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. Hmmm … this saga would make a good tip-off to Media Watch, if they aren’t aware of what’s going on already.

    If Blogocracy goes it would be a real shame. Along with Matt Price’s blog it is valuable because, apart from Tim’s verve and productivity, the comments are obviously drawn from a slightly wider selection of the community than tends to inhabit more “specialist” sites like Poll Bludger or John Quiggin.

  2. I dunno if I am the only one who thinks this… but I reckon the Govt. will engineer a terrorist incident of some kind during the ASEAN in Sydney.

    A nice big bang in Sydney with some collateral damage and bingo JWH calls a poll and gets re-elected in a landslide.

    We know that the only two terorist incidents in this neck of the woods (Hilton and Rainbow Warrior ) were the work of governmental agencies – so they’ve got the form.

  3. “Albert Ross Says:
    July 12th, 2007 at 8:44 pm
    I dunno if I am the only one who thinks this… but I reckon the Govt. will engineer a terrorist incident of some kind during the ASEAN in Sydney.”

    I’m anti-Howard but even I do not think he or any of it’s agencies would stoop so low.The backlash against him and the government should any form of attack occur would be enormous.The government claims it has the high ground on the handling of national security.Any “event” during Apec would undermine them.Remember JW Bush is going to be here as well.

  4. Albert Ross Says:

    July 12th, 2007 at 8:44 pm
    I dunno if I am the only one who thinks this… but I reckon the Govt. will engineer a terrorist incident of some kind during the ASEAN in Sydney. A nice big bang in Sydney with some collateral damage and bingo JWH calls a poll and gets re-elected in a landslide.

    Albert that is rediculous- JWH may be many things but to suggest he would construct a terrorist stunt is infantile at best; He is no saint , who is, but that suggestion is just plain stupid. Move on… PS: It was viva la France people who sank the Rainbow Warrior, at least get that right.

  5. My contribution to Denny’s latest blog. Of course, it won’t see the light of day. But it might here.
    What do we think? What you tell us to, if past and current history is anything to go by. Comments cut and blogs disappearing. Gee, those pesky dissidents are tough to control, eh what?

    I remember a debt truck that used to run around Australia with scary figures, around 1996. But I don’t see that truck any more. Maybe its just not as good a stunt now as it used to be. But it got attention back then. So will Rudd and its about something people want something done about. Even if he is seen to be doing something, as opposed to probably not doing anything in the long run, he is actually seen to be doing something more than a certain little Man of Steel has done over the past eleven or so years.

    Face it Dennis. If Howard had come up with this, you would be writing about the ingenuity of it and how it will add a few points to the all important preferred PM numbers. Are we allowed to talk about that any more – dad told us we didn’t really know what we are talking about…

  6. I agree with Adam – This is no big deal. Freedom of Press, Free Speech and Democracy in action.

    The fact that Peter Brent could annoy them this badly should be taken as an endorsement of his power to sway opinions and speaks highly of the blogosphere’s influence.

    Peter Brent should be proud of himself – it’s a big (backhanded) compliment.

  7. Albert Ross said:

    I reckon the Govt. will engineer a terrorist incident of some kind during the ASEAN in Sydney.

    Someone make sure and remind me to ignore this guy if I accidentally reply to one of his comments some time in the future.

  8. Albert i’m with you on that one, Howard and his war criminal, neocon mates have got form.
    The only way the war criminal mouth piece Murdochcan keep his puppet Howard at the helm is to enginer such a catastrophy.
    When rodents are cornered they will strike out in a dramatic way.

  9. I looked up the Rod Sawford election formula tonight – his grandad reckoned if 2 out of 3 of inflation, interest rates and unemployment went up the government was toast and this formular had got every election right since 1961 meant for this year.

    So I looked up CPI knowing unemployment went down and interest rates went up – Basically CPI was 2.4% annually when Latham went down and annually in March it was 2.3% – Costello predicted it would come in lower this quarter.

    Basically the formula at the moment predicts a line ball result (given CPI is about the same) and if the CPI goes lower or higher (when the results are released in July) a Rodent victory/loss.

    Who would have thought the price of cucumbers etc would decide it all? The vagaries of fate eh? So for all you one eyed Laborites etc start buying heaps of fruit and veg in spivvy suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne if you really eant to do your bit.

  10. The Speaker,

    This thread is about the way current affairs is being reported in this country. That effects politics, ergo it is a political issue. Media bias can make or break your chances in an election for one thing. It’s certainly no small deal.

