Bias for Good or Ill? Australian Government Overseas Propaganda in the 1950s ­ Articles ­ ISAA

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Bias for Good or Ill? Australian Government Overseas Propaganda in the 1950s

Bias for Good or Ill? Australian Government Overseas Propaganda in the 1950s

In the Proceedings of the 2011 National Conference 'Perversions of Prejudice: How Bias Distorts' Patricia Clarke's paper was inadvertently published without endnotes. We reproduce it here in its entirety. The full Proceedings may be purchased in full for $20 plus postage from the ISAA office.

My interest in this subject arose from my work as a journalist in the Australian News and Information Bureau in the 1950s. During part of this time I was employed almost exclusively in writing news stories and feature articles for publication in newspapers and journals in Asia. The aim of these was to moderate antagonism to the White Australia policy. From a slow build-up in the early 1950s, the Bureau’s focus on Asia became an avalanche in the mid- and later 1950s. For extended periods several journalists in the Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra offices were writing numerous articles each week for distribution in Asian countries.

At the outset of my research on this aspect of the work of the Australian News and Information Bureau I encountered a major problem. Despite prolonged research I have been unable to locate in the National Archives of Australia either copies of the typewritten, roneoed articles – the  form in which Bureau articles were dispatched to overseas posts –– or the newspaper cuttings that came back from overseas posts and were circulated among the journalists who wrote them. It appears that the cuttings (with a very few exceptions) have been destroyed, as have most of the original articles, apart from a small percentage written by Sydney-based journalists kept in the Archives repository in Sydney. The few cuttings that remain appear haphazardly in files of communications to and from Asian posts dealing with policy and organisational issues and are usually included to support comment, praise or criticism of Bureau efforts.  Part of the reason for the absence of records may be the administrative chaos which war historian Paul Hasluck found in the Bureau’s predecessor, the Department of Information, and which continued in the Bureau. He described the Department as ‘by far the untidiest and administratively the most incompetent department in the Public Service if the state of its files is to be taken as evidence’.[1] In addition, the successive administrative changes in information are part of the problem: the change from the Department of Information to the Australian News and Information Bureau in the Department of the Interior in 1950, to Australian Information Service in the Department of the Media in 1973 and, from 1975, in the Department of Administrative Services, to Promotion Australia in the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism in 1986, to Australian Overseas Information Service in the Department of External Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in 1987 and to a branch of DFAT in 1994.  The major reason for the disappearance of cuttings of articles published overseas appears to have been a National Archives policy that it was unnecessary to keep cuttings as they could be accessed in newspapers, an unrealistic expectation when applied to many publications in diverse countries over a long period.

In August 2011, following research over some years, I wrote to the Acting Director General of Archives pointing out that if the complete records of the News and Information Bureau output (both the original roneoed articles and the newspaper cuttings) were still available they would be of great use to researchers of Australia’s overseas publicity policies. I asked for a further search for these files and that, in the event that they no longer existed, for a statement of the Archives policy under which they were destroyed. The reply I received confirmed that the frequent re-organisation of the administration of overseas publicity was the major problem. It stated that at the time one of the successors of the Bureau was abolished and incorporated in DFAT in 1987, it was unlikely to have still been holding material from the 1950s and a records search in 2005 confirmed that no such records were held by DFAT. Regarding policy on the destruction of cuttings, the letter informed me that the General Disposal Schedule now included an item: ‘Articles contributed to newspapers, magazines, journals etc are to be retained permanently’.[2]  However this Schedule was not adopted until May 1982, long after the period that is the subject of my research.

News and Information Bureau Involvement

The Australian News and Bureau was the much-reduced successor to the wartime Department of Information that had been set up by the Commonwealth Government at the outbreak of war in 1939. The then Prime Minister, R G Menzies, described it as a wartime instrument, an ‘auxiliary to governments engaged in war’, to be dissolved at the return of peace. Its role was to administer wartime censorship and ‘to assemble and distribute over the widest possible field and by every available agency, the truth about the cause for which we are fighting ... to keep the minds of our people as enlightened as possible and their spirit firm’.[3] During World War II, however, public perception, fostered by newspaper campaigns, was not of the Department’s morale-building role but of its censorship activities. In the immediate post-war years, the Liberal-Country Party Opposition opposed the continuance of the Department. It regarded the Department as ‘primarily a propaganda medium for the Labor Government’,[4] although its role  by then encompassed overseas publicity of a general nature and for specific purposes, for example, campaigns to attract European migrants and trade and investment.

