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Aug 28, 2013

Murdoch's might: how much do News papers influence elections?

Do Rupert Murdoch's Australian newspapers determine election results; do they back winners each time? Henry Belot looks back at elections to 1975 to find out whether Murdoch really is a kingmaker.


Labor is screaming over biased reporting in News Corporation titles. But does the endorsement of Rupert Murdoch and his editors influence the outcome of elections?

The chequered record of editorial backing by Murdoch’s three major mastheads since the 1970s suggests a muted influence, at best, according to a Crikey search through the dusty archives …

Since the constitutional crisis of 1975, The Australian has officially endorsed eight successful candidates and five unsuccessful leaders — abstaining in 1996 when John Howard came to power. In an editorial column published every Friday before the nation heads to the polls, The Australian has endorsed 11 Liberal leaders and only two from the Labor side — Kevin Rudd in 2007 and Bob Hawke in 1984.

Rodney Tiffen, an emeritus professor at Sydney University, told Crikey it’s no surprise The Australian endorsed these two Labor candidates, given Rudd went on to enjoy a 23-seat swing in 2007 and Hawke prevailed over Malcolm Fraser after eight years in office.

“Occasionally the Murdoch press gives qualified and tepid support to Labor, but only when it’s likely that Labor are going to win,” said Tiffen. “When they give support to the conservative side of politics it’s all out and wholehearted — that’s what we’ve got with The Daily Telegraph this year.”

There are no tepid endorsements at the Herald Sun. Melbourne’s most-read newspaper has endorsed Liberal candidates at every federal election since the merger of The Sun News-Pictorial and afternoon broadsheet The Herald in October 1990. Four of these candidates proved to be winners, with the other three losing the election held on the following day …

This party line is not restricted to News Corp, with The Australian Financial Review and The West Australian consistently endorsing the Coalition since at least the 1996 election — even in 2007, when Rudd was widely expected to easily claim victory over Howard.

At The Daily Telegraph — the tabloid seemingly hellbent to “kick this mob out” — the Sydney tabloid has backed six winners since it merged with The Daily Mirror in October 1990, while endorsing two losers. For a fiercely partisan paper its endorsements are split evenly — four for Coalition leaders and four for Labor.

Denis Muller, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne and former associate editor at The Age, says editors at Australian newspapers have never simply picked candidates they think will win the election.

“The proprietor’s or the board’s view will usually be based partly on ideological conviction and partly on self-interest — mainly, what will be good for business,” said Muller. “Murdoch has backed Labor and Liberal at various times, depending on what deals and promises he has extracted from the political leaders or on what he thinks will otherwise benefit the business.”

But with editorial endorsements often buried deep within print editions, the influence on voters is secondary to the political reporting of the paper. Influence is also tempered by the level of trust readers have in the papers. According to Essential Media research in January, only 48% of  people in New South Wales trusted The Daily Telegraph , with 50% of Victorians trusting the Herald Sun and 57% of Queenslanders putting their faith in The Courier-Mail.

Terry Flew, a professor of media and communications at Queensland University of Technology, says the influence of endorsements also depends on the paper. “Tabloid newspapers like The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun may have a wider influence than their readership numbers suggest given the demographics that they reach. Traditionally, these newspapers have been shared around the tearooms and work sites by readers,” he said.

Muller told Crikey: “Newspaper editorials are read by a relatively small proportion of the newspaper’s total readership, and most of these would probably already share the newspaper’s views — which is one of the reasons people choose to buy a particular newspaper in the first place.”

According to academic research by Joshua Gans, the current Jeffrey S. Skoll chair at Rotman School of Management, and Andrew Leigh, who is the Labor MP for the federal seat of Fraser, editorial endorsement in Australia is highly correlated with observed bias in article headlines. Their study — “How Partisan is the Press? Multiple Measures of Media Slant” — also found that 77% of endorsements between 1996 and 2007 in all major Australian newspapers were for Coalition candidates.

Of course, many swinging voters make their minds up very late in the campaign, so editorial endorsements may result in marginal influence on the late deciders. But News Corp papers played their cards early on in the campaign this year, and there is little doubt as to which candidate the Tele will officially endorse …


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36 thoughts on “Murdoch’s might: how much do News papers influence elections?

  1. Mr J

    While the editorials might not pick it, their coverage leaves a lot to be desired.

