How to turn the polls around in six months

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Friday, 18 May 2012 17:46 by Ad astra
Bear with me. Join me in a little game. Let’s imagine that you have won the biggest lottery prize ever – the ownership of the Murdoch media empire in Australia. You now control it and its editorial policy. You can decide on the stories you will run, the headlines, the text, and how you want the stories to work. In other words you can do what Murdoch and his editors and journalists do every day.

This piece makes the case that although what leaders and parties say and do forms the basis for most of what appears in the political media, it is the way in which the media represents this reality that is the critically important factor in how the public perceives it. No matter what the story, the media can choose the angle it will promote, the message it wishes consumers to take away, the outcome it desires.

This piece selects just four newspaper articles from the Murdoch press, displays the headlines and initial paragraphs, briefly analyses their content and tone, and then offers alternative headlines and initial paragraphs written by fictitious journalists who are in tune with the Gillard Government’s objectives and supportive of them. The facts are the same – the difference from the original is how they are presented in the facsimile. If anyone reading the facsimile feels the facts have been distorted, as distinct from how they are presented, tell us about this via the comments facility.

The original media article is presented in brief first with the text in italics, followed in each instance by the ‘alternative’ version, with the text in bold.

Let’s begin with The Daily Telegraph front page of May 9, the day after Wayne Swan presented his 2012/13 Budget.

Black Swan in Cash Splash
Business, rich slugged to fund election sweeteners
Treasurer slips out of red but finds $5b for battlers

The headlines were accompanied by a cartoon of a rather dilapidated Wayne Swan with many feathers missing, and a bandaged neck.

”Treasurer Wayne Swan has promised a wafer-thin surplus of just $1.5 billion after a savage round of spending cuts aimed at the rich and big business.

Despite the austerity drive, he has found $3 billion for the unemployed and low and middle-income earners as an extra election year sweetener to combat the carbon tax.

Family payments worth between $100 and $600 will be rolled out next year as a ‘‘cost of living’’ supplement. The rich will pay for the redistribution of wealth with the loss of a range of concessions and benefits.

The Gillard government has had to dump another promise – the 1 per cent company tax cut which would have been funded by the mining tax – in a move likely to rile small business.”

Note the pejorative words in just these few paragraphs. ‘Black Swan’, ‘Cash Splash’, ‘rich slugged’, ‘election year sweetener to combat the carbon tax’, ‘wafer-thin surplus’, ‘savage…spending cuts’, ‘aimed at rich and big business’, ‘the rich will pay’, “cost of living” pointedly in inverted commas, ‘dump another promise’, ‘rile small business’; all designed to paint a negative picture of what the Government is doing through these budget measures. It’s not the facts that are being disputed here, but the way they are being presented.

Now let’s see how the piece might have been written.

White Swan brings in surplus budget
Finds savings to support lower income families

Treasurer Wayne Swan has achieved what the Coalition confidently predicted he would never do – bring down a surplus budget. Despite this, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey insists that the 2012/13 Budget is all ‘smoke and mirrors’, that Swan has ‘cooked the books’, and that the surplus will never eventuate.

Families who will soon receive cash benefits deposited into their bank accounts will be unlikely to see them as ‘smoke’; rather they will regard them as mirroring the promise made by the Gillard Government to spread the benefits of the mining boom more evenly across the country.

These family benefits were achieved by not continuing with the planned company tax reduction of 1%. Although the Government insists it is committed to reducing company tax and has established a working group to consider how this might be achieved, its desire to do so in this budget was frustrated by the Coalition’s intransigence in refusing to vote for the tax reduction, and by the business community’s refusal to pressure the Coalition to support the company tax cut. Unable to get its legislation passed, the Government decided instead to use the money thereby saved to support working families, especially those with school children.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is crying foul and accusing the Government of breaking another promise although it was his decision to oppose the tax reduction and prevent the Government from keeping its promise. PM Gillard pointedly drew attention to Abbott’s hypocrisy.

