Former Crikeyista Matthew Knott sat one seat in front of your correspondent during the latter’s (i.e. me, or rather, my … where were we? Shall I go out and come in again?) brief tenure on the Turnbull Express. Now he has written a piece expressing the conclusion that the media got it wrong, and asking folks to suggest reasons why. The answers were interesting — but to a degree, still caught in the bubble he described.

Speaking as someone who didn’t think we could know what would happen — I thought that the result of the shiny pzazz whoosh campaign of Turnbull versus the grinding realness of Shorten would tell us something we didn’t yet know about the current political reality, rather than being readable itself — I can offer a few suggestions.

1. Lack of social analysis. The press gallery still take the liberal view that the social mass is a cloud of decision-making individuals who listen to both sides, refer current arguments back to past arguments and then produce a result. That is, they think everyone thinks like a journalist-political analyst. Shifts based on sudden changes in self-interest, new sub-class divisions, the mythical character of politics — all of these need to be factored in. That’s especially so with these numbers — on the replacement of Abbott, the Coalition numbers went up above 50 from 47, then settled back to 50 and stayed there. The political ground shifts had occurred months ago, and the figures reflected that. Somewhere in the social stats will be a few numbers, state by state, which match the swings nearly exactly. The Mainstream media should publish more sociologists, fewer gimcrack political analysts. Uh oh.

2. Patternism. The past is only a guide to the future if you have evidence that the factors surrounding the process being analysed are stable. If you don’t know what you don’t know, then the past is not only no guide, but actively misleading. In this case, the UK 2015 election mismatch between Labour’s polling and performance hung over this election and determined that people would disregard the polls because Turnbull = Cameron and Shorten = Miliband in the charisma etc stakes. The bubble ensured that that became the story of all the media — but “patternism” was its specific content

3. No one talked to anyone. At campaign speeches in the US, the press, having heard Senator Hiram Q. Buttfuzz give his stump for the 29th time, immediately scatter and vox pop the audience. It’s a lot of effort to get little, because many people simply repeat TV media memes. But you usually get enough that other things emerge — whole seams of opinion not registered by the mainstream media, local issues that will determine the race in that seat, something everyone knows about the local candidate but can’t be published because it is too scurrilous, but it tells you why a supposed frontrunner is going to lose.

On the Australian press buses, I have rarely seen the press pack do this with any application. They’re simply concerned with following the candidate, getting down the announceable, and being there if she/he happens to get egged/pied/shot. Were their editors to give them space to report on how the candidates were actually received, and by what sort of people, a different story would emerge. This time around, it would have been much clearer by polling day how unimpressed people were with Turnbull personally — and how much they departed from the approved view of Shorten.

4. Pooling questions. The refusal to pool questions by the travelling pack is bizarre. At each stop, two dozen journos try to get a question in — the answer to which everyone else will have access to anyway. The prize is prestige in a tribalised situation. If groups of journos pooled an agreed-upon question sequence, the pollies would be unable to deflect them by giving new journos the call for the next question — which has the added advantage of making themselves look pluralist.

5. But, of course, this is all abstract. The reason the media gets it wrong is not because of the many journos doing honest reporting and analysis. It’s because the largest news organisation in the country is a propaganda outfit, run as one, using honest reportage to pack around a series of stories designed to have political effect. On every bus, News Corp has at least one operative looking for the worst angle from a Labor appearance, no matter how good, and the best angle from a Liberal appearance, no matter how bad. The reason it appears that the media didn’t get it this time — as opposed to last time — is because this time, that didn’t work.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey