PETER MANNING. Good journalists failed badly

For the past fortnight I’ve read, listened and watched every in-depth explanation of how and why Bill Shorten got the election wrong. The wait was deliberate. I wanted to ease my way out of the shock of how Labor lost “the unloseable election”. Until now, only John Hewson is the public figure who knows what it’s like to wear that sobriquet.

The elite of Australia’s political correspondents have had a field day apportioning blame to a variety of stakeholders in the machinery of the specialist art of electioneering.

Let me say up front: I got it wrong. I was supremely confident Bill Shorten’s “big target” strategy would work, that it was “time” for a change from the revolving leaders of the Liberal Party, that Australians had finally seen the light about the urgency of addressing climate change, that only Julie Bishop was sellable as a leader and Morrison’s low ratings were in single figures, that Labor’s experienced front bench was a sure winner, that the sight of so many top Liberal ministers jumping off the Morrison boat was telling and that three years of pro-Labor poll results couldn’t be wrong. NOT SO!

When I saw that the Australian Electoral Commission found a few days ago that the swing against Labor nationally was a mere 1.34 percent it gave me some comfort.

But what shocked me over the last fortnight was the lack of any sense of “contrition” from the Canberra Press Gallery. Instead, there was an immediate rush to judgment: it started at the top (Shorten), moved through associates (Bowen), then back to Shorten’s advisors, and finally on to campaign managers and Party Secretaries. In the second week, the pollsters got a touch-up.

Wait a minute!!! No-one doubts we have excellent journalists in Canberra across all media prepared to ask the tough questions when needed. But where were the mea culpa’s admitting they never saw a Liberal win coming? Where were the leaked revelations from the Liberal machine’s polling showing they were on track to win? Where were the outraged opeds that condemned the Greens’ Bob Brown for driving to Queensland to give voters a lesson in how to vote? How many correspondents got it wrong that neither Melbourne nor Perth would swing to Labor? How many were close enough to the ground to pick the new phenomenon of working class voters moving Right and middle class inner city voters moving Left?

None of these more critical questions were impossibly difficult to address.

In three different areas the pack mentality failed badly.


Shorten deliberately took on “the big end of town”. In return, Clive Palmer broke the record for prominent use of corporate power to wage a public and personal war against Shorten. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent occupying the first four front pages of mainstream newspapers across the nation – all of them using stitched up, unflattering photos of Shorten and defamatory jibes.

My experience at four different polling booths across Sydney – Barton (southwest), Grayndler (innercity), Parramatta (west) and Bennelong (northwest) – was that the Liberal and Palmer “volunteers” worked in tandem together. Many said they were paid to hand out How to Vote slips. Most of them had no clue about the policies their candidates stood for. The Palmer workers acted like they were there for a picnic, knew nothing about sticking to Electoral Commission rules at polling booths and stayed a risable amount of time doing the job.

A huge amount of money had clearly been spent by both Liberal and Palmer camps at polling booths with posters that just featured an anti-Shorten slogan against a (Labor) red background. At many booths there were more of these posters than the usual photo-shopped faces of candidates.

Where had the money come from for this excessive and personal national assault? The “big end of town” striking back on election day? Between the sustained attack from Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited publications (even on Shorten’s mother), Palmer’s roadside billboards and newspaper advertising campaign and the plentiful over-supply of election day resources of personnel and posters, it surely suggests a story on where the funds came from, how they were used and whether limits should be enforced on millionaires who wish to buy election results. Instead, we barely heard a peep.


Let’s face it. Bill Shorten had it coming to him. A negative tidal wave conducted over three years by three different Liberal leaders (including one, Tony Abbott, who honed his skills in personal demolition with Julia Gillard), aided by bruised egos from inside his party about his role in two downfalls followed by a run for the leadership that saw him win through Labor’s Caucus, not the popular Party vote.

But what role did the media play in this slow concentration on one man for losing the election? I think quite a lot. From the start, his doorstop interviews were disastrous. Where were the media experts in his office to improve his performance? Where were the advisors to sell the Shorten we saw whenever he appeared on the ABC’s QandA program – a man who enjoyed talking with people, empathising with their situation and revealing more of himself in the process?

As often is the case, the comedians gave him a rough trot. Shaun Micallef’s “Mad as Hell” program took Shorten on board as a hopeless teller of tales and jokes. They were tagged as “Bill’s zingers” with raised eyebrows and audience laughter from the month Shorten took over the reins in 2013. It continued for the next 100 episodes of the program over six years. It set the stage for Shorten as a laughing-stock and the common wisdom that “I might vote Labor but…I can’t stand that Bill Shorten”.

