Predictably Brisbane’s Courier-Mail has gone on the offensive after the release of an academic report revealing shortcomings in the way it covers elections.

The terse reaction from editor David Fagan shows how thin-skinned some News Limited editors can be and how bad they are at taking the kind of criticism they so willingly dish out.

Yesterday the Press Council unveiled a timely report on the state of election coverage in Australian newspapers. Academic Harry Dillon of Charles Sturt University studied the Courier-Mail’s coverage of the 2006 state election while Associate Professor Ian Richards of the University of SA analysed The Age’s coverage of last year’s Victorian election.

The Press Council was delighted to announce that both reports concluded that coverage was accurate and fair and found no evidence of systemic bias. However, Dillon’s report in particular identified some serious flaws with the Courier-Mail’s approach.

Dillon believes the paper’s mode of personality-based and campaign-oriented coverage cheapened the quality of public discussion. He had a go at the paper’s obsession with sporting analogies, concluding “it is doubtful that it does much to foster rational consideration of policy alternatives or the personal merits of candidates. There is little doubt the obsessive focus upon winners and losers cheapens and trivialises the election process.”

He also attacked the focus on presidential style campaigning because the:

… emphasis upon leadership is a distortion that bears little real connection with the realities of government but this trend is so deeply entrenched within the political-media complex that it would be naïve to assume it could easily be turned around. Needless to say it does little to inspire confidence that careful consideration of issues and policies is central to the media agenda or that of voters in general.

And there was criticism of the Courier-Mail’s obsession with the trivia of politics, rather than the substance of policies. He asked:

… how proactive the media should be in “keeping the bastards honest” and steering the campaign towards matters of substance rather than ephemera, image making and pointless point-scoring.

This did not go down well with the editor, David Fagan. Read his response here.

Fagan attempts to undermine Dillon for spelling the name of one of the candidates incorrectly. He says his paper had been on top of the big issues for a whole year before the election and, in fact, led the coverage during that time. (Well it would want to in a one-paper town like Brisbane.) He also accuses Dillon of using “loaded language” when he describes his paper as “populist, tabloid, tight and bright” and of having a “preconceived view” and of “prejudging the issue.”

Surely a seasoned newspaper man like Fagan knows that all his response does is draw greater attention to the perceived inadequacies highlighted in the report. Dillon’s study, while occasionally off the mark, makes some valid criticisms about the paucity of real analysis during elections and deserves a humble response from the Courier-Mail, not predictable chest beating.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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