Editorial: History a better guide than biasSee how unbiased we are? We always say Howard will win the election, and he always does!
July 12, 2007
Online prejudice no substitute for real work
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. Newspoll cannot predict the future but it can provide clues. Often they are hidden beyond the headline figure in an emerging trend. The Australian has proved itself adept at spotting these trends but our woolly-headed critics dismiss this as manipulation. But if history repeats itself and the turnaround reported in John Howard's Newspoll rating as preferred Prime Minister indicates a bigger swing in support back to the coalition will the on-line commentariat finally admit it is they, not us, who are blinded by bias? As the nation's leading newspaper we expect our reporting and expert analysis will get attention. But the one-eyed anti-Howard cheer squad now masquerading as serious online political commentary, apart from a few notable exceptions, has all but exhausted its claim to be taken seriously.
Smug, self assured, delusional swagger is no substitute for getting it right. When it comes to spotting and properly understanding emerging trends, the evidence is on our side. Our analysis was proved correct in 1998, 2001 and 2004 and we expect it will again this year. We do not know who will win the next election but despite Labor's big lead in the opinion polls since Kevin Rudd was elected leader last December, history suggests it will be a tough fight. According to The Australian's political editor, Dennis Shanahan, no Opposition since World War II has won government without two key indicators 12 months out from the election. These are that the Opposition Leader has a lead over the incumbent of at least five points on the question of who would make a better Prime Minister and the party has a nine point lead on a two party preferred basis. Applying this historical test Mr Rudd may not have had enough time to cement his claim to the top job, though he leads by a huge margin now. The fact that Mr Howard has pulled back Mr Rudd's advantage on the question of better Prime Minister in the latest Newspoll survey is significant. As Newspoll chief executive Martin O'Shannessy wrote in The Australian yesterday, evidence from the past three elections is that a turnaround in Mr Howard's better PM rating can be interpreted as a leading indicator for an improvement in the Coalition's overall electoral stocks. Though it may not happen this time, the pattern over the last three electoral cycles has been a fall in Mr Howard's ratings 12 months out from an election, accompanied by a fall in the Coalition primary vote in two of the past three elections. This has been followed by a bottoming out of Mr Howard's rating three to six months out from the election which is in turn followed immediately by an improvement in his better PM rating and a rise in the Coalition primary vote. In mid-1998 Labor appeared to be in a position to win government after support for the Coalition slumped to the lowest on record but within five months Howard was re-elected as Prime Minister after defeating Kim Beazley as Labor leader for the first time. In late 2003 Shanahan was criticised for highlighting Simon Crean's poor Newspoll showing but within months Crean had stepped aside in favour of Mark Latham. In the lead-up to the 2004 election, the ALP under Latham looked competitive, and was reported as such in this newspaper, but Labor was thrashed at the October 2004 poll. Where The Australian recognised that Mr Latham could not win in mid 2004 many online commentators continued to support him until a year after his defeat.
The Australian was criticised for its analysis of Newspoll last November indicating Mr Beazley was a fatal liability for Labor's electoral chances. At that time Shanahan accurately picked the significance of Labor's fall in primary support to below 40 per cent, the level at which Paul Keating had said the ALP had no chance of winning an election. Labor's performance after replacing Mr Beazley with Mr Rudd suggests Shanahan's analysis was correct.
If there is a common theme to the criticisms levelled against The Australian's political coverage by the self appointed online commentariat it is that our critics only howl when the heat is being applied to Labor.
There was a flurry of concern when we criticised Mr Beazley but silence when Mr Howard's performance has been put under the gun. The Australian's coverage of the first Newspoll with Mr Rudd as Labor leader said it had been a dream start. The Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard 'dream team' ticket was cemented following a special Newspoll which showed it would be the most popular combination for Labor against Mr Howard. In February, Mr Shanahan made the first call that Mr Howard could lose to Mr Rudd claiming, 'This time, Howard is vulnerable'. When we led with the story that Mr Rudd's Newspoll rating as better Prime Minister had soared past that of Mr Howard there was no negative commentary about our reporting or the emphasis on the measure of better PM. But when we reported Mr Howard pulling level with Mr Rudd this week on preferred prime minister we were accused of selective analysis and doing the Government's bidding. As a general rule, if the polls show Mr Howard is performing badly, our critics are happy.
