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”

Comments Page 1 of 4
1 2 4
  1. The Australian can claim whatever it likes.

    Statisticians on this and other sites have shown more astute analysis of the polls than the Australian ever does.

    I actually think the Australian is missing the point,that they are appearing to be a mouthpiece for the Coalition,and their storylines are slanted to favour the Coalition.The Australian has been anti Rudd and runs negative slanted storylines or headlines against Mr Rudd,and has done so for a long time. What most of us see is that the Primary voting intentions for the upcoming elections has not had a significant decrease for the ALP since Mr Rudd took over the leadership.

    I commend you for your efforts here.At least you will not close down comments after 16 replies!

  2. The Australian’s problem is that unlike most other observers sceptical of Labor’s large lead is that they can’t simply dismiss Newspoll out of hand. It is, after all, their poll.

    So instead Mitchell and Shanahan are stuck trying to invent clues from their own numbers to fit with their own partisan bent.

    The irony is that they have the temerity to label the critics of this hackery as biased.

    But this disingenuous distortion offends me not as a Labor voter, but as a thinking, mathematically literate person.

  3. The fact that Rudd and Howard’s offices asked for the preferred pm stats does not render Peter Brents views on it as wrong. All it tells us is a couple of vain politicians would like to know how popular they are with the electorate. Thats a shock.

    That appears to be their main defence, Rudd and Howard’s offices ask for the preferred PM stats. They don’t even make a counter argument on Peter Brents TPP observations nor the satisfaction ratings.

    The editorial gives itself a pat on the back for picking early on that Latham would not be elected and suggests that their critics are the loudest when the heat is on Labor. Mumble was predicting Latham would lose from the time he was elected leader so i don’t know how their bias argument flys there.

    It is eleven paragraphs of self servibg twaddle culminating in the claim that online commentators are out of touch with the wider electorate. This from a paper which failed to pick up the warning signs of trouble for the government which have been evident for eighteen months or so for anybody keen enough to notice. The fact that they have spent most of this time peddling the “invincible Howard” line shows a lazy paper with lazy and lousy analysis.

  4. This is quite bizzarre. The Australian’s editorials have been very peculiar the past few months. There were the attacks on Clive Hamilton, followed by attacks on Robert Manne and now attacks on Peter Brent and Charles Richardson.

    What on Earth is going on? Apart from Robert Manne (perhaps), none of these people are exactly household names. Why devote a whole editorial to criticism from them?

    David Walsh’s comment is probably right. The Australian is in a bind because they get results from Newspoll that they don’t like so have to desperately scrabble to find some good news in it. They know what they are doing is pretty dodgy. Certainly to have devoted a whole editorial to it suggests they are feeling pretty sensitive about what they are doing.

    The Australian is turning into an amateurish rag. I loved the comment “As a newspaper we don’t know who we will support at the federal election. ” Rubbish! Of course they are going to support the coalition.

  5. Did you notice that today’s editorial is basically just a longer, more snarky, re-write of Shanahan’s pathetic column yesterday? As always, such editorials are anonymous, but it doesn’t take much to guess who collaborated on it.

    I wonder what Tim “inside the tent” Dunlop will have to say on this?

  6. Perhaps I’m just a bit too much of an optimist, but the editorial looks to me like the last hurrah of the Political Climate Change Delusionist Party. They’ve had their dummy spit at the opposition and with the next Newspoll they can settle down to something more like reality – hence the bits about “we don’t know who we will support” and “Kevin Rudd would make a good Prime Minister”. Perhaps they’ve started to get the message that the anger against them they talk about in he editorial is starting to turn to derisive laughter – and derisive laughter is not a good look to a paper that puffs itself up as a journal of record.

  7. If the Preferred PM & Primary Vote are the only ones that matter, as the Oz claims, why bother with the 2PP, or anything else?

  8. very sorry to have upset the diddums at news wewsy i will make sure that i will not upset the poor dears anymore as they are so sensitive

  9. Yesterday, my non political spouse saw the Australian’s clutching at straws headline and said “They’re sounding pretty desperate.”
    Today, when given a quick rundown on the editorial: “Why do they feel they need to say that?”

