The Limits of Authorship: The Radio Broadcasts of Irene Greenwood, 1936-1954

John Richardson


Between 1936 and 1940 Greenwood's platform was the ABC Women's Session directed by Dorothy Grayham. It was, according to Julie Lewis, "geared towards the domestic and supportive role of women with an emphasis on home hints, child care, and self improvement of a superficial kind".1 The Broadcaster programme guides and articles of the period confirm Lewis' critique. Greenwood's own contribution, "Women in the International News" was an exception to the format. Delivered as a broadcast talk, "Women in the International News" occupied the first fifteen minutes of the Session proper. It followed the "The Watchman, At Home and Abroad,"2 a controversial political commentary delivered by E.A. Mann. Greenwood's talk was more akin to this than it was to the Session itself. Mann's politics eventually became too hot for the Commission to handle and he was eased out of his chair at the ABC.3 In 1938, Constance Duncan, an Eastern States women's session broadcaster, was also removed. Like Greenwood, Duncan was a political commentator, also like Greenwood she was a member of the Movement Against War and Fascism. Duncan was allegedly fired because of her "Christian Communism" tendencies.4 Greenwood's own contribution was periodically subjected to the blue pencil treatment as the Commission struggled to enforce its dictum of "balanced broadcasting".

During the 1930s ABC Chairman William Cleary was put under considerable pressure to safeguard the Commission's "autonomous" programming decisions from outside political interference.5 The Commission sought to protect itself by enforcing a policy of political "balance", or "impartiality". The requirement for the submission of scripts put the ABC in a position to vet and censor what was considered to be biased material, yet no hard and fast rules were handed down on what constituted "bias". In 1938 Macmahon Ball observed that "censorship is not always the expression of a clear principle; in practice it is considerably influenced by the official immediately concerned".6 In Perth this responsibility rested with General Manager Conrad Charlton:

Dear Mrs Greenwood,

In connection with your talk on Friday 10th of February at 11.00am entitled "Pioneer Australian Women Social Worker, Peace Worker and Leader of Women's Movements," there is a sentence at the top of page two which we would like you to alter: "Maybe this thing called fascism won't come over the whole earth".

This also applies to the sentence at the conclusion of your talk. [which was a reprise of ÒMaybe this thing called fascism . . . .Ó].7

Colin Badger had suffered a similar fate in 1937 when Charlton cut two paragraphs from a talk which criticised Hitler and Mussolini.8 Yet Greenwood managed to broadcast a number of talks which in the political light of the day could certainly have been regarded as controversial.

During the Second World War censorship procedures were tightened considerably. "Talks" were subjected to special attention with a newly formed War Talks Register closely monitoring all transmissions.9 What constituted politically sensitive material varied as the war progressed. Any favourable references to the Soviet Union during the 1940-1941 period were liable to be cut. In late January 1940 Greenwood sent one of her censored scripts to Frank Beasley, a fellow member of the Left Book Club and himself a broadcaster. Beasley returned the script, together with his comments, early the following month:

Dear Mrs Greenwood,

The ways of censorship are exceedingly strange and exceedingly irksome. But I am not surprised at the eloquence and effectiveness of the blue pencil. To judge from the press we are only to have Russian news which depicts the inhabitants of the USSR as half starved wretches staring in wonder at wrist watches and envying the peasants of Eastern Poland their high standard of living. Hence the suggestion in your talk that not all Russians are emaciated morons could not possibly be permitted.

I have recently had a somewhat similar experience to yours. The censor treated me a little more leniently, only excising some two pages in which I had presumed to criticise certain utterances of members of the British Government. My reply was to announce that I would not broadcast again. For once you admit, by compliance with the censor's eliminations, that he has a right to say what shall not be said, you have gone a long way towards conceding to him the right to say what shall be said. And that in the sacred name of democracy and freedom!10

After Russia entered the war in June 1941 the de facto embargo on "Russian news" was lifted.

In 1940 the regional ABC women's sessions were discontinued and a nation-wide session was broadcast from Sydney. Some local speakers, Greenwood amongst them, were invited to contribute.11 Her talks were recorded on gramophone records in the Perth studios and despatched to Sydney to be relayed over the national network. In Perth the scripts were subjected to the usual vetting procedures but in addition Greenwood now had to negotiate their structure with B.H. Molesworth, Federal Controller of talks ABC, Sydney.

Molesworth to Greenwood:

I note that you suggest a second talk on the subject of women's activities in America. I do not think that a description of women's activities in America would necessarily prove of great interest in Australia. Is there any particular way of treating this subject which you would suggest as likely to hold the interest of an Australian audience?12

During the same period Greenwood was producing scripts and recordings for Badger and Macmahon Ball at the Department of Information, Melbourne. These too were tightly controlled:

Your talk, while excellent in itself, hardly brings this main point out, and I would be very glad if you would re-shape it a bit, so as to stress this. I am enclosing a talk by G.V.Portus, which I think, will show you the sort of thing I mean.13

The West Australian Women's Session was reinstated in 1944. Charles Moses, then General Manager of the ABC had heard Greenwood's broadcasts over the national service and suggested to Con Charlton that she be considered to run the programme.14 Instead, Charlton chose Catherine King, kindergartenist, occasional broadcaster and daughter of prominent Perth academic Walter Murdoch. According to Grant Stone, who interviewed Greenwood in the 1970s, she was angry about King's appointment. Greenwood's correspondence shows that both she and the WSG as an official body, had campaigned for the reinstatement of The Session during the period that it was off the air. Greenwood wanted the director's job and felt that she was entitled to it,15 but whether or not she could have continued to broadcast her marginal politics from the director's chair is open to speculation. Promotion and its attendant responsibilities could well have exacerbated the friction between herself and the ABC censors.

