It would not be surprising if the shareholders of Fairfax, and
the principal shareholder of News Ltd, were to start asking some questions
about the coverage of this election campaign. Not just about the lies told by
journalists and their bias, although both these are harming the press in public
perception, but the sheer waste involved. The huge expenditure in terms of
numbers of journalistic staff assigned to the election campaign, producing
acres of barren print, must eventually be questioned. Surely it would make
sense to have fewer (and, preferably, better) journalists reporting on any
election campaign on a day to day basis – the “boys (and girls) on the bus”
have become a standing joke, as they are taken on their magical mystery tours.

As Graham Morris pointed out in The Australian’s Media
section the lack of advance information given to journalists following the
movements of the leaders is their own collective fault – although some can be
trusted to hold such information in confidence, there will always be a few who
will try to use such information for partisan purposes, so that demonstrators
(always anti-government of course) can turn up and harass the politicians, and
do their best to steal airtime and spoil the impact of the electoral visit.
(The fact that Morris is advising the PM on this election campaign in no way
invalidates his point.)

Why haven’t the editors started to question their huge
expenditure on this ridiculous charade? The best analysis of policy pronouncements
has come from the more intelligent commentators who have stayed in their
metropolitan head offices and had a proper look at the detail – the
contribution of the press gallery has been almost totally lacking in any
balance or weight. It would be a good time after the election, whatever the
result, for newspapers to consider seriously cutting back on the size of their
press gallery representation, especially as the culture of the gallery has
become more and more inimical to serious political coverage. However the power
structure of newspapers seems to have become skewed towards Canberra, despite
the fact that not all editors have a gallery background. The tail is wagging
the dog. Far too much space is devoted to flim flam, endless speculation on leadership
challenges, early elections, and so on; while little is devoted to actual
policy development both in and out of parliament. It is all about political
theatre, as if government were irrelevant.

So it would probably be a desirable response to this campaign,
whatever its result, if newspaper managements began to question not the
politics of electoral coverage, or the opinions of journalists, but the sheer
overkill involved. It would take a great deal of courage on the part of editors
to begin wresting power away from the gallery, and reducing the regular
coverage of politics-as-a-game. The standard model should involve taking
politics off the front page – nine times out of ten front page stories are
beatups, lies or trivialities. A good start would be a 50 per cent cut in
numbers in Canberra gallery offices. They should be service bureaus operating
as a branch of the main newspaper, with extra resources sent in at times of
special need, not ongoing quasi-independent organisations.

The weakness of editors is a large part of the problem. What
else but weakness or deliberate dishonesty can explain the Sydney Morning Herald’s willingness to allow the Lie of the Week to
continue being disseminated by its grossly biased gallery members? This lie of
course was that concerning Tony Abbott’s meeting with Cardinal Pell in Sydney.
Tony Jones who revels in Gotcha journalism in his ABC TV Lateline program seemed to have trapped Abbott into lying about his
contacts with Pell. He was asked whether he had recently visited the Cardinal
and denied it, was pressed on it (what information did Jones have? From whom?),
and then became flustered and admitted that he had had some contact with Pell.
This was of course taken by Jones and the press gallery as a Gotcha – Abbott
had lied. On that was built a whole conspiracy theory about Abbott’s supposed
role in the drafting of the statement by Pell and three other archbishops,
including Sydney’s Anglican Peter Jensen, which expressed unhappiness about
Latham’s religious wedge politics on schools.

It soon emerged that there had been no recent meeting between
Abbott and Pell, certainly not just prior to the issue of the statement. Rather
on August 31 (well before the release of Labor’s schools policy) Abbott had
visited Pell at 7 in the morning (nothing surprising about such a time for two
such men) about what he considered to be a personal matter. What that could be
is none of anybody else’s business – but for a government minister of health
and a Catholic who takes his religion as seriously as does Abbott, it is not
surprising that he should consult on matters of conscience with the local head
of his church.

This did not stop the SMH
enthusiastically continuing to repeat the Abbott lies and conspiracy thesis. As
Paul Kelly (a kind of archbishop of the church of journalism) wrote in today’s Australian, “this is a case of reality
not being allowed to contradict myth. The story is constructed to confirm the
media mindset and its dominant culture … There is no reason to suppose the denials
or date of the meeting will penetrate a media culture more interested in seeing
the world not as it is, but as its prejudices dictate.”

In a word, the media pack simply cannot be trusted even to try
to get things right. What right have the media to ask that we should trust
them? Indeed, one of the themes of this election has been about trust – and
nobody in his or her right mind would trust the media.

Eric Beecher’s expensive news review/digest for those people who
do not know how to use the Internet, The
Reader
, contributed something valuable in its latest issue, a survey
conducted by Roy Morgan which confirms what we all know – that there is no
balance in the media when it comes to journalism. Proprietors are really fairly
irrelevant to all this. Max Suich, another experienced observer, pointed out a
couple of weeks ago in The Age
something which only the naïve would now deny – the journalistic pack plays a
far greater role in media bias than do proprietors.

A number of people have also pointed out that the use of polls
in this election has been marred by the indifference and sloppiness of approach
which typefies the press gallery – very infrequently is even a reference made
to the margin of error in the polls, and even then it often betrays ignorance
of statistical principles. The basic issue is that even a perfectly
representative sample of the electorate of a thousand will have a margin of
error of at least plus or minus two and half to three percent. And it is almost
impossible to obtain a perfect sample. Thus if a poll shows the government on
50% of the two-party preferred vote (another source of error) the best that
could be said is that it can hope for something between 47 and 53% of the vote – no matter how many polls are
taken the margin of error cannot be reduced much below this.

Again the editors are at fault – why do they not insist on every
report of a poll giving information about its inherent unreliability? Or do
they simply not care? Anything for a beatup headline?

Feedback directly to ppmcg @ozemail.com.au

Peter Fray

Don't just sign a petition, buy a subscription.

You’ve probably read about Kevin Rudd’s petition for a royal commission into media diversity. He’s very angry about Rupert Murdoch’s media dominance – and rightfully so. We invite you to sign it yourself. But royal commissions take time. There is another way to stand up to Murdoch.

Support truly independent, Australian-owned journalism – and do it today. Subscribe to Crikey and get your first 12 weeks for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

Support us today