Communication as Control

“The second pre eminent theme in Australian thinking about the use of communication is the extent to which it has been viewed as a form of control.”

While concern in Australia about communication and control had been evident from federation, with the Commonwealth government taking responsibility for posts and telegraphs and the new technology of wireless, the concept of communication as an agent of societal control might be traced back even further, to our convict origins and the law and order requirements of the early pastoral and urban elitists. From those early days, Australia’s free settlers seem to have been obsessed with the idea of recreating in their new environment a social structure like they had left behind, based predominately on the simple ideas of human nature and social hierarchy that had prevailed in Britain when believers in democracy were thought to be dangerous radicals (Bertrand, 1978: 1; Pullan, 1984: 36).

The British belief system could be traced back even further of course, with the English judges of the Middle Ages believing that God had not given the common man the capacity for thought or that debate was the way to truth, that what was should be and that to question the truth was a heresy and sedition. These primitive ideas of the nature of man are a direct result of the dominance of the church at the time, demonstrated by the Church of Rome in the rules of the Papal Index of 1564 that found it appropriate to censor the Word of God, a view that had a very long life as it turned out: these rules were reprinted in nearly every subsequent Papal Indexes up until 1900. So since truth was by the definition of the church unquestionable, it followed that questioning it was not only a mistake, but also an evil (Pullan, 1984: 12, 39), punishable not only by God but by the laws of a ‘civilised’ society.

The British colonists also had a more recent experience that contributed to their concerns about the power of unregulated communication. The spread of ideas through the printed word to American colonists, who were remarkably literate and well informed on political matters, had been a major factor in the development of a revolutionary ideology (Jowett, 1986: 52). The British were determined to avoid the same mistakes in their new Australian colony, and their rigorous control of the press and public speech was with this goal in mind. The Australian society of these early years, full of government clergymen and military personnel who had never smelt the air of freedom (Pullan, 1984: 68), were not of the disposition to complain.

Thus it can be seen that although the control of the press and free speech did not originate in Australia, it was certainly magnified by the two great themes of our history – convictism and colonialism – which reinforced the idea in which censorship has been rooted throughout recorded history: mistrust of the people. So free speech, one of the most powerful ideas in world history in the last two centuries, had no foothold at all in the laws and institutions the British brought to Australia (Pullan, 1984: 12, 39).

The outbreak of war in 1914 saw a whole new level of concern about the dangers of communication, which led to the introduction of military censorship in the form of the War Precautions Act, entitling the government to make regulations “for securing the public safety and the defense of the Commonwealth”. This included extending their control over all communications – including films, war news, soldier’s correspondence and public speeches – with the aim to further the war effort while at the same time retaining social cohesion and boosting moral. The result was the establishment of a more stringent system of censorship that saw the mutual cooperation of the Commonwealth military censors and the various state civilian censors (Bertrand, 1978: 40; Osborne & Lewis, 1995: 32, 164). The presumed persuasive power of the media was evident in the care the government took with wartime communications policies, which in turn led to numerous conflicts over the censorship of the press and broadcasting as newspapers and radio became a vital source of wartime news (Osborne & Lewis, 1995: 6).

These First World War regulations produced a new acceptance of the principle of censorship. After all, under conditions of such national emergency, only the most rabid democrat could complain about invasion of privacy or interference with liberty of a citizen (Bertrand, 1978: 42). As a result of the many discussions of the uses of public communication for the purposes of societal control (Dandeker in Osborne & Lewis, 1995: 6), both governments and community groups sought to use the growing range of communication devices for propaganda purposes (Osborne & Lewis, 1995: 164). The combined weight of press editorials, censorship policies, and film and print propaganda converged to mould public opinion toward a wholeheartedly pro-war stance (Jowett & O’Donnell, 1986: 123).

The legacy of wartime press censorship would flow on into the interwar years with the continuation of censorship on both political and moral grounds at a higher level than many would have liked. This, together with the growing monopoly of media control – an issue we will examine in greater detail later – significantly limited the right of Australians to freely communicate their ideas in public (Osborne & Lewis, 1995: 34, 164).

During the Second World War the government returned to more aggressive censorship policies, as the rise of totalitarian regimes and the use of propaganda techniques intensified anxiety concerning the anti-democratic potential of modern communication. The use of communications for political control by communism in Russia and by fascism in Germany and Italy alarmed many about how the media could be used for propaganda, and though these censorship policies declined somewhat after the war, in many areas they lingered for a generation or more at an uncomfortably intrusive level. Censorship and propaganda together provoked discussions which emphasized the persistent underlying view of communication as a powerful force which could be used to achieve societal objectives and which therefore needed to be the subject of public scrutiny (Osborne & Lewis, 1995: 37, 65, 164).

Censorship, however, was not only the result of government paternalism or authoritarianism. Church and citizen’s groups had always campaigned vigorously for tighter censorship, and it was a small step from the rational control of communications in the interests of strengthening moral to one in the interests of protecting moral standards (Bertrand, 1978: 42; Osborne & Lewis, 1995: 69).