The business lobby expressed its disappointment, but observers commented that it has only itself to blame for not showing public support for the move, by looking down its nose at a ‘mere 1% company tax cut’, and by not bringing the Opposition along with it in support.

What do you think about the facsimile – same facts, vastly different presentation!

Next, let’s look at Editor-at-Large Paul Kelly’s piece in The Australian on May 12. The paywall prohibits access to no more than the first two paragraphs, but that is enough to get Kelly’s drift.

This week highlighted how economic policy has been trapped by a tainted parliament


”Despite its fiscal merits and "return-to-surplus" Wayne Swan's budget strategy is unlikely to win the clean political oxygen it needs to secure even a modest turnaround in Labor's fortunes.

For Labor, the minority government parliament has now become political poison. The trap is diabolical – the government's survival depends on tainted numbers such as Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, yet such transparency ruins the government's integrity on a daily basis.”

Note the pejorative words in the headline: ‘trapped by a tainted parliament’. Readers know what is coming. Note too how Kelly pointedly uses inverted commas around “return to surplus”; we get his sarcastic meaning. He posits that the Government is ‘unlikely to win clean political oxygen’. He uses a poisonous phrase to describe minority government: ‘political poison’. He uses one of his favourite descriptors – diabolical – in asserting that the government is trapped: ‘the trap is diabolical’. He insists survival depends on ‘tainted numbers’, which ‘ruins the government’s integrity on a daily basis’. It’s a measure of Kelly’s literary skill and partisan antagonism to Labor that he could pack so much malice into just two paragraphs.

So let’s try writing the piece another way.

Swan’s Budget wins support for its sound economic policy

Although working within a minority government presents daily challenges to PM Gillard and her ministers, Treasurer Wayne Swan has garnered support from the cross benches for his 2012/13 Budget, and already the so-called ‘Schoolkids Bonus’ legislation has passed both houses of parliament.

Despite trenchant opposition to providing benefits to families to ease the costs of schooling from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, whose philosophy seems to be ‘no matter what it is, oppose it’, the legislation has passed into law and cheques will soon arrive in the bank accounts of eligible parents with schoolchildren.

This rapid outcome was achieved in the face of repeated attempts by the Opposition to slow down parliament through repeated motions to suspend standing orders to debate the accusations made about Craig Thomson, now sitting on the cross benches as an Independent.

Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and Manager of Opposition Business, Christopher Pyne, had the audacity to suggest that the PM should not accept Thomson’s vote because it is tainted by accusations against him, although no charges have been laid. This suggestion is not only unconstitutional but would have disenfranchised the electors of Dobell whom Thomson represents.

That such a suggestion could be made points to the extremes to which Tony Abbott will go to seize power.

Same facts – different presentation.

Next shall we look at Political Editor’s Dennis Shanahan’s article in The Australian on May 15.

Credibility takes a hit in wooing battlers

”With all his talk of fighting billionaire miners and class warfare rhetoric, Wayne Swan has achieved exactly what he intended with last week's budget: a direct appeal to Labor's base and some support bought from families and low-income earners.

What the Treasurer has sacrificed to achieve a small lift in the latest Newspoll for Labor and to give the Gillard government hope of survival is economic credibility.”

Again all we have is two paragraphs but that will do.

In just seventy words, Shanahan manages to tell us that the Government’s ‘credibility’ has taken a hit, that the Newspoll result constituted just ‘a small lift’ to Labor’s ‘hope of survival’, but in achieving this it has ‘sacrificed economic credibility’. With that opening, the other paragraphs are almost redundant.

So try this:

Wayne Swan supports ‘battlers’

In a masterstroke, Treasurer Wayne Swan has crafted his Budget for 2012/13 to support families on lower and middle incomes, while bringing back the Budget to surplus, as promised. His Budget redistributes wealth in a way that begins to narrow the widening gap between the well off and the poor. It truly is a ‘battler’s Budget’.

Although this outcome was ridiculed by Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, who has repeatedly said that “Labor will never bring down a surplus budget”, Swan has achieved it through well-targetted cuts to spending, particularly in Defence, one of the largest consumers of taxpayers’ money, and he has done this without impairing Australia’s security.