    For example, the Thomas Kelly gaffe by Abbott has only been covered in The Guardian, Fairfax papers and New Matilda. Compare that with Rudd’s gaffes (which deserved the coverage they got I might add). While Abbott’s sex appeal gaffe got plenty of coverage this wouldn’t be perceived negatively with the everyday punter as it wasn’t inconsiderate. But perhaps I’m being pedantic.

  2. klewso

    “Kevin Rudd in 2010”?

  3. klewso

    I reckon it’s more the editorial control (the framing) of what makes it to print – their view of what constitutes “public interest” and what we get to see of the news – and the years between elections, the sort of PR they spout?
    They tried to save Howard for as long as they could between ’04 and ’07, but had to eventually let his hand go – to save their own reputation as much as anything? Then, after, it was back to business as usual – framing Rudd/Labor as incompetent?

  4. klewso

    [… see the next (NBN) story for m.o. spin – that can go on for years. Every negative aspect about Labor policy picked up, amplified and magnified.]

  5. Bruce Park

    It’s not a question of endorsement. In this past 3 years or so the Australian, Telegraph and Courier Mail have been totally one-sided, with abusive and often ridiculous convolutions of “news” that even News Ltd has to defend as “satire”.
    The people involved – notably Mitchell and the so-called Boris Whittaker – are not journalists. They are desperate courtiers, bending over as far as it takes to please the boss.And the boss is plainly a doddering, lonely crank.

  6. BruceHassan

    How much do they influence elections (i.e. voters)? I think that the more obvious their bias the less they have any real influence. Their over-the-top espousal of their emperor’s views just makes the emperor look ever-more cranky and irrelevant. The trust rankings for various newspapers make it obvious that very few people actually believe anything they read in a Murdoch paper. Whenever I hear questions about the influence of the press, I recall the total support (Murdoch, Fairfax, etc) of the press for the Yes vote in the republic referendum, and total failure of the referendum. Murdoch papers may good for a laugh, good for fire lighters (although the SMH is better on that score), good for picking up dog poo, good for Labor to blame for its pathetic campaign failure – but do they really influence the way people vote in the privacy of the booth? I suspect not.

  7. klewso

    “Citizen Drain”.

  8. klewso

    They only have on work on swaying the opinion of a majority of swinging voters (5/6(?)% of the whole), to influence their perception of fitness to govern.
    The rest won’t be swayed – they’ll either see it for what it is, or as reinforcing their preconceptions.

  9. David MacGahan

    Is this time different due to the massive threat of labors NBN though?

  10. Karen

    “Doddering, lonely old crank” (lol) sitting on top of his billions and not a wife to show for it…what a guy…

  11. mattsui

    Would be great if the tele’ came out Friday-week with an ed’ saying;
    “Actually we were just trolling – syke! Realy you should vote Labor…..”

  12. Malcolm Street

    David – amuses me that the apologists for Murdoch’s quasi-monopoly point out the different types of media available, but then the Coalition is crippling the NBN apparently on Murdoch’s orders to reduce the threat from that side…

  13. CML

    David, if you listen to Tom Watson, the British MP who was instrumental in exposing the Murdoch scandal in the UK, he says that the old crank targets individuals (Rudd, in this case), who are seen to threaten his (Murdoch’s) business interests.
    There is no doubt that the NBN is a threat to Foxtel in this country – at least, that is what my young IT industry relatives and friends tell me. The NBN was definitely a Rudd ‘policy’, which seems to suggest a reason for the savage attacks in Ltd News papers on the PM.
    Do they influence voters? My own view is that most people don’t read newspapers, but just about everyone sees/reads the front page of papers, mainly because of the exposure they get in newsagents, supermarkets, workplaces etc. Great subliminal messaging – the punters are being manipulated without even realising it!
    Murdoch – cranky and old, but no fool! That is what makes him so dangerous in a democracy.

  14. Interrobanging On

    Some elections are close, some are ‘drovers dog’ elections. Presumably, it is only in close one that a paper might have a direct influence.

    I don’t think the pre-election editorial has much weight, but in the ongoing bias or lack of it (in other words, whether journalists are professional or not).

    The Murdoch tabloids are obvious, but the framing bias of the MSM and the ABC is insidious, as is the prevalent bias by omission. If Ashby/Brough had been from the ALP, would the issue have been buried literally overnight on the damning judgement of judicial abuse?

