So you think you’re a journalist?

Bushfire Bill’s last piece A Triumphant Return or the Last Hurrah? and the many comments it attracted, exposed many instances of second-rate journalism, leading me, and visitors, to ask “What has become of journalism in this country?”  This piece attempts to tease out how such journalism has become so harmful an influence in our society.

But let’s begin by acknowledging that there are many fine writers who grace the profession of journalism, who write well-researched, informative and factually accurate pieces, who express balanced opinions based on those facts, and who distinguish clearly between fact and opinion.  They are what we expect journalists to be.  They are not the problem – it is that they are diluted by so many who are careless with the facts and at times downright dishonest, slipshod in drawing conclusions from them, arrogant in making far-reaching predictions from their sometimes limited knowledge and experience, and subject to personal or institutional bias that seriously distorts their writing.  It is to those that we should address the question:  “So you think you’re a journalist?”

Ask a hundred people what a journalist does and most will say that they write articles in newspapers; some might say they write opinion pieces and editorials.  Some might include those who prepare and deliver radio and TV news and current affairs, and a few might add in those who write in the online media, even perhaps blog editors.  I refer to all of these.  If you ask members of the public what they expect of journalists, what would they say?  The cynical among them might say – not much.

‘Journalist’ comes from ‘journal’ which in turn is derived from the Latin diurnalis, from diurnis ‘daily’.  The implication is that daily events are at the core of most journalism.  But journalists also collect and disseminate information about people, trends, and issues.

Where has journalism gone wrong?  In this piece let’s stick to political journalism.

Just look at the articles that have appeared about the insulation issue.  Again and again writers have simply not got their facts right.  Bushfire Bill has exposed many of these inaccuracies in the last piece on The Political Sword: A Triumphant Return or the Last Hurrah?  If you haven’t read his critiques, scroll down to February 23, 9.46 am and 2.35 pm, and February 24, 12.32 am.

Getting the facts right seems to be fundamental to proper reporting, but as BB points out, too often when the facts don’t fit their preconceived notions, some journalists simply distort them or just make them up.

Next, while interpreting the meaning and import of the facts is a legitimate function of journalists, they ought to distinguish clearly between fact and opinion, which so often they don’t.  Don’t they realize that the interposition of qualifying words, which on the face of them seem not to be ‘opinion’, are indeed opinion.  I refer to words used in the media to describe, for example, the Government’s Home Insulation Program: failed, flawed, botched, debacle, scandal, disaster, fiasco, catastrophe, crisis, tragedy, calamity, farce, fraudulent, mishandled, scrapped.  Peter Garrett is described as embattled, beleaguered, finished.  As soon as journalists use these words to describe the program or its authors, and are not simply quoting others, they are inserting their own value judgement.  And by using this technique the fact that it is their opinion is concealed.   It is part of what BB describes as ‘bootstrapping’, where an assertion, true or otherwise, is made which becomes a self-perpetuating ‘truth’ as each iteration of it reinforces the previous one, somewhat like negative feedback in audio systems that eventually reaches screaming pitch.  The more iterations the more valid the comments seem to be.  BB gives several examples in his comments on February 20 at 1.12 am and February 23 at 9.46 am.   This phenomenon is seen over and again both in the printed piece and in the spoken commentary.  What right do journalists have to insert their views in this way?  What entitles them to influence public opinion, when all they are offering is their own opinion, and without revealing it is their own opinion?  Who do they think they are?  It would be different if they prefaced their condemnatory remarks with: “in my opinion”, because then it would be clear that it was only their opinion.  But instead, by subtly inserting these pejorative words they surreptitiously insinuate that this is a widely held and spreading opinion among not just the pundits but the population at large.  It is as pernicious a technique as that used by authoritarian regimes.  If they don’t realize that, they should get another job where they would do less damage.

