Watching Australia’s media covering an election campaign is a lot like watching the Tour de France. And right now, Australia’s press Tour is half-way through, just hitting the mountainous stages in the Pyrenees.
There’s the press pack: puffing up the rise, grouped together in the peloton, each rider subtly and continually adjusting their movements to the pack as a whole so that the total group seems to move as if as one. It’s an approach that’s said to bring the wisdom of the crowd to campaign reporting: it carves a national narrative from the day-to-day campaigning, ensuring the country gets to experience the election in a more or less uniform way.
As in the Tour, from time to time one of the riders will breakaway from the pack. In French, they’re baroudeurs or adventurers. It’s high stakes — you can end up winning the stage with the yellow jersey or exhaust yourself and be swept aside by the grinding peloton coming up behind.
The first breakaway in this election campaign came in the journalistic deadest of times — the Thursday evening before the Easter long weekend — when The Project‘s Hamish Macdonald worked with freelance journalist Michael West to break open Australia’s watergate scandal.
After largely ignoring the story on Twitter, members of the press pack now broke away to chase the story and by Monday night’s car crash interview between the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas and Barnaby Joyce, the story had been absorbed into the narrative and riders adjusted accordingly.
Over this past weekend, we’ve had another couple of attempted breakaways worth watching. First: in his Friday AFR column, Phil Coorey pointed out that the Coalition was taking the unusual approach of campaigning pretty much without policies. Expect this to keep popping up in this week’s bus-stop pressers.
In the Nine papers yesterday, Jacqui Maley called out the semiotics of the Coalition campaign with “we have hit peak bloke”. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s chased down. The entire point of the daily stops by the leaders is to provide what the Americans call a “pic fac” — a facility for a picture (as the French countryside does in the Tour).
These visuals fill out the evening news (still the largest audience for political content). Even if the viewers aren’t listening to the words (highly likely), the visuals shape the campaign narrative. Having a beer, shearing a sheep… these all tell the Morrison “peak bloke” narrative.
There’s been a change in the make-up of the peloton this year, with Team Lachlan as the voice of the right. The sheer volume his team brings to the pack means that it inevitably shapes its direction. In this election, in the absence of conservative policies, this means it’s all about the economy, or at least, the budget.
For example, yesterday’s Herald Sun headlined the announcement of Labor’s childcare plan with a focus on the cost, not the policy. By the evening Nine news, that had become the pack talking point.
And within the pack, there’s sometimes a touch of niggle. In The Weekend Australian, Richard Ferguson and newly appointed reporter Alice Workman stuck a stick through the spokes of Guardian correspondent (and ALP campaigner) Van Badham after trawling through six-year-old tweets. The story: “Foul-mouthed activist Van Badham centre stage at ALP event”.
There’s another metaphor from the Tour that’s shaping election coverage: “chasse patate” — hunting potatoes. Almost-PM Peter Dutton went into hiding after repeating comments from his constituents that his Labor opponent Ali France was using her disability as an excuse. After two weeks of chasing the ministerial potato, News Corp’s Sunday papers got the next best thing: an interview with Dutton’s wife where she denied that the minister was “a monster”. Apparently the bar is quite low. This is one potato that Labor will continue to chase in every electorate held by a Dutton voter.
It’s early days in Australia’s election Tour. Even if neither the media nor the parties have particularly distinguished themselves so far, it’s the ups and downs of the mountains that determine the winner. And that begins this week.
What’s the best election coverage you’ve seen so far? Send your comments to [email protected].