Election Deciders

May 22, 2013

The Power Index: election deciders, the tabloid editors at #9

How much power do the nation's tabloid editors really wield when it comes to influencing our electoral process? Plenty, if you believe political operatives. Not only for what's in print but how they influence the agenda for the rest of the day. For Labor it's a lost cause.

Andrew Crook — Former <em>Crikey</em> Senior Journalist

Andrew Crook

Former Crikey Senior Journalist

A week out from the 2010 federal election, something was bugging Julia Gillard. The country's first female prime minister was about to face the music, the polls were razor tight and the media clamour was deafening. Gillard desperately wanted to take the temperature of one man in particular, so much so that she'd buzzed him 24 hours earlier for a premature heads-up. With her plane idling on the tarmac at the northern New South Wales town of Ballina, the PM hit the mobile again. Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen, then in charge of Australia's highest-selling tabloid newspaper, was on the other end of the line. The verdict came quickly. Breen duly informed the PM that while he had some reservations about the government's performance, he was planning to back her in because like every freshman administration since 1931, Labor deserved a second term in office. The resulting Sunday Tele editorial was published the next day, with the sister Sunday Herald Sun and the Fairfax Sundays also coming out in favour. The 11th-hour gold stamp was encouraging news for a fledgling leader still trying to find her way after the debacle of Kevin Rudd's demolition (later in the week, the Monday-Friday editions stumped en masse for the Coalition). Such a scenario is impossible to imagine three years later, even with Breen safely ensconced as executive producer of Channel Nine's Today. If this year's run of tetchy tabloid treatment is any indication, the current senior editors of the News titles -- which still attract the eyeballs of 4 million people a day, or 30% of the Australian adult population -- have already made up their minds. And that's awful news for Labor as September 14 draws near. The power of the top tabloid editors -- Damon Johnston on the Herald Sun and Paul "Boris" Whittaker on The Tele in particular -- runs deep. Breen tells The Power Index they're especially potent when they sniff some pre-existing positive or negative sentiment in the electorate and decide to push the envelope to its brutal conclusion. The papers' hatchets or halos set the scene for the 6am capital city radio bulletins that then push out the story of the day. "The Daily Telegraph has really got stuck into this government. I think the real power that the papers have is the follow they get. Bang, it's on radio, and then bang, the shock jocks are talking about it because they're feeding off the paper ... that creates the sense of negative momentum." The most obvious recent antecedent to the current wave of pathos are the dying days of Joan Kirner's Victorian government in mid-1992, when the Herald Sun was ruled by current Tele columnist Piers Akerman. An off-the-leash Akerman could taste blood, culminating in an infamous June 1992 front-page editorial: "Enough is enough, is enough!". Kirner was turfed from power four months later. And of course, there was Rupert Murdoch's now-famous edict to turn against Gough Whitlam in 1975 after grudgingly agreeing "It's Time" in 1972. But when the tabs finger a winner, like Kevin '07 (and Murdoch's UK Sun with Tony Blair a decade earlier), the runaway freight train can be hard to stop. Riffing off a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum posed in first-year media studies, Breen oscillates between seeing the papers as a simple reflection of their readership and acknowledging the importance of a campaign to bend minds and reinforce prejudices. "I do think the newspapers in their support for Kevin in 2007 were influential. In the national scheme of things Rudd emerged on Sunrise really. When The Australian got on board Rudd, which they undoubtedly did, that kind of let the other papers in, too ... The Australian, a right-wing paper, editorialised for Rudd. Because he was this glossy, shiny kind of guy, and as much as the Sunday Tele tried to do him over a few times, it didn't do any damage."
"Obviously the News Limited tabloids are just so anti the government. And you even have Rupert tweeting that Gillard's gone."
John Chalmers, communications manager at iSentia, confirms "there is no question that when News unleashes a political campaign it is generally all the more powerful for running in concert around the nation across The Tele, the Brisbane Courier-Mail, Adelaide Advertiser, NT News and the Herald Sun in Melbourne. The Tele and Herald Sun combined move almost a million units daily, adding to their clout." A current serving senior Coalition strategist, not known for reticence when it comes to dealing with the fourth estate, agrees the tabloids are "hugely important" and are a shortcut to the beating heart of middle Australia: "You're kidding yourself if you don't want to have a tabloid media on side. The 'Tiser and The Courier-Mail in the one-paper towns are very important, but much more than that it's the fact that they determine the news cycle. [Radio National host] Fran Kelly and AM determine the Canberra chatter, but that's not what makes it on to talkback ... The tabloids actually have to cover what voters are talking about. Page 1 and page 3 of the Herald Sun, the issues on those pages are the issues in the seats where you want to win." Another recent top-selling News editor agrees the tabloids are feted by pollies, if only to exploit their inside knowledge as electoral weathervanes: "You do get a lot of leaders coming through your door looking for a coffee and a lot of invitations to the Lodge asking you to dinner ... They don't do that because they like you, they do that because you're influential. "It's a case of them wanting to get their side across. The job of an editor in these senior editorial positions is to know what the public mood is, and you don't want to get out of step with that. There's no shock that the majority of the population is against Gillard, the poll numbers are clear. Your job is to reflect that." The editor again returns to the Rudd era, recalling the then-PM would turn apoplectic if a negative story emerged in 130-point font: "Rudd used to become obsessed with what was on the front page. Particular[ly] boat people front pages. They're [the splashes] very influential in terms of government public opinion." When the writs are issued and the election campaign proper begins, things can get even trickier. At this point some papers attempt to bind themselves with an unofficial "50/50 rule", mandating equal real estate for government and Coalition policy announcements. Breen says the avowedly anti-government Telegraph could struggle: "Obviously the News Limited tabloids are just so anti the government. And you even have Rupert tweeting that Gillard's gone. It would be interesting to see if they bring in the 50/50 rule. I can tell you the number one advocate of the 50/50 rule is Chris Mitchell. He's the ultimate 50/50 man." But with the whiff of death around the government now resembling a dead possum in a watertank at a childcare centre, the PM, and her media team, can forget about even-handed treatment in the titles that matter the most. The Hun and The Tele made their minds up months ago, and it's only going to get worse.

