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.

THE MONEY TRAIL

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.

BILL SHORTEN

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?

THE CAMPAIGN

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.

 

 

 

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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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