Debate about the reporting of politics often hones in on whether media are being used by parties to get across self-serving messages. Glenn Milne’s name rarely comes up these days, for instance, without a discussion about whether or not he is a mouthpiece for certain personalities and factions in the Liberal party.
The published polls had a good record in the Queensland election campaign. But to some degree the campaign itself – and now its aftermath – were shaped by the strategic leaking of internal party research.
For instance, when Labor were trying to tell a “don’t believe the polls” story in the lead up to Saturday, research showing Team Beattie behind in Cleveland and Kawana was leaked. Now, as part of the internal Liberal dust-up after the campaign, the Liberal party machine is leaking polls showing that the Libs faced losing all their seats, or just hanging on to one, in the middle of the campaign. Pointedly, the fact that Flegg was behind in his own seat in Moggill was highlighted as part of this research driven blame game.
So what weight should be accorded to these polls? They shouldn’t be dismissed just because the reasons for their release to journos are self-serving. Labor was indeed doing badly on the Sunshine Coast, but everyone knew that. The surprise was Cleveland. And true to form, on election night, Labor almost lost Cleveland. So the research was genuine and accurate. But what wasn’t released was just as important – Labor would have had polling showing the swing to it in certain other marginals – no doubt including those on the Gold Coast where Labor margins jumped.
Similarly, there’s no doubt that the Liberal vote hit rock bottom during the campaign. The tiny margins in many Liberal seats, and the swing against them on the Gold Coast which showed in the results suggests that a true story is probably being told here. The Liberals did indeed come close to absolute wipeout.
The motto? For both readers and journos, it’s more important to put the leaks in their context. Leaking is always strategic both in its selectivity and its timing. What journos owe their readers is framing and highlighting the reasons as well as the results of leaked polling. But almost all the time the polling itself will be genuine. In politics, the narrative frame is just as important as the actual data on which a polling story is based.