Lee Duffield

Edited by Lee Duffield
Freedom and Truth

Queensland Elections: Do media make any difference to the vote?

Reviewing the Queensland election campaign, Lee Duffield describes most media coverage as well behaved, except for newspaper journalists campaigning against Labor, and a few others who would fancy joining them.

He asks if news media matter that much to election outcomes in 2020.

 The News Corp press coverage has been predictable and partisan, somewhat in a world of their own, supposing what the election is about. It is on an ideological plane hardly discussed at barbecues or the pub, not that much about what the government, or even their own Opposition party have been raising.

NEWS CORP’S OWN ELECTION CAMPAIGN

In a sampling, the Courier Mail writer Jessica Marszalek (picture) resurrects a story about conflict of interest and a business run by the Premier’s former Chief of Staff, David Barbagallo. Beginning on page 1, on 25 September, the journalist has an admission by the government, that the Premier, Anastacia Palasczcuk (picture), had not read a report about the case “commissioned at taxpayer expense”. Consider the language and tone:

“And she still hasn’t read it, despite being the one person responsible for ensuring he complied with the rules. An audit found no evidence (Barbagallo) … had declared applying for and receiving a $267 500 taxpayer investment as a potential conflict of interest, even though it was one. .. Yet six days after receiving the Ernst & Young report … an ignorant Ms Palaszazuk thanked and defended Mr Barbagallo as she announced his departure.”

Does somebody care – voting-wise?

Later the same reporter, with a few others, on 12 and 13 October, had a fresh go at the story of the ex-Deputy Premier, Jackie Trad, forced out of the Ministry in May, also over conflict of interest. A union leader was publicly backing his fellow left faction member to make a come-back, the Premier said no, and Trad agreed. All this took up a good few pages, but the story was fairly threadbare, and even with an element of “unions run the government”, too involved and convoluted for a tabloid. This wasn’t Watergate and definitely not the Washington Post.

It ran in tandem with a party billboard campaign, “dodgy Jackie”, set up before Trad’s resignation and kept going through the election campaign.

Most of the News Corp election material is similar. Under analysis, the main message, is that they don’t want the Labor Party to win. The media company’s campaign raises a point in media theory. Given that voters have their own psychological defences against propaganda, does media have that much purpose anyway? Plenty of alternative channels of information do exist. Alternative to the newspapers, the daily feed of announcements by the party leaders, wearing safety helmets at “media stunts”, is usually picked up by the commercial television stations, and helps to get out the main points of difference. Unedited social media helps also, though it imposes much on users, making them strive to sort out the rubbish from the balderdash.

LNP AND ABC’S “DOG POUND FOR KIDS”

The Liberal National Party and the ABC News in Queensland brought out the latest in their series on black juvenile criminals in North Queensland, on 19 October. The LNP freshened it up, their leadership duo, Deb Frecklington and Tim Mander, declaring for a night curfew on under-eighteens in Townsville and Cairns. The ABC splashed that up as first lead story; featured an off-duty police Inspector, who is an LNP candidate; then a victim (wife of a shopkeeper assaulted) whom somebody brought forward, and gave yet another re-run of the same footage of young Aborigines being violent. A big debate had been kicked up, they said, and to demonstrate that had Amnesty International saying the curfews might be illegal, and the Premier a little dismissively asking how they could manage it. The Katter Party, although a rural group not too dainty about rights, condemned the idea as a “dog pound for kids”.

PROPAGANDA AND THEORY

Once again a point of theory: do journalists, and political groups they might be working with, decide what the election issues are in voters’ minds? The race card, and law-and-order have been known to galvanise support on the conservative side, especially if the two are put together – black and crime. One ABC reporter opined in the news, 29 September, that despite the “backdrop of COVID-19”, “infrastructure and law and order have always been important election agendas and it seems this campaign is shaping up the same way”. Maybe. If there are other concerns, like a pandemic, or worry about keeping your job, semi-manufactured issues might have to make their way as only distractions. An example might be the Trump law and order campaign in black neighbourhoods in America, up against actual catastrophe for millions, and the idea that “black lives matter”.

This column began a monitor of Queensland campaign coverage after picking up signs of political manipulation of not-too-unwilling television journalists. In one case an announced series on election issues started out with “issues” the Opposition wanted, like the hoary chestnut, hold-ups with elective surgery — but that series seemed to have petered out. We also saw a few patsy interviews, political figures given the questions in advance. Three journalists seemed to be involved but as the election period proper began the tendency to bent behaviour dried up.

PROFESSIONAL PLUSSES

One monitor, on ABC, has registered professional plusses, finding a classic inter-play of information, and spirit of inquiry, and some interpretation, that can be useful to audiences. A News special on young voters, on 27 September, including input from Tim Swanston of Triple-Jay, provided individual profiles of two people out of work, statistics, some sociological context from two academics, all watchable – imbued with good production values. ABC despite the walloping given to its budgets makes a proper effort with editing and post production, as against rough packaging deployed by the commercials, especially in the regions.

A week after the youth special, with the official start of the election season, 4 October, ABC produced a hard-work omnibus of coverage of what the vote might be about: the parties’ focus on the economy and new projects, one somehow still keen on budget surpluses, the other resigned to borrowing; then a look at the three marginal seats in Townsville, (and once again, sadly for this coverage, the same, repeated, over-done footage of the same young Aborigines being violent, smashing cars, jemmying doors), with a theme of tentative recovery of tourism in the North, and some analysis, (which possibly, compared with other analyses, gave too much weight this time to the right-wing minor parties – Hanson, Katter and Palmer).

MINDS MADE UP?

The style of the show involved some alternating of speakers and sides, back and forth. Again in a classic mode, it would have had party members on both sides complaining, so the journalists might have decided they got something right. One of those, Peter McCutcheon, has developed his analyses in the ensuing weeks — and analysis can get difficult with the fair balancing demanded of the national broadcaster.  Should a report be premised on the Opposition’s chances of prising three seats in a certain area off the government? Does later coverage, noting a chance the government may be angling to pick up some seats, match it well enough?

Signs are that in 2020 minds are made up, with thousands moving to vote early,  so that the politics in the news will not matter. Big decisions have been known to take place through late swings in the final days, as with the ‘republic’ referendum in 1999 – a 10% change, or in five key American states in 2016, bringing in Donald Trump. But did media messages have anything to do with it, or was something else going on in all those changeable human heads?

 

This article was first published in Independent Australia, 23.10.20.