“Move on folks, there’s nothing happening here.” That would be the honest heading for this morning’s Newspoll, which shows essentially no movement since the last one. Labor’s primary vote is up slightly, from 46% to 48%, but the two-party preferred vote is unchanged, 56% to 44%, a swing of almost 9% since the last election.

But the headline The Australian gives it – front page banner, at that – is “Howard checks Rudd’s march”. Throughout the paper’s coverage, the headings and captions not to mention the editorial, which says “The Government has successfully shifted the political dynamic”, and looks as if it has been written for a completely different set of numbers.

Dennis Shanahan leads his comment by saying, quite correctly, that “Labor remains in the electoral box seat as voters give the Opposition Leader high satisfaction ratings and stick to his party.” But that’s below the fold; readers who only glance at the headline and the cartoon won’t see it, and will come away with a very different impression.

The only thing in the poll that could possibly support a pro-government interpretation is the reduction in Rudd’s lead in the “beauty contest” or preferred prime minister question: from 46-40 to a statistical dead heat at 43-42.

Like most psephologists, I think those numbers are all but meaningless. And the Australian clearly doesn’t believe in them either; it gives them prominence when they are the only thing in the Coalition’s favor (as was often the case in 2005), but ignores them otherwise. That isn’t incompetence, it’s mendacity.

I think this is all very sad. We need a serious national newspaper, and The Oz has many things going for it. But today’s performance is inexplicable on any other assumption than that the editors are pursuing a political agenda to the exclusion of the facts. Once a paper starts down that track, its credibility on all subjects is at risk.

Which brings us to the Newspoll results on the Australian commitment in Iraq. The top three choices, as given on the front page, were “Stay as long as the Iraqis want us” (31%), “Set definite date to bring them home” (26%) and “Bring troops home immediately” (23%).

That seemed very exciting, since the Howard government’s position, “Keep the troops there come hell or high water”, didn’t get a mention at all. Reference to the detailed tables on page four reveals that it wasn’t offered as an option, but the 31% figure relates to “The troops remaining in Iraq for as long as the Iraqi government wants them to stay.”

That’s rather different from the front page summary (which is all most people will read): although the Iraqis clearly don’t want us, their government seems resigned to the occupation for the time being. But both are different from the way the question was asked in previous polls, where respondents were offered “The troops remaining in Iraq for as long as is necessary” (which had 30% support back in February).

A fourth option was also given this time, “Bringing the troops home by mid-2008”, which attracted 14%. So we can say that withdrawing from Iraq, either now or in the foreseeable future, has something like 63% support (there were also 6% uncommitted). But because the questions have changed, it’s impossible to say how much of a shift this represents.

We might speculate that the Bush-Cheney “as long as is necessary” line was omitted from the questions this time because it was likely to have abysmally low levels of support, but that would merely be speculation.

Companies that are unhappy with their financial results sometimes change the accounting system so that analysts are unable to make direct comparisons with previous years. It’s worth remembering that pollsters have similar weapons at their disposal.