At the 1949 election one of the Coalition’s election promises was to abolish the Department of Information and this occurred by Cabinet decision on 8 March 1950. Some functions of the Department disappeared, the short-wave division (later Radio Australia) was transferred to the ABC and the Australian News and Information Bureau was established to absorb what remained, principally the much reduced Editorial and Film Divisions. Staff of the Editorial Division was halved (from 65 to 32) and press staff stationed overseas were reduced from 17 to eight leaving three in London, three in New York, one in The Hague and one for the whole of Asia, located in Bombay.[5] In a move that could not have sent a more deflating message, the Bureau was placed in the Department of the Interior, the most unlikely department in which to find an organisation whose main role was to be overseas publicity. Cabinet papers from the time indicate that, even after the change of government, there was continuing suspicion in the Menzies ministry of any government information role, apparently because of a perception that journalists were mainly from the left.[6]  The Bureau’s functions were briefly:

at the request of Ministers to produce facts, information and publicity material for use within Australia on important matters of national interest and welfare; at the request of Ministers to produce facts, information and publicity material for dissemination abroad in order to expand trade and commerce with other countries; encourage tourist traffic to Australia; improve Australia’s relations with other countries and where necessary, to explain Australia’s national policies; and to encourage migration.[7]

Organisationally the Bureau retained the Editorial Division, including the photographic branch and responsibility for overseas representation, the Film Division, and the administration of the National Film Board.

The Bureau began in an atmosphere of mistrust of government information services and it carried out its greatly reduced role against a background of uncertainty. The Editorial division produced newsletters, booklets, reference papers and illustrated feature articles that were sent to overseas posts, the most important in the early 1950s being London and New York. This work continued as intermittent waves of uncertainty swept through the staff that the organisation might be abolished – journalists were employed as temporary public servants, never made permanent.[8]  There was a particular scare in 1951 when the Menzies government decided to sack 10,000 public servants and later alarms when the Public Service Board initiated a two-year investigation of the Bureau’s work and when, concurrently, former newspaper executive, Eric Kennedy, was engaged as a consultant to report on the future of the Bureau.

Publicity for Asia

Two elements converged in the 1950s to give the Bureau a role that raised its importance in publicising government policies overseas. The first arose from the frequent comments that came back to Australia from External Affairs posts in Asia emphasising the depth of antipathy to the White Australia policy, the long-accepted Australian Government immigration policy administered under the Immigration (Restriction) Act 1901[9] and the hardening view in External Affairs that the policy led to a ‘wealth of misunderstanding’.[10]  The other element that made the Bureau more relevant to the Menzies Government was the advance of communism following the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. One of the Government’s counter moves was its strong advocacy and support for the Colombo Plan as a weapon in the cold war. This was an important part of R G Casey’s foreign policy from the time he became External Affairs Minister in 1951 and publicising the Colombo Plan became part of his ‘sophisticated propaganda strategy’.[11] The Colombo Plan brought thousands of students and many technicians, professionals, public servants and government ministers to Australia and led to the dispatch of much Australian technical equipment to Asia, all subjects providing opportunities for publicity about many aspects of Australian life.

The convergence of these two elements led to a re-focusing of the work of the News and Information Bureau. An Asian section was established in Canberra Head Office, Asian desks sprang up in Bureau offices in Sydney and Melbourne and stringers were engaged in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.  Press officers were sent to Australian diplomatic posts in Singapore, Bangkok and New Delhi and eventually to most Asian countries. The absence of records of this campaign makes it impossible to evaluate the results of the Bureau’s work in depth by analysing the subjects journalists wrote about, the information conveyed about Australia, the subjects avoided or skirted carefully and to correlate this with the extent of publication. This type of investigation and evaluation is the basis of historical research on such a subject. In its absence I have had to rely on peripheral evidence, subjective memory and opinion and a few random copies of articles that I kept out of the hundreds I wrote and the thousands written by Bureau journalists.

