Hugh Robert Denison (then Dixson). With permission of the Speaker of the Parliament of South Australia.

Hugh Robert Denison

1865 - 1940  |    New South Wales  |  Publisher

Hugh Denison owned the first Australian paper to publish news rather than advertisements on its front page. Moving from tobacco to news media, businessman Denison became managing director at Sun Newspapers Ltd in Sydney in 1910. He took over the Sunday Sun and what became the Sun. Denison knew little of newspapers, but recruited talented staff and operated an independent cable service. In the 1920s press wars, his attempt to invade Melbourne failed. The voracious company he established in 1929, Associated Newspapers Ltd, published competing Sydney newspapers and was forced to rationalise. Denison founded and chaired the powerful Macquarie Broadcasting Services in 1938. 

A staunch imperialist and generous philanthropist, Hugh Denison was also a buccaneering entrepreneur who moved from dominating the tobacco industry to creating a rapacious newspaper chain and Australia’s leading commercial radio network.

Bridget Griffen-Foley 


Hugh Robert Denison


A staunch imperialist and generous philanthropist, Hugh Denison was also a buccaneering entrepreneur who moved from dominating the tobacco industry to creating a rapacious newspaper chain and Australia’s leading commercial radio network. 

In 1885, at the age of 19, Hugh Dixson began working for his father, a Forbes tobacco farmer. He stayed in the industry while dabbling in South Australian politics. As Managing director of the British Australasian Tobacco Company from 1905, he moved to Sydney and changed his surname to Denison to avoid confusion with his businessman uncle Hugh Dixson. A keen sportsman, Denison owned Poseidon, the first horse to win the Caulfield-Melbourne Cup double.

In 1908 the publishers of Sydney’s ailing afternoon newspaper, the Australasian Star, and the Sunday Sun secured desperately needed funding from the tobacco firm. Although the publishers were on the verge of liquidation by 1910, Denison, who had flirted with the idea of newspaper ownership for some years, concluded that the Star could, with more capital and careful management, become viable. He resigned from British Australasian Tobacco to form Sun Newspapers Ltd, with what he later confessed was a mixture of “conceit and ignorance”, and installed himself as managing director.

Knowing little of the press, Denison shrewdly recruited talented editorial staff, headed by Montague Grover. The Sydney Sun rose from the ashes of the Star, claiming, with its Sunday edition, to be “the only daily paper in Australasia”. The Sun became the first Australian paper to feature news rather than advertisements on the front page, and the first to buy cable news from the London Times. During his 1912 trip to Europe to negotiate this, Denison also arranged the merger of the Australasian wireless businesses of the German Telefunken and the British-based Marconi, forming Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd. Fascinated by new technology, Denison was the first managing director of AWA, which was to become Australia’s largest electronics organisation, before being succeeded by Ernest Fisk. The British press baron Lord Northcliffe, who had recently rescued The Times, found Denison a “keen, enterprising controller”.

The Sun suffered a temporary setback in circulation due to its support for conscription. Now caught up, as Rydge’s Business Journal described it, in “the thrill and romance” of newspapers, Denison relaunched the Newcastle Sun; he also helped finance the RSL’s Reveille.

Denison was a key player in the establishment of the New South Wales branch of the Royal Colonial Institute (later the Royal Empire Society) in 1921 and served as its founding president. Knighted in 1923, he was a generous benefactor to the institute. He was also a delegate to the Imperial Press Conferences in Ottawa (1920), Sydney (1925) and London (1930).

In the bitter press wars of the 1920s, Denison’s invasion of Melbourne failed. His company launched a morning tabloid, the Sun News-Pictorial, in 1922, followed by the Evening Sun. Unable to arrest the popularity of Keith Murdoch’s Herald, the Evening Sun closed in 1925, while the Sun News-Pictorial was sold to the Herald and Weekly Times; Denison’s Sydney Sun attempted to spin this retreat as “the largest deal in the history of the Australian newspaper world”.

