I am firmly of the view that Australia is under-reported, but those who read the newspapers could be forgiven for disagreeing with me at present.

The imperative of all that newsprint to fill means that the broadsheets in particular are stuck in a constant hash and rehash of polls and advertisements in at attempt to find something to say about how things are “playing” and what “the voters” or “the electorate” are thinking about the election contest.

It’s a pretty abstract game, concealing the remoteness of most journalists’ lives from the stuff that makes up the headspace of other Australians. One Canberra correspondent recently revealingly referred to voters as “real people”. His piece contained the presumption that these people were some group quite separate from those reading his copy.

Of course the reality is that most people aren’t really thinking about much about the election at all. The picture conveyed by the broadsheets is thus quite out of kilter with the lives people lead – and those underreported matters, among which I would include the politics of the neighbourhood, the real life impact of policy in the schoolyard and the doctor’s waiting room, the strife that surrounds and radiates out from every suburban pokie parlour, and so on and so forth.

So some things are over reported and other things under reported, but the over reporting is not really reporting at all. It is a kind of churning, a search for things to say, and an attempt to appear knowing, if not all knowing, when most of us are basically ignorant about the states of mind of those outside our immediate circle.

All that having been said, in these very early days of the campaign some interesting things can be said about the coverage. This is based on impressions, rather than detailed content analysis, but it seems to me that while all the broadsheets could be accused of bias, the much mocked tabloids are actually playing it right down the middle, which challenges the usual lefty assumptions about Rupert Murdoch’s bias.

True, thanks to druggie footballers and naughty cardboard box makers, politics hasn’t made it on to the tabloid front pages for much of this week. In both the Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph, it has sometimes been as far back as page 5 or even 7.

But read the stories and the headlines, and they are pretty much down the middle. Take the Herald Sun’s page three story today as an example – lead favourable to Rudd, the rest a straight recount. Compare with The Australian’s front page “Labor at war over IR Laws”.

My impression – and the hard content analysis should and no doubt will be done – is that the broadsheets are perhaps unconsciously tending to play culture war games. The tabloids on the other hand know that for most Australians, there is no culture war – or at least none that is of relevance or interest to them.

I suspect the real story is that there is no story. Those who are interested made up their minds long ago. Those who are undecided will not begin to think about the campaign for some weeks yet. No headline in that.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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