As the Australian approaches its 50th anniversary amid much self-congratulation, an insight into its editorial standards and how it conducts itself in controversies is provided by its recent reporting of competing claims over tobacco consumption.
Tobacco is still the largest preventable source of premature death in the world.
Despite the scale of its damage the Australian’s owner Rupert Murdoch has always had a curious attachment to the tobacco industry. He was on the Philip Morris Board for a decade, and members of that company have often been on the News Corp Board. Internal Philip Morris documents in the US described him as sympathetic to their position and his newspapers as ‘our natural allies’ and noted that his papers rarely publish anti-smoking articles.
The fight to reduce the problems caused by tobacco has been a great policy success in Australia. While around 37 per cent of the adult population (15+) smoked cigarettes daily in 1970, only around 16 per cent do now, and the decreases in per capita tobacco consumption have been even more dramatic, now around one third of their 1970 levels.
There have been three strands to achieving this reduction. The first has been public education…. The second has been raising the price of cigarettes… The third has been legislation restricting areas where people can smoke, and importantly the ability of the industry to advertise its product, to give smoking a ‘cool’ image. This was gradually extended from advertising on radio and television to print advertising to event sponsorship.
The latest such measure came when under the Labor Government, led by Health Minister Nicola Roxon, Australia became the first country in the world to mandate that cigarettes could only be sold in uniform plain paper packaging, a move aimed at making young people less likely to take up smoking.
It is interesting to note that before the enactment there were several scare campaigns by the tobacco lobby. Tim Wilson, of the Institute of Public Affairs, which is reported to receive funding from the industry, said that the legislation could cost Australian taxpayers $3 billion in lawsuits over the intellectual property surrounding cigarette packaging. The sum at the moment is closer to zero.
On June 6, in a front page ‘exclusive’ by Christian Kerr was headlined ‘Evidence “World’s Toughest Anti-Smoking Laws” not working’/Labor’s Plain Packaging Fails as cigarette sales rise’. It began ‘Labor’s nanny state push to kill off the country’s addiction to cigarettes with plain packaging has backfired, with new sales figures showing tobacco consumption growing during the first full year of the new laws.’ A supporting editorial began ‘Suck it up nanny, plain cigarette packs have not cut smoking.’ Columnist Judith Sloan followed up ‘The nannies are panicking’, and referred to ‘Head Nanny, Nicola Roxon’. Henry Ergas similarly began ‘Not every nanny encourages her charges to take up alcohol and tobacco, but then again not every health minister is like Nicola Roxon.’
The one piece of hard evidence in the original article is an industry survey commissioned by the tobacco industry to be used in lobbying against the introduction of similar laws in Britain. More problematic than the provenance of the data is that the company was only prepared to release selective snippets, which makes it difficult to evaluate its overall worth and meaning. The industry claim that smoking sales had increased was fleshed out with anecdotal evidence. Except for a one paragraph ritual denial from the Labor shadow minister all the examples went in the one direction, that the policy was having no effect. The owner of a convenience store, for example, was cited, but no public health experts. A later story quoted a ‘proud’ Brisbane smoker saying the policy had had no effect on her.
It is especially notable that the newspaper did not cross-check its industry data with any official data sources. Others soon filled the gap. The blog by leading economic analyst, Stephen Koukoulas, ‘the Kouk’, challenged the story by using Australian Bureau of Statistics National Accounts figures which indicated a decline in smoking over the calendar year 2013.
A much bigger reaction followed Paul Barry’s dissection on the ABC TV’s Media Watch on June 16. Skewered yet again by its arch-enemy, the Australian reacted vigorously. It ran five stories on the topic the following Wednesday. In the subsequent week or so, there were two editorials, a couple of references in ‘Cut and Paste’, and several news stories and commentary columns. Such huge attention was clearly more due to bruised editorial egos than to audience interest. The coverage offers an instructive guide to how the Australian conducts controversies about itself.
In this tobacco controversy legal affairs editor Chris Merritt criticised Media Watch for not disclosing that Stephen Koukoulas had worked on Julia Gillard’s staff for 10 months, and using Professor Mike Daube who had been a member of the government panel that recommended plain packaging laws. Daube is an eminent authority on public health, while Koukoulas was a senior member of the Treasury for many years, and is a leading economist. But red trumps expert in the eyes of the Australian. Conversely the paper did not indicate that two of its staff working on the story – Christian Kerr and Adam Creighton – had worked for the Liberal Party, while one of its experts, Sinclair Davidson, had links to the Institute for Public Affairs, which is supported by the tobacco industry.
The newspaper then wheeled out its three favourite academics – Judith Sloan, Henry Ergas and Sinclair Davidson – in its defence. All three got the basic facts wrong. Davidson asserted that ‘I have no doubt that the consumption of cigarettes has risen since plain packaging was introduced; we just can’t be sure whether it is by existing smokers or new smokers’. Sloan repeated this claim. Ergas claims that Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows tobacco consumption increased by 2.5 per cent in volume terms in the year immediately after the introduction of plain packaging.
In fact, the statistical evidence is fairly clear, and in the other direction. According to Media Watch the industry admits that the number of smokers fell in 2013 by 1.4%, and also that the number of cigarettes smoked per person fell by 1.4%. Alan Austin gives the quarterly figures on household expenditure on tobacco consumption for nine quarters from March 2012 to March 2014. Each quarter in 2013 was below its 2012 equivalent except for the December quarter. Then there was a sharp fall in the March 2014 quarter. Later Treasury data was released, and it advised that ‘tobacco clearances’ fell by 3.4 per cent in 2013 compared with 2012. Clearances are an indicator of tobacco volumes in the Australian market.’
The one exception to this consistent picture of declining consumption – and the one that the newspaper’s commentators have seized on without giving its context – is a spike in the last quarter of 2012. This was almost certainly due to the anticipation by retailers and some customers of the large customs rise which was scheduled to occur in December. Predictably this momentary increase was followed by a large decrease in the next quarter.
The other figure used in several reports is a trend towards increased sales at the cheap end of the market. But this is not inconsistent with a decline in aggregate sales. Cheaper cigarettes now command a larger share of a shrinking market. Their growth has been more than cancelled out by the decline in the more premium brands, no doubt to the chagrin of the tobacco companies.
All three of the Australian’s columnists based their commentary on a false reading of the data.
The paper’s economics correspondent, Adam Creighton (19-6-2014) argued that the data ‘do not discredit the Australian’s claim the policy might have contributed to rising sales of cigarettes.’ Actually, there was no ‘might’ in headlines such as ‘Plain fact: more people smoking’. He also still believed that ‘as of now there is no evidence to refute the industry’s claims of a rise in the number of cigarettes being smoked …’
What would a reader relying solely on the Australian know after all this coverage? They would not have a clear idea of what the paper’s critics had been saying, or why they were saying it. They would not know that the AMA and Cancer Council had criticised the paper’s coverage as misleading. They would probably think that tobacco consumption had increased rather than decreased. They would not have had a clear and unvarnished account of the official statistics, or where the weight of the evidence lies.
One cannot help thinking that the Australian in 1964 would have covered the tobacco story more competently than did the Australian in 2014.
Rod Tiffen is the Emeritus Professor, Government and International Relations, University of Sydney. The above are extracts from a paper which will shortly be published by Inside Story.