    I also like The Oz’s singling out of the electronic blogs for criticism, which ignores the fact that their own readership (in Letters to the Editor and blog responses) have been saying exactly the same things about the Australian’s bias and Dennis Shanahan’s desperate spinning.

  10. One suspects that they have been building up to this outburst for some time. Finally they had to vent some spleen, and there we have it, culminating in this sooky editorial. Even today they are finding ways of having a dig at Rudd with respect to his announcements on supermarket pricing. They are basically saying Rudd is proposing nothing new. How strange … considering that in the Oz yesterday, the ex ACCC Cheif Alan Fels was saying that Woolies and Coles would be “nervous” about Labor’s proposals. Hmmm …. maybe Rudd is proposing something new after all ? Silly Billies, honestly.

  11. The editorial says they don’t know who they will support at the election!

    I know it’s a longshot, but I think it’s even vaguely possible they’ll support Howard.

    Do they really believe this rubbish?

  12. If the blogosphere is so discredited that it has no credibility, then why oh why does The Oz run so many blogs??? Are blogs only credible if they agree with the editorial line?

    The real reason for the attack on bloggers by Chris Mitchell is the total and utter embarrassment The Oz face as they have become a laughing stock and amusement for most thinking people. If you cannot deduce the meaning that 56 is a whole lot better than 44 than there is no other option other than ridicule.

    The only way to read The OZ, is as a sarcastic site with lots of irony which sends up the real news and real meaning of news. It is a laugh a day and provides plenty of entertainment value.

    Do they really think of themselves as a serious newspaper with competent journalists? If they do, then they engage in a massive exercise of intellectual dishonesy.

    It just gets funnier the more you read it. I am a big fan! Chris Mitchell should be made the Moomba King of Melbourne for best comedian this side of the Equator.

  13. “ Opposition since World War II has won government without two key indicators 12 months out from the election. These are that the Opposition Leader has a lead over the incumbent of at least five points on the question of who would make a better Prime Minister and the party has a nine point lead on a two party preferred basis.” Is this true and does it matter?

  14. Poor dears.

    Unfortunately for them, they have never had to be involved in flame wars before, so they obviously think their little editorial will shut everyone up.


    They really don’t understand the fact that the new media is interactive and fairly immediate. You spout bullshit and people will call you very quickly.

    Take a seat on a high horse, and pronounce yourself the real arbiters of truth, and watch your horses leg sink quickly in the mud of your own vanity.

    In a few words, there little world is being turned upside down and they just don’t know how to deal with it.

  15. Any chance of the Oz listing those articles giving unqualified praise of Rudd and his policies and derision on anything said or done by Howard.

  16. “ Opposition since World War II has won government without two key indicators 12 months out from the election. These are that the Opposition Leader has a lead over the incumbent of at least five points on the question of who would make a better Prime Minister and the party has a nine point lead on a two party preferred basis.” Is this true and does it matter?”

    Bob Hawke wasn’t even the Opposition Leader twelve months out from the 1983 election – as Ironbar Tuckey likes to keep reminding his own party, he took leadership only a month prior to his election win.

  17. For those interested, it appears that Tim Dunlop’s piece at Blogocracy has been pulled – at least it aint there at the moment.

    Thanks to Possum via Road to Surfdom for the heads up.

  18. “ Opposition since World War II has won government without two key indicators 12 months out from the election. These are that the Opposition Leader has a lead over the incumbent of at least five points on the question of who would make a better Prime Minister and the party has a nine point lead on a two party preferred basis.”
    Am I interpreting this correctly? For a change of government to occur the the Opposition Leader has to have a lead over the incumbent of at least five points on the question of who would make a better Prime Minister and the party would need a nine point lead on a two party preferred basis at the twlve month mark before the election.

  19. I think this was the para that got Tim’s blog post spiked:

    “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.”

  20. So, is the Australian saying that the better PM rating and 2PP only matter at the 12 month mark?

    Does that mean that the twelve months before an election don’t matter at all? If that is the case (and I’m sure I must just be misreading it), The Australian should ask John Howard to kick a puppy or something, so they can prove their point conclusively.

