Media fail and the last days of Malcolm Turnbull

The byelections as part of the so-called “Super Saturday” have resulted in unchanged numbers in the House of Representatives, but they may see the final days of Malcolm Turnbull’s reign as Prime Minister.

On paper, it seems there’s not much to report – the Liberal–National Party didn’t contest the Western Australian seats of Perth and Fremantle; Braddon in Tasmania actually had a slight swing to the LNP; the average anti-government byelection swing of 4 per cent occurred in the Queensland seat of Longman; the seat of Mayo in South Australia had a 3 per cent swing towards the incumbent Centre Alliance candidate, Rebekha Sharkie; and the LNP still holds government by a slender one-seat majority.

 

But in reality, the results in these byelections went against expectations and are a crushing political loss for the LNP. There are now serious questions being asked of the campaigning abilities of Malcolm Turnbull, as well as his political judgements, and the chances of the LNP being able to win the next federal election, due before May 2019, with Turnbull as their leader.

Despite all the pressures that were placed upon Labor leader Bill Shorten from one of the most unprofessional and incompetent displays of media reporting and journalistic behaviour seen in a long time, it was Labor that won through on the night, winning four of the five seats they contested, and forcing the political pressure back onto the LNP.

Along with the LNP, the mainstream media put in a blindingly shocking performance – for the month leading into the byelections, there was a solid selection of concocted reports about ALP frontbencher Anthony Albanese supposedly challenging Shorten for the leadership – with political insiders being shown to be too caught up in the Canberra bubble and tangled too far within their own self-importance to clearly report what is actually happening in the real world.

The backgrounding against Bill Shorten and the ALP reached a maniacal frenzy during the final week of the byelection campaigns – almost replicating the mania in the final days of the 2016 general election – and this time around, all the main media outlets participated. The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Guardian, ABC News 24, Courier Mail, The Age, Sky News, Radio National, ABC Local Radio, 2GB – it was difficult to watch a television screen, read an article online or in print, or listen to a radio report, without a news item gushingly announcing there was huge pressure on Shorten, that he had ‘the most to lose’, and Anthony Albanese was ready to make a leadership challenge, even through a bemused Albanese clearly ruled out a challenge on many occasions, and ALP leadership rules almost make a challenge impossible.

The goalposts kept on shifting during the byelection campaign – according to the media and depending on their vitriol of the day, Shorten’s leadership was all but over if: he lost one seat; if he lost two seats; or if he retained all seats; retained all seats with a slight swing; retained all seats with a swing but not enough of a swing; or he was just gone anyway because, in the words of ABC journalist, Laura Tingle, in her article ‘Voters just don’t like Bill’, a ‘pragmatist’ (whatever this is – perhaps a fortune teller?) told her “the mob want Malcolm and the government to be better than they are… but they just don’t like Bill”.





This is the reporting that now passes as journalism within the mainstream media – and, in this case, from a seasoned and experienced journalist. In Tingle’s article, we are introduced to this new term of the ‘pragmatist’ but are not told what or who this ‘pragmatist’ is, just an echo of what the journalist wants readers to believe, and promoted as a news headline and a statement of fact.

And this type of thinking was echoed through the media during the byelections campaign – whether it be Katharine Murphy at The Guardian reporting on yet another imminent Albanese challenge (choose any from the following list – there’s many more, but you get the picture: Albanese’s manifesto speech? It’s all about giving Labor an alternative; It’s a sliding doors moment for Labor as curtains fall on byelection circus; How long a shadow will Labor’s bout of doubt cast over Shorten?; Albanese denies speech was signal he was available for leadership), David Crowe at The Sydney Morning Herald; Philip Coorey at the Australian Financial Review; and countless articles from News Limited – it’s remarkable to witness the group thinking within the Canberra bubble, one-sided reporting without investigating clearer alternative thinking or perspectives in the electorate.

This is incredibly lazy journalism and it’s most surprising that many in the mainstream media then berate their audience for letting newspaper reading numbers fall and beseech the public to “support their industry” and the hope, in the words of Katharine Murphy, “news consumers will understand we’re in the fight of our life. If you support them [media outlets] and want to see them flourish and prosper, well you need to get behind them”.

Well, to paraphrase former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, “stop writing crap” and add balance and integrity, and perhaps the readers might take up the kind offer to support political journalism in this country.

News consumers are not loyal to Fairfax, and really couldn’t care less about whether the company is known as ‘Fairfax’, or ‘Nine’, or ‘NEC’. They don’t really care about supporting journalist’s salaries either – especially the high end journalists – but have a thirst for high quality analysis and reporting. That’s the point that many players in the larger media corporations are missing.

The most amusing media performance was on ABC Insiders, where host Barry Cassidy stated quite candidly: “The media. I’m part of it, we’re all part of it. I think the media predicated maybe 90 per cent of its pre-poll analysis on the basis that Labor would lose one or perhaps two of those seats. We wasted a lot of your time on that. Is it time for a mea culpa?”

