The media believes its principal role is to inform citizens about what is going on. A noble cause, to be sure. It’s just that journalists, as a rule, do not like it when the torch of inquiry is turned on them. Partly because, as a group, they are very sensitive to criticism.
Last Monday, two of Australia’s most senior and informed journalists — The Australian Financial Review’s Jennifer Hewett and The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly — addressed the Sydney Institute.
The topic turned on the likely political scene this year but both speakers also looked at the events of the previous year that had seen the re-election of the Coalition.
There was a consensus that the Labor Party had erred substantially in assuming victory and failing to read the Australian electorate.
Then, during the discussion period, a question was asked about why many journalists — particularly in Canberra — erred about the likely election outcome. Kelly responded in strong words: “This has got to be the most serious collective failure on the part of the media that I’ve seen in my time in politics.” He added that he was not exempting himself when commenting about the media since, obviously, he is part of the media.
Kelly went on to say “most of the media got the politics wrong, they got the policies wrong and they got the mood of the country wrong”.
His point was “when you make mistakes of that magnitude you would normally expect that, after the election, there would be a process of revision and reassessment on the part of the media, which would be demanded by its leaders”. He said he was not aware of any such introspection.
According to Kelly, it is an example of “extraordinary double standards” that journalists hold politicians to account for even relatively modest mistakes and “urge a rethink on the part of the politician”. But journalists do not hold themselves to account for their own mistakes.
Flash back to May 19 last year, the morning after the election night before.
The panel for the ABC’s influential Insiders television program comprised Nine Entertainment newspapers’ David Crowe, the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas and The Australian’s Niki Savva. Like most commentators, all three had expected a Labor victory, albeit not with the same certainty as some of their colleagues.
It was not that any of the trio were on Labor leader Bill Shorten’s cart, to borrow a phrase from Paul Keating.
Rather, like so many of their colleagues — particularly members of the Canberra press gallery — they believed the Liberal Party was doomed to failure when it replaced leader Malcolm Turnbull with Scott Morrison in August 2018.
Sitting on the post-election Insiders couch that morning were two authors with almost-completed books. The covers were changed subsequently. Savva’s original title was Highway to Hell: The Coup that Destroyed Malcolm Turnbull and Left the Liberals in Ruins; Crowe’s publishers went for Venom: The Vendettas and Betrayals that Broke a Party.
Clearly both books had been drafted on the assumption that the change of Liberal Party leadership was a politically disastrous mistake. It wasn’t. In May last year, the Liberal Party was neither in ruins nor broken.
Karvelas did not have a draft manuscript in her top drawer. But, when introducing the ABC TV election coverage from Melbourne, she accepted the likelihood that Labor would win a number of seats from the Coalition in Victoria. It didn’t — apart from Corangamite and Dunkley, which became Labor majorities after a redistribution.
Barrie Cassidy, who also had predicted a Labor victory last year, chaired the Insiders post-election program. As far as I recall, neither the presenter nor any of the panellists directed their attention to why so many of their fellow professionals had failed to pick the attitude of the electorate — especially in view of the fact the Morrison government had increased both the Coalition’s seats and votes.
It was much the same with ABC TV’s influential 7.30 program. On the eve of the election, its political correspondent, Laura Tingle, had declared that Labor “will” win and laughed when presenter Leigh Sales asked about the possibility of the Coalition prevailing. The following week on 7.30 neither Tingle nor Sales bothered to ask the question as to why journalists, who claim to know where the electorate stands, got the federal election so wrong. It was as if the whole issue had gone down a modern-day memory hole.
On the post-election Insiders program, the executive producer showed footage of ABC TV personalities criticising opinion pollsters. Andrew Probyn declared “this is a shambles when it comes to opinion polling”. And Annabel Crabb asked: “Should anyone trust an opinion poll again?”
A reasonable question — but no more reasonable than to ask whether Australians should trust political commentators, such as Crabb, who had taken part in their own particular shambles.
In any event, the opinion polling companies recognised their errors of last year and have set about improving their survey techniques for the future.
However, as Kelly has pointed out, the media leaders have not followed suit. Most Australian election results are close, due primarily to the impact of preferential voting. Those who followed last year’s election in News Corp Australia publications or on Sky News or The Australian Financial Review would have read or seen different views on the likely outcome. The same is true of those who listened to Nine radio stations such as 2GB, 3AW, 4BC and 6PR.
However, those who took their news from Nine newspapers (The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age), Guardian Australia, The Saturday Paper, The New Daily and the ABC — along with networks Seven, Nine and Ten in the main — would have been ill-informed about the view in the electorate. This is especially the case with those who followed ABC journalists and programs. Yet in the public broadcaster’s report of the chairman on the election, published last August, the failure of its journalists in the election campaign was not even canvassed.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au.