  21. Big Deal. They are mad as all it can to do is increase the readership of Crikey and co.

    However I note the derogatrive stories in todays The Australian on Rudd’s plan to have the ACCC keep and eye on the cost of groceries. They are trying very hard to sink this initiative. Yet the data/statistics from other sources, published in other papers, makes it clear that food prices are a real problem and are worthy of investigation. How do these companies make record profits in a drought?

  22. Actually I still don’t get it. Why would The Australian be bothered with this anyway? It is not as though these alternative analysis have a national voice.

    A good way to promote the blogocracy if you ask me – which would be a wonderful thing because we would all then get exposed to a myriad of views not just the partisan politics of murdoch type papers.

    There was a time when The Australian was a highly respected newspaper.

  23. I was initially quite concerned when Brent said they were going to go him. He isn’t paid to do his online stuff (bar Crikey) and a lesser man could have folded.

    Needless to say my concern evaporated about 2 paragraphs into today’s Editorial. Rudd and Howard’s Offices want preferred PM therefore margin of error movement is more important than margin of error primary vote movement…? That is so outrageously specious I won’t bother with year 9-level English showing how farcical that is.

    The real question we need to answer was: is it a prank or is it a mea culpa?

  24. I love this bit from the ‘slate’ link:

    “…. if Bush and his administration “have a theory and a fact, and [the two] don’t coincide, they get rid of the fact instead of the theory.”

    Sound familiar to me.

  25. Ironically, Tim was saying that the fact News Ltd tolerates blogs like his is proof that they really ARE fair and balanced!

    This is hugely ironic, given how Tim once spiked a totally harmless story from Daryl Mason at Road To Surfdom, and banned him from further posting.

    Inside the tent, Tim? Really? I think it’s time you posted your resignation at Road To Surfdom!

  26. The Oz’s editorial criticism of the online commentariat was rather more bitter than their editorial criticism of Saddam Hussein but Saddam Hussein never directly attacked their market share.

    In terms of Possum’s Poll Wars this is Episode V The Empire Strikes Back.

    I think BigBob is correct but The Oz editorial makes another mistake, by naming their critics they have identified them to a wider audience (as Oscar Wilde said “the only thing worse than being talked about…”

    In my view this particular byplay is actually more interesting than the polls at the moment*. We are witnessing a part of a fascinating contest between traditional and new media.

    Speaking as a lurker who has avidly consumed the recent online political and psephological commentary (and as someone who knows the odd thing about social science survey design and statistics) I would say I have been rather impressed with the average quality of that commentary and research (of course that average conceals a huge variance).

    * By the polls are uninteresting I simply mean that I am calling the election. Only a big bomb, a small war or possibly a violent anti-APEC protest march fronted by Kevid Rudd, Therese Rein, Brian Burke, Dr. Haneef, Joe McDonald and Dean Mighell can save the government now and not even the High Priests of Newspoll can tell us whether any of those things is going to happen (I hope).

  27. Gary Bruce, 9:25am

    I’d say it wasn’t true for Bob Hawke… And if they want to attribute Hayden’s 12 month out numbers to Hawke, then it hardly matters that Rudd has only 11 months in the job — 10 more than Bob.

  28. The Australian editorial criticises an online clique which it says does not represent the “mainstream” (meaning, I surmise, a middle of the road view unaffected by partisan and sometimes extremist positions advocated by one or other side of politics). That criticism is neither controversial or for that matter, particularly enlightening. What becomes “self serving” (to borrow William’s pithy expression) is that the opinion contained in the editorial cannot itself represent the “mainstream” because it does not acknowledge that the newspaper’s past reporting of Newspolls but particularly the headline banners and opinion pieces which accompany the reporting, have been unrealistically skewed in favour of the Coalition and JWH.

  29. Should the daily drumbeat of ALP bashing headlines in The Australian help bring about the re-election of the Coalition, the editors and reporters involved only have themselves to blame when their press freedoms are further constrained by a Government that now knows it can get away with anything. No wonder journalists are held in such low esteem. They don’t even know who their enemy is.

