Bias in the Canberra Press Gallery

Political opinion by Barry Tucker                    20 August, 2013

This opinion piece may seem to be simplistic and it may seem to be biased. Having looked at the problem for many months, I am satisfied that what I am about to write is true and I will do my best to keep my personal bias (pro Labor) under control.

Allegations of anti federal Labor government bias in the Canberra Press Gallery are not new. I am not aware of any statistical analysis that would support or disprove these claims. Anyone’s impression of bias relies on casual observance, personal bias and a lack of carefully compiled evidence. Therefore, the allegations cannot be proven and must be formed by emotional reaction due to personal bias.

Proving bias is extremely difficult. The researcher would have to collect and study all of the radio and tv broadcasts of commercial stations, the ABC and the SBS, the major and minor newspapers (their social, financial and even their sports pages in addition to the main news pages), the news agencies (AAP, etc), their interweb equivalents including the webzines (Crikey.com, The Monthly, etc) and the tweets and blogs of their staff. It’s a monumental task to collect the data and a strictly impartial approach is required to interpret it accurately.

Bias can be hard for the casual observer to judge accurately because impressions are coloured by personal bias. One negative comment may be interpreted as “totally biased”. Some think ‘if you’re not 100 percent behind us, you must be biased’. My opinion of which journalists are biased, and which way, varies from time to time. Suffice to say, if a journalist is consistently and persistently biased in favour of the Left or the Right then you have a proven case. I could name several who fit the category and I am sure you could too.

Journalists vary their approach to interviewees, depending on many things: length of interview, time allowed for broadcast, time to pass before deadline (urgency), set questions, outdoor ambush, breaking story or follow-up and their opinion of whether the subject is inclined to be evasive. These variations can form an impression in the mind of the observer. Proof of bias can be found by comparing what the journalist writes subsequently with what you witnessed during the interview — if you watched the interview or ambush (or door stopper).

That was a cautionary backgrounder. Now to get to the point.

It’s my opinion that the anti-government bias that seems to dominate political news reporting can be sourced to policy stuff-ups during the first Rudd PM era. Two things need to be taken into account here. 1) This was a new government and new governments are likely to make mistakes. That’s not an excuse, it’s a reality. 2) During that period Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (nee Limited) started to become critical of the Rudd government it had previously supported. It was an attitude that influenced other news media (the so-called “following” phenomena).

I have worked in a few Press Galleries (PG) and I can say it is a dynamic and sometimes intimidating environment. The long-term journalists in the PG see themselves as players in the political game, believing they can call shots, influence politicians and set the theme of the day for the junior journalists to follow. If you are young, ambitious and arrogant you may try to ignore them — at your peril. The consequences are that you will find yourself on the outer, given the cold shoulder, ridiculed, criticised and left out of the loop. Stories will break and you will not be told about them. At the same time it will be made clear to you that you must pass on anything that you hear because “we are all one happy family”. Workplace bullying for sure.

It is through the practices above that senior PG journalists set the theme of the day, focus the interest of other journalists, divert attention from analysis of other policies, and so on. It leads to “following” and “the echo chamber” of journalists interviewing each other and confirming each other’s point of view. Journalists and vested interest commentators are more likely to disagree.

The early policy failures of the new Labor government fed directly and conveniently into the lines being pushed by the News Corp media and the Liberal National Party (LNP) Opposition. Failed policies (or experiments) like “petrol watch”, “grocery price watch” and “cash for clunkers” fed the bad news cycle. It continued with cost blow-outs on PM Rudd’s schools buildings program, roof installation and issuing of pocket money cheques to keep the economy alive during the Global Financial Crisis. The deaths of young men involved in installing roof insulation and subsequent house fires were tragedies that almost finished the Labor government. The Coroner’s Court and other inquiries take a different view than the federal Opposition, but that is not as widely reported.

You could argue about the rights or wrongs of policies that are either experimental or designed to avoid financial recession. From the Liberal party point of view, anything that is experimental or an unprecedented change with an unknown outcome is anathema. So is spending money. Money in the Treasury should be used to reduce business taxes, full stop.

So Labor’s experimental errors outweighed its financial initiatives and the negative news cycle continued. PM Rudd began sliding in the opinion polls, and he’s on the bottom again today. Victory was in sight for the journalists banging on day after day about policy failures and spending and for the LNP Opposition who quite rightly felt it had the government on the ropes. Then came the disaster of disasters. The Deputy PM rolled the PM and it was suddenly a whole new ball game.

The 2010 election that new PM Julia Gillard called early, in order to legitimize her reign, resulted in a draw with Independents holding the balance of power. Gillard won the negotiations with the Independents. Opposition Leader Abbott proclaimed that a government that found it hard to govern with a majority would find it impossible to govern with the support of Independents and one of the most negative Opposition attack campaigns in Australian political history began. The Press Gallery, looking down on the antics in the debating chambers, had little option but to report on one negative attack after the other. Had I been in the PG at the time I would have soon got sick of it and gone looking for other stories, but that’s another story in itself.

The question for PG members, their employers, the consumers of political news and the politicians is: Did the journos have the focus right? That question is epitomised in the PG’s reporting of the famous/infamous “Misogyny Speech”, which went viral over the interwebs. While feminists and their supporters saw it as a watershed moment for their interests, the PG for several days at least saw it as the shrill ranting of a madwoman. There was something wrong with “the nuance”. The LNP Opposition pretty much agreed with the PG but also saw it as an unwarranted attack on their leader, Abbott, who does seem to have an ongoing problem with his view of women.

Even before the Misogyny Speech, nothing was off the table as Abbott tried to ensure he did not become “… the best Opposition Leader never to have become Prime Minister”. I could go on with details, but books have been and will be written about the past six years of this federal Labor government, its Opposition and the news media’s role in developments. It’s my belief that the news media (in its many forms) shapes the opinions that are expressed in the polls — a subject that is scarcely considered or debated. The fact that newspaper companies have a financial interest in some of these opinion poll companies is disturbing, given their potential to influence public opinion.

I want to put on record that there is an alternative scenario to the past six years: Labor’s early experimental policies were designed to make a difference. Rather than merely criticise them, the news media could have analysed them and the reasons for their failure. We could have learnt something useful. In reality, that’s a bleeding heart scenario. Politics is a rough game, played for big prizes: the right to decide what happens next and control of the purse strings and the means of filling (or emptying) the purse.

For those interested in the relationship between the news media and politics, spend some time finding out who owns what and what their motives are, or might be. It’s worthwhile because it explains a lot about what you read in the newspapers and which bits are believable.

To finish, the newspaper industry (as we all realise, I’m sure) is in decline. Unless it tapers off in the next few years, newspaper sales are on course to hit rock bottom by 2020/21. This picture is being obscured by some who amalgamate newspaper sales with subscriptions to their pay wall content on the web version. Crikey.com yesterday published an article that claimed newspapers are fiddling the books on sales as they try to cling to what’s left of their business model. (Read the mUmBRELLA version.)

Good news doesn’t sell. Bad news and delicious scandals sell papers, which makes me wonder why the Ashbygate affair hasn’t been properly exposed in the Press and elsewhere, especially by the ABC’s 4 Corners. I leave the rest to your imagination and for your sake I hope it’s as cynical as mine. “Good night and Good Luck.”

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