In the following thirty-six hours the next Newspoll
will be published. If it is as poor a result for Labor as was last week's Nielsen Poll
, the leadership frenzy will reach an even more feverish pitch. Frantic media packs will jostle to assail every politician entering and leaving parliament, thrusting microphones into their faces, and insisting they declare their allegiance to Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd, or at least take a punt on whether a leadership challenge is on, and who is likely to win. The words uttered by the key players will be analyzed endlessly for nuance. Every news bulletin on radio or TV will be embellished with phrases such as 'another bad poll for Labor has renewed/fuelled/rekindled/heightened leadership speculation', with clips of comments from Labor politicians at doorstops, clips of Tony Abbott, with nodding supporters in the background, sagely reminding us how dysfunctional, divided and chaotic the Gillard Government is, and Christopher Pyne emitting his usual venom outside Parliament. It is as predictable as the sun rising in the East.
The press will have a field day. Dennis Shanahan will be emboldened to predict an even greater electoral disaster for Labor, Paul Kelly will be more pontifical than usual in telling us why, and other News Limited journalists will report the findings gleefully, and in every sordid detail. The predictive value of the poll will be assumed, as it has been for two years now, and to give the result some statistical authenticity, the result will be stated to be 'outside the margin of error'.
Should the result be much the same as the last Newspoll
, the media response will be less strident. What Labor could expect would be one of Shanahan's favourite phrases: 'flat-lining', or words to the effect that Labor 'has failed to get a bounce out of Gonski', or any other piece of legislation the pundits believe ought to have given it one.
But if the result were to be better for Labor than Nielsen
or the last Newspoll
, it would need to be vastly better to attract any acknowledgement of an improvement. And to counter any better result, we will be reminded that the Coalition 'still has an election-winning lead', or that ‘it would still win in a landslide', or that 'Labor would still lose (insert number) of seats at an election, should it be held today'.
So whatever happens this coming week with Newspoll
, the result will be painted as bad for Labor, and should it be much, much better by any chance, it will be categorized as a 'rouge poll'.
Nothing I have asserted so far will come as a surprise to any reader. I write these words simply to underscore the extraordinary influence polls of voting intention and personal approval have on our political dialogue through all forms of the Fourth Estate. They actually create
the dialogue. This coming week, Newspoll will be used as a killing machine, as it has been for many years.
Of course it was used as a killing machine in the dying days of the Howard Government, although not as powerfully as it is now. And let's acknowledge that it is not the only one. The Nielsen
poll too has potency as a killing machine, as we saw last week. It precipitated a furious frenzy in the Canberra Press Gallery that went on for several days, until it became apparent that no leadership challenge was in the offing, whereupon the frenzy abated for a while. Of course there are regular Galaxy
polls that seem to emerge at weekends that give good copy to political journalists for the Sunday papers, and now automated ReachTEL
polls are gaining prominence and are given publicity in News Limited media. Those aiming at the heart of Labor use them all as killing machines.
But there are other polls, some longstanding. Morgan Polls
have been around since 1941. Morgan conducts both face-to-face and telephone polls. The last one did not replicate the results of the Nielsen
poll. Under a heading: Female support rises strongly for the Government after Howard Sattler interview with Prime Minister
, Morgan wrote: “Today’s Morgan Poll shows the ALP closing the gap on the L-NP with the L-NP (53.5%, down 2.5% in a week) cf. ALP (46.5%, up 2.5%) after Perth radio host Howard Sattler interviewed Prime Minister Julia Gillard last Thursday and questioned the Prime Minister about her partner’s sexuality. Sattler was subsequently sacked on Friday afternoon by Fairfax Radio and the Morgan Poll which was interviewed after this point shows a clear swing back to the Government. A Fairfax-Nielsen poll released overnight showed the L-NP (57%) cf. ALP (43%) on a two-party preferred basis. However, it is important to note the Fairfax-Nielsen poll was conducted between Thursday and Saturday last week (June 13-15, 2013) which means many of the Fairfax-Nielsen interviews were conducted before the full impact of the Howard Sattler interview and subsequent sacking was known."
