It slipped silently onto doorstops and newsstands in the early hours of Monday morning. In hindsight we shouldn’t have been surprised. But its brashness caused quite the stir.
“Finally, you now have the chance to … KICK THIS MOB OUT.”
It was The Daily Telegraph’s slap in the face to media objectivity, splashed across the image of Rudd announcing the date of the federal election.
In the days that followed, commentators speculated as to why the paper had suddenly decided to let the partisan beast loose from its usual (albeit flimsy) cage. And it wasn’t because the Gillard bones had finally been picked clean.
Paul Sheehan, writing in his column for The Sydney Morning Herald, noted that the arrival of the infamous Col Allan – erstwhile editor of The New York Post, Rupert Murdoch’s unprofitable baby – in Australia was likely the cause.
Sassy former Media Watch host, Jonathon Holmes (also writing in The Herald), agreed: apparently the headlines under current editor Paul ‘Boris’ Whittaker were too ‘boring’, Allan is said to have complained to Murdoch. And so he was recruited for the election run-up.
In the past few days Allan has certainly been exercising his creativity. Thursday’s front page was a mock-up poster of every dad’s war comedy sweetheart, Hogan’s Heroes. Apparently Anthony Albanese and disgraced minister Craig Thomson had swilled some German hops together at one point, thus making the photoshopped images of the ministers and Rudd into characters from the TV show permissible. But that was pretty harmless. Although Albo got off rough as Colonel Klink. I digress.
Sheehan went further to argue that the attack against Labor was really a masked crusade to debunk the NBN, which apparently threatens the business model of News Corp’s broadcast subsidiary, Foxtel. Though as Holmes pointed out, Malcolm Turnbull’s own network proposition would be just as much a challenger, if not more so.
Should we be surprised the Tele is taking this line? Not really. I wrote earlier in Honi about that Stephen Conroy front page, where he was likened to various dictators – Stalin, Castro, Mao, Kim Jong-Un, Mugabe and Ahmadinejad – in the wake of the proposed media reform legislation.
Perhaps we’re just from a different press tradition, coaxed into quiescence by a paper history relatively free of the journalistic antics of our British tabloid cousins.
“Time to Give Them a Kick in the Ballots”, wrote the Daily Star in the lead up to the David Cameron/Gordon Brown election, while the Daily Mirror asked “Prime Minister? Really?”, accompanied by Cameron’s mock CV (“Hobbies: Cutting public services; rewarding rich and privileged; fox hunting; Real life work experience: none.”). On the flip side, The Sun – a News Corp production – reworked the famous Shepard Fairey poster of Obama into the image of Cameron: “Our Only Hope” the front page read. “In Cameron We Trust”.
But is the tabloid tradition enough to get The Tele off the hook? Should we be concerned about the neutrality or bias of the press during an election (of all times)?
There’s an academic called Pippa Norris who has never failed me in four years of media and government education. She’s got a neat – and accurate – little description of the role of the media in a democracy. And if we’re not genuflecting to democracy during an election, then when are we?
It goes something like this. There are three functions the media should fulfil to facilitate democratic processes: a watchdog to the powerful and elite, a civic forum for citizen and bureaucratic debate, and a mobiliser of voters.
But when you throw a bit of editorial bias in the mix, guaranteed the mechanics have gone to shit.
So the issue at question here falls on the shoulders of all three. Is The Tele serving a watchdog function? No. Their history of editorial bias against one party is lazy journalism and sermonising, not holding politicians to accountability. Can it operate as an open civic forum to debate these issues? No. In plastering its pages with blatant attacks against the ALP, it stifles the opportunity for alternative perspectives to be aired and thought through.
Will it mobilise voters? Perhaps. And that is dangerous; the caution to take away from this cautionary tale.
As Jonathon Holmes wrote in The Herald:
“Whether Monday’s front page was shaken by Col or stirred by Boris, what’s not in doubt is that the Telegraph’s partisanship matters. The election will be won or lost, the pundits tell us, in marginal seats in Queensland and western Sydney. And, as always, the voters that make the difference are not the political tragics who watch Lateline on the ABC and read the poli-bloggers and the proliferating fact-check websites.”
These “floating voters”, he writes, are those who still keep up the daily diet of morning radio and popular newspapers.
According to independent news site Crikey, The Tele had 150 000 more copies in circulation than its next biggest competitor, The Herald (as of 2010).
In Britain, the sheer number of partisan tabloid papers seem to balance each other out. But when The Tele chooses to take up the smack-it-in-your-face, we-have-no-subtlety sword of bias in a relatively tabloid-free media environment, it’s a different story.
So, Daily Telegraph: please let us know when you’ve sorted out your teenage insecurities and want to go back to your usual outrageousness and (at least) pretension of political neutrality.
Until then, we’ve got another month of Col Allan at the helm. Brace yourselves.