What do you know about COVID-19 if you rely on the front page of Australia’s tabloid newspapers? Judging from the efforts of News Corp over the past six months, you’d know just one big thing: there’s always someone to blame.

First China. Then Dan Andrews. Now young women. Thursdays front-page declaration by The Courier-Mail that a pair of 19-year-olds who tested positive for COVID-19 and failed to self-isolate were “enemies of the state” drew particular attention. But it’s all part of the same playbook.

Once the front pages led with the news you needed to know and, at their best, why it mattered. Now they’re text-free analogue re-creations of digital clickbait and social media memes.

Where once it told you what was most important, now it tells you what the paper (or the company behind it) thinks most important — or most important for you to think. As the media voice of the right, the front page image can be shared, liked and spread as a talking point.

Take the issue of China, where The Daily Telegraph has played a global role in the Trumpian right’s fault-finding enthusiasm.

As the disease broke on to the front pages six months ago, News Corp’s Sydney tabloid shouted “CHINA KIDS STAY HOME” in its “back-to-school plea”. Officially COVID-19 was still the novel coronavirus. But in the News Corp tabloids it was the “Chinese virus” which, according to Melbourne’s Herald Sun front page was causing “Panda-monium”. (Get it?) 

By early May, the Tele had its “COVID files exclusive”, an apparent 15-page dossier definitively (well, possibly, maybe) tying the virus to a mysterious Wuhan lab. This was not just any old exclusive, as most Tele front pages apparently are. This was a world exclusive!

Leaked from “intelligence sources” to the paper’s Walkley Award-winning reporter Sharri Markson, the dossier fed the front page: “China’s Batty Science, Red Army Virus Probe”, culminating in a promisingly local angle: “Batman: Chinese scientist linked to virus probe worked in Australia”.

The story certainly had global impact, picked up by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who claimed “enormous evidence” that the outbreak started in the Wuhan lab.

What a shame that deep state spoilsports subsequently spiked the story by telling just about every journalist that there was no evidence and that the dossier was not the product of the Five Eyes network. The Tele shuffled its feet: “Trump Claim Splits Spies: Intel Agencies Uneasy About US Virus Theory”.

When in doubt, blame Dan Andrews

This month the blame game has shifted to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. For weeks Tele readers have been served more COVID-19 front pages on Melbourne than their home state: from “Mexicans Shutout”, “COVID Cage”, “Victoria Bitter” to, finally, “Dan-Made Disaster”.

Why is a Sydney paper so obsessed with Melbourne and a Victorian premier? Sure there’s the age-old rivalry, although the Sydney orthodoxy (no doubt shared by Tele readers) is that it’s best dealt with by pretending it’s a purely Melbourne obsession. 

In the context of the Tele front page wars, it seems more about using a comparator to support the NSW Liberal government. It’s a tricky game: a woman, a moderate, as premier? Isn’t there something else to talk about?

In May, when the paper was boosting COVID-19 control success, it started with a full-page campaign launch — “Kickstart NSW: our road to recovery” — followed a couple of days later with a full-page shot of (thankfully male) Treasurer Dominic Perrottet pulling a beer, overlaid with: “Dom Gets Jobs Flowing: nifty 50-punter rule to inject beer, cheer and cash into NSW”. Poor Gladys.

No such reservations with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, long a Tele favourite. Over the past four years, he’s been front-paged as “Mr Fixit”, “Great Scott”, even “Santa ScoMo”. Bill Shorten, on the other hand, went from “Here’s Your Bill” in 2017 to “What A Load Of Bill” in 2018 before “Mother Of Invention” in the 2019 election campaign.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese got an early taste, photoshopped into a World War II German army uniform in the 2013 election. This year his Eden-Monaro byelection win was a clear loss according to the Tele.

In last weekend’s Sunday Tele,  Morrison was elevated to near beatification in an exclusive (of course) report: “SCOMO SAVED MY LIFE”. Inside the “Leftie found bleeding on beach” was quoted as saying of the Hillsong PM: “I felt a beautiful aura. Just a sense of compassion and kindness.”

Even Morrison was self-aware enough to give the credit to his bodyguards.