Did any of you see the Morgan Poll
reported in the Fourth Estate? The only place I saw it was in the Fifth Estate, in Independent Australia
. Isn't that strange? No it isn't. Fairfax would not want to diminish the potency of its own killing machine by giving credence to a poll that was at variance with its own, especially the last poll that placed Labor in such a poor light. In fact isn't it strange that we almost never see Morgan Polls
given any airing in the Fourth Estate.
And there is the weekly Essential Poll
that uses a methodology different from other polls, and aggregates two weeks' polling into each week's result. On June 17 it showed the same result as the previous week: 54/46 TPP, with no dip that could be attributed to the previous week's events. Of course next week it might. But where in the Fourth Estate do you see Essential Polls
reported? Both Morgan
seem to be personae non gratae
within the Fourth Estate. The only time Essential Media Communications
gets exposure is when its Director, Peter Lewis, appears on the ABC’s The Drum
particularly, and to some extent Nielsen Polls
and Galaxy Polls
, are used as killing machines by those who use them to attack political parties. This is not to imply that the polls are wrong, or unprofessionally conducted, much less rigged.
But there seems little doubt that in the hands of journalists they can be, and are used as killing machines aimed at the party on the decline and ipso facto
as boosters to the party on the rise. Polls supply the heavy ammunition; journalists fire it at their target. For the contemporary Fourth Estate, this suits their purpose because the polls match the stories they want to write. What this piece argues is that commercial polls of voting intention dictate the political dialogue by allowing proprietors, editors and journalists to interpret them as they wish, and thereby create the stories they want to disseminate.
But let me address an issue that infuriates journalists. When anyone suggests they are 'making up stories', or that their stories are just ‘a media beat up', they become highly indignant, insist that their stories have real sources, that the information upon which they base their stories is real, neither imagined nor made up, and that they are simply reporting to the public the information they have sourced, which they insist is their sacred duty, as 'the public has the right to know'. So let's be clear, journalists are fed tidbits, journalists do fossick out bits and pieces of information, and journalists do have their 'sources'. That is not in dispute. What is debatable is the quality of the information they solicit or are offered, that is, its validity and its reliability. Sometimes it is of high quality, and enables them to write important articles. There are many examples we can all recall. It is when the information is of doubtful quality or simply wrong that articles derived from it are suspect or disingenuous.
But even when the information is valid and reliable, it is how the journalist evaluates its importance that determines how the story is written. A tiny piece of information, no matter how valid and reliable, does not a major story make, yet that is what the Fourth Estate too often dishes up to us. Corridor whispers, an overheard comment, a story exchanged between journalists at their favourite drinking hole, seem too often to be the basis for a big story, a prediction of major importance. Reflect for a moment on how many times senior journalists have predicted PM Gillard's political demise, how often they have suggested she step down. They still are! The media, becoming desperate as time for a change runs out, is pulling out all the stops to dislodge our PM. This weekend, Andrew Holden, editor of The Age
, perhaps miffed that PM Gillard did not fall on her sword after his Nielsen
poll last Monday, is now somewhat arrogantly insisting in an editorial that she must stand aside ‘for the sake of the nation’
How many times have we been told that she will be gone by Christmas - the killing season – or by Easter, or by the time parliament rises, or when the caucus next meets, or when it has its last meeting, or by whatever date the journalist conjures up, and in any year you care to imagine. Yet she is still standing - 'she won't lie down and die'. Maybe she will meet the fate that has been predicted for almost three years now in the three months before election day. But so far predictions have all been wrong
. But like stopped clocks that are bound to be right twice a day, journalists continue to hope that eventually they might be right.
Journalists in the Fourth Estate often place too much reliance on unreliable information, on invalid intelligence, on at times deliberately false information fed to them by people with a subterranean political agenda into which they allow themselves to be sucked, and thereby conned. Faulty information would not be so much of a problem to them if they sat on it until it could be checked for its validity and reliability, an exercise good journalists carry out routinely, but instead they take up their megaphones and shout their paltry and sometimes shonky messages for all to hear, and they go on doing this time and again despite them being wrong over and over. And when something really important does actually happen, they often miss it, as they did when they missed Kevin Rudd's removal until almost the last minute, and completely missed Bob Carr's appointment as Foreign Minister.
