Election 2013: the role of the media

Wherever the leaders went on the campaign trail the media followed. How can we assess the media’s performance? AAP/Alan Porritt

In one sense, the Australian media did a good job under difficult circumstances in this election. The difficult part was how predictable the campaign was and the increasing inevitability of the outcome.

Both leaders tried to play it safe, but Kevin Rudd was put under much more scrutiny and pressure. This perhaps led to his disappointing performance in the first leaders’ debate, removing that element of uncertainty and drama which journalists need to give their narratives structure and tension.

The polls suggested a historic defeat for the ALP, and that’s what transpired. Against that background, it was always going to be a challenge for the press to make the campaign interesting to an electorate largely tired of and cynical about the incumbents, and inclined to give the Coalition a fair go. By week four of the campaign, many had tuned out and were pretty much ready for the ballot box.

The media could have done a better job scrutinising the Coalition’s program, but opposition leader Tony Abbott and his team played a masterful game of hide-and-seek with their policy costings, denying both journalists and political opponents a clear target. The fact-checkers on several media outlets did what they could with the numbers that were available, but the Coalition strategy of “the less you say on policy and costings, the less likely you are to be found out” was effective in deflecting the kind of scrutiny that might have influenced the outcome.

The idea that a major party could get away with releasing their detailed policy costings fewer than 48 hours before the polls opened is bizarre. But in the end, it appears that close to 46% of voters didn’t care if shadow treasurer Joe Hockey’s sums added up or not.

Add to that Rudd’s campaigning incompetency, and there really was very little in the way of genuine party competition for the media to get their teeth into. In that context they did an okay job.

But did the press make a difference to the outcome?

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph nailed their colours to the mast from day one of the campaign.

Early on, speculation abounded as to why News Corp was going all out against Labor. Was is to look after commercial interests? Was it the media giant’s owner Rupert Murdoch’s dislike of Labor’s version of the NBN? There was also News Corp’s systematic attack of Fairfax during the campaign and on election day itself to consider.

Overlooked is the fact that Labor virtually declared war on News Corp back in March with then-communications minister Stephen Conroy’s proposed media reforms. The reforms never made it through the ten days Conroy had given them to get through parliament, and Labor was destined to be in the News cross-hairs.

Did the overt bias of the News Corp press – Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and The Australian in particular - push voters towards the Coalition? Or were those biases, exposed as they were at the very outset of the campaign and subject to welcome scrutiny, discounted by the swing voters who determined the outcome? Politicians, journalists and scholars of political media will debate this over the next few months, though they’re unlikely to reach a definitive conclusion.

The leaders themselves viewed the media coverage very differently, depending on their perception of its fairness to their cause.

From day one, Rudd’s obsession with News Corp had him on the back foot. Labor’s view is that there has been an orchestrated campaign against it, with barely any favourable attention given to its policies.

Labor was not claiming there was a conspiracy, which would imply covert forms of attack, rather that News Corp’s editorialising had, after all, been plain for all to see on the front pages of the tabloids. There was also no secret to Col Allan’s arrival and less so the remarkable resignation of the company’s CEO Kim Williams.

For the Coalition, the media were simply reflecting the mood of the people. As Tony Abbott put it:

The reason why this government gets poor coverage, at least in some areas of the media, is because it has been the worst government in our history…If you want better coverage, be a better government.

Abbott’s view is that the press, having been critical of the government in its last term, is entitled to carry this criticism over into an election, where calling a government to account matters the most.

Another of the Daily Telegraph’s infamous campaign front pages.

But does making a government accountable in the media have to involve character assassination of its leader, or applauding the alternative leader when he asks if the prime minister ever “shuts up” at a people’s forum? And in any event, does such coverage matter to the outcome?