One of the few cuttings I have is a full page feature, ‘The Flying Doctors’, about two final year medical students at the University of Melbourne, one studying under the Colombo Plan, the other a private student, who were on a newsworthy posting gaining experience with the Flying Doctor Service based at Cloncurry in Queensland.[12] The story demonstrates some of the aims of Bureau reporting for Asia: it provided an opportunity to convey a great deal of information about Australian life, character and customs, while implying non-racist acceptance of Asians in Australia. As well as information on the Flying Doctor Service, a unique aspect of Australian life, it incorporated information about the huge expanse of the inland, the sparse population living in inhospitable country (the barely disguised message being that the wide open spaces were unsuitable for settlement), the inventiveness and expertise of technicians, the adaptability and can-do attitude of doctors and pilots and the medical facilities available to outback communities. The story implied the students’ acceptance into Australian life and the accompanying photos, showing them with patients and nurses, illustrated this. I discovered another article I wrote about a Singaporean town planner in a National Archives file where it had survived as an example, according to a note from the press officer in Singapore, of ‘what we can do with a good story, properly angled to suit local conditions’.[13] The interviewee was an economist as well as town planner and I had been able to get him to comment in some depth on many aspects of social conditions in Australia.[14]  Both of these stories were aimed at Singapore but this gives a misleading impression. I remember writing as many articles for Indonesia, India, Thailand, the Philippines and other Asian countries, as for Singapore and Malaya.

Students, both Colombo Plan and those studying privately who greatly outnumbered them, were a major focus of publicity. There would have been few students engaged in some interesting course, thesis or research, or prominent in a student organisation, cultural, religious or community group who escaped being the subject of an article. Students following the custom of taking vacation jobs often made particularly satisfying stories providing the opportunity to write not only about what they were studying but to demonstrate their acceptance as fellow workmates often with temporary union membership.[15] The photo opportunities these stories presented aimed to show both a progressive Australia through the industry in which the students were working and their seamless absorption into the workforce.  Students were regarded as ‘grist for the Government’s sleek publicity machine’[16] but the Bureau’s campaign extended well beyond students to encompass most aspects of Australian society. The articles targeted at Asia were augmented by regular newsletters on a wide range of subjects including agriculture, education, health, arts, literature, technical innovation, science, trade, sport and women, reference papers of a general nature, statistical papers and other publicity efforts including booklets aimed at different countries. Groups of senior journalists were brought to Australia from Asia on sponsored visits and ANIB journalists and photographers were attached to these groups facilitating opportunities for interviews with ministers, parliamentarians and senior officials and visits to industrial, agricultural and cultural sites and important events, generating much publicity. In locating likely subjects Bureau journalists liaised with Radio Australia journalists exchanging contacts and leads, so that many subjects of newspaper articles were also subjects for broadcasts and vice versa. 

Technical aid provided under the Colombo Plan opened another avenue for publicity covering such subjects as industry innovation, crop and herd techniques, new mineral developments, medical and surgical advances and many aspects of manufacture. Many stories were linked to experts on short-term visits from Asian countries. A group of engineers from seven or eight different countries, for instance, might be taken to the Holden factory at Fishermans Bend or a group of farmers to a crop-testing station or a shearing shed. These could provide multiple stories one for each country with a lead based on a personal experience or observation of a visitor from that country while the bulk of the story would be common to all the articles making it an economical use of a journalist and photographer. In the course of these articles journalists took any opportunity to elicit comments that indicated such things as egalitarianism in the Australian workplace, the empowerment of union membership and the benefits of a democratic society.

Problems in Australian society were usually mentioned only when they were being solved. For example, slums were written about when they were being cleared and replaced with either high-rise blocks or single detached houses in suburbia, the latter presenting an opportunity to write about the Australian dream of home ownership. One story that came my way during the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games provided an unusual opportunity to write about suburban life. Following an appeal for Melbourne families to offer accommodation to visitors to overcome the shortage of hotel accommodation, the Rajah and Ranee of Perlis accepted an offer to stay with a Kew family in their middle-class brick bungalow. The story with the visitors’ comments and the accompanying photos of family meals, the Rajah and Ranee dressed in resplendent clothes, was published widely overseas. Aboriginal issues tended to be covered only when there was a story illustrating assimilation (the policy at that time) or when there was some health or housing initiative. I remember writing of Aboriginal children lining up with the children of teachers, nurses and mechanics for polio injections at an outback settlement. The story aimed to show the friendly integration of Aboriginal and white children and the health initiatives reaching remote settlements. 

