Bill Shorten is lying, the front page of The Daily Telegraph says today, complete with an unsigned cartoon of Pinocchio and a customarily bad pun (“Billnocchio”).

The Tele’s execution is eye-catching, but it’s hardly alone in dismissing the Labor’s Party’s statements about the Coalition planning to privatise or otherwise downgrade Medicare. Almost all the media has examined the claim, and found it wanting. They’ve told their readers, viewers and listeners not to pay it any mind. But Essential polling suggests a hefty 81% of voters are concerned about the possibility of Medicare being privatised.

[Turnbull won’t ‘privatise’ Medicare, but he will destroy it]

It’s not a bad experiment with which to gauge the electoral clout of Australia’s media class. Maybe the media’s scepticism about the claim will yet cut through — Isentia analysis has suggested that among talkback and social media, among highly engaged voters, it’s starting to take some hold. But in an environment where the Labor campaign is targeting its ability to talk directly to voters through social media as much as it is the 6pm news (the “6s and socials” campaign, we hear it’s being called), maybe it won’t. The Medicare scare’s fate in the next week will be instructive to watch.

So much of what happens during an election campaign is tailored to the media. As Crikey explored in our piece on election spinners last week, the campaigns run well-staffed round-the-clock media operations, filled with both rapid response teams and longer-term strategists, who do all they can to tip the coverage in their side’s favour.

Cutting through the media is a large part of why politicians speak in sound bites. It’s why the leaders have spent weeks touring the country, from school to factory to farm — new locations make for better images, which is especially crucial for the 6pm news bulletins. Politicians of all stripes, but especially conservatives, have for decades been closely courting the editors of Australia’s major tabloids in a bid to discern and influence their paper’s editorial directions come election day.

TV news historically plays the campaign with a straighter bat (unlike the print press, they’re bound by independently enforced balance requirements in the public broadcasting code), but the TV news directors are still powerful people, able to sway the masses or bury the politicians.

[Election deciders: the spinners]

While much has been said about the role of the News Corp press on influencing politicians, when it comes to influencing the public, party strategists Crikey spoke to said TV news reigned supreme. “With the Australian electoral system — with its compulsory voting — you’re trying to target voters that are the most disinterested,” said Simon Banks, a partner at Labor-affiliated lobbying firm Hawker Britton. And in terms of sheer reach, more people watch TV news. Last night, 1.7 million Australians nationally watched Seven News. Another 1.5 million watched Nine News, and another 1.2 million watched the ABC News.

These are massive numbers. But it’s not just sheer totals that determine TV news’ electoral clout — it’s the type of viewer watching. People watching commercial news are more likely to live in outer-suburban marginal seats, more likely to be swing voters, and are unlikely to seek out direct engagement with the parties.

“Think about the disengaged voter,” Banks said. “They’re not likely to go to news media sites, or watch debates. But free TV plays a big role in reaching them. That’s why parties spend a fair amount on TV advertising. And while politics may be getting pushed down a bit in the news bulletin, being in the news bulletin is still really important. Whether it’s at the top or halfway through, the reality is, for disengaged voters, it might have some impact.”

As for the papers? The tabloids are traditionally seen as the most influential due to their far larger readership, compared to the broad-sheets (which we’ll take to include Fairfax’s ‘compact’ editions). But some doubt even the tabloids have that much impact.

Last election, The Daily Telegraph, then run by Paul Whittaker (he’s now top dog at the Oz), was vehemently anti-Labor. But, Banks says, if this were really pivotal to campaigns, you’d have seen a larger-than-average swing against the Labor party in Sydney, which didn’t occur: “I think voters are increasingly sophisticated in understanding that type of slant. A lot of it, I think, is designed to shock and engage the viewer. It’s as much marketing for the paper as a political slant. And I think voters increasingly take that into account.”

He suggests the tabloids are being read in the same way people listen to talkback radio: with a nuanced understanding on the part of the listenership as to the likely bias of the host.