Anti-ALP propaganda wasn’t necessary to propel Abbott into The Lodge. All the media had to do was report the spectacle of the ALP destroying its credibility as a government – a process which began with the dumping of Rudd in 2010, and ended with the dumping of Julia Gillard in June. But did the hostility of the Daily Telegraph and others make an already bad situation worse for the ALP, and the electoral outcome worse than it would otherwise have been?

Voting patterns suggest that coverage such as News Corp front pages depicting Rudd as a Nazi, or advising readers to “Kick this mob out”, was less influential than some commentators expected.

For example, the results in key marginal seats in western Sydney have defied expectations. On August 23, the Daily Telegraph ran headlines of “ALP losing its heart” and “Exclusive: Labor facing western Sydney election wipeout”. The article based its exclusive on a Galaxy poll of 550 voters each in the seats of Reid, Werriwa, Lindsay, Greenway and Banks. All seats were hyped to be lost to Labor in a “wipeout”.

But now the results are in: two have gone to the LNP, two to the ALP with one still undecided. The polls have loomed large in this election, and have been published at a rate not seen in past elections. This has led to suggestions that they might unduly influence election outcomes, where they are accompanied by stories suggesting the vote is already decided.

Rudd’s anticipated dread of the polls and News Corp’s coverage had him looking to social media and first-time voters for a boost. His first speech after reclaiming the leadership was about reaching out to the “youth of today”. But alas, even if it did vote for him, this demographic made very little difference where it counted most: in the assorted marginal electorates.

In the end, Rudd completely overdid the rapport he imagined he could cultivate on social media in his television performances, which saw the emerging monstrosity of the Rudd ego. It was all about Kevin as the weeks went on, right up until Saturday’s concession speech, which came across more like a victory rally in its self-congratulatory and complacent tone.

With the childish refusal to acknowledge Gillard’s achievements as prime minister for three years, it seemed that Rudd was truly pleased with himself, as if he knew that his revenge was complete. Shame about the damage done to the ALP and its supporters.

One other media highlight included the three leaders’ debates, all organised by Sky News. Murdoch’s Sky News assumed a monopoly over these events, and many saw it as a commercial windfall for him to consolidate his influence over the election. They were also “sponsored” by the Murdoch tabloids, and had the cross-selling of venues, newspapers and Sky itself.

Rudd and Abbott appeared at three leaders’ debates, all sponsored and organised by Sky News. Did this shut the other broadcasters out? AAP/Lukas Coch

Like News Corp’s press outlets, Sky is transparent in its anti-ALP bias, with presenters such as Paul Murray functioning like tabloid cheerleaders for the Coalition in the campaign. Murray, it should be acknowledged, can also be extremely critical of Coalition policy, and has a refreshingly frank way of expressing his doubts. Elsewhere, the channel provided important moments of critical scrutiny of both sides. The leaders’ debates didn’t go well for Rudd on the whole, but that was his responsibility. Sky merely gave him enough rope.

Sky’s rumbustious, opinionated approach was also a welcome contrast to the ABC’s necessarily more even-handed, sober coverage. The ABC is not a pro-ALP organisation, as is alleged by many on the right in Australia. Even if it was, it would have been dangerous for its managers and journalists in this campaign to give any ammunition to their News Corp critics, who are already calling on the Coalition government to cut the public broadcaster’s funding. Were the ABC to come under serious governmental attack in the next parliament, it would indeed be a disaster for Australia’s political culture.

But the public service broadcaster’s duty to impartiality made for a duller, less engaging coverage. Both the quantity and dynamic quality of its coverage should be acknowledged, even by those who regard any media outlet associated with Murdoch as the spawn of Satan.

The ABC, on the other hand, while meeting its public service obligations to inform with well-resourced, impartial, independent journalism, also gave us Q&A with Kevin Rudd, and “infotaining” interludes such as Kitchen Cabinet. Both leaders are to be commended for engaging with popular political formats in this campaign, which offer both opportunities and risks.

These were perhaps the highlights of what was, in the main, a predictable and lifeless media campaign.