Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Moses, Sir Charles Joseph (1900–1988)

by Neville Petersen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Charles Moses, c.1961

Charles Moses, c.1961

State Library of Victoria

Sir Charles Joseph Alfred Moses (1900-1988), broadcaster, Australian Broadcasting Commission general manager and secretary-general of the Asian broadcasting Union, was born on 21 January 1900 at Woodlands Farm, Westhoughton, Lancashire, England, one of five children of Joseph Moses, farmer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Henderson. In 1902 the family moved to Shropshire. Charles entered Oswestry Grammar School (1912) and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst (1917). He joined the 2nd Border Regiment just before the Armistice and saw service in Germany in the army of occupation. The regiment was then sent to western Ireland as part of the British attempt to curb the increasing political violence in rural areas. On 3 June 1922 at the Catholic Church, Aughrim Street, Dublin, Moses married Kathleen (Kitty) O’Sullivan, and that year migrated to Australia to join his family, who had left England in 1919. He invested his army pay-out in the family farm near Bendigo, Victoria, losing his money when the fruit-growing venture failed.

In Melbourne Moses tried his hand at selling real estate and as a physical training instructor; he was a car salesman for six years, until the Depression struck. The rapidly expanding radio industry seemed an attractive proposition, as he had a well-modulated, soft, southern English accent, which avoided class-based extremes. His was the kind of voice that Australian radio stations thought ideal at the time. He also mixed well socially. Some months after an audition with the Australian Broadcasting Co. he was suddenly asked to describe an ice hockey game. Claiming that he knew the game, he found a manual and studied the rules for a few hours. The broadcast went so well that a week later (in August 1930) he was asked to join the regular staff. Not for the last time Moses had displayed an instinct for pragmatic, quick-thinking opportunism.

By July 1932, when the Australian Broadcasting Commission began operations, Moses had a growing reputation as an announcer and news and sports commentator. His knowledge of sport was prodigious and gave authority to his broadcasts. He represented Victoria in rugby union football, was a champion discus-thrower and in 1925 held the Victorian amateur heavyweight boxing championship; he had played soccer, cricket and hockey. Over 6 ft (183 cm) tall and weighing 15 stone (95 kg), he was an imposing figure. He became the ABC’s star commentator during the ‘synthetic’ descriptions of the 1934 cricket tour of England, when brief ball-by-ball cables were transformed in the studio into running commentary, apparently ‘live’ from the ground.

Moses’s rise in the ABC was meteoric. Now based in Sydney, he became sporting editor (1933), federal controller of talks (1934), liaison officer (1935) and, in November 1935, general manager. By setting a uniform standard across all States, by co-ordinating output through the creation of federal departments of talks, drama and music, run by specialists, and by fostering Australian talent, he worked with his chairman W. J. Cleary towards establishing a genuinely national enterprise.

Aided and encouraged by (Sir) Bernard Heinze and W. G. James, Moses soon moved to establish State orchestras of professional musicians, augmented by gifted amateurs. The ABC’s first concert season was in 1936. Despite resistance from the monopolistic theatrical entrepreneurs J. & N. Tait, the ABC brought international performers to Australia in 1937. At ease in the company of famous artists, Moses gave memorable parties in their honour. An extrovert with erudite repartee, he was described by his director of publicity, Charles Buttrose, as a showman at heart. In 1945 he negotiated with the New South Wales government and the Sydney City Council to form a full-time, full-sized orchestra in Sydney. Within a few years the ABC had five permanent State orchestras and could offer Australia-wide tours to prominent overseas conductors and musicians.

Access to news, however, was a problem that could not be solved for many years. Twice Moses defied the press, who controlled the supply of news to the ABC and the length and times of bulletins, by deciding unilaterally to broadcast news before the times allowed—on his first day as general manager and on the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Although he tried on both occasions to obtain public and government approval, he failed.