But meanwhile, out in the real world, Shorten’s endless town hall meetings with real Australians saw him spring a surprise: at the 2016 election he came within a whisker of defeating Turnbull and gaining Government. I saw him at two Labor conferences – the NSW State Conference in 2017 and the National Conference in Adelaide in 2018. At both he gave  serious but humorous speeches to crowded halls of true believers. For the first time, I could see the other side of this former Australian Workers’ Union organizer: he might be hopeless at 3-minute doorstops in Canberra, but he was excellent as a leader inspiring the faithful.

Despite his courage in taking risks with a “big target” policy agenda, in running an old- fashioned centre-left agenda, in winning most of the public debates with Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison, and in keeping Labor united and on a steady keel since 2013, the media narrative continued to see him as a drag on Labor’s ability to win. Of course, journalists will say the polls showed Australians saw him as less popular than the Liberal leaders he faced. But how much was this chicken-and-egg? Did the media narrative about him and his zingers and past backroom deals actually cause, rather than reflect, the dislike he carried like an albatross around his electoral neck?


Finally, many of the retrospective assessments by members of the Canberra Press Gallery have focussed on how confused the losing Labor campaign was. I have not done a formal content analysis of the campaign reporting but my guess would be that the overwhelming frame was that both sides had their messages clearly delineated and were doing well in selling them. Most reporters expected a Labor win.

I beg to disagree. To me it seemed (at the time) Labor’s policies got lost in a retail firestorm of daily new give-aways. The campaign lacked focus and ended up selling many policies badly rather than one or two well. Surveys showed that Environment was up the top of the ladder of voters’ concerns, especially but not exclusively climate change, but Labor let the issue slip. The policy was there but the selling wasn’t.

Even the structure of the campaign was poor. The media bus tour is such an old US hand-me-down from decades ago. The social media campaign, normally a Labor feature derived from watching the Obama campaigns, was ordinary. Many said the Liberals campaign was better.

Where were the critiques of this poor campaign long before the shock result?

I think it is true there was a general sense of cruising to the finish line – both by Labor but also by the media. The bookies, the pollsters and Labor got it wrong long before the “miracle” burst upon us that Saturday night two weeks or more ago. All have gone into deep reflection. I think the Canberra Press Gallery needs to join the queue at the counsellors’ couch.

PETER MANNING, PhD, is Adjunct Professor of Communication at the University of Technology Sydney and a former Head of TV News and Current Affairs at the ABC.





Dr Peter Manning is Adjunct Professor of Journalism at UTS, Sydney, a former Executive Producer of "Four Corners" and head of News and Current Affairs at ABC TV and Channel 7 and the author of "Representing Palestine"

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12 Responses to PETER MANNING. Good journalists failed badly

  1. Avatar Donna Stewart says:

    All of these logical analyses miss the key point: Emotion not logic drives politics. Scott Morrison understands this, the overly cerebral upper echelons of the Labour Party did not. What the f… was a franking credit? Who cares, except for those who would lose it and thus voted against labour. And then the end of negative gearing in one king hit! Shit that was dangerous. They must have felt in an unassailable position to put those tax changes up.

    Then the beneficiaries, health and education. Blah blah blah. Same old same old. The whiny voice ground on. Politics is about passion and leadership. Anyone actually listening to Morrison could tell he was winning . People knew what he was talking about and voted for him.

    For the first time in over 50 years I shifted my vote from labour, to greens. I am angry with labour . But I’m also resigned. If they could lose that election then how could they govern the country? A drovers dog could have brought them in.

  2. Avatar John McCulloch says:

    The real alarm bells started ringing for me when the ALP automatically came out to match Morrisons first home buyer deposit scheme without giving it any serious scrutiny & I straight away thought ‘the ALP are spooked’.

    Sadly I was correct.

    The ALP became engaged in putting out spot fires such as ‘death taxes’, ‘retirees taxes’ & host of other lies that the LNP was able to put out into the media, while their main messages were left on the shelves unloved by everyone in the media.

    Next time dive hard at the legs of Morrison & be prepared to get into the gutter because as much as we don’t like it, the times call for it.

  3. Avatar Helen Rainger says:

    Thanks to Peter and all for comments. The problem will now be for those in the ALP to settle on which policies to take forward. As there seem to be so many threads in what is being said about the Labor defeat, how now to transform analysis into policy. eg If those who stood to lose least from the franking credits changes seemed to be in the electorates where there was a swing against Labor, and the reverse for electorates with a swing against the LNP, does Labor stick with the franking credits changes or no? And so on. Negative gearing changes seemed less contentious so perhaps stick with those for start. Or, as is being said, don’t take reforms to an election, wait until in Government.