As BB asserts, too many journalists seem to start with a preconceived agenda and write in a way that converts their beliefs into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Enough of the background, let’s look at some actual examples.  As it would take several pieces to dissect and expose the many instances of faulty political journalism, I’ll confine myself to just a few.  Dennis Shanahan has been the subject of several critiques on The Political Sword.  Newspoll through Shanas’ Magic Looking GlassMore of Shanas’ Magic Looking Glass? and earlier Dennis Shanahan is at it againand BB has appraised him in recent posts.  No more needs to be said.  The pity is that Dennis is Chief Political Editor of our premier national newspaper The Australian.  We’re entitled to have better balanced, less biased critique from such a senior and experienced journalist.  Even worse, he seems to be part of what appears to be a sustained anti-Rudd campaign by The Australian and indeed News Limited papers in which several of his colleagues are involved.

I could waste valuable space by critiquing Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt and Glenn Milne, but I won’t.  You will have made up your minds about the standard of their journalism long ago.

Occasionally a writer goes so far over the top that one is left wondering if the article is some sort of sick joke.  Such a piece was written by Paul Sheehan in the SMH on February 22: How Rudd the dud dropped Australia in the alphabet soup .  I suppose it was meant to be a smart-aleck appraisal of the Rudd era written for those who loathe him, but it destroyed its credibility by listing only what Sheehan sees as the Government’s failings, with not one mention of a single achievement.  Under ‘G’, not surprisingly all he lists is ‘Grocery Watch’; no mention of the ‘Global Financial Crisis’ from which the Rudd Government shielded the country.  But what do you think he had under ‘D’?  You’ve guessed it, ‘Debt and deficit’.  Does Sheehan believe that thinking people will swallow such grotesquely biased writing?  The rusted-on supporters will cheer, but who else will?  This is puerile writing that does not deserve a place in a reputable newspaper.  If you’ve got the stomach, read it and judge for yourself.

What about ‘Our ABC’?  Reasonable people might expect more from this supposedly neutral and balanced source.  Insiders last Sunday was an improvement on previous editions which had showed signs of becoming tabloid.  At least it was prepared to discuss the view that The Australian was showing persistent bias.  David Marr brought this out and even Fran Kelly agreed, although she previously has insisted that Kevin Rudd should not openly complain about this and instead should just sit there and take his medicine’.  With her years of experience in the field, Fran seems to be assuming the mantle of political guru.  While giving the Government credit for its management of the GFC, she nonetheless confidently asserted that the Rudd Government was ‘in a hole’, ‘in trouble’, and might be ‘a oncer’.  Does she expect viewers to respect her opinion, expressed with such assurance, without qualification?  As expected, Piers Akerman did nothing but heap scorn on the Government’s head, which evoked gentle ridicule from David Marr.  Why they still use Akerman on Insiders is a mystery.  His responses are consistently biased and predictable.  What can he possibly contribute to the balance of the programme?

Our ABC now has an online news service that on the face of it seems to be deriving much of its material from the MSM.  It seems just as prone to journalistic distortion as the rest of the media.  Here’s just one example:  Coroner probes Yothu Yindi death after Rudd visit by Phoebe Stewart on 22 February insinuates that there was more than a temporal connection between the death in mid 2008 of a 26-year-old man who played the didgeridoo in the band Yothu Yindi, and a visit by Kevin Rudd.  The article states: “The ABC understands the man died not long after he had taken part in a dancing ceremony for Mr Rudd during a visit to the community for a cabinet meeting.”  What is that supposed to mean?  What is the implication?  Why was it written this way?  This is such poor journalism that it ought not to endorsed by Our ABC.  I wonder whether my protesting email will evoke a response. 

Enough examples – one could go on and on.  The essence of this article is that much of the media in this country has become disappointingly poor and seems to be getting worse – so bad that commentators like Bushfire Bill believe that the MSM is steadily losing its impact, losing its credibility, losing its audience, and is now having its last hurrah.  It is no longer the maker and breaker of politicians and political parties, and resents its lost prowess.  Media proprietors too are becoming concerned about their loss of influence.

So as consumers of what the media offers, the challenge we’re entitled to address to substandard political writers is indeed “So you think you’re a journalist?”

What do you think?


A Triumphant Return or the Last Hurrah?



On Friday, Tony Abbott, whom I have already spotted as a serial confessor of sins, made another confession. It was startling in its frankness. To quote the ABC online story:

 “Mr Abbott ... told the Examiner he disliked the ‘Captain Catholic tag’ that had been ascribed to him.  