[Radio nowhere: can talkback work nationally?]

So far this election, the News Corp papers haven’t come out anywhere near as strongly for the Coalition as they did last election. Speaking before today’s front page came out, media monitoring firm Isentia’s Patrick Baume quipped to Crikey that the strongest endorsement he’d seen out of the Tele had been its “Save our Albo” front page — in support of the Labor Left’s Anthony Albanese, under threat from the Greens.

It’s not the only thing party strategists say has been odd about the media’s approach to this election. “I think it’s become harder for everyone to cut through,” veteran Labor campaigner Tony Mitchelmore says. “TV doesn’t work as well as it used to. It doesn’t have the reach it used to.”

Perhaps it doesn’t want to have the reach it used to. For the first time in yonks, none of Australia’s most-watched TV stations have aired any election debates. Seven News director Craig McPherson told Crikey earlier this week that Seven had carefully considered whether to air the debates, but figured it wasn’t worth it: “Given the length of this campaign there is an over supply of political fare and the demand by the greater public, outside our normal news domains, just isn’t there … [We were] more inclined to focus our energies on the extensive campaign coverage and analysis across Sunrise and the 6pm news.”

Politics is still important for commercial TV news, but on the broader schedule, it’s more neglected than ever, says TV historian Andrew Mercado.

“If you do watch the 6pm news bulletin, the election is still right up there — it’s often the first or second lead news story,” he told Crikey. “They consider it very important in news. But anywhere else, politics is the kiss of death. And we’ve seen this in commercial TV for years.”

Mercado thinks commercial TV stations have dropped the ball when it comes to investigating interesting ways to cover politics. Things like Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet could well be airing on a commercial station, but instead has carved out a ratings niche on the one station for which ratings barely matter.

This election, Mercado says rigid TV schedules are probably partly behind why politics hasn’t been given top billing: “Remember many were still expecting an election in September. So the commercial TV stations had their schedules mapped out in advance. You don’t want to have to drop a live episode of The Voice on a Sunday night to air an election debate. They’re so hooked into their reality formats — they’re booked out months in advance. And we’re in winter — prime viewing schedule — and the major reality formats are doing great figures. Everyone’s benefiting. There’s no room for politics.”

The ABC has responded more flexibly, he notes. The Chaser team, for example, quickly stopped working on consumer affairs show The Checkout and changed their whole format to fit the election.

But other parts of the media have, like television, been feeling the weight of viewer disinterest. The traffic of many digital news sites has fallen due to their election coverage, as Fairfax’s digital editors have told staff.

[Traffic is dropping and it’s the election’s fault: Fairfax ed]

Isentia’s Patrick Baume says the “the media’s been fragmenting for a long time”. “But this election shows how much has changed.”

The cycle is much faster — most political stories don’t stick around for more than a few hours. While print publishers remain influential through their websites, the papers themselves have come — on all but the biggest, most influential scoops — to mean little to the 6pm news, which is far more informed by the results of that day’s campaigning.

“The papers are yesterday’s news,” said Baume. “Clearly the cycle is changing.” Some issues, like negative gearing, have been prominent everywhere, but it’s mostly ideologically-charged issues that have gotten people really riled up, Baume notes. He puts that down to “people talking in their own echo chambers”.

But he wonders whether the media’s, and the public’s, ho-hum attitude has more to do with the particulars of the campaigns. “There’s a lack of passion. No one hates Turnbull or Shorten. There’s nothing like the passion people had for Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard.” If, as former Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen told Crikey in 2013, the tabloids are most powerful when they sniff out preexisting sentiments in the electorate and vividly pursue them, perhaps there just hasn’t been enough strong feeling this time to make something of.

In a week’s time, the nation’s papers will endorse one party or the other. Baume wouldn’t be surprised if their attitude mirrors that expressed by that tradie in the Liberal ad we spent much of this week talking about. “Let’s stick with the current mob, for a while.”

Peter Fray

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