  11. Very silly formula EdStJn. So wages, wars, drought/climate are irrelevant and always have been.

    Back to the topic of the day. We graffitists in the blogosphere delude ourselves if we think the ‘MSM’ generally or the Oz in particular care about blogs. The Oz’s dummy spit is part of its ongoing tussle with, a commercial rival for insider-influence.

    Peter B was caught up in this because headlined one of his contributions two days back, in a way that was very unflattering of Shanahan/the Oz’s spin.

    That the Oz won’t name in its editorial shows they don’t want to give it oxygen or admit its jealousy.

    What makes this most interesting is that the Oz is disappearing into a conservative haze; whereas was primarily neo-liberal. Both will be battling for the entrails of the Liberal Party if/when the Howard government collapses.

  12. But doesn’t the ALP go into every election campaign assuming that News Ltd. will be at best neutral, and most likely for the Coalition? This is partly negated by the support they get from some of the Fairfax papers, usually The Age. So does it really make a difference in the long run?

    The thing that I find more startling is the fact Channel 9 has been such a strong supporter of the Government since 1996, yet that is rarely mentioned. People are much more likely to accuse the ABC of fostering anti-Government bias, whoever the Government is.

  13. Graeme,

    I don’t think this is some business savvy attack on, nor is it a direct attack on blogs. It’s a flame at Peter Brent, because he hurt the feelings of their political editor. That he was hurt is pretty clear from his last blog entry on the subject. It’s a dummy spit, pure and simple.

  14. I must concede that the Australian’s editorial defending Dennis Shanahan and the judgment of their paper and criticizing online bloggers was the funniest and most self-indulgent, hypersensitive opinion piece I have ever read. They must have very thin skins in that paper.

    Obviously they can’t take objective analysis of their articles. Peter Brent, if anything, analyzes Dennis’s pieces with an amount of wry cynicism that is both very refreshing and on the mark. He’s not nasty or vindictive. The same is true of Charles Richardson (whom I notice they didn’t name)

    The Australian was once a respectable broadsheet despite being owned by Murdoch. Unfortunately, ever since Paul Kelly was dumped as editor and confined to being an “editor-at-large” or whatever consolation position he is in now, it has well and truly jumped the shark. Even the Tele has more credibility than this paper and that is saying something

  15. There is no question in anyone’s minds that The Australian is a right-wing newspaper. I think it’s generally accepted amongst the masses and taking a look into some of its articles will prove that for any literate person. They don’t know how to be objective, even when trying to give the impression that they are.

    Fortunately, it’s an elitist paper that 90% of Australia does not read. But it would be awfully nice for the population to find out about The Australian’s silly antics in the past week.

    PD1981, I have never really considered The Australian to be a very respectable newspaper anyway. At least the SMH does a good job at covering any bias and seeming objective.

  16. Michael Proud – I look forward to reading the response to The Australian’s editorial which Peter Brent says he is now “formulating”. I have nothing more to add to my prior posts which (apparently) prompted your rhetorical question to me (12 June at 5:30pm).

  17. Strop sez “It was viva la France people who sank the Rainbow Warrior, at least get that right.”

    Indeed it was dear boy but the point that I was making, and it seems to have been lost on you, is that it was the security agencies of “legitimate” governments that were the perps of these incidents.

    We have to remember that the “security” agencies have a real vested interest in maintaining the status quo here in Australia. They can all play at spooks, build their little empires, get draconian legislation passed at the raising of an eyebrow, get sh*tloads of money thrown at them.

    And for what outcome? As today’s news revealed fully six years after the commencement of The War of Terror we are not checking the passports of incoming visitors against the Interpol database of lost, stolen and forged passports. The Swiss, it seems, are picking up 100 attempts a month to use dud passports at the border using a real time database look up. But for Oz – nah it’s too hard. So much for being Strong on Security.

    And to draw that Strong on Security point out a bit it should be noted that Ford are ending motor vehicle engine manufacture in this country. Now I can tell you that it is almost impossible to find a toolmaker in this country and if you need a casting or die made you have a problem. The guys that are left are all getting old – in some cases very old. And without these sorts of skills in this country which are nurtured by the motor vehicle building industry we are going to be very vulnerable indeed.

  18. Anyone seen the latest Newspoll state by state summary indications in the The Oz today? Labor miles ahead in 4 states, NSW primary vote over 50! Gilmore, Hughes and Robertson potentially gettable now?

  19. Re: Consolidated Newspoll
    On these figures I count the ALP to pick up 45 seats
    16 in NSW
    8 in Vic
    14 in QLD
    5 in SA &
    2 in WA

    Plus 2 in Tassie

  20. Re: Phillip Coorey’s article in SMH?

    “Another minister said the task was to convince one in 20 people telling the pollsters they will vote Labor to change their minds. That would produce a 10 per cent swing back to the Government and push it over the line.”

