Murdochs in at the Birth and in at the Kill
Australia’s primary newswire service, Australian Associated Press, announced today it will close on June 26. The closure will be a crippling blow for print newspapers, including their online editions, throughout this country. AAP began on May 20, 1935, when the Australian Press Association, managed by The Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Argus, put aside many years of rivalry with the United Cable Service to join forces. The merger was engineered by Sir Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert Murdoch, who had been managing editor of Hugh Denison’s USC in London during the First World War. At one time AAP had links to Reuters, Associated Press, United Press International, Agence France-Presse and the New Zealand Press Association, to provide international as well as national news across Australia.
AAP supplies content to Australian and overseas news outlets. The Canberra Times, now an independently owned masthead, is one major user, with 20 per cent of its pages today supplied by AAP. The news organisation's Pagemasters sub-editing and editorial production service will close at the end of August. AAP is owned by the Nine Entertainment (owners of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne), News Corp (owner of The Australian national daily and morning newspapers in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane), Seven West Media (owners of the Seven Network and The West Australian newspaper) and Australian Community Media. News Corp owns 44.74 per cent, Nine Entertainment the same amount, and Seven West Media 8.25 per cent. AAP’s end came with the withdrawal of Nine and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which both claimed AAP was unsustainable.
AAP employs 180 journalists across Australia, as well as in New Zealand, the United States (Los Angeles) and England (London). It provides more than 500 stories, 750 images and 20 pieces of video each day across news, politics, finance and sport to about 200 subscribers who use it for newspapers, radio news and talkback programs, television news and websites. The loss of the newswire will have a major effect on public interest journalism and the coverage of local courts, as well as regional and rural news. Editor-in-chief Tony Gillies said AAP was a “place like no other in journalism”. “We exist for the public’s interest and I now fear for the void left by the absence of AAP’s strong, well-considered voice.”
AAP chairman Campbell Reid said, “The loss of AAP’s voice in the Australian conversation bothers me deeply. The fact that too many companies have chosen not to pay to publish that voice is the root of the problem. Our reporters, photographers, videographers and production staff are second to none. They have been leading the country in breaking news for decades and showed the way for publishers in terms of the 24-hour news cycle.” He described AAP as Australian “journalism’s first responder”. “It is a great loss that professional and researched information provided by AAP is being substituted with the unresearched and often inaccurate information that masquerades as real news on the digital platforms.”
Digital publishers, including The Guardian Australia and The Daily Mail, rely on AAP for much of their breaking news content and it is understood they were not informed of the closure announcement in advance. Those publishers are estimated to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to AAP. Guardian journalist Calla Wahlquist said, “One of the reasons places like Guardian Australia have time to do investigations is because AAP covers the basics.” AAP is also Facebook's fact-checker, a role which it took on in mid-2019. Yet Google and Facebook cannibalise the news service without paying for it.
The union representing journalists, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, said the closure of the news wire would cause “irreparable harm” to Australia's media landscape. “Australians rely on the hard work of AAP reporters, photographers and sub-editors whenever they open a newspaper or click on a story on a website,” MEAA director Neill Jones said. “Their work may often go unattributed and without a byline, but without it Australians would be less informed about politics, sport, crime and other news.”
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said “Most Australians don't realise that AAP Newswire's balanced coverage remains one of the few forces that checks Murdoch’s attempts to indoctrinate Australians into his Fox-style alternate reality.” One recurrent reaction to news of the closure was to point out the importance of the service during the devastating bushfire season was immense.
AAP was first registered on May 20, 1935, with just £50 in capital – 50 £1 shares. Keith Murdoch’s Herald and Weekly Times, Wilson and Mackinnon (the Melbourne Argus), John Fairfax and Sons (The Sydney Morning Herald) and Sir Hugh Denison’s Sun Newspapers each held a single share, but in all 13 newspapers initially joined in. The Sydney Herald, HWT, Associated Newspapers (Denison), The Argus and The Age had been angling for integration of the Australian Press Association and the United Cable Service since January 1932. When it came to the crunch, Murdoch’s HWT and the Sydney Herald called the shots. Murdoch worked with the Herald’s young (42) general manager Athol Hugh Stuart, who had from 1926-28 been the head of Fairfax’s London office, to stitch up the merger, but it was Murdoch who chaired the organisation from 1935-40, until succeeded by the Herald’s Rupert Albert Geary Henderson.
Murdoch had been scheming for the amalgamation since 1931, with the idea of eliminating the need (and cost) of individual newspapers having their own foreign correspondents, but instead relying on Reuters. (AAP went into partnership with Reuters in 1946, with a one-seventh share in Reuters and a seat on its board.) Once AAP was formed, Murdoch packed his man Sydney Harold Deamer, editor of the Melbourne Herald, off to London to run AAP’s office there.
Murdoch’s main aim, however, was to block commercial radio stations from broadcasting news before it had appeared in print. He also complained about the Australian Broadcasting Commission (as it was then) using BBC reports based on Reuters wire stories, over which he maintained AAP held copyright. Murdoch would not allow the ABC to broadcast BBC news bulletins during World War II.
When the ABC was being set up in 1932, an amendment based on the BBC charter allowed the commission to form its own wire service. This right was overturned by Senator Harry Sutherland Wightman Lawson, and the ABC was forced to depend on newspapers and their overseas newswire agencies. Lawson was duly rewarded with a directorship of the Argus.
AAP’s own cause was also helped by Empire press cable rates being reduced to four pence a word in 1935 and a penny a word in 1941. What it produced, according to some critics, was “chain store journalism” and news “poured from the one mould”. One rebel newspaper owner, Ezra Norton, accused AAP of being “fiercely anti-Labor”.
AAP remained a non-profit cooperative for almost half a century. Costs were shared by member newspapers, depending on the population of the area they served (Brisbane’s Courier-Mail got a special deal). The organisation faced immediate opposition from Robert Archdale Parkhill, a minister in Joe Lyons’ United Australia Party cabinet. Parkhill rallied against press monopolies and told parliament that the amalgamation of APA and USC had led to “remarkably similar” news being published across all the country’s major papers.
In 1942 AAP began to expand its coverage to include Australian stories of national interest, from state and federal parliaments and the courts. But it wasn’t until 1970 that it opened a bureau in Canberra.