Outcome of Campaign

It was accepted at the time, and this is borne out by comments recorded in National Archives files, that the Bureau had great success in the placement of articles in Asia. The head of the Asian section, Lionel Wigmore, wrote to the press officers in Melbourne and Sydney on 4 April 1956: ‘The Bureau is building an increasingly good reputation for itself, and the opportunity to make it really imposing has never been wider or better.’ Some month later the Director, Kevin Murphy, told staff: ‘The scope and effectiveness of the placements obtained for our Asian material continues to be most gratifying’.[17] In 1957 the Editor, Mel Pratt, wrote to the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines: ‘Total placements in Asian countries amount to thousands of inches of space each month’[18] and in 1958 at a conference of Colombo Plan National Information Officers in Singapore he claimed that the Bureau had struck the right formula in deciding to focus on Asian students’ stories illustrated by ‘lots of photographs’ which provided ‘the human, home-town links which few newspaper or radio editors can resist’.[19] Documents sent monthly or two monthly from the press attaches in Australian embassies in Asia containing tables of placements, where published, inch length and column width of publication and number of illustrations, support these statements. While it is not possible to do detailed research on the content of these reports to enable qualitative evaluation, there seems no doubt of their quantitative success. Although most were published in English language outlets, limiting their impact to a small but relatively influential section of the population, translators were increasing employed locally to enable the targeting of publications in the language of the country.  

Relative Independence of Journalists

Any success that ANIB achieved can be attributed, in part at least, to what in retrospect may seem a surprising independence of its journalists. This independence was a main point of criticism in the report by Eric Kennedy, a prominent former newspaper executive, who was engaged by the Menzies government in 1958 to report on the operation of the Bureau. Kennedy had been president of the Australian Newspaper Proprietors’ Association, a director of Australian Associated Press and had campaigned with proprietors, Keith Murdoch and Lloyd Dumas, against wartime censorship and against the proposed United Nations’ Freedom of Information Covenant.[20] One of Kennedy’s criticisms was that the Bureau appeared to regard itself as an independent news agency collating and disseminating news ‘through the eyes of journalists trained to be objective reporters’. He continued:

It publicises criticisms of government policy in an objective manner which cannot be helpful to the standing and prestige of any government (irrespective of its political complexion), particularly in Asia where our form of democracy is not understood.[21]

In support he quoted the coverage of the Federal Budget in the 11 August 1958 issue of the Bureau’s ‘Weekly Newsletter’, a summary of Australian news distributed to all overseas posts, as an example of the ‘objective reporting’ he condemned. This comment was of particular interest to me as I was at that time, while in the Canberra office, writing the ‘Weekly Newsletter’. He described as adequate four pages given to the Treasurer’s speech and one page to the Leader of the Opposition, but he objected to two pages of quotes from business leaders and newspaper comments, because ‘all (with one exception) were highly critical’. He could not understand ‘why a wing of Government should publish disagreement with Government policies’.[22]

Bureau journalists of that era would maintain that it was this qualified independence that made the Bureau’s propaganda relatively effective. Some of the senior journalists and photographers had achieved distinguished careers as war correspondents and/or authors which contributed to this independent attitude, while the precariousness of the Bureau’s existence added a fatalistic attitude to maintaining integrity. Journalists were constantly aware that they were employed to publicise Australian life in the most positive way but were not subjected to detailed guidelines circumscribing or manipulating what they wrote, they did not attend meetings, seminars or training sessions and wrote and were published under by-lines. The writing of articles was left to the journalist’s skill in interviewing, in accurate reporting and the infusion of as much information and colour as a particular story could carry.

Any success for Bureau stories in Asia was limited by the vastness of the task in providing a constant stream of material for about a dozen different countries. The most that could be claimed for this campaign was that it may have had a mitigating effect and was a contribution to a holding action. Although there were many facets to the Colombo Plan, at the heart of its student program ‘was a concern to minimise the negative impact of the white Australia policy’. An External Affairs submission to the Committee on the Future of Tertiary Education in Australia in 1962 concluded that the experiences of Asian students in Australia were ‘an effective counter to the charges of racial discrimination which are sometimes leveled against us’.[23]