Greenwood resumed her "Women in the International News" series but the frequency of these talks and their time slot was determined by King, who apparently ran a tight ship. By 1946 Greenwood was attempting to extend her activities, in strategic instances at least, into the area of interviews. This too was conditional on King's approval. Greenwood contacted King from Sydney, where she had been covering the Charter Conference:

I have taken copious notes on the Charter Conference, and had private talks with international delegates, you could call them interviews if you wished . . . . If you are so long suffering to allot me 2 or 3 talks after the middle of September, I shall certainly be able to fill them . . . . If I send one talk prepared would you care to read it - or could I give it on the 12th. or 23rd? . . . . Now the Indian women [international delegates to the AWC Conference] arrive in Perth a few days after I do . . . . How does that effect any talk I might give before hand? Would it rule mine out? It is for you to decide . . . . I wonder if the idea would appeal to you for me to introduce them, and interview them, or is it so much your own province that you would prefer to do it. I only suggest it because I feel I know them so well, and it might save you the time of finding out all the things necessary. And you must believe me when I say that it does not matter at all if you say you will interview them, or that you will just ask them for talks on their own subjects.16

By 1948 Greenwood was running her own women's session for the Whitfords 6PM-AM commercial network.

From the end of the war up until June 1946 the ABC imposed a tight self-censorship of political material.17 As the Cold War gathered momentum the policy with respect to "Russian news" was again changing. Guidelines were characteristically vague. Specific deletions do not appear to have been requested, instead Greenwood's Soviet scripts were liable to be returned with a covering note telling her only that the material "could not be used for broadcasting".18 From June onwards formal controls eased considerably but during the mid to late 1940s opposition to pro-communist broadcasts mounted both in Federal Parliament19 and within the Commission itself. In 1948, News editors pressed the Commission to be allowed to "spike all Communist material".20 Chairman Dick Boyer, however, insisted that while the Communist Party remained a legal organisation its views would be represented.21 During this period and through the 1950s it was the social strictures of the Cold War, rather than the formal censoring machinery, which determined what could or could not be said. It was this type of "social censorship" which impacted upon Greenwood both in her remaining years with the ABC and from 1948 onwards, at Whitfords. The commercial stations were themselves subjected to political harassment with respect to controversial material. A Parliamentary Standing Committee on Broadcasting with authority to report on a number of administrative and programming policies had been introduced in 1942. It was unpopular with the ABC and the commercials alike, both of which regarded it as an extension of political interference in broadcasting. According to Ian Mackay the commercials and the ABC were "made aware of the fact that they were living on borrowed time and possessed no security of tenure".22

In 1949 the Standing Committee was superseded by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, which was empowered to make recommendations to the minister on such matters as the renewal of licences. The tensions eased somewhat but neither during this period nor any other were commercial broadcasters free to say what they liked. Although no formal vetting procedures were enforced the commercials would expect their programme producers to be aware of the constraints and to act accordingly.


1 Julie Lewis, On Air: The Story of Catherine King and the ABC Women's Session (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1979), p. 29.

2 Irene A. Greenwood, "Go Proudly as a Woman", five page TS, n.pag, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

3 See Inglis, p. 84.

4 Johnson, p. 181.

5 Bolton, p. 110.

6 William Macmahon Ball, "Broadcasting and World Affairs", in Press, Radio and World Affairs: Australia's Outlook, ed., William Macmahon Ball (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1938), p. 138.

7 Conrad Charlton (ABC Manager, Western Australia), Letter to Irene A. Greenwood, 8 Feb 1939, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

8 Alan Thomas, Broadcast and be Damned (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1980), p. 83.

9 Thomas p. 107.

10 Frank Beasley, Letter to Irene A. Greenwood, 1 Feb 1940, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

11 Lewis, p. 155.

12 B.H. Molesworth, Letter to Irene A. Greenwood, 25 May 1941, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

13 Colin Badger, Letter to Irene A. Greenwood, 4 Sept 1940, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

14 Lewis, pp. 30-31.

15 Personal communication, Grant Stone to author, 12 Sept 1988.

16 Irene A. Greenwood, Copy of letter to Catherine King, 27 Aug 1946, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

17 Thomas, p. 161.

18 Conrad Charlton, Letter to Irene A. Greenwood, 2 Jan 1946, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

19 Bolton, p. 180.

20 Frank Dixon (Director of News, ABC), Inside the ABC: A Piece of Australian History (Melbourne: The Hawthorn Press 1975), p 181.

21 Dixon, p. 181.

22 Ian,K.Mackay, Broadcasting in Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1957), p. 183.

New: 25 March, 1996 | Now: 1 May, 2015