The Australian versus Peter Brent

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 don’t pay attention to the blogosphere? This extraordinary story relates to this week’s Newspoll results and the way The Australian reported it. Peter Brent runs the excellent psephological blog called Mumble. It’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 “go” Peter Brent. They defend themselves in the strongest possible terms and attack, specifically and generally, just about anyone who disagrees with them, particularly “Australia’s online news commentariat that has found passing endless comment on other people’s work preferable to breaking real stories and adding to society’s pool of knowledge.”

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 “beholders” 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 “online commentariat” they are also attacking a sizeable sampling of their own readership.

The latest bout of charges of bias were prompted by this week’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:

“When I first glanced at today’s headlines — Howard checks Rudd’s march — Kevin’s sizzle not snag-free — Howard finds fertile ground for support — I was expecting to read about a polling improvement for the Howard Government. What I found was a flat line.”

What’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 Australian’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 government’s economic reform agenda. And it has been a strong supporter, consistently … of industrial relations reform. Its only criticism of the government is that it might not have gone far enough … I think editorially and on the Op Ed page, we are right-of-centre. I don’t think it’s particularly far right, I think some people say that, but I think on a world kind of view you’d say we’re probably pretty much where The Wall Street Journal, or The Telegraph in London are. So, you know, centre-right.”

It is precisely that “generous” “broadly supportive” “right-of-centre” 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 can’t comment without the editor of The Australian ringing him up to say they are going to “go” 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 “blogs” 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 Shanahan’s and Paul Kelly’s columns, but not Michelle Grattan’s or Gerard Henderson’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 “government gazette” rather than just dismiss nearly all such criticism as “a waste of time”.

UPDATE 2 (13/7/07): A column on the saga from Alan Ramsey in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

164 comments on “The Australian versus Peter Brent”

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  1. I got it slightly different Timbo, but almost the same. Not sure why, I used Bryan’s calculator.

    Hope this spacing works: The 2nd and 3rd columns assume an equal move back to the Govt in each state of the size stated (on TPP):

    Raw -2% -4%
    NSW: 15 12 9
    VIC: 7 5 0
    QLD: 13 8 5
    SA: 5 5 4
    WA: 2 2 0

    My guess is ALP will pick up 2 in Tas and maybe 1 in NT (any polling?)

  2. Due to small samples, it’s better to average the last two Morgan phone polls; that gives a sample of over 1200, a Labor primary lead of about 48-36 and a Labor 2PP of about 58-42; great for Labor!!!

  3. Black Jack,

    Can you please explain how you derived those figures, for example by using 55-45. I would have thought that to get this back to 50-50 would have need 5 out of 55 to change their mind. That is 1 in 11 or 9%.

    Am I missing something?

  4. If anything, this little episode with the Oz tells us that bloggers can make a contribution to public discourse, and can call out the egregious asshattery of spinners like Shamaham. This saga has been widely documented across the Australian blogosphere, and I think the political and psephological bloggers (such as Mumble, Possum, OzPolitics, and the present site) are to be congratulated for offering opinion and analysis far superior to that peddled by NewsLtd’s partisan hacks.

    Kudos to all: Bloggers 1, The Oz, 0

  5. Taking average of these two early July Morgan phone polls vs average of two early June ones has Labor up from 45 to 48 primary, Coalition down from 40 to 36. On 2PP, Labor goes from 55 to 58. It’s yet more evidence that Labor’s primary has increased since June, and also evidence of loss of Coalition primary, though that is yet to be verified by other polls.

  6. Joins Mr Speaker in not responding to the ‘Howard to bomb APEC in terrorist plot to win votes’ conspiracy theorists, Envy you surprise me in joining that club. Whatever floats your boat, but that one is already sunk in my mind.

  7. Kooyong becomes Marginal, and Higgins falls to ALP.

    With the performance of the ALP candidate in Higgins Costello is safe, while Pedro is a no show type of MP the very sort whom would be in trouble if the electorate went into meltdown

    the other Victorian seat that caught my attention was Dunkley, I would expect Bruce Billson will be returned for he is a good hard working local member and the local ALP is somewhat a joke.

  8. Aristotle – thanks for the reality check. I

    I don’t quite understand invoking the claim that ‘Labor has only twice been elected from opposition’. Is it a caveat that these ‘records’ are based only on two samples and hence relatively meaningless? Or that governments since about the 1920s have been very stable – existential crises (depression, world war) aside – and so we should realise that changes of government are v.unusual?

    It is equally true -but rarely noted – that the Liberals have only twice been elected from opposition: 1949 and 1996 (Fraser was caretaker PM in 1975).

    If we need comparative hurdles, why not look at state results? There we find a similar incumbency advantage across the century, but have a much better range of instances where oppositions have won, especially Labor ones, and we find a much greater spread of results. I accept the caveat that Labor is more attractive at state level due to focus on services, and less so at federal level due to focus on economy/security, but that configuration is largely a recent artefact (certainly the withering of state powers).

    The under-researched question is why such an incumbency advantage? The staple explanations are a relatively prosperous and benign social/economic environment, breeding a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude, plus the professionalisation of politics. A deeper explanation, needing some deeper research, is simply that compulsory voting brings out the apolitical govt supporters who otherwise would not vote.

    If I’m right, compulsory voting reinforces the status quo, which by historical accident as much as anything, has been conservative federally and Labor at state level. And if that is right, Labor’s araldite commitment to compulsion is not a partisan benefit to it, and conversely the likes of Minchin do the federal Liberals no favour in opposing compulsion.

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