Too right Barry, but instead of reflecting on this point and entertaining the possibility that perhaps they are getting it all even slightly wrong, the guests on the Insiders couch – Niki Savva, Malcolm Farr and Murphy – went on the defensive and claimed they were simply reporting what was already out there and “the media didn’t make it up”.

And in a continuation of their oblivious thought processes, after frantically defending their amateurish behaviours, they went hard with the allegations against federal Labor backbencher, Emma Husar, claiming all sorts of malfeasance and misconduct, and glibly supporting their statements by saying “it’s all out there in the public domain”. Except it’s not – the public domain consists of allegations that Husar made her male staff member wash dishes ‘to better understand male privilege’; another staff member was asked to walk Husar’s son’s dog; $2,000 was spent on the use of a Comcar for travel purposes. To be sure, these might be issues that might to be looked at, but a wholesale political and media attack on a grand scale? I don’t think so.

So, more manipulations of facts, more misreading of the public mood, and more unbalanced reporting. Compare the alacrity to report on these limited allegations against Husar, with the reluctance to report anything on the founded allegations against Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce during the 2017 New England byelection because “they hadn’t reached the standard of proof required to report” and it’s hard not to accept there are different rules for Labor politicians – and the realisation that many journalists in the mainstream media are eager to run cover for the conservative side of politics and are still enamoured with the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull, irrespective of how poorly he is performing.

Even when the panellists on the Insiders were provided with an opportunity to explain themselves, they kept on regurgitating the same figments, and the same misinformation and mistruths.

It would have been better if they just came out and announced they consider themselves as players in the political game; they need to promote political conflict to boost their readership, even if the conflict isn’t there; they need clickbait for online statistics; and, finally, to use the words of Laura Tingle, “they just don’t like Bill” and will fabricate any scenario that destroys Shorten’s credibility and his position, and reduce his chances of becoming Prime Minister. That would have more integrity.

But the problem for the media by provided blinkered analysis and foolishly following the ‘Kill Bill’ strategy is they are failing to pick up the many flaws of Malcolm Turnbull, and are missing the even bigger story – the demise of Turnbull and the potential challenge to his position as Prime Minister.

Malcolm Turnbull is surprisingly limited as a politician and an incredibly poor on-the-ground political campaigner, easily showing his desperation – during the final two days of the byelection campaigns, he was easily flummoxed and reduced his arguments to: “we always tell the truth, Bill Shorten is telling lies, the Labor Party always tells lies”. The electorate understands that all politicians misrepresent the facts, but Turnbull also needs to understand that he’s not performing as a brutal barrister in a court of law, where a jury can easily be berated and manipulated, but in the court of wider public opinion.

It’s just not good enough for a Prime Minister to incessantly claim his opponent tells lies and reduce complex debates and issues to name calling and resembling a ‘he-said-she-said’ Grade 2 spat in the schoolyard.

Far from being an electoral asset the media keeps wanting us all to believe, Malcolm Turnbull, along with his right-wing agenda, is electoral poison. And there’s good evidence out there for this claim.

He lost 15 seats and four Senators for the Liberal–National Party during the 2016 federal election. He hasn’t won a public poll in over two years – losing 130 consecutive polls. He suffered a 5 per cent swing against the Liberals in the Bennelong byelection in December 2017; failed to win back the seat of Mayo, a Liberal stronghold; failed to pick up the swinging seat of Braddon; and suffered a 4 per cent swing in Longman, previously a safe LNP seat. In this round of byelections, both seats of Mayo and Braddon were – according to the media and polling – a strong chance of being picked up by the LNP.

Before the ‘Super Saturday’ elections, my sources mentioned there was an understanding within senior figures of the Liberal Party that while there was a belief that Mayo was beyond redemption, if Turnbull failed to pick up either seats of Longman or Braddon, there would be renewed pressure for a leadership challenge during the first week of the Spring Session in August.

The speculation is there will be a concerted effort from the conservative wing of the Liberal Party to install Peter Dutton as leader, in the hope that he’ll be able to stem the flow of potential seat losses in Queensland – at least eight, based on the swing and preference flows from the Longman byelection.

But how organised is the conservative force within the Liberal Party, and how quickly can they persuade other Liberal Party MPs their seats are in grave danger if Malcolm Turnbull leads them to the next election? Is two weeks enough time for a raft of long late-night telephone calls and arm twisting, and the usual promises and calling in favours in exchange for a leadership vote?

I’m not so sure.

But it will be fascinating process over the next fortnight to see if there’s any movement within Liberal Party headquarters and whether they have the stomach to yet again change leaders, and at least stem the electoral fallout that keeps inevitably happening under Malcolm Turnbull.

We’re seeing the last days of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister. And by focusing solely on Bill Shorten in the hope that he would fail, the mainstream media is missing the biggest story of all.

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Eddy Jokovich

Eddy Jokovich is a Sydney-based journalist and producer of many books, magazines and handbooks and has worked as a war correspondent, journalist, lecturer in media studies and production.