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Politicised coverage: Media favours Liberal COVID response over Labor's

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (image by Dan Jensen)

Media coverage has aligned itself with the Liberal Party's response to the COVID pandemic, while rubbishing Labor's, writes Dr Victoria Fielding

AS AUSTRALIA once again faces a COVID-19 national emergency, there seems to be an acceptance amongst the media commentariat that the politicisation of the pandemic in the second half of 2020 was an unfortunate turn of events, unconducive to unity and efforts to squash the virus.

For example, Katharine Murphy in The Guardian wrote:

Andrews, who was once close to Morrison … feels (entirely correctly) that the prime minister shafted him with all the politicking from Canberra during Victoria’s long (but ultimately successful) lockdown during the second wave.

Even with this hindsight perspective of the impact of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s toxic politics, media commentators characteristically place the blame for this politicisation at the feet of the politicians. They skate past the elephant in the room: the role the media played in this politicisation and the damage this political framing has done to the country’s efforts to fight COVID.

Along with thousands of others, I spent a lot of time on Twitter in the second half of 2020 calling out the bleedingly obvious media bias in the coverage of the Victorian second wave which villainised Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. We pointed to how this coverage contrasted against the equally blatant hero-worship of NSW’s COVID response. We were sneeringly called "Dan Stans".

A research report by Canberra University’s News and Media Research Centre found that media coverage of the pandemic in the first half of 2020 emphasised national solidarity and framed the pandemic as a health crisis.

But the second half of 2020 was characterised by political narratives focused on blame, specifically blaming Victorian Premier Andrews for the pandemic’s ill effects. Similarly, critiquing the 2021 coverage of the NSW outbreak as compared to Victoria’s, Denis Muller in The Conversation said politics is secondary in coverage of the NSW COVID crisis, but in Victoria, politics was central.

We all saw these political narratives form, and we called them out time and time again. However, it wasn’t just that the pandemic was politicised, it was politicised in a biased way.

The question remains: why did this happen? Why was the media’s COVID narrative so biased against Labor governments, while privileging the voices of Liberal leaders?

There is no doubt that Scott Morrison aimed to opportunistically politicise the pandemic and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian did her best to help.

But that’s just the start of the story. Journalists themselves in their vast majority threw their powerful weight behind this narrative, eating the "gold-standard-NSW-versus-incompetent-Victoria" trope for breakfast, completely rejecting all evidence to the contrary.

This meant journalists not only failed to call out the Prime Minister and NSW Premier’s toxic contribution, but instead helped to promote and reinforce the power of this politicised narrative.

There are strong ideological and cultural reasons why this media bias exists and has existed since before the Labor Party and the Liberal Party formed. These biases are mostly unconscious, a by-product of dominant ways of seeing the world in wider society, but in some cases also represent partisan-centric-conscious bias in the case of some outlets: *cough* *Murdoch* *cough*.

To understand where this pro-Liberal bias comes from and in turn where the anti-Labor bias resides, you need to understand media inequality.

An insight into media inequality is given by the types of sources used in COVID-19 coverage. An as-yet unpublished study by a Griffith University and Canberra University researcher compared the sources used in COVID-19 news stories published by The Australian and the ABC.

They found the most used source across both outlets were industry voices. 

We all remember how many times the ABC asked café owners for their complaints about the Victorian lockdown. This focus on industry sources represented an economic framing of health measures that were inherently opposed to any health intervention which had a negative impact on business.

Unfortunately, lockdowns are negative for the economy. But so is the pandemic. This economic framing does not just reflect a focus on the economy, but shows that the media see the economy in a particular way.

The media predominately frames the economy as working best when it is "free", or in other words, when there is no intervention in it.

Whether that "intervention" takes the form of COVID-19 restrictions like a lockdown, climate action, a policy to regulate unrestrained corporate greed, welfare funding, or takes the form of collective action by workers through unionism — the core assumption made by journalists is that government and labour movement intervention has a negative impact on the economy.

In turn, that this negative impact flows onto society more generally.

Within this particular economic frame, business owners and leaders are framed as the heroic engine rooms for the economy and integral for national health. This hero frame transfers seamlessly to Liberal politicians who are the mouthpiece of industry.

It flows just as seamlessly into an acceptance by the media that Morrison’s "let’s live with the virus" strategy was better for the country than Andrews’ preference for locking down until the virus was eliminated.

The taken-for-granted economic credentials of Liberal politicians and the close relationship between business and the Liberal Party gives Liberals two advantages in media framing, an advantage that played out in COVID reporting.

The first is that their political opposition to Labor policies are assumed to be legitimate until proven otherwise — quite the political headstart.

The second is that when Liberal politicians do take action, such as implementing a lockdown (albeit too late), or spending billions on a union-designed JobKeeper program to keep the economy out of recession, this action is seen as necessary, prudent and not wasteful. Yet, the same actions taken by Labor politicians are framed as illegitimate.

And, when Liberal intervention is, characteristically, designed to help their industry mates at the expense of everyone else, this intervention gets the big tick from media too. They can’t lose.

When you’re assumed to be speaking on behalf of industry, you’re speaking on behalf of the economy and you’re automatically assumed by journalists to be doing the right thing by the public.

Conversely, those taking political action which is framed as bad for the economy – Labor politicians and unions – are automatically framed in the media as villains, responsible for bad economic outcomes and thus bad for the national interest.

This bias is the source of the anti-Andrews media narrative and also the source of bias against a swathe of other Labor policies: the stimulus package that saved the economy from the Global Financial Crisis; the mining tax; the carbon tax, rinse, repeat and rinse again.

In a nutshell, when justifying their policies, Labor politicians are always fighting the assumption they are hurting the economy, and Liberals are always benefiting from an assumption they are helping economic outcomes.

Even in the middle of a health crisis, policies are judged by the rules of the free-market logic, instead of being evaluated on health measures.

This bias might seem subtle at times, but it is powerfully omnipresent in the media and it has real consequences for how the public understand the world.

Naming and shaming this bias is healthy for democracy.

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

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