read for any aspiring journalists.