Moses was appointed as a lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force on 17 May 1940. Promoted to captain on 1 July, he embarked for Singapore in February 1941 as a company commander in the 2/20th Battalion. He was promoted to major on 24 August and seconded to the staff of Major General H. G. Bennett, the commander of the 8th Division. His obsession with physical fitness, his extraordinary mobility for a big man and his razor-sharp reflexes enabled him to survive two Japanese ambushes after the invasion in December. On 15 February 1942, as the Allies capitulated to the Japanese forces, he persuaded Bennett that escape was possible. They commandeered a sampan in Singapore, and sailed to Sumatra, Netherlands East Indies. From there Bennett was flown directly to Australia while Moses was flown to Batavia (Jakarta), where he was injured when knocked down by a taxi, before contracting scrub typhus. Dangerously ill, he was evacuated to Perth. After the war he defended Bennett against accusations that the general had deserted his men.

In September 1942 Moses was appointed as a temporary lieutenant colonel and placed in command of Moresby Base Sub-Area. Between November and April 1943 he temporarily commanded the 2/7th Cavalry Regiment, which fought at Sanananda, Papua; he was mentioned in despatches. Requested by Prime Minister John Curtin to return to head the ABC, he relinquished his command on 12 April and transferred to the Reserve of Officers with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Curtin wanted the ABC to develop a national consciousness and culture, and its own news service. Moses immediately moved to introduce new programs of ‘first-class quality entertainment’, aired from 25 July 1943, to meet the wartime needs of factory workers and servicemen and women. The accent was on gaiety and variety. His return had come as a complete surprise to Cleary, who believed that Moses must have used his political contacts to facilitate his discharge from the army and to gain greater powers as general manager. Moses denied this but there is evidence to suggest that Syd Deamer, the ABC’s controller of public relations and Moses’s close friend and drinking companion, had made secret representations to Curtin, without Cleary’s knowledge. The relationship between Moses and his chairman became increasingly tense and Cleary resigned in March 1945.

Moses attended the Empire Broadcasting Conference in London in February 1945. The British Broadcasting Corporation then invited him to observe its reporting of the war in Europe. As a temporary member of the BBC’s war reporting unit, he saw from close range Field Marshal (Viscount) Montgomery’s attack on Wesel on the Rhine and joined the commandos crossing the river. He and two companions narrowly escaped injury when German self-propelled guns shelled a factory building in which they were hiding.

After the war Moses quickly found himself adept at publicising new activities that drew increasing audiences to the ABC. The newly established rural department, with its ‘Country Hour’, kept regional families in touch with marketing trends, farming methods and the latest weather information. Also attracting a large country audience was the news service begun in 1947, which was required under the Australian Broadcasting Act (1946) to gather its own news in Australia, independently of the press. Although initially opposing the service, Moses soon recognised its importance in offering an apparently impartial choice of news, compared to the newspapers, which were widely seen as reflecting the views of proprietors. It also focused on events taking place in the Federal and State parliaments.

In the late 1950s Moses’s postwar honeymoon with the press and public opinion began to pall. His claim to have the confidence of both sides of politics was negated in October 1957 when the deputy-leader of the Federal Opposition, Arthur Calwell, verbally attacked him in the House. Calwell described Moses as ‘sickening’ and ‘slimy’ because he had deliberately withheld until parliament was in recess the announcement that an Englishman, Peter Homfray, an unsuccessful Liberal Party of Australia candidate for the Tasmanian parliament, had been appointed to the position of director of Radio Australia. Alleging that Moses was preventing Australians from securing promotions within the ABC, Calwell listed other recent senior appointments of Englishmen and declared that, ‘I would facilitate his departure to the B.B.C., where he properly belongs’.

After the introduction of television in 1961, Robert Raymond and Michael Charlton approached Moses for support to produce a new type of program, based on the BBC’s ‘Panorama’, which would deal with contentious social and political issues. The staff in the programs and talks departments at first strongly opposed the idea, believing that the vetting of content would involve too much work. Moses overruled them and the program, named ‘Four Corners’, went ahead, with the co-producers reporting to him directly.

Moses often acted in secret, and on his own initiative, to thwart decisions of his chairman, the commission and the government on matters that he thought were important in terms of principle. When Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies banned the showing in 1963 on ABC television of a BBC interview with Georges Bidault—a former prime minister of France and opponent of President Charles de Gaulle—then living in exile, Moses was determined to make the public aware of the government’s action. As the ban did not apply to commercial stations, he rang Sir Frank Packer, chairman of TCN-9, Sydney, and offered him the film on the proviso that he did not disclose its source. To the government’s acute embarrassment, TCN-9 showed the interview. He had also acted decisively in 1959 when the comedian Spike Milligan asked him to support an appeal to preserve the cottage of the poet Henry Kendall at West Gosford. This unprecedented involvement of the ABC helped to save the house.