‘The only one of the Ten Commandments that I am confident that I have not broken is the one about killing, and that's because I haven't had the opportunity yet,’ he said.” 

He lacks only the ‘opportunity’ to kill a fellow human being?  Otherwise that would be on his list of sins?  Can Abbott be serious thinking that this utterance won’t be taken and pulverized by a hostile media?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be, ‘Yes’.

Go back a few months to Kevin Rudd’s ‘Fair shake of the sauce bottle’ episode. AA wrote a good piece on it: The sauce bottle saga with lots of links.  Journalists went on about The Sauce Bottle Saga for a month or so. George Megalogenis, in an article entitled This bloke act is doing our head in was terribly upset: 

“PM, mate, you made your name in two sets of lounge rooms: the everyday and the elite.  You looked like a cheery quiz show contestant on Seven’s Sunrise and a brainiac on the ABC’s Lateline. Between those two men is the real Kevin. 

Sometime soon you will have to find that person, or risk becoming the punchline to a national joke.  You know, the one about the nerd who pretended he was a bloke.”

So, for uttering a fairly commonplace saying, the Australian College of Political Opinionistas went to town on Kevin Rudd, hammer and tongs.  The clincher in all this was that most of the coverage was derisory, or outright derogatory.

By contrast almost every word of Tony Abbott’s recent pithyisms and off-the-cuff verbal spoutings are accepted as showing that he is ‘the real deal’, someone who ‘tells it like it is’, speaking in plain terms that Everyman can understand.

Abbott, playing up to this depiction of him, has been getting bolder of late.  He has accused the government of bribing free-to-air TV stations (only to refuse to elaborate the next day).   He gave the women of Australia fatherly advice on maintaining their virginity, but was not quizzed at all on his own forays into the virginity (and unmarried pregnancy) business when he was a university student.  He has accused Peter Garrett of ‘industrial manslaughter’ (a crime which Abbott believes should never have made it into law on moral and economic grounds).   And now, as if his accusations against Peter Garrett were a dress rehearsal for The Big One, in his zeal to confess his sins Abbott’s brought out the 5th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not murder’. His stated attitude towards this prohibition is, ‘There but for the opportunity go I.’

I accept that Abbott was probably a little pumped up by the excitement of the campaign trail.  The compulsive confessor of sins waxed broadly on sex, on penance, and on the Ten Commandments during the same interview.  He quoted his Jesuit mentor, one Father Costello, as telling him that Lent didn’t have to be all gloom and doom. It was ‘much better to do something positive in Lent than to give something up.’  All good stuff.  I suppose then the mood took him over, leading him to go the whole hog and make his homicide statement.

I believe it’s fairly certain that if Kevin Rudd had said he’d broken all the Commandments, except the one against killing a fellow human being (and that only for lack of opportunity) it would signal the end of his political career, and rapidly.  He would be vilified for either the bare words themselves, or for being flippant about murder. We would be told that such statements were un-Prime Ministerial, that they showed ‘a lack of judgement going to character’, that he was feeling the strain, that he was overworking himself.  Victims of crime would be produced, tearfully denouncing the Prime Minister for saying what he said.  Correlations between his words and our policies regarding Afghanistan and the Bali-9 would be exposed.  Sniggering jokes would be made about the four deaths under the insulation stimulus plan. We would be reminded in detail of Rudd’s allegedly foul temper. He would be depicted as unstable, a bomb ready to go off.  Dennis Shanahan’s tut-tutting from his Sydney office would be heard in Melbourne.  If Rudd could be condemned by Dennis for not playing Abbott’s traffic accident near miss correctly, then what would he do with a Rudd statement on not having the opportunity yet to kill people?  By contrast, we would be reminded that Tony Abbott was the Genuine Article, waiting in the wings for his chance.  There might even be a call or two for an early election.

In fact, if Rudd had said any one of a dozen things that have come out of Abbott’s mouth in the past few weeks, he would have been roasted alive by the media. Abbott can’t claim (like Milne does) that he ‘doesn’t want to be the Prime Minister’ in this case, as an excuse, because that’s exactly his goal.  So why are Abbott’s casual pronouncements reported almost universally positively, or at worst neutrally, and Rudd’s reported almost universally negatively?  Do the media think they are so strong and in control of the national agenda that they can spin any utterance any way they like, according to their political agenda?

