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Murdoch press shows media bias towards Liberal COVID-19 strategy

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

A biased narrative from the Murdoch press has become unstuck as the NSW COVID-19 crisis worsens, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

IN FEBRUARY of this year, after Victoria headed into a proactive short, sharp, circuit-breaker lockdown, Herald Sun and The Australian “writer” Sophie Elsworth published a piece titled: ‘Why Premier Daniel Andrews needs to be more like NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.’

This article started with the much-repeated trope that Victorian COVID-19 health restrictions were evidence of Daniel Andrews’ dictatorship, represented misuse of his power, were over-reactions and unnecessarily harsh:

If only Premier Daniel Andrews got off his power trip and stopped scaring the living daylights out of citizens, Victorians would be much better off.

 

The stage four lockdown forced millions of people to stay holed up inside their homes 22 hours a day, wear masks indoors and outdoors and be confined to a 5 kilometre radius.

 

And in the five-day lockdown, there were just six cases of community transmission — what a gross over-reaction.

Sophie “not a health expert” Elsworth was not alone in her commentary criticising Andrews’ handling of the pandemic and it was not just the Murdoch media who joined in the media chorus: research by Insentia showed 75% of media coverage was critical of the Victorian Government.

As I’ve written about previously, much of this criticism fit like a glove with Morrison’s politicised anti-Labor narrative by accusing the Victorian Government of contact tracing failures and of failure to suppress the virus, in comparison to “gold standard” NSW which was supposedly exceptional enough to do what was apparently impossible in Victoria — to live alongside the virus.

The comparison between NSW and Victoria throughout the Victorian crisis, exemplified by this statement by Elsworth, was not only evidence of political bias in the media but also made the experience of Victorians during their extended lockdown much more traumatic than it needed to be:

‘Across the border in NSW, Premier Gladys Berejiklian has proven outbreaks can be proportionately managed without unnecessarily impacting the lives of millions of people.

 

If only destructive Dan could take a leaf out of Gladys’s playbook.’

This biased and over-simplified political comparison became a rule of thumb – or what media scholar Denis Muller calls a stereotype – in reporting about the pandemic, accepted without scrutiny across the media pack. No, it was not every journalist. But it was enough of them that this narrative dominated the public discourse and led to much polarisation in the community and complaints of media bias amongst news audiences.

This biased narrative, however, has come spectacularly unstuck as NSW has experienced their own COVID-19 crisis, with the Delta strain stubbornly spreading despite the quality of contact tracing.

It’s worth pointing out that contact tracing is just one tool in the pandemic toolkit and was never a silver bullet. Many other complex factors including luck – the virus in the wrong place at the wrong time – also play a part. Despite thousands of people making this point loudly during the Victorian crisis, begging journalists to stop oversimplifying the pandemic narrative, it seems to have come as a huge surprise to the NSW Government, the media pack and much of the NSW public that contract tracing is not magic. It can’t stop an outbreak when it gets to a particular critical mass and that this is why lockdowns are indeed necessary, which I’m pretty sure Dan Andrews and Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton did calmly and methodically explain numerous times if anyone cared to listen.

Criticism of the strictness of Victoria’s lockdown has also been felled by the dawning realisation by many journalists that NSW’s “gold standard” exceptionalism narrative may have contributed to Gladys Berejiklian’s reluctance to lockdown, her related reluctance to enforce strict lockdown measures and, so far, her refusal to close non-essential businesses. It may also have impacted on the NSW public’s understanding of the dangers of “living with COVID” and their acceptance and adherence to lockdown measures. Media bias is dangerous at the best of times and exceptionally dangerous during a health crisis.

So, how have the media pack so far responded to the dramatic turn of events which have exposed their anti-Victorian government bias and their simplification of politicised Morrison-inspired narratives now that they’re seeing what happened in Victoria is in fact very comparable to what is happening in NSW?

There seem to be two strategies — deny and delete.

Here is Neil Mitchell denying he was against Victoria lockdowns, which is a lie so easily disproved, it’s laughable:

And Peta Credlin, who rivalled Neil Mitchell for her blatant opposition to lockdowns, thought she could hypocritically whiplash pivot to criticising Gladys Berejiklian for not locking down hard enough:

Sophie Elsworth has tried a different tactic, going with the delete route to try to get herself out of her self-inflicted mess. She can delete the tweets if she likes – the audience has kept receipts – but she can’t delete the numerous articles she has published in Murdoch papers saying the exact same thing.

I’m sure there is more tweet-deleting going on, accompanying a rewriting of history and revisionism to try to erase the biased sins of the past.

There is, of course, a third strategy which as of yet I haven’t seen any journalists or commentators trying. It’s a simple one, but also difficult: apologising and promising to do better next time. Is this likely to happen? I would love to see it, but I’m not holding my breath.

This article was originally published on Dr Victoria Fielding's blog, 'Media Inequality', and is republished with permission. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @Vic_Rollison.

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