    It is hard to imagine Abbott being here if the media generally had given him even 1/2 the scrutiny Gillard got when he was at rock bottom in popularity. Gillard slush fund allegations from 20 years before, but nothing on Abbott’s own slusher and his lying about it from more recently etc.

    Plus the broad narrative eg the Liberal Party are better at managing the economy in spite of Hockey/Abbott being irrational about it now with a spendathon and tax cuts despite declaring a ‘budget emergency’. Without the constant Big Lie repetition these ideas can’t take root.

    Newspapers (which are also online getting 10 000s of views for some stories) play their part still.

    The Daily Terror is going hard in Sydney to influence a couple of seats there. Same in Brisbane and Melbourne. A tiny percentage of people across the country, but targeted. If they (and their ilk) can con 2-3 people in 100 where it counts they can win or hold seats for their side.

    Perhaps Murdoch regrets not going as feral in 2010, because just a couple of seats in Western Sydney would have given Abbott government (and he would be underdog now after failing for the last 3 years).

  15. David Hand

    Well this is all pretty obvious, really. Murdoch has his right of centre views and that comes through his newspapers, which are bought mostly by people with right of centre views.

    Where’s the story?

    Ah that’s right. Murdoch bias is the fig leaf the ALP is using to explain its likely defeat and avoid yet again the urgent need to reform itself and find its heart.

    How’s this for an idea? The government is getting bad press because it is a genuinely bad government?

  16. CML

    David, the verdict is in. View Media Watch, ABC TV from last Monday night. You must be blind, deaf and dumb if you really believe the nonsense you write here.

  17. David Hand

    Ah yes, we’re all blind, deaf and dumb, believing whatever Murdoch tells us to believe.

    Dang! That’s why Labor is losing! Nothing to do with running an incompetent government! Oh no no no!

    Suspend democracy I say. We obviously can’t be trusted with it.

  18. AR

    As the Rodent described mass public opinion, the Bridge walk (including apparently the gutless Smirk) for reconciliation and the even more massive marches against involvement in blood-for-oil, “..this is an attempt at mob rule”.

  19. mattsui

    David Hand, you are just trolling.
    Nobody denies the right of News Limited papers to print utter bollocks.
    But what happens when the try to report the truth?
    The half dozen or so intelligent readers they have left simply won’t believe a word.

  20. Malcolm Street

    David Hand – try Brisbane and Adelaide – if you want a daily newspaper you go Murdoch.

  21. Gorkay King

    A lot of politically neutral people read Murdoch papers. Sure, they don’t really care about politics or trust the newspaper but repetition reinforces beliefs. If someone reads negative reports about a government for 3 years in a row it will influence his/her opinion.

  22. Karen

    What gives me the pips is when editorial opinion is stuck in news columns and reported as objective fact. The corollary is when lazy, stupid readers don’t make the time and effort to read other sources to try and inform themselves of the facts. Fix those two things, and Murdoch would really be like an emperor without any clothes.

  23. klewso

    I agree mattsui, in a self-regulatory environment these institutions shouldn’t be running around passing themselves off as pillars of virtue and defenders of the greater public’s rights to know. Which seems (with their control of what passes for greater circulation and consideration) more their right to edit in/out, to prioritise, according to politics. From behind contradictory, to habit, PCPs and mission statements about some hypocritical commitment “to accurate, fair and fearless publication of news and commentary” – when their actions are so at odds with their laudable, window-dressing, shopped words.

    [The poor Curry or Maul bully-boy, that runs around summarily ripping some people to pieces according to their rather elastic code of morality, while protecting others (in similar transgression) according to party, is in a tizz today at someone having shown them the same amount of disrespect they think they have a right to use their huge resources to do? They’ve even trotted out that Murdoch one-eyed omnipotent Uber-troll Blot, to throw stuff over the battlements at the besiegers.
    “The unfairness of it all”?]

  24. Karen

    …and wouldnt have the influence he currently has…

    In any event its outrageous that Murdoch, an American citizen keeps butting in from 20,000 kliks away or so,come election time,to manipulate and bully Australian voters in voting for the leader he wants, primarily because he wants to further his own commercial interests. You feel like saying, ‘How much is enough, man’.