Already, acceptance of the Budget has been reflected in the latest Newspoll that shows a modest lift in support for the Government accompanied by a sharp drop in support for the Coalition. While this may be but a temporary change, it suggests the economic credibility of the Government might be on the rise after presenting its Budget, and its electoral prospects brightening.

Finally, let’s look at an item of contemporary interest, an article by Chip le Grande in The Australian on May 16.

Union boss sues Tony Abbott for 'thug slur'

”A courtroom showdown is looming between Tony Abbott and one of the nation's most militant union leaders after the Opposition Leader last night refused to back down from public comments that Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union organiser John Setka says wrongly portray him as an industrial thug.

“Mr Setka, a former Builders Labourers Federation senior official twice jailed and repeatedly fined during a career spent at the sharp end of construction industry disputes, is suing Mr Abbott for defamation in response to a speech he gave at a Master Builders Association conference earlier this year.

Note how in just two paragraphs le Grande paints a pretty poor picture of Tony Abbott’s accuser, John Setka, with words like ‘most militant union leader’, and by referring to Steka having been ‘twice jailed’ and ‘repeatedly fined’, presumably through union activities. In two paragraphs he is deliberately attempting to tip the balance of opinion against Setka, and by corollary towards Abbott.

Here’s how it the matter could have been reported:

Tony Abbott sued for defamation

A leading union leader, Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union organiser John Setka, has issued a writ for defamation against the Opposition Leader for remarks that he made during an address to a Masters Builders Association conference in February where he said: "So many of you have got to go on to sites every day and you've got to deal with the John Setkos of this world every day. And the last thing you need is home visits from some of the gentlemen associated with some of the industrial organisations."

Mr Abbott went on to talk about intimidation, extortion and "thuggery" in the televised speech.

Court papers filed by Setkos say Mr Abbott meant to call him "a thug, in that he visits the homes of people working in the construction industry for the purpose of intimidating them" and makes demands "that amount to extortion".

In response, Mr Abbott says he stands by his remarks and will strongly defend the case.

Mr Setkos has been involved in defending the rights of his union members, and having been at the sharp end of several intense construction disputes has been fined and jailed for his efforts on behalf of his members.

Mr Abbott is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proved guilty, and should be afforded due process in the court. Questions are being asked though about whether Mr Abbott ought to stand aside until the matter has been resolved, as he has insisted some other parliamentarians do in similar circumstances, and whether his ‘tainted’ vote should be counted. In a minority parliament where every vote counts, it could be reasonably argued that if Mr Abbott insists that Craig Thomson’s vote ought not to be counted, his too should be embargoed.

I trust this game we have played as imaginary owners of the Murdoch Empire and therefore able to determine not the facts, but the way they are presented, has demonstrated that simply by writing them in a way that does not demean or demonize the PM and her Government would make all the difference in the world to how the selected stories would be received by the public, the reaction they would evoke, the attitudes they might induce, and the way they might influence voting intention at the next election.

The Political Sword has long contended that the mainstream media is a major player in Australian politics, and has a disproportionate influence on how voters assess the major political parties, and how they might cast their vote. It has argued that the Gillard Government has two opponents to battle: its natural opponent, the Coalition, but also the majority of the mainstream media, which is manifestly hostile to the Labor Government and supportive of the Coalition. It continually puts the Gillard Government under the blowtorch, while declining to do the same to the Opposition. More seriously, it distorts the facts, cherry-picks the information most favourable to its arguments, and cloaks what facts it chooses to use in pejorative language deliberately designed to demean the Government, diminish its achievements, and smear its ministers, particularly its leader, our PM.

A mainstream media different from the one we have could create a significantly different attitude in the electorate, and a different outcome at the next election.

I trust that this little game will have persuaded you that if the selected stories were written in a way that enhanced the image of the Government instead of depreciating it, instead of the electorate’s attitude to the Gillard Government being strongly negative, it would be strongly positive.

In six months of such positive press the polls would certainly turn around. Labor would be well in front, and the Coalition languishing.

What do you think?