By the way, we can’t let journalists off ‘scot-free’ on the charge that they don’t make stories up. Reflect on the second half of last week. There were no more polls, and as far as I am aware no comments from Labor that could be mined for flecks of gold, yet Leigh Sales managed to spend most of her Thursday 7.30
interview of Craig Emerson fishing for leadership tidbits; Tony Jones’ Lateline
featured an unnecessarily convoluted piece by Tom Iggulden that explored what might happen constitutionally if leadership changed; and on Friday, ABC news picked up on words Kevin Rudd used on Seven’s Sunrise
when asked about a potential bid for leadership: ”I don’t believe there are any circumstances in which that would happen”
, and wove them into a story that this was a less vehement denial, and therefore significant! Can you believe it? Yes you can. Journalists do
make up some stories, and they do
‘beat up’ others. Read what Michelle had to say about the Leigh Sales interview in her blog piece: Dear Leigh Sales
. I’m sure many would echo her sentiments. It is the rush to the megaphone to shout their stories on every medium they can access without proper checking, or simply the rush to shout a story they have made out of nothing, which characterizes far too much political journalism today, and brings it into disrepute. Is it any wonder the public holds journalists in such low regard, and levels at them accusations of poor quality journalism, of 'making stories up', and of 'media beat ups'?
We all know though that there is another reason for the rush to the megaphone. Journalists, fearful about their own jobs, are mindful of the need to please, or at least not seriously upset, their proprietor and editor. They know their political agenda, which for most of the Fourth Estate seems to be the removal of the Gillard Government and the replacement of it with a Coalition government led by Tony Abbott. Every story about leadership destabilization, every story about PM Gillard being replaced, every related adverse event, is grist to the News Limited and Fairfax mills. So megaphone journalism aimed at discrediting PM Gillard and her Government is OK by these media outlets, no matter how unreliable and flimsy it is. It adds inexorably to the poor image of the PM and the Government it has been creating for years.
Let's return to the killing machines, which for News Limited is its heavy weapon, Newspoll
, the most lethal killing machine of all.
Try this exercise in your imagination. Reflect on how different political journalism would be if there were no opinion polls. I realize that means exploring a fantasy world that will never become reality, but bear with me.
Ask yourself what journalists would write about leadership without polls results to underpin their stories. It is the results of the polls of voting intention and personal approval, and comparisons of the popularity of potential leaders (Gillard/Rudd and Abbott/Turnbull) that give them the material they require to write about leadership. It is the poll of who would save the most seats for Labor that energises journalist's comments about leadership. When the TPP is going against a party, particularly the one in power, journalists jump on it because, to use the words they use habitually, it 'calls into question' the position of the leader, and ‘renews/fuels/ignites/heightens leadership speculation’. If the leader is less popular than the contender, as has been the case with Julia Gillard versus Kevin Rudd, if the challenger might save more seats, that adds to the speculation. If there were no poll results, there would be no leadership speculation, as indeed is the case between polls, when speculation subsides. But the day the poll comes out, especially if it is Newspoll
, which seems to have assumed superior status among the many polls, the media: print, radio and TV is ablaze with strident recitation of the results and the dire implications. It's great copy for journalists, hungry for a scoop.
Without the polls, they would have to undertake real journalism; they would have to seek sources, solicit information from those whose opinion is worthy, check its veracity, double check, analyze what the sources told them, and reach a considered conclusion about the status of the leader in question. That's arduous work; it involves 'working the phones' and 'wearing out boot leather', as their predecessors once did. Poll results obviate this weary toil. Writing up poll results is child's play, and any interpretation can be placed on any result, depending on what story the journalist wants to write. We saw Dennis Shanahan's convolutions in the dying days of the Howard Government, when, no matter how poor the results were for John Howard, Dennis could always find a ray of hope to head his analysis.
There are other polls, carried out privately by pollsters on behalf of political parties and their supporters. These are never reported publically, but are regularly ‘leaked’. The fact that they are not subject to the same methodological scrutiny as commercial polls means that their validity and reliability are not questioned. The fact that those who commission these polls choose to leak them to the media suggests that the leaking is a tactic to advantage one side or disadvantage the other, or both. That alone calls into question their veracity. While some question the validity of commercial polls on the grounds of methodology, for example the use of landlines versus mobile phones, I believe commercial pollsters are proficient and attempt to do their polling professionally, striving for representative samples of sufficient size. On the other hand, private polling, or at least its reporting, is suspect, as is the output from focus groups. I place no store on reports in the Fourth Estate of private polling.
