PAUL BARRY. With pollsters and pundits getting the election result so wrong, how fair and balanced was Australia’s media this election? (Media Watch ABC 20.5.2019)May 23, 2019
So how did the Coalition make it happen? And what effect if any did a partisan media have on the result? News Corp’s army of right-wing commentators barracked tirelessly for the Coalition throughout the campaign, warning the nation would be destroyed if Labor won. News Corp’s news, meanwhile — meant to be opinion free — was often as one-sided. (ABC Transcript)
Media Watch has audited the front pages of all the major papers during the campaign and found none went in harder than The Australian.
Just one of its front pages favoured Labor — marginally — compared to 25 that attacked the ALP and its leader, or pumped up the Coalition, with headlines like these:
Shorten ignites unholy war
– The Australian, 15 May, 2019
Senators reject ALP tax grab
– The Australian, 7 May, 2019
PM’S final pitch: it’s not time
– The Australian, 16 May, 2019
In The Daily Telegraph, just four small front pages favoured Labor while 19 attacked it, or boosted the Coalition.
And, in true tabloid style, readers were rarely left in doubt about the message:
TAX TIME BOMB
– The Daily Telegraph, 12 April, 2019
THE GREAT DIVIDER
– The Daily Telegraph, 15 May, 2019
That’s how much extra Labor’s carbon policy will cost our economy
– The Daily Telegraph, 19 April, 2019
Brisbane’s Courier-Mail — in the state with the most marginal seats — also went hard, with just three front pages favouring Labor and 15 cheering on the Coalition:
SCOMO READY TO GO
– The Courier-Mail, 11 April, 2019
– The Courier-Mail, 13 May, 2019
These themes were amplified by News Corp’s columnists and other News Corp mastheads around the country.
With Melbourne’s Herald Sun the only one of its big-city papers choosing not to join the pile on. In a state that swung towards Labor, it’s front pages split evenly between the two main parties.
And that is more than you can say for the key Fairfax papers now owned by Nine.
Front pages of The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age backed Labor in much the same ratio as News Corp backed the Coalition.
Although admittedly their stories were more newsy and far less strident.
The West Australian, meanwhile, did a fair imitation of the News Corp tabloids with some of its pro-Coalition headlines, but was relatively balanced overall.
So is there anything wrong with the media and News Corp in particular, taking sides like this?
In my view yes, if it’s as blatant and one-sided as they have made it.
And Monash University’s Johan Lidberg agrees, arguing the concentration of Australian media ownership is what makes it so serious:
If the dominant outlet in such a media landscape decides to wholeheartedly back one side of politics, it will undoubtedly impact the tenor of a campaign and skew the information voters rely on to make up their minds.
It’s not good for a healthy democracy and a fair election campaign.
– The Conversation, 9 May, 2019
It’s even worse if the media distort the news or bend the facts.
And there’s little to stop them doing that, even though all the main mastheads, except The West Australian, agree to abide by the Australian Press Council’s guidelines.
These state that newspapers:
… are under an obligation to present to the public a reasonably comprehensive and accurate account of public issues.
– Australian Press Council, Guideline: Reporting Elections, 17 February, 2012
They also agree to draw a “clear distinction” between “reporting the facts and stating opinion”.
But, as we’ve pointed out repeatedly on Media Watch, News Corp often gives only one side of the argument and mixes opinion into news.
And yet it gets away with it.
In fact, it’s how The Daily Telegraph and Courier-Mail managed to get a tick from the Press Council for these famous anti-Labor shockers in the 2013 campaign:
KICK THIS MOB OUT
– The Daily Telegraph, 5 August, 2013
The Council rejected almost 100 complaints about those three front pages, apparently because they were judged to be opinion.
But even when the Press Council does rule against a media outlet — often six months after the event — not much happens, because it has no power to punish.
So, policing bias in the print media really doesn’t work.
And the same can be said for commercial TV, where the broadcast regulator has not found any impartiality breaches during elections ever.
And that’s just as well for Sky, whose right-wing commentators hammered the same themes as News Corp’s papers and did their damnedest to stop Labor winning:
CHRIS KENNY: Labor and the Greens are getting away with crazy talk and absurd policies on climate and energy.
– The Kenny Report, Sky News, 14 May, 2019
ALAN JONES: … I won’t sign the economic suicide note by putting 1 beside the Labor candidate on Saturday.
– Jones & Co, Sky News, 14 May, 2019
PAUL MURRAY: What a muckraker. What a bloke who, like so many Labor leaders before, is going to go the low road to the highest office in the country.
– Paul Murray Live, Sky News, 14 May, 2019
Sky might be little watched, but it’s not without influence. And after dark it’s almost entirely one-eyed.
All those were from just one night. But The New Daily monitored three days of Sky’s night-time commentary and found:
… there were more than seven times the number of negative comments directed at Labor than at the Liberals – 194 negatives to 27 respectively.
One Nation received almost three times as many positive comments as negative: 26 to 9.
The Greens received not one single positive comment.
– The New Daily, 14 May, 2019
No great surprises there. But absolutely no attempt to be impartial.
Luckily the news — and commentary — on Nine, Seven and Ten is far more balanced.
And, I’d say that’s true of the ABC too, despite claims of bias to Labor.
As a spokesperson told Media Watch, its election reporting:
… is continuously monitored by the editorial managers to ensure it is meeting the ABC’s standards for fairness and impartiality.
In addition, at each election the ABC convenes an Election Coverage Review Committee …
– Email, ABC Spokesperson, 16 May, 2019
Its report will be made public in a few months.
But at the 2016 election it found the Coalition received significantly more airtime than Labor did.
And it also found that two-thirds of the almost 700 complaints about ABC bias were of bias towards the Coalition, the opposite of what its loudest critics say.
So, does media bias matter? And did it help the Coalition win?
I think the answer’s yes. But by how much is not clear.
Rod Tiffen at the University of Sydney told Media Watch, before the upset, that News Corp’s influence is on the wane:
I think their impact declines with each election — it’s partly shrinking circulation … partly the ageing demographic of their readership. If they were going to convince anyone, they would have been convinced a decade ago.
– Phone interview, Rod Tiffen, Emeritus Professor, Government & International Relations, University of Sydney, 17 May, 2019
The mainstream media certainly does have less power than it used to. And less than its owners and editors would like to believe. But it still shapes opinions and sets the agenda.
Almost 20 years ago, after a Conservative victory in the UK election, the Murdochs’ raucous London tabloid famously claimed “IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT”.
I don’t think that’s true of Australia this time — although News Corp certainly tried — because most voters weren’t paying attention. And images on the TV news where Morrison was brilliant at marketing himself, were arguably far more important.
Night after night, voters saw ScoMo smiling and active, a man who likes his footy, loves his family, with a simple message: “How good is Australia?”
Night after night, voters saw Bill Shorten talking. Often serious, rarely smiling, with too much to say in too many words.
And in a contest the media makes ever more presidential, there was no doubt who won that.
But policies on tax and climate change counted, too. And with help from News Corp, Labor’s were rejected — especially in Queensland.
As Andrew Bolt proclaimed triumphantly on Saturday:
ANDREW BOLT: … all those Adani protesters with all their signs over all these years, you lost suckers.
It was a global warming election and they lost.
– Sky News, 18 May, 2019
All in all it was an extraordinary result, and one that pollsters and media experts will long be poring over.