Welcome to a new initiative by The Conversation - a “media watch” blog that will bring analysis and accountability to the coverage of this year’s federal election.
As the CEOs of all of the major media outlets in Australia told us in March when they visited Canberra for the Senate hearings into media reforms being proposed by then-communications minister Stephen Conroy, the news media in this country play an absolutely pivotal role in delivering democracy and “good government”.
Indeed, as media scholars also told us in submissions to the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation (2011), this role is one that demands two contradictory kinds of freedom: a “freedom from” interference by state control like censorship, but also as “freedom to” have access to diverse, fair and reliable content in current affairs and news. Without the latter, citizens will lack the means to make informed and deliberative decisions.
Nowhere is the opportunity for the Australia’s press to prove this role more on show than it is in an election campaign.
The days of the major presses being able to swing elections in Australia, as happened in the 1970s and 1980s are long past. Instead, politicians react to focus groups as much as they do to headlines, in order to get their message out.
But what is also different today is that all political parties walk a tightrope in getting attention as the issue-attention cycle so often takes on a life of its own. For the most part, politicians and journalists are left to react to whatever the cycle dictates, which unfortunately can end up as a race-to-the-bottom for both policy and journalism itself. For example, the recent politicisation of the asylum seeker issue by both of the major parties is a paradigm case for such a downward spiral, and Australians do deserve better than this, let alone the asylum seekers.
Both sides of politics sought to politicise the statements of PNG government ministers regarding Manus Island, followed by yet another attempt to politicise the military around Operation Sovereign Borders. For the first time ever in Australia, we saw a proposal that the military are not to be given the opportunity to name an operation that they are supposed to be carrying out. The fact of this was barely picked up in news outlets. If the purpose of the press is to interrogate election-oriented political interference with its first cousin (the executive), as it condemns interference with its own sovereignty, then it will only make itself all the poorer for being servants to these antics.
One feature of an election campaign that should concentrate the mind of journalists on the actual policy of parties is that leadership speculation is finally off the table. Obsession with leadership has been a lamentable distraction from policy reporting in recent months and, in public interest terms, it is policy and outcomes that should be the role of an election coverage to investigate. In evaluating how party policies are being reported, this blog will be on the lookout for the balance of reporting, but also what might be missing. Will the negative aspects of each campaign get played up more than the platform policies?
If the policies are not communicated effectively, voters are left without a record of what each party stands for and will deliver if they are elected. If it is the politicians that aren’t delivering the policy detail, then it is up to the press to bring it out. If the politicians are delivering policy, but the press isn’t communicating it, then the fourth estate is failing us. With all these “ifs” we will be offering concise and timely analysis on each day’s coverage of the election campaign.
We have 24 Media Panellists (MPs) who will be reviewing the coverage of party policies and statements across every portfolio of government. But analysis will respond to the issues that are framed by the campaign strategies, as well as the agendas set by the tabloids and broadsheets. What will be the leading issues: immigration, climate change, the economy, education, health or industrial relations?
Let not the games, but a serious conversation, begin!
Introducing our Media Panellists
Brian McNair, Queensland University of Technology
David Holmes, Monash University
Denis Muller, University of Melbourne
Marcus O'Donnell, University of Wollongong
Brad Farrant, University of Western Australia
Folker Hanusch, University of the Sunshine Coast
Barbara Alysen, University of Western Sydney
Sally Young, University of Melbourne
Sinclair Davidson, RMIT
Sean Rintel, University of Queensland
David Maguire, Murdoch University
Joseph Fernandez, Curtin University
Tom Clark, Victoria University
Matthew Ricketson, University of Canberra
Jenna Price, University of Technology, Sydney
Stephanie Brookes, Monash University
Philip Chubb, Monash University
Libby Lester, University of Tasmania
Jill Singer, RMIT
Alan Knight, University of Technology, Sydney
Paul Scott, University of Newcastle
Bill Mitchell, Charles Darwin University
Usha Rodrigues, Deakin University
Michael Wilmore, University of Adelaide