News Limited’s hatchet job on Cate Blanchett hit all the right notes for this sort of confected outrage — indeed, it could be an exemplar of the form.

Beat-up? Check: “Journalist” Brenden Hills could only find the lunar-Right Australian Families Association and Barnaby Joyce to attack Blanchett, leaving Hills’ claim that Blanchett had “sparked outrage in the community” looking not so much thin as downright skeletal.

Effective? Check: Twitter exploded in rage and the issue is still rolling through the media 24 hours later (including in this article).

Hypocritical? Check: You’ll search in vain for News Ltd’s fulminations against another privately-funded campaign, that of the mining industry last year. Where was Greedy Gina or Tax Avoider Twiggy? Or for that matter, Ridiculous Rupert, who lectures the world about the need to “give the planet the benefit of the doubt” on climate and proudly encourages his company to produce zero net carbon emissions?

Good follow-up? Check: The Australian took up the cudgels against Cate today, including a piece by the “founding partner and consumer psychologist at Naked Communications” to explain how bad the ads were, which is about on par with that splendid media gimmick of getting a handwriting or body language “expert” to explain what a politician’s writing or movement tell us about them.

Misogynist? Check: Knockabout blokey actor Michael Caton was spared in the Herald Sun’s editorial (who could ever have a go at Darryl Kerrigan or Uncle Harry?), while Blanchett copped “Carbon Cate”.

The only angle missed was to point out that celebrity-fronted social marketing campaigns don’t have a particularly strong track record. People might like individual celebrities, but aren’t particularly interested in what they think about climate change or anything else political. But then that would have undermined the very point of News Ltd orchestrating a smear campaign against Blanchett over the ads.

More interesting was the automatic connection made by News Ltd and its employee between the media outlet and the community. Because a News Ltd editor was outraged, that necessarily meant the community was outraged, regardless of the fact that his employee couldn’t find any independent evidence of any outrage.

Now, sure, this is hardly new — newspapers have long portrayed themselves as voices of the communities in which the bulk of their circulation occurs, even if the editorial line of the paper is entirely the creation of the editor or proprietor. But it takes on extra resonance in the wake of the thin-skinned reaction to Bob Brown’s recent criticism of the media and Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow. The reaction to Brown of Fairfax Radio journalist Michael Pachi — his is the angry voice repeatedly interjecting against Brown during that press conference— is particularly instructive, especially Pachi’s claim that “on the carbon tax, don’t you think that we’re just reflecting what our audience wants?”.

That a gallery journalist thinks his role is to “reflect what our audience wants” rather than, say, report accurately, is the most succinct and pure example of Tanner’s Sideshow criticism you’ll find. Pachi was cruelly skewered by The Age’s Shaun Carney on the weekend for it.

But are the Herald Sun and Pachi right? Are they reflecting what their audiences want? Not according to ratings and circulation figures. Fairfax Radio saw big falls in audience figures in Sydney and Melbourne in the most recent ratings survey and the most recent circulation figures showed the Sun’s circulation slumping, along with that of all News Ltd newspapers except the Advertiser. And in neither case — Fairfax radio’s total audience, or the Sun’s circulation — do they have anything like the claim to reflecting what audiences want of commercial television, which commands far bigger audiences for news programs alone.

Plainly they’re not reflecting what their audiences want.

Or perhaps consumption isn’t the appropriate metric given the impact of the internet on the mainstream media. How about whether Australians trust newspapers and commercial radio? If the Herald Sun is correct in assuming it reflexively embodies community views on climate change or anything else, that can be tested by checking how much Australians trust newspapers, although we can’t check individual mastheads. But the more media outlets embody community values, the more, presumably, they’ll be trusted.

So let’s check. In December, Essential Research asked people how much they trusted media outlets — all the time, usually, seldom or not at all. Newspapers came in at 65% all the time or usually — behind commercial television (69%) and way behind ABC TV and radio and SBS (75-81%). Commercial radio was the least trusted mainstream medium on 62%. The level of trust in newspapers was lowest in — guess where? — Victoria. Presumably the Herald Sun would blame that on the poor quality of The Age.

More recently, Essential asked about trust in political coverage. Commercial radio was again the least trusted medium, with only 40% of voters saying they trusted it all or a lot, fewer than the 48% who said they had no trust or only a little trust. Newspapers fared better — 53% trusted them, better than commercial television, but still a distant third behind the ABC and SBS.

If the Herald Sun and commercial radio think they’re reflecting community concerns, the community doesn’t appear to agree.

Peter Fray

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