At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 the federal government, still sitting in Melbourne, introduced the War Precautions Act, under which censorship controls were implemented. The organisation and the scope of the various national organisations charged with censorship controls, and forms of civilian surveillance, were modelled on British precedents. The Censor's Office was administered through the Australian Army, with the chief censor located in London and the deputy censor (in charge of Australian operations) in Melbourne. A national Counter Espionage Bureau (later the Special Intelligence Bureau) was formed in 1916, with its staff of three based at federal Government House in Melbourne. It was closely connected with British Intelligence: the 'Australian branch of MI5'. The Commonwealth Police Force was established by regulation under the War Precautions Act in 1917 and had a branch in Melbourne. By 1917 the Australian Navy had its own political surveillance branch.
While the strategic rationale for censorship was to prevent military information falling into enemy hands, as war progressed surveillance was increasingly directed towards monitoring the views of those opposed to the war or to the policies of the government. Military Intelligence worked with the State police force to investigate suspicious behaviour among civilians, including 'aliens' of enemy origin. Prime Minister W.M. Hughes was to draw upon the new intelligence resources to stifle open criticism of those opposed to the two unsuccessful referenda on military conscription held in 1916 and 1917. For example, the Melbourne office of the left-wing Labor Call newspaper was raided after it had printed anti-conscription articles. The suppression of radical political activism was directed at the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which by 1917 became the first political organisation to be legally prohibited in Australia. The IWW's Melbourne clubrooms in Russell Street were raided and its members watched. Surveillance was also extended to the activities of Melbourne's Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, after he spoke publicly against the introduction of conscription and in support of Irish nationalism, as well as to any agitation by returned servicemen that was deemed to be politically 'dangerous'. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, which was to lead to the formation of the Communist Party of Australia, provided the government with a new impetus for its political censorship and surveillance.
The main activity of the censorship authorities involved the steaming open and reading of letters, including those sent from the military front, and local mail exchanged between civilians. Any information that was seen to be compromising - for instance, details of military locations - was deleted. Postal censorship also provided the intelligence organisations with a list of persons who were to be actively monitored.
Media censorship was extended to press coverage of both domestic and international events, and in terms of military developments was closely aligned to propaganda campaigns that actively promoted the Allied forces. Propagandist material such as cartoons, photographs and appropriate articles for the newspapers was disseminated to Australia from London. Overseas news was limited to two cable services that originated in Britain, and Melbourne's daily newspapers, particularly the Argus, were conscious of their imperial mission. News emphasised Allied victories but also promoted stereotypes of the enemy 'Hun', and published exaggerated or untrue stories of German atrocities. Australians were presented with Allied propaganda throughout the war, from the 'Brave Little Belgium' campaign of 1914-15 to the call for the German Kaiser to be hanged in 1918.
Such overt Allied propaganda undoubtedly contributed to anti-German sentiment. In December 1914 the Melbourne academic Archibald Strong described Germans as a 'race of devils'. Australian propaganda films were produced, including If the Hun came to Melbourne and The enemy within, and popular fiction also exploited feelings of alarm. In mid-January 1916 civilians and returned soldiers were involved in attacks on German-owned businesses. As the war progressed, however, there was increasing disquiet with the crudity of much Allied propaganda, and a greater emphasis was placed on the specific sacrifices of the Australian people in recruitment and fundraising campaigns. In press coverage, national interests were also paramount: while English newspapers, for example, admitted that the Gallipoli campaign was a military disaster, the Australian press concentrated on the heroism of the Australian Imperial Forces. Some of the most striking examples of wartime propaganda were produced by both sides in the conscription debate.
In World War II censorship and propaganda were coordinated through the federal Department of Information (DOI), established in September 1939. Under National Security Regulations the DOI controlled newspaper and radio reports about military events, and monitored war correspondents. For the first time, the radio, present in 80% of households, was a key source of war news. Coverage of Allied military activities was as favourable as possible; for instance, when Darwin was bombed by the Japanese on 19 February 1942, the official report the next day referred to 15 fatalities, although the real number exceeded 240. Censorship of the press extended to events on the homefront that might be seen to tarnish Australia's war effort, including industrial disputes. The press announcement of the arrival of US forces in Melbourne in early 1942 was delayed, and any friction between the Americans and Australians was downplayed. Censorship was justified on the grounds of defence security and the maintenance of civilian morale, but it was also used to political effect by both the Menzies and Curtin governments. The extent of government censorship led to confrontations with newspaper proprietors, who also resisted government attempts to merge Melbourne's three morning newspapers, the Age, the Argus and the Sun, for the duration. Wartime reductions in newspaper production (to 60% of prewar size) also affected the circulation of news.
Letters assumed a particular importance in wartime, and the DOI instructed civilians to write 'cheerfully' to those at the front. Government censors scrutinised mail, especially private letters and telegrams exchanged between those in the military and their family and friends 'at home'; information deemed sensitive was blocked out. Some couples developed codes so that they could convey more intimate news. Communications between military forces and civilians were also conveyed via special radio programs, and the Red Cross was especially important in helping families maintain contact with those who had been taken prisoner-of-war.
The DOI also produced film, radio and print materials to promote Australia's war effort, and provide information about measures such as rationing or civil defence. More overt propaganda was produced, including a notorious series of anti-Japanese advertisements in the first half of 1942 that were withdrawn after general criticism. There were publicity campaigns to caution against idle gossip, lure women into war work, and encourage the purchase of war bonds. The military forces also produced their own publicity for recruitment purposes. Other material was aimed at servicemen on leave in Melbourne: for example, the Australian Army produced posters that warned against sexually transmitted diseases, and placed these in public toilets throughout the city.
Political surveillance during World War II was conducted through the Melbourne office of the Investigative Branch of the Federal Attorney-General's Department, established in 1919. It monitored the wartime ban on the Communist Party of Australia (from June 1940 until December 1942). A Security Service, located within the Federal Attorney-General's Department, was formed in February 1941 to monitor the actions of Australian civilians and enemy aliens during the war. By 1949 the new and more comprehensive Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), was established in Melbourne.
Anti-communist sentiment in the Cold War period heightened government censorship of left-wing views. This political censorship peaked with the unsuccessful attempt of the Menzies Government to dissolve the Communist Party of Australia. The 'D-Notice', a press self-censorship system where editors were not to publish on prohibited subjects, was introduced and operated throughout the Vietnam War. The early media coverage of the war was woefully inadequate. Melbourne's Age and Herald were the only newspapers to have full-time correspondents in South-East Asia, based in Singapore. Much of the printed and televised formation about war in Vietnam came via syndicated American sources, so that Australians tended to view the war from an American perspective. Bruce Grant at the Age was one of the few journalists who criticised Australian government policies.