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Rupert was right to worry

By Margaret Simons - posted Friday, 24 August 2007


“We understand Newspoll because we own it.” Has there ever been a clearer statement of proprietorial arrogance from the mainstream media than this?

The statement was published a few weeks ago as part of a big dummy-spit editorial in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper. This was one episode in a dust-up between the mainstream media and the blogosphere, and it tells us quite a lot about what is possible for “stand alone” operatives and bloggers in the new media world.

Some background. The blogosphere in Australia has yet to gain the political clout of the best US sites, for reasons that have been discussed by leading blogger Mark Bahnisch in On Line Opinion. This year’s federal election will be the first in which mainstream newspapers have lost their near monopoly on analysis and comment.

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It would be a mistake to overestimate the impact of bloggers and independent online media. I am not suggesting it can yet sway election results. Nevertheless, it is being felt.

Recently another professional public opinion pollster, Denis Muller, wrote for Crikey that the best bloggers provided more in depth comment and analysis than the mainstream media. According to Muller:

Though small in number, (the bloggers) exert new accountability on the media and pollsters alike, providing a concrete example of how the Net is democratising the media, if in a small and limited way. Mumble, Poll Bludger, Possums Pollytics and Oz Politics are four examples. Here the poll tragic can lose himself in a maze of analysis, much of it far more insightful and daring than anything you find in the mainstream media. They live off the data supplied by the media pollsters - Newspoll, Nielsen, Morgan, Galaxy - but burrow down into the data, compare one poll with another, show trends, and feed in related data such as current betting odds.

In other words, the mainstream media may own the polls, but they don’t necessarily understand them as well as sections of the audience.

The fuss that led to The Australian’s “we own it” dummy spit had been brewing for some time. The Australian has been dubbed the “Government Gazette” in sections of the blogosphere because of its perceived pro-Howard bias. This isn’t entirely fair. The paper has broken many stories embarrassing to Howard - most notably award-winning reports of the Australian Wheat Board’s shameful role in bribing Saddam Hussein in the lead-up to the Iraq war. But as well The Australian has been strongly identified with the government’s intellectual agenda, providing both turf and ammunition in the continuing “culture wars” in which Howard and his supporters have demonised the left and sought to re-cast Australia’s understanding of its history.

For some time bloggers have observed that The Australian‘s political editor, Dennis Shanahan, seems over-willing to emphasise anything in public opinion polls that can be seen as positive for the government. Shanahan protests that his record is its own defence. He got it right last federal election, for example, when many pundits were predicting a Labor victory. But the criticism has clearly stung. The tensions all came to a head after this piece by Shanahan provoked a flurry of online criticism. Shanahan and his headline writer seemed to be straining to pull a positive for the Government out of poll results that really hadn’t shifted, and showed that defeat for Howard was highly likely. Shanahan responded to his blogosphere critics defensively, and got another bollocking from his readers in the comments section as a result.

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All good healthy debate so far, but then it got nasty. Peter Brent, who runs the leading psephological blog Mumble, reported that Australian editor Chris Mitchell had rung to say the paper would “go” him for criticising Shanahan. This was followed by an Australian editorial that did indeed “go” Brent, other bloggers, and commentators on Crikey (which I write for, and which is Australia’s first e-mail based news service). The Australian editorial - more than 1,000 words - is worth reading in total, but here are some choice paragraphs.

The measure of good journalism is objectivity and a fearless regard for truth. Bias, nonetheless, is in the eye of the beholder and some people will always see conspiracy when the facts don’t suit their view of the world. This is the affliction that has gripped, to a large measure, Australia’s online news commentariat that has found passing endless comment on other people’s work preferable to breaking real stories and adding to society’s pool of knowledge.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the fortnightly fury that accompanies The Australian’s presentation of Newspoll, the nation’s most authoritative snapshot of the political landscape.

[Online commentators] claim to understand the mainstream but in reality represent a clique that believes what it considers to be the evils of the Howard Government position on Iraq, climate change, and Work Choices to be self-evident truths. They despair that Mr Howard has not suffered the same collapse in public support as US President George W Bush and Newspoll makes it clear Mr Howard still enjoys very strong support in the electorate. Such commentators clearly have a market because there are a lot of people who want to have their own prejudices endlessly confirmed. But they should not kid themselves they are engaged in proper journalism and real reporting.

On almost every issue it is difficult not to conclude that most of the electronic offerings that feed off the work of The Australian to create their own content are a waste of time. They contribute only defamatory comments and politically coloured analysis. Unlike Crikey, we understand Newspoll because we own it. Martin O’Shannessy understands Newspoll because he runs it and Sol Lebovic understands Newspoll because he started it. The results of our analysis speak for themselves over 20 years.

The blogosphere erupted, mainly in delight at being taken notice of, but also in laughter. The Australian branch of News Limited, it seems, saw itself as uniquely qualified to detect bias, and uniquely free from “political colour”. This, bloggers commented, would be laughable were it not so obviously the product of tunnel vision.

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First published in Creative Economy Online in August 2007.



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About the Author

Margaret Simons is a Melbourne-based journalist and author. Her new book The Content Makers - Understanding the Future of the Australian Media will be published by Penguin in September 2007.

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