  30. Hell will freeze over before the good folks at The Australian turn against John Howard. Thank god for Fairfax: at least SMH/The Age is a little more balanced!
    Imagine the headlines in the Aus if Rudd actually wins:
    I get much better political commentary on this site than the biased crap masquerading as supposedly objective News Ltd articles.

  31. Gold! Thank you Australian for your contribution to the debate. However, you could have saved yourself a lot of money by printing it here like any other comment and using the editorial space in your paper for something else.

    Kudos to the Australian they actually seem to want to engage with the public.

  32. The Australian’s editorial says:

    This is the affliction that has gripped, to a large measure, 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.

    Which explains why I can’t find a single story on The Australian‘s website about Senator Bartlett’s campaign launch on the weekend, which I covered here, and was also covered in detail by another Brisbane blogger here.

    I too am not sure why they would give bloggers the oxygen of attack…if you hate someone who is much smaller than you, you ignore them, you don’t attack them.

  33. Unrepresentative clique eh? Whereas the News coterie of Shanahan and Bolt and Ackerman et al are just plain talking outer-suburban battlers.
    What does “representative” mean, in any case? Since when did we get to vote for journos anyway? Will we now get to vote for psephologists – thereby making them “representative”? And will they be barred from talking to each other in order to avoid cliqueishness? Will there be polling for those elections, and, if so, who will comment on those polls?
    My head is spinning.

  34. To be fair Martin, that is Peter Costello, not ‘The Australian’. And I think it’s fair to say he doesn’t sing from their statndard songsheet, given his pro Labor stance.

  35. Freudian slip … Given Tip’s performance on 7:30 report last night, I could be forgiven for thinking he’s pro Labor right?

  36. Why don’t the Australian do a poll on whose analysis is superior? Might not get the answer they want, I suppose.

  37. “To be fair Martin, that is [Michael] Costello, not ‘The Australian’.”

    Nonetheless, he is one of their columnists and they saw fit to print that analysis.

    Or is there some way of working out which Australian columnists the paper thinks we should listen to and which we shouldn’t?

    Don’t answer all at once… 🙂

  38. Does anyone know how well OPPOSITION LEADER APPROVAL RATING corelates to primary vote of opposition party?

    My guess is thath would be a more important figure than prefered Prime Minister.

  39. The Oz wants to force Labor to change its policies, particularly on IR. Thus it tries to argue that Labor is set to lose the election, but public opinion doesn’t support this. Hence the agenda of personal attack. This isn’t something apart from their IR crusade it is an integral part of it. It is all about maintaining capitalist property relations. Class power is the fundamental point here.

  40. Far more reliable (and often more readable commentary) here. Possum and Bryan do far more detailed (and objective) poll analyses, so the Australian doesn’t add a whole lot to the debate.

    I don’t care about the direction of bias (indeed, even Philip Adams admits a strong Left bias in the Oz of the 90’s) but it does obscure clear analysis.

    The +10% ALP TPP seems not to be budging and may now represent some longer term voter intent. I strongly doubt that any one issue will shift this mood. The population seems warming to a change.

    Recent gap closing on preferred PM may be due to either artifact or JWH being able to show some PM leadership whilst Rudd in opposition can’t. The indigenous action and recent terrorism reminds Joe punter clearly about incumbency as opposed to inexperience but probably won’t last.

    Kevin is looking comfortable right now

  41. Simon, trawl back through possum pollytics. It has some stuff on approval ratings and primary votes for both govt and opposition. Some good statistical stuff.

    Martin. yeah there’s a pretty easy way. If they are pro-Labor or neutral, like Michael Costello, Adams or Steketee, you shouldn’t listen. My point was ‘The Aus’ doesn’t have to agree with everything their columnists say. They also quite clearly don’t feel the need to be consistent with their own previous (editorial) positions. e.g. Climate change

  42. One of the longest and most hectoring editorials I’ve ever read.

    The Australian clearly fears, which has undermined its influence over the political class, and may in time become a more significant setter of the daily political agenda. Peter B has been caught up in the middle, but if all publicity is good publicity, I hope the notoriety bears fruit as his blog is always entertaining.

Comments are closed.

Comments Page 1 of 4
1 2 4