Moses’s last years with the ABC were clouded with controversy. In 1958 there was considerable staff bitterness over his cross-examination of senior officers during the six-month hearing of a pay claim, held before the assistant public service arbitrator. Moses later regretted his actions but the anger that his pitiless questioning had generated remained a sensitive issue for him: at the 1983 launch of Ken Inglis’s book This is the ABC, Moses angrily confronted its author, threatening defamation over the representation of the case. Two years previously he had demanded a published apology from Clement Semmler, a former ABC deputy general manager, for falsely connecting Moses’s World War I regiment to the notorious British Black and Tans, based in Ireland, in his book The ABC - Aunt Sally and Sacred Cow (1981).

In 1962 Moses used his extensive Department of External Affairs and diplomatic contacts to secure an invitation to the fourth Asian broadcasting conference in Kuala Lumpur, despite Japanese suspicions of Australian motives. Although attending only as an observer, he used all his charm and persuasive skills to play an active role in creating the Asian Broadcasting Union; at subsequent meetings in Tokyo and Seoul he helped to draw up statutes and to define the ABU area. He directed his energy towards establishing firmer ties with Asian broadcasters in order to counter what he saw as an increasing Japanese influence among them. Invited at its first general assembly in Sydney in November 1964 to become secretary-general of the union, he stipulated that the secretariat be located in Sydney and that Betty Cook, the executive liaison officer and his long-time personal assistant, should remain with him. In January 1965 he retired from the ABC. At the heart of ABU activities for the next twelve years, he rapidly gave the ABU a high profile in world broadcasting. He published Diverse Unity: The Asian-Pacific Broadcasting Union, 1957-1977 in 1978.

Active in many sporting, cultural and charitable organisations, Moses was a vice-president from 1969 of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales. In 1954 he was a foundation member of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and of the five-man Sydney Opera House committee, appointed by the New South Wales government after he and the conductor (Sir) Eugene Goossens had urged Premier J. J. Cahill to take steps to build an opera house. He later helped to plan the international design competition and was a foundation member (1961) of the Sydney Opera House Trust.

Introduced to axemen at Pemberton, Western Australia, while on holiday in 1944, Moses had enthusiastically taken up woodchopping as his main hobby. He became chairman of the RAS woodchopping committee; keeping in his office a collection of fine axes, he regularly invited visitors to allow him to shave their arms or legs to demonstrate how sharp they were. His friendship with the ‘roughneck’ RAS champion Tom Kirk appealed greatly to the press—as did his feat of walking fifty miles (80 km) on his fiftieth birthday.

A fiercely competitive man with extraordinary energy and single-mindedness, Moses was thought by some of his colleagues to be a born leader with an innate generosity of spirit; others recognised that he demanded total control. He was known to employ subterfuge and trickery if the end seemed to justify the means. Appointed CBE in 1954, he was knighted in 1961. Survived by his wife and their son, but predeceased by a daughter, Sir Charles died on 9 February 1988 at Turramurra and was cremated. In March 1989 the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stuart Challender, gave a concert in his honour in the Sydney Town Hall.

An ABC building at Gore Hill, Sydney, had been renamed for Moses shortly before he died; a park at Welby, near Mittagong, commemorates his long service (president 1981-88) on the Remembrance Driveway committee. In 2006 the first Sir Charles Moses trophy for musical excellence was awarded to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘Young Performer of the Year’. The ABC holds a portrait of him by Clifton Pugh.

Select Bibliography

  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (1983)
  • C. Buttrose, Words & Music (1984)
  • N. Petersen, News Not Views (1993)
  • N. Petersen, ‘A Biography of Sir Charles Moses’, Global Media Journal, vol 3, no 1, 2009 (copy on ADB file)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 24 Oct 1957, p 1726
  • 24 Hours, Mar 1989, p 24
  • H. de Berg, interview with C. Moses (typescript, 1967, National Library of Australia)
  • Moses’s oral history (typescript, 1971, ABC document archives, Sydney)
  • B883, item NX12404 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Moses papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Neville Petersen, 'Moses, Sir Charles Joseph (1900–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/moses-sir-charles-joseph-15044/text26241, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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