    And where has it got him. His third wife has gone for all money and now he just comes across as another old, lonely, grumpy, right wing curmudgeon, misanthrope. Definition of a rich, old loser…

  25. David Hand

    I’m just trolling?

    I’m just agreeing with the basic view of this article. The Murdoch press doesn’t influence voting intention as much as Labor would like people to believe.

  26. Rubio Diego

    Stop Press: The Daily Telegraph is going to publish a Labor leaning version, to head off a huge drop in sales by Labor supporters outraged by bias shown on their front pages.

    The new Tabloid is to be called The Daily Polygraph- “Truth don’t live here any more ”

    The new front page has been approved and shows a Photo of the Backsides of Tony Abbott, Sophie Mirabella and Joe Hockey with the caption in bold print- KEEP THESE BUMS OUT!

    The management feel that this could arrest the slide in sales and return some balance to their editorials!

  27. Observation

    One day in the future, the people will look back on this time and wonder how bloody stupid we could have been to let a media baron have such an influence on how our country is run. All the antics of these papers are completely indefensible.

  28. klewso

    That’s “entertainment”.

  29. Steve777

    CML @13 has a good point. If you walk around Sydney you see Daily Telegraph banners front pages everywhere – screaming from news stands, newsagents and general stores. Daily Telegraphs litter most coffee shops and takeaways. That’s a lot of free advertising for whoever News Corporation decides to support. Of course, most voters think for themselves, even if Rupert treats his potential customers like fools who need to be told what to think. But the key is, they don’t have to influence vary many. The difference between a landslide one way (53-47) and the other (47-53) is only about one in thirty voters. The difference between a narrow win and a narrow loss is tiny.

  30. David Hand

    The notion that “Rupert treats his potential customers like fools who need to be told what to think” is an almost religious dogma held by the inner urban elites such as those who subscribe to Crikey and who post on threads such as this one. You have no idea whether or not Murdoch thinks his readers are fools.

    The notion however that Murdoch wants to sell newspapers and so publishes views in line with what his main readership believes is a basic orthodox business strategy followed by almost every enterprise in the world.

    Take your pick mate.

  31. Rubio Diego

    Dear David, the thing you haven’t thought about is that I am one of Murdoch’s customers. We have the Saturday Courier Mail delivered from Norman Park Central News Agency, if you’d like to check. However it won’t be for much longer as I’m cancelling and so are others I know. Good business model?

  32. David Hand

    So Rubio,
    When you read your Saturday Courier Mail, irrespective of whether or not you agree with the editorial line, do you think they believe you are a “fool who needs to be told what to think”?

  33. Rubio Diego

    David, I’m not sure if The Murdoch Press think I’m an idiot or not, however if they think that outraging Labor voters like me and thinking that I’m going to keep buying their papers then they’re the idiots!

  34. Steve777

    David – the only conclusion I can draw from much of the recent reporting on Federal matters is that Murdoch and News Corporation Australia want to influence Australians to vote a certain way. They apparently believe that unbiased reporting of the news (so that readers can make their own judgement) supported by comment and editorials expressing the view that one side was better than the other wasn’t guaranteed to get the result they wanted. As for business model, you don’t set out to annoy 40% of your readers. Nor do you give away a Sunday paper for free with a $5 greeting card (as I was offered yesterday). Murdoch’s tabloids are not a business. They are there to help bring about an environment more friendly to News Corporation’s more potentially ventures.

  35. klewso

    True the Curry or Maul did come out and tout Rudd in 2007 on the eve of that election, but in the preceding week, on Tuesday, it devoted it’s editorial to touting National senator Ron Boswell’s seat (against the Green horde), and then on the Thursday the paper (from it’s virtual monopoly, that “serves” the whole of Queensland) devoted about 80% of the editorial to touting Brough and trying to save him in his seat of Longman.

    It had to tout Rudd on the Saturday – or lose face as a political tour de force? We didn’t have to wait long, when it was back to Limited News’ business as usual, attacking his image, to white-ant his popularity, from Burke (apparently “Rudd’s the only politician with dodgy acquaintances”?) to his tantrums (apparently “Rudd’s the only politician with a temper”?) and eventually “Utegate”.

  36. klewso

    It abuses it’s “lyin’s share” of the market to spin news one way, and create a certain image – rather than to keep the greater voting public fully, impartially, frankly informed and abreast of reality.
    It cultivates ignorance and intolerance for political gain.

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