Election 2013 media panel

When did the tabloid ‘front page’ election campaign begin?

As my fellow panellist, Sinclair Davidson, filed yesterday, we are still talking about that front page of the Daily Telegraph on August 5. It is now widely viewed as the first shot in not just an election campaign, but a newspaper campaign. Well we were, until today’s Daily Telegraph front page depicting the PM as Colonel Clink and his deputy Anthony Albanese as Sergeant Schultz.

But in the tabloids, the newspaper campaign had a decisive jump on the election campaign.

We know that soon after Col Allan, Murdoch’s “loyal lieutenant, arrived in Australia on July 29, a pattern of editorialising emerged where the offensive against Labor really began in Melbourne and Brisbane on August 1. The Herald Sun ran a quadrella of front pages blasting Labor policy after Labor policy. August 1: "Rudd’s Last Gasp” (on the smoking tax). August 2: “Rudd bank tax will hit you” (on a new levy on savings deposits). August 3: “It’s a Ruddy Mess - debt soars, unemployment to hit 11-year high, revenue crashes and boats bill blows out by $1b”.

Herald Sun front page, August 3.

There had been nothing on the front page of the Herald Sun before that time since July 9, which was a flag line to a page 6 story that Rudd had put in place a “knife-proof” Labor leadership voting system.

In Brisbane’s Courier Mail, the real campaign began also on August 1, with “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?”, a story about how Kevin Rudd’s brother finds Tony Abbott “good company”. August 2’s front page was “Kev’s 733m Bank Heist: Tax on beer, Cigs…and now your savings”; August 3 the Courier Mail ran “Doesn’t Add Up: $12b Budget Blowout in 80 Days, Debt at $264b, $17b Spending Cuts & Labor wants another 3 years”.

Courier Mail front page, August 2.

Before August 1, there had been no front page attacks on Rudd since July 22, with a major story on “Rudd’s Boat Show: Doubt grows as policy begins to take on water”.

Curiously both these papers had reverted to a “strategically” more balanced coverage of both parties with side-by-side images of Abbott and Rudd and what they have to offer in day 1 of the official campaign.

The Daily Telegraph on the other hand, has ran anti-Labor (or pro-Coalition) front pages in earnest since Saturday August 3, with today’s the most theatrical of all.

During July about a third of the front pages were anti-Rudd stories, with the rest a mixed bag of lead stories on Asylum seeker issues (mostly critical of ALP policy), NSW politics, the arrival of royal baby Prince George, State of Origin, James Packer’s casino ventures and a few days on corruption in NSW politics.

So why have the Brisbane and Melbourne tabloids been more restrained in their coverage of the campaign?

One of the features of having a monopoly over a majority of the Australian newspapers sold is that there is no requirement to demonstrate balance within each publication. Were Murdoch ever to defend charges of proprietorial influence, which David McKnight observes that he would happily admit, he can point to how his other tabloids were much more balanced “at the start of the campaign”, and that it is only the Telegraph that is editorialising on the front page.

Grahame Morris (former Chief of Staff to John Howard) argued as much on the ABC’s Q&A on Monday night. A newspaper company that has such a wide reach can of course be strategic about where it is pulling its heaviest punches, and with the election largely poised on the voting of two million souls in Western Sydney, a national editorial strategy makes sense - which is where Col Alan obviously has a role to play.

But could such a strategy backfire? We will have to wait and see. Theories abound from “the Tele knows its audience and gives readers what they want”, to “alternative journalism has fragmented this audience”, to “if the Tele becomes too repetitive readers will switch off”. Perhaps that’s why, so soon into the campaign Sydney readers need to be offered Hogan’s Heroes. It is both entertaining and sets a new low for how this election can be covered in Australia.