Most media coverage of the Queensland Election campaign has been well behaved, except for newspaper journalists campaigning against Labor and a few others who would fancy joining them.
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, Courier Mail writer Jessica Marszalek resurrects a story about conflict of interest and a business run by the Premier’s former Chief of Staff, David Barbagallo. Beginning on page one, on 25 September, the journalist has an admission by the Government that Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk 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 and Young report... an ignorant Ms Palaszczuk publicly thanked and defended Mr Barbagallo as she announced his departure.
Does somebody care, voting-wise?
Later, the same reporter with a few others had a fresh go at the story of 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 comeback but 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.
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 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 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-18s in Townsville and Cairns.
The ABC splashed that up as a first lead story. It 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 on 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 the 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 of 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 towards bent behaviour dried up.
One monitor, on ABC, has registered professional plusses, finding a classic interplay of information, spirit of inquiry and some interpretation that can be useful to audiences. A news special on young voters, including input from Tim Swanston of Triple J, provided individual profiles of two people out of work, statistics, some sociological context from two academics — all watchable and imbued with good production values.
The 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.
On 4 October, a week after the youth special, with the official start of the election season, ABC produced a hard-work omnibus of coverage of what the vote might be about. First, there was the parties’ focus on the economy and new projects — one somehow still keen on budget surpluses, the other resigned to borrowing.
Then there was 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 and jimmying doors), with a theme of tentative recovery of tourism in the north and some analysis. This possibly, compared with other analyses, gave too much weight this time to the Right-wing minor parties of Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter and Clive 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 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?
Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.
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