The prime minister did better in Wednesday’s people’s forum than in the first debate, but failed to deliver the game changing performance he needed. On the contrary, negative media coverage of his alleged rudeness towards a make-up artist who was preparing him for the broadcast has dominated the last couple of days, and reinforced his reputation as a rather bad-tempered bully with poor people skills. Mr Rudd’s opponents in the media have been able to play the personality card against him with renewed vigour, reminding the public of why his own party colleagues dumped him in 2010.
In return, he has been crying foul about the tone and content of media coverage, accusing News press titles of dirty fighting, and of giving Mr Abbott an easy ride. The ALP campaign has been working hard on the ‘aggressive Mr Abbott’ theme, following Tony’s ‘there he goes again’ crack in Wednesday’s debate.
None of this is working for Labor. It makes Rudd look like a whinger, and far from the tough, confident campaigner the ALP thought they were getting when they brought him back from the political dead zone. Like that decision, and the brutal dumping of Julia Gillard which it required, it looks like desperation in the face of near inevitable defeat. It also smacks of surprising naivete from such an experienced politician.
What, one wonders, did Rudd and the ALP expect from the Murdoch media in this campaign? Fair play? Are they not aware of the long history of political propagandising by News Corp media in the UK and the US, where platforms such as Fox News and the British red top Sun have become bywords for shameless right wing bias in successive election campaigns? Why should Australia be any different?
This election began with what was a very healthy debate about the role of the media in the campaign, fuelled by the arrival in Australia of Col Allan and the departure of News CEO Kim Williams. The ALP were absolutely justified in drawing public attention early on to the excesses of anti-government coverage in the Telegraph and elsewhere. It put News Ltd on the defensive, and may have restrained some of the more thuggish elements in the organisation from doing their worst.
But there was never any doubt that the Murdoch empire - the newspapers at least - would act as cheerleader for the Coalition in this election. What’s more, they have every right to do so in a free country. That’s media studies 101, and a simple fact of political life. News Ltd have supported the ALP previously, as they supported Tony Blair in the UK for most of his premiership. Now they are batting for the Coalition. Swings and roundabouts, and very much at the whim of Rupert Murdoch himself.
As I wrote earlier in the campaign, the bias is transparent, and voters can make up their own minds on whether to be led by it or not. Fox News’ vicious campaign against Obama in 2012 didn’t help Mitt Romney.The Obama campaign mostly ignored Fox and its Tea Party-esque demagoguery, and got on with winning a second term. Having focused public attention on News Ltd at the outset, Rudd should have moved on. Instead, he comes across as petulant and obsessive, looking for a scapegoat to explain his failing campaign.
Meantime, there is one Murdoch-dominated platform where the prime minister has had every chance to shine. Sky News, to its credit, has staged two leaders’ debates, giving Rudd and Abbott space to communicate directly with the voters, in the absence of both spin doctors and journalistic bias. It’s no-one’s fault but Kevin’s that, if the polls are any guide, he failed to capitalise on those opportunities, and ended up being talked about for all the wrong reasons.