Media Analysis

Murdoch's commentators poisoning Voice debate

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Sky News' Peta Credlin has trafficked in misinformation in the Voice debate (image via YouTube)

Agents of News Corp have been propagating patently false information about The Voice, leaving us all worse off, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

AS LEAD RESEARCHER on the Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission Murdoch Referendum Accountability Project, my team and I are watching in real-time as powerful News Corp voices try to undermine facts about the Voice to Parliament.

What we weren’t expecting is other News Corp personalities to call this out.

One of the interesting findings from this project so far is that we have identified some excellent journalism at The Australian and Sky News, which is offering balanced, factual and useful information to audiences.

Our project uses a quantitative method that intricately analyses content from The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and Sky News to identify by number and percentage of words which voices are included and mentioned, which ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ arguments are given coverage, and how the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigners are characterised.

Using this method, we found Sky News’ documentary The Voice: Australia Decides, by Northern Territory journalist Matt Cunningham, gave ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ voices almost equal coverage. Cunningham also spoke to Indigenous people in their communities who aren’t politicians or commentators, who have had little opportunity to be heard amongst the swathe of political voices dominating most media reporting.

These instances of balanced, quality journalism about the Voice, however, are overwhelmed by the vast quantity of News Corp voices who are not only one-sided in their reporting and commentary by privileging ‘No’ arguments, but are aggressively undermining the public’s understanding of the facts of the debate.

Take Sky News for example. In our first three weeks of analysis from 17 July to 6 August, the six hosts who had the most coverage about the Voice from most to least were Andrew Bolt, Peta Credlin, Sharri Markson, Paul Murray, Laura Jayes and Rita Panahi. Of these six, Laura Jayes is the most likely to platform ‘Yes’ voices. The most prolific, however, Andrew Bolt and Peta Credlin, are also the ones most actively opposing the Voice and muddying the facts of the Referendum.

This undermining was in full swing last week when Peta Credlin worked hard to publicise a conspiracy theory laden with misinformation, that alleged the one-page Uluru Statement from the Heart was really 26 pages long. Credlin claimed these hidden pages of the statement had “plenty of stuff in there about treaties, compensation and a whole lot of stuff that they’re not being upfront about” which “just leads voters to think it feels more and more tricky as the days go on”.

Credlin appropriated journalistic terminology in this mudslinging claiming the secret statement had been discovered by freedom of information (FOI) and she was revealing its existence "exclusively". Credlin promoted this misinformation in The Australian and Sky News on 3 August, and again on Sky News on 7 August.

The same claims were amplified by "no" proponents Pauline Hanson MP, and Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price who falsely claimed on Sky News the veracity of the documents had been confirmed by the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA). Sky News also published the documents, but as found by RMIT fact-check, rearranged them to make it appear they were part of the Uluru Statement when really they were 'background information and excerpts of regional dialogues'.

The Prime Minister was forced to correct the record and call out the conspiracy theorising when Deputy Opposition Leader Sussan Ley repeated the misinformation in Parliament. RMIT fact-check had already debunked this misinformation in June, but apparently, no amount of fact-checking will stop Credlin’s misinformation zombie from reappearing.

Credlin’s effort to undermine the Voice in concert with ‘No’ campaigners is, of course, not journalism, but political commentary as part of her and other Sky News hosts' deliberate attempts to undermine the public’s understanding and support for the Voice.

We already know that journalism and commentary are hard to distinguish at News Corp. Their editorial policies allow for 'comment, conjecture and opinion… to provide perspective on an issue'. Credlin has made her views on the Voice clear saying she wants it 'to fail and fail badly so it's put away hopefully forever and a day'. Credlin is, of course, welcome to her opinions, but what she is not welcome to do is to make up facts to undermine the Referendum.

Surprisingly, fellow Sky News host and The Australian commentator Chris Kenny seems to agree with me. In a scathing critique of Credlin’s misinformation, Kenny said Credlin’s claims about the secret Uluru Statement from the Heart’s pages were “simply untrue”.

What a sorry state of affairs at News Corp when commentators have to correct the misinformation published by their colleagues. A healthy democratic Voice debate relies on media behaving responsibly to fairly and credibly inform the public of accurate information they can use to make a decision in the Referendum.

When powerful political players like Peta Credlin use their media platforms to undermine this process, it’s not just a blight on media trust and credibility, it’s a blight on society.

*This article is also available on audio here:

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @DrVicFielding.

If you would like updates from the Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission Murdoch Referendum Accountability Project, join here.

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