While scandals happen on both sides of the political spectrum, the mainstream media tends to showcase Labor's faults over those of the Liberal Party, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.
POLITICAL JOURNALISTS love a good scandal. The news media is rightly determined to hold power to account, so when there is political misconduct, they pile on. But why do journalists give Labor scandals more coverage than Liberal wrong-doing?
A clear example of this inequitable treatment is the attention given to former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s ICAC scandal as compared to the Victorian Labor Party’s IBAC branch stacking woes.
As scandals go, the Berejiklian scandal doesn’t get any bigger. After revelations that the NSW Premier was having a secret affair with disgraced MP Daryl Maguire, you would think media pressure would make her job untenable.
In October 2020, secret recordings of Maguire’s phone calls with Berejiklian caught her conspiratorially warning her lover: “You don't need to tell me that bit.” This made big news at the time, but Teflon-like, Berejiklian managed to avoid ongoing media pressure over the secret relationship and, crucially, how the relationship impacted her political decisions.
Whether the media cared or not, the ICAC investigation kept rolling on for another year. Eventually, it wasn’t media pressure which forced Berejiklian to step down. Rather, she made the decision to resign on 30 September 2021, judging she couldn’t withstand the appearance she had “breached public trust” by awarding multi-million dollar grants to community groups in Maguire’s Wagga Wagga seat.
The accusation that Berejiklian did not declare a conflict of interest when awarding the grants is not a small political problem. ICAC – “C” for “Corruption” – continues to investigate the process in which grants were awarded and is still hearing from witnesses.
The fact that Berejiklian resigned, knowing full well whether evidence was likely to exonerate or implicate her, is a huge story by anyone’s estimation. This was not some little-known backbencher like Maguire stepping down — it was the NSW Premier and in the middle of a pandemic.
You would expect a scandal this big to receive a huge amount of media scrutiny, analysis and commentary. You would think journalists would pick apart the accusations, dissecting them for the audience over many media cycles to discover the sordid truth.
One of the difficult things to judge when analysing media reaction to different events is what constitutes proportional coverage. One way to measure proportionality is through comparison. In this case, comparing a Victorian Labor IBAC scandal to a NSW Liberal ICAC scandal shows clear inequity in media interest, attention and scrutiny.
The graph below compares the number of media articles mentioning ICAC and specifics of the grant scandal in the seven days after Berejiklian’s resignation on 30 September, with mentions of the Victorian IBAC investigation into Labor Party branch stacking for a week from 6 October. Online and printed newspapers were included from national, Melbourne and Sydney based outlets.
The IBAC scandal received more attention than the grant-related resignation of the NSW Premier in all outlets except the ABC. The contrast was particularly stark at Murdoch media. Surprise, surprise.
Note, I’ve counted only those articles that specifically delve into the grant scandal — not just those mentioning ICAC. This is because there were many articles that referred to ICAC in relation to Berejiklian’s resignation, but didn’t detail the grant scandal itself. Instead, a huge number emotionally eulogised Berejiklian’s career, with journalists seemingly grieving for a friend without mentioning the circumstances of her decision to resign.
Much coverage framed her as a heroic, much-loved Premier, victim to an over-reaching corruption Commission. Maybe she is much loved because the media have failed to hold her accountable for her questionable dealings with Maguire.
I’ve done the same analysis with the IBAC story. I counted only those articles which specifically mention IBAC in relation to the branch-stacking scandal in Victorian Labor. Never mind that branch-stacking, although clearly unethical, is not illegal. This reporting gave not only equivalency to the Andrews Government scandal and the NSW Premier’s ICAC investigation, but proportionately over-emphasised the IBAC investigation.
But wait, there’s more evidence journalists are more interested in a Labor scandal than a Liberal one.
The Victorian branch stacking scandal had already received media attention after it broke through a 60 Minutes investigation in June 2020. This scandal led Labor MP Adem Somyurek to lose his ministry and to leave the Party; he now sits as an independent.
You might also recall the Victorian Liberal Party were embroiled in their own branch-stacking scandal, reported to allegedly implicate Federal Liberal MPs Michael Sukkar and Kevin Andrews. The MPs have since been exonerated for misuse of public funds after an investigation by – try not to laugh – the law firm Sukkar used to work for. A review also led to 170 Victorian Liberal members having their memberships cancelled. Nothing to see here, move along.
Two scandals about the same wrongdoing — branch stacking and misuse of public funds. Which do you think received more media scrutiny?
This graph compares the number of articles written about branch stacking, mentioning Somyurek in the month after the story broke on 15 June 2020, to stories mentioning branch stacking and Sukkar in the month after 20 August 2020 in national, Melbourne and Sydney based outlets.
In every outlet, the Labor branch stacking story was bigger news than the same scandal in the Liberal Party.
How can you explain this blatant media inequality?
There is not one reason for this biased treatment of Labor scandals as compared to Liberals. Some of it constitutes conscious bias on the part of many Murdoch journalists who set out to use their media power to smear progressive politicians.
However, much of this bias results from unconscious assumptions about the differential legitimacy of Labor and Liberal politicians. In a nutshell, Labor politicians are assumed to be scandal-plagued, are assumed to be less legitimate and so when Labor scandals break, journalists say “I told you so”.
Liberals, on the other hand, are taken for granted as legitimate, so are treated with kid gloves by journalists, even when involved in equivalent scandals or even more serious scandals than Labor.
Media inequality leads to unequal accountability between Labor and Liberal politicians, which results in inequitable democratic accountability. Although journalists love a political scandal, they apparently love a Labor scandal more than they love a Liberal one.
Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @Vic_Rollison.
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