Of course, polls would have lesser influence on political dialogue if Labor members declined to engage in public or private conversation with insistent journalists hungry to extract a morsel they might be able to fashion into a story. Although they know that whatever they say journalists will use it in whatever way they prefer, politicians seem to be unable or unwilling to tell them to get lost. And even if they stay mute, the headline is: ‘X refused to confirm or deny’, or ‘avoided the question’, leaving the news consumer thinking that something suspect is going on.
Some Labor politicians, the Rudd saboteurs, are deliberately obtuse, and repeatedly feed the story of a Rudd revival to eager journalists, all the more so when Kevin Rudd’s popularity comes out much higher with the public than Julia Gillard’s. They are a destructive force that gives journalists the tidbits and rumors, true or otherwise, that they crave, and do so for their own selfish purpose. Some of the others, who pander to the press by responding to questions and then do so incompetently, seem to be plain stupid, unaware of, or careless about the damage they are doing. Fortunately, there are those who give unequivocal messages about leadership such as Wayne Swan, Craig Emerson, Greg Combet, Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek and Peter Garrett, to name just a few. If only the others would emulate them.
So while we can correctly blame the media for the so-called journalism they offer, we need to acknowledge that a few malcontents do feed them bits and pieces from which they construct their stories. What is reprehensible is that most journalists endow such morsels with a credibility they do not deserve, and don’t bother to check their veracity before enthusiastically taking up their megaphones hoping for a scoop.
Stories about poll results have a profound effect over time. While one bad poll result takes its toll, bad result after bad enables journalists to paint a more damaging picture of the party that is lagging – one of a party that is doomed, fated to lose in a landslide, to be reduced to a mere ‘rump’. Add to that the long-standing media narrative that the Gillard Government is ‘the worst government in Australian history’, indeed ‘a bad government getting worse’, that PM Gillard is an incompetent, untrustworthy liar, who makes one mistake after another, that her popularity is sinking inexorably, that she is dragging Labor down to a catastrophic defeat, and you have a vivid picture of a certain loser, who by that account deserves to lose. This image feeds into the next poll and reinforces the negativity. When that poll turns out poorly, the vicious circle continues. Nobody wants to be associated with a loser, so the downward trend is amplified, again and again. This is what so many News Limited journalists want, as do many in Fairfax.
In case you think I’m in a minority in my view that polls are killing machines in the hands of antagonistic journalists, read what Letitia McQuade had to say on Independent Australia
in Gillard, polls, porkies and popularity
. Read this too in The Conscience Vote
: Dear media, write about something else
, and Truth Seeker’s Murdoch’s poll machines stuck on spin cycle
, and Jeff Sparrow’s piece in The Guardian: What is the Gillard v Rudd civil war all about?
. This piece describes and deplores the malevolent influence that opinion polls of voting intention and popularity have on political discourse in this country. Poll results are ammunition for adversarial journalists to fire at politicians and parties they oppose. They use them ruthlessly to wound and kill their opponents. They use them to reinforce the stories they write, stories too often based on whispers and questionable intelligence; they use them to create a repetitive story of incompetence, of failure, of a fate worse than death at the upcoming election, of a party that must be decisively discarded. Polls are used to manipulate minds in the desired direction; with every negative poll that arrives, the more the voters are persuaded in that direction.
Sadly, amongst all this, policy issues vital to this country’s future, and that of all its citizens, are diluted or simply ignored. How on earth can the voters decide?
In the hands of journalists polls are killing machines, and the most potent of all is News Limited’s Newspoll. And they are killing not just politicians and parties, they are killing the intelligent policy debate every strong democracy needs.
What do you think? If you wish to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Bronwyn Bishop, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Greg Combet, Mark Dreyfus, Peter Dutton, Craig Emerson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Scott Morrison, Robert Oakeshott, Tanya Plibersek, Christopher Pyne, Bill Shorten, Wayne Swan, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.