While the Bureau’s publicising of Australian acceptance and friendliness towards Asian students and other visitors acted as a minor counter to the negative impact of the White Australia policy in Asia, concurrently in Australia, Asian students were becoming an unremarkable part of ordinary life. Their increasing presence in cities and suburbs and on streets and public transport led to greater familiarity among the overwhelming Anglo-Celtic population of that time. This was reinforced by an increasing amount of news in the Australian media on Asian students and visitors, some of it generated through follow-ups of Bureau articles published overseas, some by Australian newspapers and radio being alerted by ANIB and Radio Australia journalists and some by official publicity for notable occasions such as the arrival of the 1000th Colombo Plan student, a chemical engineering student from Indonesia in 1955, and the 2000th, a nurse from Malaya in 1957. These factors had a cumulative effect on the Australian public opinion and contributed to the eventual change in Australia’s immigration policy. From being generally accepted in the first half of the 20th century, the White Australia policy came under increasing question and attack in the 1950s, a process to which the integration of Asian students and other visitors contributed in public perception and attitudes to immigration. In the context of the demise of the White Australia policy, it has been recognised that the social and political impact of the presence of Asian students has not been studied sufficiently.[24]

Over the short space of a couple of decades there was a remarkable change in Australian public opinion from what has been described as ‘a narrow fearsome racism’ to an official policy of multiculturalism, backed by all major political parties.[25] The Immigration Act was modified slightly in the late 1950s and by 1968 the White Australia policy had been abandoned. The White Australia policy, and the methods the Australian News and Information Bureau used to moderate antagonism to it in Asia, are now far in the past –– a subject for historical interest and research. Unfortunately many of the records necessary for detailed research into this subject no longer exist.





[1] Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-45: Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1970, p. 403.

[2] Letter to author, 4 October 2011.

[3] Australia, House of Representatives, 1939, Vol. 161, pp. 312-13.

[4] Inside Canberra: Weekly Review of Australian Politics, Vol. 3 No. 4,  2 February 1950; Ken Inglis, This is the ABC 1932-1983, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic.,1983, p. 156.

[5] National Archives of Australia (NAA), A431, 1950/948, Establishment of News & Information Bureau.

[6] NAA, A5619, C762, Abolition of the DOI and creation of ANIB.

[7] NAA, A431 1950/948 Establishment of the News and Information Bureau.

[8] Australia, House of Representatives, 1951, Vol. 214, p. 1250.

[9] Barry York, ‘The Dictation Test: White Australia’s Tangled Web’, Canberra Historical Journal, No. 27, pp. 33-9.

[10] Daniel Oakman, Facing Asia: A History of the Colombo Plan, Pandanus Books,/ANU, Canberra, 2004, p. 171.

[11] Oakman, p. 129.

[12] Patricia Ryan, ‘The Flying Doctors’, Singapore Free Press, 6 April 1956.

[13] NAA, N1956/9 Part 3, Singapore – General Publicity, Len Barsdell to Editor.

[14] Patricia Ryan, ‘Melbourne through the eyes of a Singapore town planner’, Singapore Sunday Times, Singapore Sunday Standard, 21 September 1957.

[15] For example, Patricia Ryan, “Malayans adopt an Australian student custom’, Malay Mail, 30 January 1959.

[16] Oakman, p. 193.

[17] NAA, A6895, N56/30, Asian publicity (Articles for), 30 July 1956.

[18] NAA, A6985, N1956/6, Manila Phillipines – Publicity General.

[19] NAA, A1838/294 2048/2/7; D. Lowe, ‘Canberra’s Colombo Plan: Public Images of Australia’s Relations with Post-Colonial South and Southeast Asia in the 1950s’, in South Asia Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. XXV, No. 2, 2002, p. 201.

[20] Denis Cryle, ‘Rousing the British-speaking World: Australian newspaper proprietors and freedom of the press 1940-1950’,, 2007, p. 2.

[21] NAA, A4940, C4454 Attachment, Report by Eric Kennedy on the operations of the ANIB.

[22] Kennedy report.

[23] Oakman, pp. 182-3.

[24] Daniel Oakman, ‘ “Young Asians in Our Homes”: Colombo Plan Students and White Australia’, in Jumping the Queue eds Gabriella Espak, Scott Fatnowna and Denise Woods, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2002, p. 89.

[25] Bruce Grant, The Australian Dilemma: A New Kind of Western Society, MacDonald Turua, Sydney, 1983, p. 240.