The history of the past three years in Australian political life has revolved around the public studiously ignoring the most vehement anti-Rudd messages produced by the media. You will all know the long list of ‘Get Rudd’ schemes – the supposed ‘myth’ of his hard-done childhood, Scores-gate, Ute-gate, Long Tan-gate, The Weeping Flight Attendant, the hypocrisy of his wealth, Fair Shake Of The Sauce Bottle-gate, the Stimulus ‘Debacle’, and many, many more. Yet Rudd and Labor have soared in the polls. The last poll Labor lost was in August 2006. Before that it was June 2006. There never has been a run of polling popularity like it, and all of this in defiance of the media’s best attempts to turn public opinion around.

But just recently we have seen a slight trending down in Labor’s figures and those of the Prime Minister. There has been a slight trending up of the Coalition’s figures and an approval rate for their latest leader that is at last not in the teens. A whole legend is being spun around these paltry, few statistics. Rudd has lost the plot. His government is on the way out, a oncer.

Abbott has produced only bullet points and thought bubbles, un-costed wish lists masquerading as ‘policies’. His Finance spokesperson, Barnaby Joyce has arguably been damaging to both the Coalition cause and to the nation’s fiscal reputation. He persists in plugging the line that we cannot repay our debts, yet he is given the merest slap on the wrists by an adoring media (they tell us he needs a little more discipline only). Joe Hockey waxes and wanes between ‘The Rudd Recession’ and ‘The Recession We Never Had’. Greg Hunt excruciatingly tries to sell a dog of a Climate policy that we know he doesn’t believe in. Julie Bishop is the Invisible Woman, rousing from her Shadow Foreign Affairs torpor only to try to scuttle relations between Australia and China.

The media seem to believe that, at last, this is a triumphant return to the status quo, where they tell us what to think and how to vote. The tactic of wall-to-wall Abbott and 24/7 Good News about the Coalition has finally paid a dividend. They’re going in harder and harder, even resorting to boot-strapper interviews with each other!  Rudd is depicted as embattled, tense, making mistakes. These all go to his fitness to be Prime Minister. His ministers are shown up as either bumbling machine men, troglodytes, or trophy ministers, unsuited – any of them, without exception – to their high offices.

An alternative theory - mine - is that the public have built up an immunity to the media's increasingly bizarre attempts to justify both their own antics and those of conservative politicians; that this is the media’s (and particularly the Murdoch media’s) Last Hurrah - and that the media know it. It may well be that what we are seeing now in the polls is just a blip, a minor victory in a backwoods battlefield, bought at high cost both to the media's credibility and to the nation’s political sanity.

In a political world where the seriousness of Climate Change can be passed off as ‘just politics’, where cheap stunts involving pink tou-tous, acres of lycra, hairy ‘man rug’ chests, ‘thinking woman’s crumpet’ statements, and undersized budgie smugglers are depicted as serious indications of the ‘genuineness’ of the Coalition’s senior personnel and their message, where opportunistic TV coverage of a near-fatal traffic incident is presented as ‘proof’ the Prime Minister is disconnected from the people, and where the media are indulging in a witch hunt for yet more youthful corpses to prove that the most successful GFC response in the world was actually an abysmal failure, they have squeezed out just a couple of in-house polling percentage points from a distracted public.

An outdated media losing its grip has been an ugly thing to watch.  If this is truly a battle for influence, a final battle for the ascendency of the Old Media over the minds of what it sees as its bovine readers and viewers, then expect no prisoners to be taken.  Things will only get worse. More and more stunts will be played out. We will be gravely informed of the ‘political symbolism’ of Abbott shenanigans and of the ‘ineptness’ of the Prime Minister and his government. My feeling is that it can’t go on too long, because even now some of the edges are starting to come off the edifice as our media’s Fonzi Fonzarellis prepare to jump the shark

We’ve had allegations of ‘industrial manslaughter’, the Shadow Treasurer in a ballet dress, the Shadow Finance Minister talking down our nation’s ability to pay its sovereign debts, near-miss traffic incidents blown up to national significance, Coalition moles in the Public Service giving false evidence (which was then further faked by the Daily Telegraph), the rantings of Ackerman and Bolt on Insiders, a sexually disgraced Shock Jock brought back onto the air to lecture Rudd on morals, and a seemingly endless series of derogatory analytical articles on the Prime Minister’s every uttered syllable. And now we have the Ten Commandments brought into play (but don’t call Tony ‘Captain Catholic’). 

