A red-letter day for the psephological blogosphere, as The Australian responds with the full length of its editorial column to the barbs of the online news commentariat. At issue is the paper’s penchant for putting a rosy spin on the Coalition’s prospects each time Newspoll points to a big Labor win, which reached its apogee with Dennis Shanahan’s analysis on Tuesday. My eyes glazed over a number of times as I pored through the editorial’s dense thicket of self-serving assertions, but the pay-off came at the end:
A guide book recently published by one site demonstrates the extent of confused thinking on how the polls operate. A chapter by Mumble’s Peter Brent says two party preferred ratings are at the same time worthy but unreliable and that an Opposition Leader with a high satisfaction rating has no better chance of being elected than one with a low rating. He dismisses approval ratings and the preferred Prime Minister measure as “embroidery”. Yet the fact is when Mr Howard and Mr Rudd’s offices telephone The Australian to get advance warning on what the following day’s Newspoll will show they invariably want to know two things: The primary vote and preferred PM. Not properly understanding how polls work gives our critics licence to project their own bias onto analysis of our reporting. The Australian is not beholden to any one side of politics and recent election outcomes vindicate our treatment of our polls. So let’s not mince words. We just don’t think many of our critics have any real clue about polling and very little practical experience of politics.
The Australian sober and experienced voice of reason, or craven mouthpiece of the crony capitalist military-industrial complex? I throw it in for debate.
UPDATE: Do jaws come any glassier? Yesterday, Dennis Shanahan’s blog post addressing his critics (Cheers to all those who engage in the great, democratic and political exercise of freedom of speech what do you think?) was closed for discussion after 16 comments. Today, centre-left News Limited blogger Tim Dunlop’s post on the subject has mysteriously disappeared (please let there be an alternative explanation for this). Fortunately, Poll Bludger regular and occasional Greens candidate Darryl Rosin preserves it for posterity at Larvatus Prodeo:
Who says the mainstream media donâ€™t pay attention to the blogosphere? This extraordinary story relates to this weekâ€™s Newspoll results and the way The Australian reported it. Peter Brent runs the excellent psephological blog called Mumble. Itâ€™s one of a number of blogs that run analysis and commentary of opinion polls, and others include OzPolitics, Possums Pollytics, and Poll Bludger. Yesterday, Peter Brent noted that he had fallen foul of some of those at The Australian …
The editorial is up this morning and yes, they do â€œgoâ€ Peter Brent. They defend themselves in the strongest possible terms and attack, specifically and generally, just about anyone who disagrees with them, particularly â€œAustraliaâ€™s online news commentariat that has found passing endless comment on other peopleâ€™s work preferable to breaking real stories and adding to societyâ€™s pool of knowledge.â€
There are a number of things to say about all of this. The first is that the editorial is as much concerned about charges of bias against The Australian as anything else … If bias is in the eye of the beholder, then there are a lot of â€œbeholdersâ€ out there who think The Australian is biased, particularly in its coverage of polling data. The evidence for this is not just to found in the blogosphere but on their own pages where their columns and articles often fill up with criticism from their own readers accusing them of spinning information in favour of the Howard Government. In attacking the â€œonline commentariatâ€ they are also attacking a sizeable sampling of their own readership.
The latest bout of charges of bias were prompted by this weekâ€™s Newspoll and many people, including me, were struck by the way The Australian chose to cover the story. For instance, Bryan Palmer at OzPolitics wrote:
â€œWhen I first glanced at todayâ€™s headlines â€” Howard checks Ruddâ€™s march â€” Kevinâ€™s sizzle not snag-free â€” Howard finds fertile ground for support â€” I was expecting to read about a polling improvement for the Howard Government. What I found was a flat line.”
Whatâ€™s interesting is that The Australian seems to believe that only they are capable of objectivity and they reject entirely any charge of bias. This is odd given that Chris Mitchell himself has said:
“Can I say something about The Australianâ€™s contribution to the national political debate. It has made, as a newspaper, a remarkable contribution, I think back over the last 10 years that this government has been in office and I think of the positions taken by The Australian newspaper. It has been broadly supportive, generously so, of the governmentâ€™s economic reform agenda. And it has been a strong supporter, consistently â€¦ of industrial relations reform. Its only criticism of the government is that it might not have gone far enough â€¦ I think editorially and on the Op Ed page, we are right-of-centre. I donâ€™t think itâ€™s particularly far right, I think some people say that, but I think on a world kind of view youâ€™d say weâ€™re probably pretty much where The Wall Street Journal, or The Telegraph in London are. So, you know, centre-right.”
It is precisely that â€œgenerousâ€ â€œbroadly supportiveâ€ â€œright-of-centreâ€ tilt that people are responding to when they see Newspoll reported the way it was this week. For the editorial to deny that any such tilt exist seems disingenuous.
So I think the editorial is ill-conceived and way off the mark in singling out Peter Brent in the way that it does. His site largely confines itself to interpretation and in doing so, provides a great service. The idea that he canâ€™t comment without the editor of The Australian ringing him up to say they are going to â€œgoâ€ him is disturbing.
Still, I think it is fair to say that News Ltd, including The Australian, has opened itself to comment and criticism from its readership more so than Fairfax, the other major news organisation. They have embraced readers comments and â€œblogsâ€ more fully, and this site alone is evidence of that. So while most News news stories and columns allow reader comment, the same is not true of Fairfax. You can, for instance, comment on Dennis Shanahanâ€™s and Paul Kellyâ€™s columns, but not Michelle Grattanâ€™s or Gerard Hendersonâ€™s.
But having embraced such an approach, they have to accept that not everyone is going to agree with them or buy into their particular take on a given issue or, indeed, their own self-image. The Australian is, of course, completely free to defend themselves, but it might also pay them to reflect on why so many people see them as the â€œgovernment gazetteâ€ rather than just dismiss nearly all such criticism as â€œa waste of timeâ€.
UPDATE 2 (13/7/07): A column on the saga from Alan Ramsey in the Sydney Morning Herald.