Yesterday’s Newspoll has forced Kim Beazley on to the defensive.
Why the excitement? The poll showed a 2% swing to the federal ALP,
putting them almost neck and neck with the government on 49-51 – a very
respectable performance at this point of the electoral cycle. Certainly
it suggests that Labor’s performance over tax cuts has not been the
disaster that most observers thought.

But that’s not what the spin said. Yesterday’s report by Dennis Shanahan in The Australian
buried the two-party results down in the ninth paragraph. The previous
eight all portrayed the poll as bad news for Labor, focusing on the
drop in Beazley’s approval rating, and the rest of the media obediently
followed suit. But no serious student of elections pays any attention
to those ratings – all the evidence is that they make no difference to
people’s voting behaviour.

Shanahan must know this, yet more
often that not these numbers are used by the media to tear down
leaders, as with the 2003 assassination of Simon Crean – although then
the preferred prime minister, or “beauty contest,” figures, were
running strongly against Crean as well. But the Howard v Beazley
numbers are virtually unchanged since the previous poll (54-29 compared
with 54-28), so Shanahan chose not to highlight them either. (This article last month in The Courier-Mail explains why they are unreliable.)

this means is that the media’s role is less about reporting what people
think than about telling them what they should think. Perhaps the
experience of last year’s election, when The Australian’s
commentators did a better job at reading the public mood than Newspoll,
has made them overconfident. But in the test of strength between the
voters and the media, yesterday was a big win for the media.