Written and Authorised by the Media – the role of journalism during election campaigns

14

On the weekend the turkeys in South Australia voted out the Thanksgiving Party in favour of Christmas. How this result will effect the future of the Blackout State is yet to be determined and not actually the scope of this article. Instead we are going to muse on the way the Main Stream Media covered the election campaign and if we can honestly say the reporting was fair and unbiased.

Print media in South Australia is somewhat limited. Fairfax lacks a local presence.  News Corp has The Advertiser as the local daily which in itself is not necessarily a good thing for the average Right of Centre punter. Unlike Fairfax, News Corp has always shown a base understanding of Knowing Their Market and hence seem to have concluded that readers with a conservative slant are going to purchase The Australian, leaving the editors on The Advertiser free to fill their pages with sports results and columns complaining about how Right Wing The Age has become lately.

So having become by default the sole item of print media you may expect the editors to take greater care in selecting a careful middle ground when it comes to politics.

Well… no.

Politics in South Australia more or less follows the same trends as the rest of the country. In the Red and Blue corners we have Labor and Liberals soaking up the vast majority of lower house seats under the 2PP system while the upper house is divided between the majors, The Greens and the usual minors and independents that either win the preference lottery or manage to capture the zeitgeist of the moment. South Australia’s zeitgeist group is Dignity – previously operating as Dignity for the Disabled – a group that the more political incorrect commentators might suggest are a sympathetic little niche group who with dreams of bringing South Australia into the new Golden Age of a wheelchair ramp based economy. Left wing but nice enough people, and prior to the election had Kelly Vincent in Legislative Council proving once again that you too can have a political career with less than one percent of the public vote.

So there you go. Everything you wanted to know about South Australian politics but were too apathetic to ask.

Also, Nick Xenophon.

Now at time of writing we are of course post election and have the hindsight of knowing that Nick and his SA-Best party effectively crashed and burnt on takeoff, but that result was certainly not one encouraged by the local media.

Xenophon, for those not following his backstory, came into existence with his No Pokies in 1997, raising awareness of his campaign with such stunts as striding up and down Adelaide’s Rundle Mall wearing a sandwich board. This allowed him to win enough share of the votes to enter the South Australian Legislative Council where he spent 10 years not reducing pokie numbers, before successfully running for the Senate. There he remained, joined briefly by the largely fragmental Nick Xenophon Team before he decided to retire from the Senate in order to spearhead the SA-Best campaign in the 2018 SA election.

Now fans of Nick regarded him as the ultimate ‘if no one else can help you’ go to man. Come off your motorbike on a poorly lit section of region road? Call Nick. Catch an ambulance driver txting on the road? Better CC Mr X. He was the man who cared and the man who would listen.

Unless you were not a fan in which case you regarded him as a high profile publicity stunt who carefully cherry picked the causes he picked up in order to maximise positive coverage and minimise any risk he would be held accountable.

Either/Or. Your mileage may vary and you can form your own opinions on the man. We’ll let you, this is a democracy.

So Nick X returned to his grassroots and boy, weren’t the local media happy.

Nick was touted as a possible future Premier. Nick got interviews. Nick got column inches. Nick was allowed a seat in the leadership debates between Labor Weatherill and Liberal Marshall. The week before the election Xenophon was granted a front page Advertiser headline describing how he was about to go into ‘The Fight of his Life’ and come election morning the same paper published a graphic of Weatherill, Marshall and Xenophon racing each other to the finish line in front of a blood red neo-apocalyptical background.

Which brings us back to the question of where exactly the line between reporting and campaigning begins to get crossed. On the X side of the argument Nick has been a reasonably high profile figure and a household name within South Australia. His intention to run as the head of a new party is of public interest and deserving of reporting. The counter point to this argument is that The Greens regard themselves as a valid party seeking to improve their presence on North Terrace. Dignity believed themselves to have a legitimate platform. Both these parties also had an existing presence within the SA Government and, to the best of your author’s somewhat lazy research, at least went to the effort at least to try and run candidates in every seat.

Were either of those parties regarded as possible future major players? Were they allowed to be shown racing to the finish along with Steve, Jay and Nick? Were their leaders even given enough publicity that your author can name check them without reverting to an internet search engine?

Short answer? No.

‘But!’ we hear you cry, ‘It was Nick! He was high profile! He was a Senator!’

True, but he also wasn’t the only one. The Greens ran Robert Simms in the seat of Adelaide. Robert, in between his time trying to block the public vote on Same Sex Marriage as a local council member and his 2018 campaign for Adelaide, managed to get a Senate job in Canberra via a casual vacancy in Greens ranks. True, he was then booted from the Senate after their vote collapsed in the 2016 Federal election but his past experience should have easily made him one of the highest profile Greens in South Australia and maybe, perhaps, deserving of some of that Nick Xenophon level of media attention.

Or not, as the case may be.

Equally lacking in coverage were the Australian Conservatives. True, the AC current objectives are more along the lines of one realistic bite at a time rather than high profile ‘all or nothing’ campaigns to redefine the political landscape, but they were also in no way being championed in the same way that Team X was enjoying.

So, that was pre-election, the state has voted and now we enjoy the wonders of hindsight. The SA media, in particular The Advertiser, promoted the Xenophon philosophy and failed. Should we question this trend in media opinion? Your author clearly remembers driving home from the day job on US election day and spotting the ‘Hillary Poised To Make History’ headlines posted up outside the local newsagencies. The media misread Brexit. They embraced Turnbull as a bright and shining light and dismissed the DelCons as a sulking minority who would soon be forced to return to the Turnbull lead fold. They, well, let’s be honest here, GOT IT WRONG.

Is this bad? Media, with the notable exception of the bloated parasite that is the tax payer funded ABC, is a private business. Their mission is to carve out a market share and make money for their owners. Giving the readers, viewers, listeners what they want to read, watch, hear is generally a good plan if you wish for them to return the next day to help your advertising dollars. Hence by extending this logic an editor should be allowed to get it wrong provided the sales figures are still acceptable.

Public. What they want. Give.

However in the examples we are referring to above, the editors aregetting it wrong on public opinion. Trump, Brexit, Turnbull’s 30 and now Xenophon were all subjected to public vote. A ballot was held and the public spoke in a direction completely different from their media betters. Nick Xenophon may have been what the public were willing to read about, but the election result clearly showed that Nick Xenophon was not who they were willing to actually support. The distance between media and public opinion has grown large, and on current trends shows little signs of stopping.

Which brings us back to our original question about media bias, and if current coverage is little more than thinly veiled campaigning for what the MSM thinks is best for you.

Open question.

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