Newspaper Nine Queensland
(Image: Unsplash/Bank Phrom)

There’s plenty of head-scratching going on about the big swings to the Coalition in Queensland, particularly regional Queensland. But there’s been one big shift in democratic structures since the 2016 election that gives a clue: News Corp now has a monopoly over commercial news media in the state.

Of course, correlation is not causation. It’s considered bad form to suggest that news bias actually has any impact on elections, particularly when the bias exploits weaknesses in Labor’s own campaign. But there’s increasing US research suggesting that the News Corp/Fox voice is actively changing electoral outcomes.

The Queensland monopoly arose in late 2016, when News Corp took over APN Media’s string of regional mastheads and websites, stretching from Toowoomba through Ipswich and Maroochydore up to Mackay. Added to the company’s long-term ownership of the Cairns, Townsville and Gold Coast mastheads, it created a regional monopoly, meshed with News Corp’s Brisbane monopoly of The Courier-Mail and associated community newspapers.

Compounding the impact, in August last year Win TV announced it would broadcast Sky News (including the notorious “Sky After Dark”) free-to-air through its network across regional Queensland and NSW.

On Saturday, this media consolidation was followed by a 4.4% swing to the Coalition, shaping the national outcome.

A monopoly broadens the reach of a right-wing media and excludes alternatives. It also removes the discipline of competition, freeing an openly conservative media to be, well, more openly conservative. It’s why The Courier-Mail can be more aggressive than, say, the Herald Sun.

On Friday, Crikey took its readers through 24 hours in the News Corp electoral cycle as a voice for Australia’s right.

As this demonstrated, Brisbane’s Courier-Mail has consistently been lead attack dog on Shorten. It front-paged the claimed misrepresentation of Ann Shorten’s career. And in the days before the election, The Courier-Mail pushed the attack over the Gladstone Port worker allegedly sacked for questioning Shorten at a press conference. This story was then amplified around Queensland through the regional newspaper websites.

These stories acted to reinforce doubts about Shorten’s integrity — doubts the News Corp papers have spent six years encouraging. The continued drum-beat about Adani provided the cross-over between integrity (allegedly saying one thing in Queensland and another in Victoria) and the Liberal focus on costs, jobs and taxes.

Academic studies in the US have demonstrated a link between news bias and voting, particularly through the impact on voting behaviour by News Corp’s sibling Fox News.

For example, a 2017 article in the American Economics Review found that watching Fox led to a significant rightward shift in political views and a greater willingness to vote Republican. As Vox reported it, the authors found “if Fox News hadn’t existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008.” Makes 4.4% seem modest.

This reflected the results of earlier surveys from the first decade of Fox.

The US reports reflect communities where Fox News is just one voice, part of a broader right-wing ecosystem. Nonetheless, there are real commercial and not-for-profit alternatives in most cities and US states, available on free-to-air, cable and in print.

In Queensland, since the 2016 election, News Corp has become the dominant commercial news voice. Although the ABC provides one alternative, its coverage in the state is inevitably influenced by taking News Corp reports seriously. Look, for example, at the ABC News reporting of the images of the Gladstone Port worker, which acted to amplify the News Corp claims.

Apart from its ability to spread its reporting and commentary through its own networks, the evidence from the US indicates that News Corp’s voice is also amplified through social media, particularly Facebook. Although we lack data specifically about Australia (and much less about a single state like Queensland) global reports show that conservative voices — particularly Fox News — are consistently at the top of Facebook shares and likes.

However, while the Liberals benefited from targeting their campaign at News Corp’s aging base, it’s less clear that, even as a monopoly, News Corp can turn around its finances as a GetUp of the right. Unlike the US, the Australian market just isn’t big enough.

What role did News Corp play in the federal election? Send your comments to [email protected].