As a newspaper we don't know who we will support at the federal election. On several occasions this year we have called for the Government to address the substance of Labor's policies rather than attack Mr Rudd personally because as our own editorials have said we are sure Mr Rudd would make a good prime minister. Rather than being a mouthpiece for the Government, as some online news sites would suggest, we have been harsh critics of Mr Howard. But most of our criticism has been from the Right, chiding the Government for being overly generous with middle class welfare and reform shy. The self appointed experts online come instead from the extreme Left, populated as many sites are by sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper. We fully expect that if anything goes wrong for Mr Rudd in the campaign this year we will be blamed for Labor's misfortune.
It reflects how out of touch with ordinary views so many on-line commentators are. They 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.
A guide book recently published by one site demonstrates the extent of confused thinking on how the polls operate. A chapter by Mumble's Peter Brent says two party preferred ratings are at the same time worthy but unreliable and that an Opposition Leader with a high satisfaction rating has no better chance of being elected than one with a low rating. He dismisses approval ratings and the preferred Prime Minister measure as "embroidery". Yet the fact is when Mr Howard and Mr Rudd's offices telephone The Australian to get advance warning on what the following day's Newspoll will show they invariably want to know two things: The primary vote and preferred PM.
Not properly understanding how polls work gives our critics licence to project their own bias onto analysis of our reporting. The Australian is not beholden to any one side of politics and recent election outcomes vindicate our treatment of our polls. So let's not mince words. e [sic] just don't think many of our critics have any real clue about polling and very little practical experience of politics.
See how he always comes back from nowhere in the last few weeks of an election? That's when the baby's start being thrown to the sharks, that's when newspaper headlines come into play Big Time, that's when the Murdoch media hacks really stand tall!
As usual, the editorial is anonymous, but I strongly suspect that Dennis Shanahan is one of the authors, given that is basically just an extended version of the pathetic column he posted yesterday.
And it's funny how Shanahan (who again attacks Rudd today) admitted that it would be news if the latest poll did NOT show any change, because "there would be real rumblings about the Prime Minister”: last night even News Ltd reported that Costello was fending off more questions on just that subject.
I suspect I'll have more to say about this later. Meanwhile, the Comments section is open!
UPDATE: You can find the blog of Peter Brent (aka Mumble), who bears the brunt of Teh Oz's criticism, here.
More from The Poll Bludger, Simon Jackman, LP and Aussie Bob.
Tim "Inside The Tent" Dunlop also posts some typically "fair and balanced" thoughts:
I think the editorial is ill-conceived and way off the mark in singling out Peter Brent in the way that it does. His site largely confines itself to interpretation and in doing so, provides a great service. The idea that he can’t comment without the editor of The Australian ringing him up to say they are going to “go” him is disturbing.Here's a comment I just posted at Blogocracy (now awaiting moderation):
Still, I think it is fair to say that News Ltd, including The Australian, has opened itself to comment and criticism from its readership more so than Fairfax, the other major news organisation. They have embraced readers comments and “blogs” more fully, and this site alone is evidence of that. So while most News news stories and columns allow reader comment, the same is not true of Fairfax. You can, for instance, comment on Dennis Shanahan’s and Paul Kelly’s columns, but not Michelle Grattan’s or Gerard Henderson’s.
My boys are only 9 and 11 years old, so I'm confident that they'll grow out of this childish phase.Last time I posted a comment at Road To Surfdom it disappeared (shit happens, eh?). Let's see if Tim's prepared to cop a little well-deserved criticism himself.
How old are you, Tim?
Is blaming the Fairfax press part of the "fair and balanced" program at News Ltd? Is that why they brought you inside the tent? Or are you just safe-guarding your paypacket from Uncle Rupert?
When you think about it, what you are offering is a classic Rodent "wedge" - it's either News or Fairfax, take your pick!