The circus has truly come to town. But, what do you think... is it really a Triumphant Return, or just The Last Hurrah?


More of Shanas’ Magic Looking Glass?

If you thought Dennis Shanahan was squeezing the last drop of good news for the Coalition out of this week’s Newspoll, as suggested in the last piece on TPS Newspoll through Shahas' Magic Looking Glass, take a look at his analysis of the Important Issues survey (pdf) that accompanied that Newspoll.  You’ll find it in his two pieces in Wednesday’s Australian: Protest poll flags rush to Coalition and Coalition making inroads in all areas.

His theme is announced in his headlines and the opening paragraphs:  “The Rudd government just lost its comfort zone, its ability to argue that everything will be fine because of its success in avoiding recession and that its lower polling is just Tony Abbott's media honeymoon. Voters have declared they prefer the Coalition, once again, as economic managers and have rushed towards the Coalition on climate change, water conservation and the environment.” and “The Coalition has recaptured popular leadership on the economy from the Rudd government, which seems to have lost political gains made on economic management during the global financial crisis as the fear of recession in Australia passes and unemployment peaks.” 

Having set the scene with words like “Voters ...have rushed towards the Coalition” and “The Coalition has recaptured popular leadership on the economy...” he proceeds to amplify his claims.  Referring to the Important Issues as seen by voters, he says: “The economy has also dropped dramatically as the top priority in an election year, being overtaken by health and education as the Coalition makes inroads into Labor's leads on all key issues, including climate change, the environment and water management.”

So let’s look at the figures. 

In the first table, the Important Issues, the economy has dropped from first to third and is now rated 74 on the importance scale, down from 83 a year ago, but about the same as two years ago.  Should this come as a surprise – a ‘dramatic drop’ as Dennis would have it?  A year ago the country was in the midst of the GFC from which it is now emerging.  The variation in the level of importance portrayed in the survey is exactly what one would expect.  I suppose Dennis was trying to make the point that any advantage the Government thought it might have had in managing the GFC successfully is being eroded because of its fall in importance in the electorate.

In the table on who is best on economic management, 40% of those polled said Labor and 45% the Coalition.  Dennis describes Labor’s rating as steady but in fact it has gone up one point from 39%, and the Coalition’s rating has gone from 40% to 45% during the last year.  We know we should not get too excited about small movements in ratings, but Dennis is happy to attribute significance to them when it suits his argument.  But look at the five ratings for the Coalition after the October 2007 rating (the first listed): 53, 44, 44, 43, 40, 45, and for Labor 29, 37, 34, 39, 39, 40.  After the 2007 rating there’s not much movement there for either party; the Coalition has recovered 5% from a year ago, but is close to its rating for the two years before that.  Does this set of figures warrant the comment: “...the public has started to move away from Labor on economic management”?

Let’s take a quick look at the other figures, that range over the period October 2007 to February 2010: On health & Medicare, education, the economy, water planning, welfare and social issues, national security, the environment, climate change and industrial relations, the Coalition's ratings were 32, 32, 45, 31, 27, 43, 27, 30, 33 and Labor 47, 40, 36, 51, 37, 34, 35, 49.  You may find it easier to look at the tablesLabor is ahead on all except the economy and national security.

On handling climate change (over the period July 2008 to February 2010) the Coalition rated 18, 22, 19 and 30, and Labor 45, 37, 38 and 35.  Labor is ahead but not as much as in previous years because the Coalition's rating has gone up by 11% in the last year.  No doubt the Coalition will take heart from this and see it as endorsement of its Direct Action plan, at least in part.

