It takes rare genius to provoke Scott Morrison and Andrew Bolt to express sympathy for Bill Shorten, but the Daily Telegraph managed it.
On Wednesday morning its front page story was headlined ‘Mother of Invention’, and claimed that Shorten, when making points about his admiration for his mother and the opportunities that had been denied her, had been misleading about his mother’s career by omitting that she had had ‘an illustrious career as a barrister’.
This headline story was followed up by three more stories inside. The main one was headlined ‘Shorten’s Mother of All Lapses. Labor chief only told half the family story’. Shorten had used his mother’s history, of how her family’s economic situation had limited her opportunities, how despite her ambition and ability to become a lawyer she had to take a teaching scholarship. Next door was a comment by the reporter Anna Caldwell, who thought that Shorten ‘comes off as the slippery salesman yet again, playing straight into the Liberals’ attack line’.
To give the story such prominence and space showed that the paper invested it with huge importance, and was using his account of his mother’s career to discredit Shorten’s credibility. The headline word invention clearly implies a lie.
The effort backfired spectacularly. Shorten has often been criticized for being over-rehearsed, almost robotic. When defending his mother and attacking the Telegraph, he fought back tears. He said how he missed his dead mother every day, but ‘I’m glad she wasn’t here today to read that rubbish.’ He tweeted: ‘In a new low, the Daily Telegraph has decided to use my mum’s life as a political attack on me, and on her memory. They think they know more about my mum than I do.’
In fact, as is acknowledged near the bottom of the Telegraph story, Shorten had talked more fully about his mother’s career on several occasions, that when her boys were old enough to go to university, she did too, and achieved her ambition to finish a law degree, gathering several prizes on the way. The paper was wrong – she did not have an illustrious career as a barrister. Entering the profession in her fifties she found it hard to get briefs and after several years abandoned the effort and went back into education.
The paper also stimulated a #MyMum series on Twitter, where many people celebrated their mothers’ achievements and recounted the disadvantages they faced. So the paper had unintentionally set off a pre-Mother’s Day theme focusing on female disadvantage.
This attack on Shorten was the most counter-productive of News Corp’s anti-Labor efforts and the one which attracted the most attention. However the wider pattern is all so obvious.
When I open the Australian’s web page, and almost invariably see half a dozen anti-Labor headlines, the effect is comical rather than persuasive. Their efforts to conjure pro-Liberal themes also lead to increasingly bizarre interpretations. After the leaders’ debate on Wednesday evening, Denis Shanahan’s front page analysis thought that ‘Scott Morrison is across detail and Bill Shorten is not’.
This is a trivial point, but shows their capacity to construct their own world. I was struck by this because my feeling was the exact opposite. Morrison is a good, energetic campaigner, and fast on his feet with an immediate response to whatever comes up. However it is Morrison’s inability to go beyond some simple, immediate answer that I suspect is the reason he refused to appear on Q and A, to be interviewed by Barrie Cassidy on Insiders or have a one on one interview with the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy.
The Prime Ministerial mastery of detail was tested that very day. The United Nations brought out a landmark report, the produce of several years’ work, involving dozens of science, said that a million species were at risk of extinction. This was already unfortunate timing for Morrison who that day announced his government’s war on ‘green tape’.
When Morrison was asked about the threat to biodiversity, he said the government had passed a bill in the last week of parliament. After some puzzlement, it was eventually revealed that he was referring to a bill that restricts testing cosmetics on animals.
The evidence for the long-term toll of the collapse of any sense of professional standards in News Corp papers is increasingly evident. Producing newspapers primarily to please the 88 year old proprietor, whose rigid political fixations long ago caused him to lose his populist touch, has led to a moribund internal culture with mediocrity and conformity the guiding principles.
There can no longer be any debate that these newspapers are first and foremost propaganda sheets. What is more surprising is that they are so bad at it.
Rod Tiffen is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Sydney. He is the author of ‘Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment’