EVAN WILLIAMS: Who cares what the papers say?

May 30, 2016

In the first week of Malcolm Turnbull’s interminable election campaign, the Murdoch press surprised its readers by advocating support for Labor. How’s that again? Had Rupert had a change of heart? Well, not exactly. But it certainly looked that way when his Sydney tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, under the headline “Save Our Albo”, urged voters in Anthony Albanese’s suburban Sydney seat to keep Albo in the job. It turned out that the Greens – an even greater threat to civilisation than the ALP – were threatening to unseat Albo in a preference deal with the Liberals. Luckily this dire plot was exposed in time.

How many Tele readers, I wonder, will take the paper’s advice and put the Greens at the bottom of their ticket on July 2? For that matter, how many readers of any paper are likely to be influenced by editorial pronouncements on how they should cast their vote? These days, I suspect, not many. In our enlightened digital age, when most people get their news from i-Phones, tablets or whatever, it’s hardly likely that they will turn to the papers for advice on how to vote.

That said, it’s instructive to see how the leading media outlets frame their political allegiances. Back in the golden age of print journalism, when newspaper editorials, especially at election time, were eagerly read and taken seriously, support from a respected daily broadsheet almost certainly influenced the outcome of a poll – If not by actually changing voters’ intentions, then at least by providing a morale boost to the favoured party.

Take the Sydney Morning Herald – for many years a bastion of conservative opinion among its predominantly upper- and middle-class readership. In the first 60 years of the 20th century, the Herald never once advocated a vote for Labor (though there was cautious endorsement of John Curtin’s war effort during the dark days of 1943). Imagine the dismay, the anguished cries of indignant letter-writers on Sydney’s North Shore when the Herald came out for Arthur Calwell in 1961. The Herald’s change of heart was reputedly motivated by a rumoured affair between prime minister Bob Menzies and the wife (or one of the wives) of the Herald’s proprietor Warwick Fairfax, but no one dared hint as much in public, let alone in the columns of the Herald. As a fairly junior sub-editor on the paper in those days, I was given the job of subbing Calwell’s campaign speeches, which had been written for him on the 14th floor of the Fairfax Broadway building by Max Newton and the Herald’s editorial manager Lou Leck. The copy was duly delivered to me at the subs’ desk around six o’clock, well before the speech was actually delivered, and I didn’t have to change a word of it.

In the 1983 campaign, when most of the country (and most of the press) were swinging behind Bob Hawke, the Herald kept faith with its still mainly Tory readership by supporting Malcolm Fraser. And in 1972, when most of the country was swinging behind Gough Whitlam, the Herald came out for Billy McMahon. Even the Murdoch press was pro-Labor in those days, The Australian supported.

Gough in 1972, and once again I had a hand in the campaign, writing crusading pro-Whitlam editorials for the Sunday Australian and the odd pro-Labor feature for the Oz. The Australian’s election coverage was personally supervised by Rupert himself, present each day in the newsroom with sleeves rolled up and pen in hand. At Rupert’s direction I wrote a speech for Whitlam’s closing campaign rally at St. Kilda Town Hall in Melbourne. It was rather a good effort, I thought, but Gough threw it away and spoke off the cuff, declaring later he would never deliver a speech “written by Rupert Murdoch”.

It’s hard to believe that the “Murdoch press” was once warmly admired by the left-liberal intelligentsia. Compared with that old-fashioned arch-Tory Warwick Fairfax, and the right-wing bullying autocrat Frank Packer from Consolidated Press, Rupert was the media good guy. The generally benign view of him was a hangover from the days of the old Adelaide News, the maverick afternoon tabloid from the Herald and Weekly Times stable edited in its best years by the independent-minded Rohan Rivett. The News was the sole newspaper asset Rupert inherited after the death of his father Keith in 1952. Twelve years later he launched the Australian in Canberra, the country’s first national daily broadsheet in the Fleet Street “quality” tradition. But any left-wing sympathies the paper harboured proved short-lived. After supporting Whitlam in 1972 the Australian turned viciously against him in 1975 (and again in 1977), alienating its left-wing leadership base, which it has never recovered.

At Fairfax, the painful lessons of 1961 (when many readers cancelled their subscriptions in protest at the Herald’s Calwell flirtation) continued to dominate management thinking. After cautiously backing Hawke in 1984 and again in 1987, the Herald swung to the centre during the Howard-Latham election in 2004. Latham was actually leading Howard in the polls for most of the campaign but lost his edge in the closing stages. On the eve of the election, the Herald ran a curious editorial that for aimlessness and fatuity is surely unique in the annals of quality journalism. In future, the Herald announced, it would “no longer endorse one party or the other at election time… We recognise that expressing a preference for one side in an election will taint us in the eyes of some readers.” So much for free speech and the courageous expression of honest opinion! But yes, there was a let-out clause: the policy might have to be “reappraised“ if a “truly awful government of any colour” appeared on the scene. And it wasn’t long before the let-out clause was activated.

In 2007 both the Murdoch and the Fairfax press were firmly behind Rudd. In no election before or since, to my knowledge, has Labor enjoyed more solid media support. Every Murdoch paper – the Australian, the Telegraph, the Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Hobart Mercury – campaigned for Kevin 07. Only the Herald-Sun In Melbourne and the Adelaide Advertiser backed the Coalition – on the grounds that their economic record and “delivery of prosperity” rendered them deserving of a fifth term. Among Fairfax papers, only the Melbourne Age stood against the pro-Rudd consensus, preferring to sit on the fence: “It is not our role to tell you who to vote for … or to endorse one party over another.” The Age’s “fundamental responsibility” was to subject the winning party to “continuous independent scrutiny.”

No doubt these noble sentiments will be reappraised if the Age – or any other paper – wants to campaign boots-and-all in the July 2 poll. But I don’t see that happening. Apart from the Daily Telegraph, which has been running grotesque anti-Labor beat-up stories almost every day on subjects ranging from the budget blow-out to Bill Shorten’s man-boobs, the mainstream papers have preserved a reasonable balance between professional obligations and prevailing biases. These days, individual writers and columnists have more influence on readers than editors or leader-writers. Donald Horne once poured scorn on the anonymity of the newspaper editorial, arguing that the absence of a by-line somehow gave the writer’s opinions a fake authority, as if the words were being handed down from on high (as sometimes, in my experience, they were).

It will be a brave editor who gives full support to Bill Shorten when the chips are down. Editors (especially tabloid ones) like to back winners, and few people at this stage expect a Labor win. Barring some unexpected upheaval (which can never be ruled out), I make three predictions: one, that the Coalition will launch a furious blitz of anti-Shorten attack ads; two, that neither leader will give serious attention to climate change (though Shorten has a good record on the issue); and three, that the mainstream press will unanimously support the Turnbull government’s re-election. There’ll be much sober talk of the need for stability, for steady, responsible stewardship after years of uncertainty and change, and the old Aussie mantra of the fair go will help Malcolm, just as it helped Whitlam in 1974, Hawke in 1984, and Keating in 1993. With his glib phrases and practised smile, Turnbull will get over the line – though of course I hope I’m wrong.

Evan Williams is a former newspaper editor and Walkley Award-winning journalist. He wrote speeches for Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and a succession of NSW premiers. He headed the NSW Government’s cultural sector from 1977 to 2001, and for 33 years wrote regular film reviews for The Australian. He is a Member of the Order of Australia.


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