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12 thoughts on “The Power Index: election deciders, the tabloid editors at #9

  1. tonyfunnywalker

    The Tabloids campaign against the Gillard government rivals that of the attacks on the Neil Kinnnock during the 1980’s Thatcher Government. The Sun in particular. The Telegraph and Sun Herald are of the same ilk. People are not stupid well most people that is – and I asdmire David Warner who has in the case of cricket is fed up of the continuous barrage and beatups. The Newspaper industry is bankrupt in its reflection of community standards and community values. The Scynophantic Admiration of Abbott is equally galling. The tabloids believe that they are the unelected determinants of policy – most of which is designed to benefit them and the vested interests they represent. They cry freedom of speech but I also feel that the schoools of journalism at the universities arfe equally culpable. The Jouranistic profession act and are regarded below that of a used car sales or real estate salespaersons. But they are regulated- There is a Trade Practices Law and consumers have recourse in the courts. to allow people damagede by illegal practices in the press is immediately pilloried as is occurring in the UK with the implementation of the Leveson enquiry.
    Murdoch feels that he is the King Maker – it is sad – that we as a society allow the self appointed “citizen kane” to have so much influence which is so damaging to the institutions of democracy. It is no longer a democracy when a single ideological viewpoint becomes the norm. This was the strategy used by the Nazi’s to presuade a well educated nation turn to barbarism.

  2. Pete from Sydney

    Once you bring Nazi Germany into the argument you start to lose a little perspective…I read the tabloids, I vote Labor, I don’t read Miranda or the Bolt or Piers, it’s everyone’s choice to read what they want. The papers give me the news I need and the sports coverage I want…the coverage of the tornado in the US was great, gave me plenty of background…they do a good job with the hard news, their politcal views I don’t subscribe to…pretty simple really

  3. dazza

    So you’re still prepared to pay a full price, and only read say … 5% ? Just doesn’t make sense to give these loudspeakers an excuse to spread their hate/fear and financial uncertanty into our community.

  4. klewso

    There’s a substantial mark-et out here of the impressionable and/or, the naive; the apathetic; the sceptical; the disenfranchised; the undereducated; the ignorant; the ill-informed; the misinformed; the prejudiced; the bigoted; the just plain scared (“the intellectually malnourished/emaciated”, from the pre-digested nutrient-deficient, unbalanced diet of pap they’re being fed by their politicised, partisan viewsmedia) with disposable incomes, that vote – ripe for the picking. Common garden variety charlatans/con-men/carpet-baggers/grifters/carny barkers would call them “marks”/”rubes”.
    That the likes of Murdoch, Singleton, Stokes and the other media moguls (controlling/editing influence and perspective, selling “image protection”. That treat politics as a lucrative hobby, while personally being above the ravages of unforseen fall-out – from those policy implementations their position was able to leverage – that their money affords them. “GFC? That was for the common people to drown!”) can unleash their “sheep-dog” trolls to muster, nurture, cultivate and encourage, to influence election to introduce policy outcomes that suit their own privileged, grasping, accumulative egocentricity. To milk.
    On their own, in their elitism, these moguls don’t have the numbers – they have to “stack” elections with this their own (later) “canon fodder”.
    They’re not always successful, but every now and then, like the combination of a GFC and all the negativity they can pile on that, to portray the “unfitness of this Socialist/Leftist/Non-Conservative government”, there’s a perfect storm they can harness and ride to their own ends. To suit their establishmentarianism.

  5. klewso

    Hadley tag-teams the Telefibbies.

  6. klewso

    By ’07 even “Murdoch” couldn’t save Howard’s reputation – after committing to just that for more than a decade – he had to cut him loose or lose his own credibility. Limited News could afford to play the waiting game, there’d be plenty of time to cut Rudd down, by concentrating on and promoting his negatives to such prominence, after that election. It almost worked by ’10 – now it’s a forgone conclusion Abbott will be beholden to “The Empire” for protection for as long as he lasts.

  7. klewso

    “News unleashed”?
    It’s like watching a pack of feral dogs bring down a sheep.

  8. klewso

    And it’s all very well having this “50/50 rule”, what matters is how they’re analysed and critiqued.
    Either negatively or positively – hardly ever are they viewed and sold impartially.

  9. Bo Gainsbourg

    What self serving bollocks tabloid editors come up with. They don’t follow the public, they lead them. Particularly with headlines. Fairly systematically in the direction their owners want. Its that simple really. Those tabloid editors are the epitome of city based elites, the real ones, not the faux types they manipulate and confect outrage towards, (inner city types, latte belt etc). Just have a look at who’s short term interests their climate change coverage serves. Its not that complicated.

  10. klewso

    Bo, then they’ll hide behind that “public interest” they’ve confected, as some “holy aegis” of self-protection and justification.

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