  4. You have a point, Rosemary. We discussed some of these matters at a Labor Party meeting in the South Hedland Bowling Club on Friday night. The scene was so noisy I could hardly hear a word. Labor’s main mistake was to break the first and last law of philosophy — you can’t have your cake and eat it. Chris Bowen proposed to do a lot of things that need doing and cost money but he also promised to have a budget surplus. This was not believable and not necessary.

    Scott Morrison shares a trait with Donald Trump that is handy in politics. They can sum up a situation in a few words. When Scott said Bill Shorten’s Labor campaign was like a coronation procession I immediately thought of the way Trump single-handedly grounded the 737 Max jets with his comment that the new planes were too difficult to fly.

    I didn’t get it right. I thought Scott Morrison would not have enough time to repair the damage from Malcolm, Peter, Barnaby etc. But he used every minute of the available time, kicking a football from one end of Australia to the other. Labor professionals in the last week knew they were in trouble in the last week but the die was cast.

    • Avatar Kerry Faithfull says:

      Jerry, respectfully I think you still don’t have it right: you are still blaming it on the coalition.

      What Rosemary is saying, if I am correct, that getting it right would be to acknowledge the past damage can’t be fixed, nor the perps trusted, and labor needs to change its act

      How is it possible that labor didn’t know till the “last week” as you say?

      Do we pay them a hefty salary plus their new 2% increase to be that stupid?

      And if they truly are that stupid then they are the best paid stupid people I know 🙂

  5. Avatar Michael Butler says:

    It seems the journos never learn. Earlier this week a columnist in the SMH was lamenting that there was nothing to say about the government, because they have no policies, so she was writing a piece about (from memory) Labor’s factions and how they were shaping the shadow cabinet.
    Seriously. It’s this kind of shallow, lazy, don’t-rock-the-boat journalism that gives the government a free pass despite having no policies beyond tax cuts and concessions for the big end of town. It’s infuriating.

  6. Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Let me say up front: I got it right.
    I also got the October ’87 crash right, inter alia… just so’s you know.
    I got it right by listening to voters. They don’t like it. The omens were clear: Shorten was never a preferred Prime Minister. Discounting that poll makes no sense when the drift of campaigning is presidential.
    Drift is an accurate word. Cruising is accurate, too. For what are all those ‘advisers’ paid? So much?
    The writer is correct in saying it became possible, briefly, to see ‘the other side’ of this ‘leader; but it’s not what is wanted by an increasingly diverse electorate. Many of these voters have never heard of Gough Whitlam . Wheeling out former office-holders to clap hands just reminds people of : pink batts, ousted ‘leaders’, children in poverty and, adorable as Chloe is: this is serious stuff and we want to hear about the business at hand, government, not the warm fuzzies. Shorten is tainted by his manoevrings over Gillard and Rudd. Labor forgets because ‘that’s politics’. The electorate remembers what’s important to electors. There’s the difference.
    I write this on the day reports reach us of a 2% increase in Parliamentary salaries. And they have no power over that – poor pets.

    • Avatar Richard Ure says:

      Are you saying people needed to be reminded of the years of chaos within the government? ” He is my leader and I am ambitious for him.”The Claytons coup. If they had been reminded, would it have made any difference given the avalanche of fake news from the usual and now a new suspect?

    • Avatar Kerry Faithfull says:

      Right on Rosemary! No matter how much Labor smeared Kevin Rudd after they axed him, no matter how they tried to paint Julia as the “innocent female victim”. We the voters have long memories and we don’t trust the men behind the scenes or the women who do their bidding. Especially not Bill Shorten. Especially not Julia Gillard.

      You have to hand it to the libs: they do all their in-fighting in plain sight. it seems the Australian electorate prefer it that way.

      In my post below I accuse Labor of throwing this election on purpose, would not the instant pay rise for ALL pollies support this possibility? First cab off the rank for the new government: Pay rises ???? What no protests from labor? no press on the sheer callousness of this move? Its business as usual folks.

  7. Avatar Kerry Faithfull says:

    And where were the internal labor polls that surely told them they were losing?
    This to me is the biggest omission on the reporting on the election loss. Not why did Labor lose, rather why are they not admitting that they already knew the real situation ?

    Its completely naive to suggest that labor was cruising on the results of external opinion polls.
    They knew alright. The more interesting question is why are they happy to pretend otherwise?

    The biggest clue to why it was not necessarily the fault of the media, or PUP is how Labor won in Victoria in spite of Murdoch and right wing scare tactics.

    If elections were sports I’d be speculating that labor threw the final deliberately. I heard the betting odds changed at the last minute to favour the libs on election day? It would be interesting to know who the big $$ winners were.

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