Do take a look at the individual tables for health & Medicare, education, the economy, water planning, welfare and social issues, national security, the environment, climate change and industrial relations that extend over six surveys from October 2007 to February 2010.  What is striking is how consistent the ratings have been over the years.  There certainly have been small changes in the areas of water planning and the environment in the Coalition’s favour and in management of the economy.  Labor is ahead of the Coalition on every aspect except the economy and national security, areas in which the Coalition has always rated well with the electorate.  Dennis concedes this near the end of one of his pieces when he says: “Voters still rated the Labor Party as better able than the Coalition to handle all the electoral issues except the economy and national security -- traditionally Coalition political strengths.”  Anyone reading his article to the end might have been surprised after reading the negative headings and comment that preceded that concession, and mystified by his conclusion: “This is a protest poll.”

Of course what Dennis is asserting is that there is movement away from Labor to the Coalition on so many parameters that this represents a significant turning way from Labor.  It is true that the Coalition has made gains; as Dennis puts it “On every main electoral issue, including health and education, support for the Coalition rose and Labor's fell or remained static to put the Coalition in its best position since the 2007 election”   He asserts that it is this movement that accounts for the changes in voter preference rather than the advent of Tony Abbott.  The question is how significant the movements are given the MOE of plus or minus 3% for this survey of 1151 people.  Dennis attributes major significance to them.

For those of you inclined to a deep statistical analysis of this data set, do take a look at Possum’s thorough piece on Crikey, The pitfalls of Better Party To Manage.  His piece seeks to interpret the movements in the figures.  Towards the end he says: "Perhaps long term relative changes in which party is best perceived to manage a given issue, perhaps we can identify if issues cease to become a strong issue for a party over a long period of time. Any sharp jump in value for a given issue that is above and beyond that achieved by other issues in that poll is also something that would be meaningful and worth taking a second look at.  But for ordinary poll to poll movement, we can’t actually pull much pointy end value out at all because large parts of the variation are simply a function of generic approval of the party leaders."

So where does the truth lie?  Is Dennis’ narrative a true reflection of the figures?  Do his words match the figures?  While it cannot be said that Dennis’ statements are inaccurate, do they paint the same picture as do the figures?  Is this another example of how the mindset of the author, one that seems to be searching for positives for the Coalition and negatives for the Government, has over-ridden the objectivity that poll analysis requires, and has lead him once more to extravagant language?  Is this more of Dennis seeing poll results through his Magic Looking Glass?

You be the judge.  What do you think?

Newspoll through Shanas’ Magic Looking Glass

There we were last night, political tragics scouring our computer screens looking for signs of what the latest Newspoll might show.  Two weeks ago Newspoll showed a significant closing of the gap between Labor and the Coalition to a TPP of 52/48.  The same result occurred last October, but because two weeks later it was back to usual levels, it was labelled an outlier.  The question was whether the recent 52/48 was an outlier or pointing to a trend.

It has now become a habit of The Australian to herald the outcome of its Newspoll the night before.  Two weeks ago there was an announcement on its website well in advance of the publication of a brief account of the result, which was adverse to Labor.  Since some queried whether an advance announcement was a bad sign for Labor, the tragics looked last night for this portent.  They were astonished to see on the Pollytics website ‘Newspoll at 9 pm’, and wondered what that unprecedented timing meant – was it a sign of disaster for Labor?  It turned out to be a hoax, was quickly revealed to be so, and the tragics turned to The Oz website looking for the signs, pressing F5 regularly.  But since there was no advance announcement of the time that Newspoll would be out, they reasoned that maybe it was not too bad for Labor. 

Eventually, somewhere around 10.15 pm, the Dennis Shanahan summary appeared with the striking headline: Rudd hits a new low: Newspoll.  In five paragraphs he pointed out that “Kevin Rudd's personal voter appeal was at its lowest since he became Labor leader more than three years ago”, that Labor's primary vote had “...dropped below 40 per cent for the first time since 2006”, “...its lowest since Kim Beazley was opposition leader”, that “...the Coalition has managed to hold its primary vote at 40 per cent for a month for the first time since the 2007 election loss”, and that support for Labor's emissions trading scheme had ‘slumped’: “In September last year, support for the CPRS was at 67 per cent but last weekend dropped to 57 per cent and those against the CPRS rose from 22 per cent to 34 per cent.”  All these statements were factually accurate.  He ended with a flourish: “While satisfaction with the Prime Minister is at a new low for him as leader, voter satisfaction with Tony Abbott's Liberal leadership has reached a new high.”