In practice moral censorship was concerned essentially with sex, the basic assumption behind obscenity censorship being that the act of reading or watching might lead to indecent behaviour (Osborne & Lewis, 1995: 69). This impulse to censor is deeply rooted in human sexuality and in the instinct of self-preservation. Running through our history of sexual censorship is the theme of the protective parent, the government, suppressing words and pictures that we, the children, are not mature enough to read and see. The universal anxiety parents experience about their children’s sexuality is anxiety about loss of control. Our censorship of obscenity, our laws and regulations against swear words, our classification of films and our statutory regulation of television and radio are a product of this anxiety. Because of its deep psychological roots and its reinforcement by the cultural imperatives we inherited from Britain, puritanism has been tremendously powerful through our history (Pullan, 1984: 13, 140), and has contributed significantly to our desire to control the information that reaches the public.

The beginning of the twentieth century brought forth a new era of mass communications, with technological innovations that made possible the mass circulation of newspapers. These changes led to many small printers going out of business as only the large business enterprises could assemble the capital necessary to produce a mass circulation newspaper, the result of which was a steady decline in the number of actual newspaper titles and a concentration of ownership of the press (Edgar, 1979: 15-16). This monopolistic control of the media had obvious economic advantages for the individual companies in their sharing of resources and news across their numerous publications and media outlets, but it was a cause of great concern to many in Australia and continues to be so. Ownership concentration may prevent a society’s access to a plurality of views and lead to homogenous content, and even to the possibility that owners may bias reporting or suppress views that could conflict with their wider commercial interests (Ibid, 1979: 17,19; Lee, 1992: xxvii; Windschuttle, 1981: 2). This pattern of ownership was to continue through to the advent of television, when even as the opportunity was presented to loosen the grip of the press publishers in the communications field in Australia, the Australian government allocated almost all the early licenses to newspaper proprietors. As a result powerful commercial groups have been in a position to control what the average Australian reads, listens to and watches (Western, 1975: 9,10,11) for the past century.

To make sense of Australia’s media monopolies, it is essential to get the relationship between the media and advertising the right way round. The commercial mass media are not news and features backed up by advertising; on the contrary, the commercial mass media are advertisements that carry news, features and entertainment in order to capture audiences for the advertisers. It has been like this since mass media started, with the costs of production bourne by advertisers and not by audiences – at least not directly. This dependence of privately owned media on advertising revenue has long been criticised because it has led the media to tone down or even suppress news reports which might upset companies with large advertising budgets (McQueen, 1977: 9,10,12).

And now as we move into the late twentieth and early twenty first century once again technological issues concern the government. The astonishing growth of new communication technologies such as television satellites and digital networks has created an instantaneous worldwide audience for what were previously national or small-scale international activities. Increasingly world leaders are becoming astutely aware that their every action is being critically examined within this new electronic arena (Jowett & O’Donnell, 1986: 145), and in a region of damaged democracies, military governments and communist regimes, Australian governments have been quick to back away from free speech which might offend its neighbours (Kingsbury, 1997: 31; Pullan, 1984: 203).

The concept of communication is very simple: it is one of the fundamental requirements of any social system, generally answering the same need in all societies – the need to survey the environment, the need to reach consensus on important issues, and the need to socialise new members (Western, 1975: 2). These are all issues that remain extremely relevant in contemporary Australia, probably even more so with the recent global events and conflicts that have come to impact on our society in such a personal and powerful way. In the complex world that we live in today it is more important than ever before that we, as a society, have access to objective information that allows us to fully comprehend and make decisions on a wide range of issues that effect us today and into the future. Support for free speech in Australia has usually been support for a particular instance of free speech, rather than a universal principle (Pullan, 1984: 14). Unlike the American constitution, there is nothing in our constitutional law that protects our right to free speech. Perhaps it is time that we, as a society, address this matter, and seek to create an environment of truly open, objective communication and information that allows us to make knowledgeable, intelligent decisions for the future of our nation, rather than leaving all these decisions in the hands of those who weld the power.


Bertrand, Ina (1978), Film Censorship in Australia, University of Queensland Press: St Lucia

Edgar, Patricia (1979), The Politics of the Press, Sun Books: Melbourne

Jowett, Garth & O’Donnell, Victoria (1986), Propaganda and Persuasion, Sage: Los Angeles

Kingsbury, Damien (1997), Culture and Politics: Issues in Australian journalism on Indonesia 1975-93, Uniprint: Griffith, Qld

Lee, Michael (1992), News and Fair Facts, Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra

McQueen, Humphrey (1977), Australia’s Media Monopolies, Widescope: Camberwell, Vic

Osborne, G. & Lewis, G. (1995), Communication Traditions in 20th Century Australia, Oxford University Press: Melbourne

Pullan, Robert (1984), Guilty Secrets: Free speech in Australia, Methuen: Sydney

Western, John S. (1975), Australian Mass Media: controllers, consumers, producers, Southwood Press: Canberra

Windschuttle, Keith & Windschuttle, Elizabeth (eds.) (1981), Fixing the News: Critical perspectives on the Australian media, Cassell: Sydney

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