Meanwhile, the aggressive expansion of Denison’s company necessitated a boost in its authorised capital. Sun Newspapers bought the struggling morning Daily Telegraph, transforming it into a pictorial tabloid, and moving its printing to the Sun’s new building in Elizabeth Street. In 1929, Sun Newspapers – now producing the Sun, Sunday Sun, Daily Telegraph Pictorial, Sunday Pictorial, Newcastle Sun, World’s News and Wireless Weekly – merged with another Sydney publisher, Samuel Bennett Ltd. Denison became chairman of the new company, Associated Newspapers Ltd (ANL).

A few months later, ANL purchased the recently established Daily and Sunday Guardians from the proprietors of Smith’s Weekly. In return, Smith’s Newspapers Ltd contracted not to publish a morning, afternoon or Sunday paper for 21 years. While seeking to protect Denison’s assets from competition, ANL itself published competing titles, a bizarre and near-catastrophic business model coinciding with the Great Depression. A rise in cover charges could not arrest the slide in the company’s share price. In 1931, ANL closed down or merged six of its mastheads.

To protect his shareholding in ANL, Smith’s Weekly’s co-founder, R.C. Packer, moved to ANL to become managing editor of its remaining papers. Despite boardroom intrigue, he helped Denison to weather the crisis but controversy dogged Denison’s empire.

In 1932, Packer authorised ANL to pay £86,500 to his son, Frank, and his son’s business partner, E.G. Theodore, not to publish an afternoon newspaper for three years. The extraordinary manoeuvre preserved the Sydney monopoly of the Sun, the jewel in ANL’s crown, but provided Frank Packer and Theodore with the capital to launch the Australian Women’s Weekly. ANL and its “doughty knight” were constantly savaged by Ezra Norton’s rival Sunday newspaper, Truth, leading to a libel case that Denison ostensibly won – by a farthing.

In 1935, as the end of the agreement with ANL approached, Packer and Theodore’s Sydney Newspapers Ltd began to consider producing a daily newspaper. Alarmed, Denison’s group again came to the aid of the pair. The two companies formed Consolidated Press Ltd, majority-owned by Packer and Theodore, to publish the Daily Telegraph and the Women’s Weekly. Anti-competitive clauses protected the Sun and Sunday Sun on one side, and the Women’s Weekly on the other.

There were other consolidations for Denison. In 1936, the United Cable Service (run by the Sun and the Melbourne Herald) and the Australian Press Association merged to create Australian Associated Press (AAP). Sungravure was established to print Woman and launch another colour magazine, Pix. Denison was also involved in the early production of Australian newsprint, and in 1937–38 headed the Australian Newspaper Conference.

ANL already owned Sydney radio station 2UE. In 1938, ANL rearranged its interests to form an ambitious network named after “Macquarie, the builder”. Formed in opposition to the strength of two dominant advertising agencies, and chaired by Denison, Macquarie network had eight member stations, led by 2GB in Sydney, and including 2UE and 3AW in Melbourne, as well as a host of regional affiliates, to provide national coverage to advertisers.

Denison died of cancer on 23 November 1940, a few days after his 75th birthday. Two of his three sons continued to run ANL, with the majority of its shares acquired by John Fairfax & Sons in the 1950s. The names of Associated Newspapers and Denison may be little known today, subsumed by the Packer and Fairfax empires they helped to seed. But several media assets associated with Denison (generally revived rather than created) survive, including the Daily Telegraph, the Sun-Herald, the Herald Sun, and AM radio stations. He played an integral role in increasing the concentration of Australian media ownership.

Bridget Griffen-Foley is director of the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University.



The first direct wireless messages from England to Australia, 1918. Created by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia). Image courtesy of National Library of Australia.


Hugh Denison (then Dixson). With permission of the Speaker of the Parliament of South Australia.


Further reading


'Denison, Sir Hugh Robert (1865–1940)', R. B. Walker, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press 


Building a Nation: Hugh Robert Denison K.B.E., 2004, James L. Denison.