THEY will be popping the corks at News Ltd newspapers and websites tonight (sept 7). They really have had a superb election. Rupert Murdoch’s man will be over the line and the long hard campaign will have been won. It began on the first day of the campaign with News Ltd’s mass circulation Sydney tabloid screaming on Page 1 in huge type over a photo of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announcing the election: “Kick this mob out.”
It only got worse. Rudd was Photoshopped into a Nazi uniform. Again on Page 1, the page normally reserved for the main NEWS item of the day.
All the Murdoch papers have had similar anti-Labor banner headlines on Page 1.
The journalist-mocking adage “never let the facts get in the way of a good story” has been remastered by the Murdoch press as, “Never let the facts get in the way of a bad story about the Labor Government”.
Without News Ltd’s campaign, Labor would have stood a chance of winning this election.
Rudd has shrugged it off as the price of free speech in a democracy, but one does not know whether he did so from magnanimity or fear of unleashing a worse onslaught if he fought back.
He says voters will make up their own minds, but in such a dominated media it can hardly be upon the basis of information fairly presented. In effect, they will have had their minds made up for them. And lots of people have very small minds when it comes to politics. Or not much room in those minds for politics. They are easily led.
It is hard to quantify, but we know nearly all people, nearly all of the time get their politics directly from the media or indirectly from the media via friends and relatives.
Rudd was quite wrong when he said, “We have a free press in this country so Mr Murdoch’s media is free to say what it will, and of course we disagree with the proposition they put, [but] then the Australian people will make up their mind.”
A nation’s press cannot be described as “free” when it is so dominated by News Ltd.
Further, News Ltd’s bias has a double knock-on effect. First it weights the preponderance of media coverage to the right, so that any voice in the centre is regarded as radical or left-wing.
Secondly, News Ltd’s total press domination in Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Darwin and near dominance in Sydney and Melbourne trickles sideways to the broadcast newsrooms and shock-jock studios in those capitals. And that is not to mention the mid-range cities News Ltd dominates such as Cairns and Townsville in Queensland, and Geelong in Victoria which contains Australia’s most marginal seat.
Elections in Australia are always close. Only once since 1949 has the two-party preferred split been greater than 5 per cent each way. That was in 1975 when it was 44.3 Labor to 55.7 Coalition.
You only need to move a few percent to change an election result. So, rather than Rudd’s position of people making up their own minds and little media influence, I’d argue that media coverage always determines election results in Australia.
The extent to which media magnifies and echoes blunders and good points or downplays them determines how people perceive those blunders and good points and therefore makes up their minds for them.
There was at least some quantifiable evidence for News Ltd’s influence during the campaign. Roy Morgan Research matched voting intention against newspaper (including online) readership in a survey of 50,000 readers.
The results did not get much media coverage, but they were startling.
The results mapped the percentage more likely a reader was to vote for the Coalition than the Australian average.
Leaving aside the Australian Financial Review which is the specialist paper for Tory-voting tycoons, Morgan found that by and large the readers of News Ltd’s publications were far more likely to be Coalition voters than the average. The Daily Telegraph’s readers are 15 per cent more likely to be Coalition voters; the Herald-Sun and Australian are at 12; the Courier Mail on 10 and the Adelaide Advertiser on 5. And readers of Fairfax papers were more like to be Labor voters than the average (SMH 7 and Age 16).
The question is: do News Ltd papers attract Coalition supporters, or does it turn otherwise neutral readers into Coalition supporters. Similarly with Fairfax.
Well the difference is that Fairfax has a charter of editorial independence, unlike News Ltd. So Fairfax may hire or fire editors, but not direct their day to day political coverage, unlike Murdoch’s News Ltd which flies in people from HQ overseas to give editorial amplification to their master’s voice.
So there is a good argument that an election-winning chunk of the working classes of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide has been swayed by the News Ltd propaganda machine.
And make no mistake it is propaganda. “Kick this mob out” on Page 1 is neither news nor journalism. It is propaganda. Even in an editorial opinion piece clearly marked so, it is too strident to pass as journalism.
Why have we allowed it? Monarchist Joseph-Marie, le Comte de Maistre, said after the French Revolution that in a democracy people get the political leaders they deserve.
In Australia you might say the political leaders get the media they deserve. No other industry in Australia is so lightly regulated for monopoly or standards.
Other businesses are prohibited from false and misleading conduct. Even our much-berated grocery-retail industry has more ownership diversity than our metropolitan newspapers.
No Prime Minister, with the possible exception of Paul Keating, has dared take on the media. The only hope on the horizon is other media. As the internet gradually takes over as the main platform for news delivery maybe the News Ltd dominance will be broken.
Thousands more people outside Canberra now read The Canberra Times than was ever possible in print-only days. The Guardian has an Australian edition online. Fairfax has online Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth editions.
Let’s hope 2013 is News Ltd’s last hurrah in Australia elections. In the meantime, all those News Ltd workers (I refrain from using the word journalists) richly deserve their champagne tonight. They have done a splendid job. Rupert should be proud of them.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 7 September 2013.