The media have never had such access to a prime minister as they have had since 1996. But with a few notable exceptions, most have never wanted John Howard in the Lodge. His answer to adverse comment and any bias in the news has been to speak directly to the people.
Two recent developments have significantly increased the potential for more bias.
The predictions that the changed cross media laws would lead to a Packer-Murdoch duopoly have not come to pass – instead, James Packer abdicated. One consequence is that Nine’s national breakfast program has been, as Errol Simper puts it, shorn of its “main intellectual component”: Alan Jones’s editorial. More importantly, without a proprietor, the slant is moving against Howard, as it has elsewhere. There will be more of the “Prime Minister today was forced to admit…” stories, and more of Laurie Oakes being interviewed to reinterpret the news.
The other redoubt to fall is Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. Surely it is not old fashioned to think that the news columns should be objective and not laced with comment?
But over the last month The Telegraph has launched a massive anti- Howard campaign on its news pages, with headlines pouring out a stream of vitriol. When it published the Textor-Crosby dossier, it was presented as the tale of a “desperate” prime minister . Voters, it said, were choosing between “youthful compassion” and “aged cunning”. “Aspirational voters, ” had “ turned on PM”. To support these tendentious headlines, there were stories about some carefully selected “Rudd battlers”. Day after day there have been similar stories, with headlines describing Howard as “old and sneaky,” and with his power base, Sydney, “crumbling.” When the Reserve Bank increased interest rates by 0.25%, the front page showed Howard with the headline “This man could lose his house”.
So why has the Telegraph become an advocate with such singular passion for a Rudd victory? Did it all begin when the editor, David Penberthy, dined with the Leader of the Opposition? Now there is nothing unusual in the media being courted. After all, Piers Akerman has had Mr Rudd to lunch at home.
Alan Ramsey reported that Penberthy and Rudd had “enjoyed a good dinner” together and that Kevin Rudd had then “played pool and downed a few beers” with some of the paper’s “younger folk”.
We can only assume it must have been an exquisite meal. But surely the editor knows it is far too early to be planning a victory headline along the lines of Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid, “IT WAS THE SUN WOT WON IT”.
Professor David Flint is the former chair of the Australian Broadcasting Authority.