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.