Pretty grim stuff for Labor and exhilarating for the Coalition!  But the numerical data were scant.  No TPP figures, no indication of how much Rudd’s ‘personal voter appeal’ had fallen, no figures about Tony Abbott’s ‘voter appeal’, no PPM figures; in fact the only figures were those quoted above.  This left us tantalized about how bad the situation might be for Labor, and how good for the Coalition.

Then along came Lateline where Leigh Sales announced that Newspoll was ‘good news for the Government’.  After reading Dennis’ piece, surely she must have made a mistake, inadvertently substituting ‘Government’ for ‘Coalition’.  But no, after a tedious half-hour wait for the segment, she told us that the Government had gone up one percentage point, and the Coalition one point down to give a TPP of 53/47, reversing the recent downward trend.  Given the MOE, no one with statistical nous is going to give too much credence to this small change, but since the media is not constrained in this way, giving as it does undeserving emphasis to such small movements, why was it that Dennis chose not to mention the TPP, the one aspect favourable to Labor?

Moreover, while Dennis’ assertions about Rudd’s ‘voter appeal’ are correct as far as they go, why did he chose to omit the actual figures that put the changes in perspective.  Rudd’s satisfaction rating is 50%, the same as two weeks ago, and his dissatisfaction rating is up 2% to 40%.  Compared with last November Rudd has certainly dropped from a net satisfaction rating of 22% to 10%, but satisfaction still sits at 50%, the sort of approval John Howard enjoyed through much of his incumbency.  In the PPM stakes Rudd has dropped 3% to 55% since the last Newspoll, while Abbott has gone up 1% to 27%, just half of Rudd’s rating.

In the morning’s paper Dennis fleshes out the figures in his piece: Newspoll: Rudd hits now low The tables accompany the piece.

On the subject of climate change Newspoll shows 73% believe it is occurring – only 22% don’t, compared with 84%/12% in July 2008; 94% believe it is caused by human activity, down from 96% in July 2008; 57% are in favour of the CPRS and 34% against, compared with 67%/22% in September 2009 and 72%/21% in October 2008.  While there has been a significant fall in support for action and specifically the CPRS, support remains quite high. Dennis assesses the situation thus: “But the Newspoll survey has shown opposition is growing to the ETS, although Australians overwhelmingly want action on climate change.”

Dennis paints a more sinister scenario for Labor in his supplementary piece The trends begin to run against Labor in today’s Australian. 

So what do we make of Dennis’ appraisal, so gloomy for Labor?  Why did Leigh Sales say the poll was ‘good news for the Government’ and introduce that segment with “The Government appears to have halted the Tony Abbott-led resurgence for the Opposition, according to the Newspoll to be published in tomorrow's Australian newspaper. The Rudd Government has improved its position by one point on a two-party-preferred basis to be now standing at 53 points, up from 52 a fortnight ago, while the Opposition has slipped a point to 47.”?  I notice though that the transcript header today is “Coalition's poll resurgence continues”, which seems to be at variance with her words.  Why did the ABC use that heading?

We all have our biases, which influence the way we interpret events.  We even interpret the hardest of hard data differently.  But our interpretation does reveal those biases.  So we can speculate about Dennis’ biases from what he writes.  Why did he omit information from last night’s summary that might have given a more balanced perspective, for example the TPP?  It would have taken only a few extra words.  Readers might be excused for deducing that he wanted to paint as poor a picture for Labor and as optimistic an image for the Coalition as was possible from the Newspoll results.

Is it an example of Dennis looking at the Newspoll results through his own Magic Looking Glass that enables him to see almost every piece of information as a plus for the Coalition and a minus for Labor; that enables Newspoll results to mean whatever he wants them to mean?  Lewis Carroll would have been proud of him.

What do you think?