    Actually, that’s simply not true – on a 2PP of 56%, convincing one in 20 would result in a 2.8% swing back to the Coalition – close but still not enough. To get the 10% swing back to the government, they would need to convince one in 6. The minister’s task is more than three times greater than they realise.

  21. Labor leading 61-39 in N.S.W? If that was the actual election result, even my own seat of Berowra would be nearly going to the ALP.
    I don’t believe it – the result will be much closer than this, but I think Rudd could pick up Parramatta, Macquarie, Lindsay, Dobell, Patterson, Eden Monaro, Bennelong(?), Wentworth(?).

  22. In fairness, I think that today’s Australian’s report of the state by state breakdown has been presented without any attempt at spin.

  23. In NSW Rudd would be aiming for Parramatta, Eden Monaro, Lindsay, and Dobell to fall, anything more would be an absolute bonus.

  24. Possibly the tiniest of jesting going on,
    but I’m still only going off what the figures say, a 12.2% uniform swing in NSW would yield 16 seats.

    Won’t happen though.

    Still Howard picked up 29 on 5% in 1996, So why the hell not.

  25. I think what really stung Shanahan and Mitchell was Brent’s lead-in headline
    “Great news for Howard:Labor to win in a landslide!”

    Which at once summed up the poll, and ironically pointed to Shanahan’s desperate attempts to find something, anything, remotely positive for the PM.

    Shanahan’s acrobatics have been something to behold these past few months, but this took the cake. It took me back to “David Copperfield” when he was summoned to the headmaster’s office. The headmaster’s address went something like this:

    “I have news from your mother.” (pause, slightly raised hopes by David.)
    “She is not well.” (pause.)
    “In fact, she’s very ill.” (pause.)
    “Very ill. In fact, she’s dead.”

  26. No Grooski, you can’t claim both Parramatta and Macquarie. On the new boundaries, Parramatta is a notional Liberal seat with a sitting Labor member, and Macquarie is a notional Labor seat with a sitting Liberal member. Labor can claim one or the other as a gain, but not both.

  27. Timbo,

    Don’t forget Solomon, Tollner had a public rally last nigh 40 people were there, at least 20 were staff from either side and a few locals holding up the bar. (it was pay day and tollners forum was blocking the bistro at the home of the Mighty Tigers).

    You could see he was looking a little edgy.

  28. All the experts keep telling us Labor’s vote has to go down a bit, but I don’t buy that. At the state level, Labor’s won HUGE landslides with 56%+ of the 2PP in SA, Vic, NSW and Qld. This implies that there are more people prepared to back Labor when they present themselves reasonably. At the Federal level, the Coalition hasn’t dominated like Labor at the state level, even when Latham was Labor leader.

  29. That Guy: the point I’m making is The Australian couldn’t be bothered with bloggers. They reacted violently to a piece published on, with whom they are in an ongoing tussle.

    They then threatened to attack both Peter B and Charles R, but rather cowardly then only publicly attacked the fellow who is not paid for his writing, and did it sniffily in the guise of anti-amateurism. Why? Because they know he has less scope to retaliate, and because they don’t want to give any more oxygen, precisely because as an alternative model of commercial/wide circulation journalism, threatens the very essence of a broadsheet that has only ever existed to set the agenda.

    Ironically, their thin skins about crikey only reinforces the point that upsets them: namely crikey’s influence in the beltway.

  30. One thing’s for sure. If during the election campaign proper Howard puts on the same sorts of dithering performances like he has this week, then a massive ALP landslide of record proportions is not out of the question.

  31. Timbo, your analysis of a 47 seat gain looks correct based solely on the Newspoll data. 107 ALP, 47 Coalition and Independents.

    Losing almost half of your seats is an annihilation. But I suspect that this will not happen.

    Of course, as Lord D points out, Labor can get huge 2PP votes at state levels, outside of WA, and so it is possible (if not feasible) for these states to do the same at Federal level.

  32. C’mon, the Oz is a giggle a minute. I loved that “Howard stops Rudd………” headline. Everyone reading the article and poll result’s would have nearly wet themselves. I love there ongoing defence of (dare i say it’s name) WorkChoices. When will they just stop all pretence and allow Christopher Pearson, Andrew Bolt and Piers Ackerman to take it in turns to write the morning headlines?

  33. Anyone checked out Howard & Rudd’s Myspace pages?
    Rudd has got over 2000 friends, Howard only 8 – Labor voters are more likely to be nerds/internet users?
    Unless there’s a major terrorist attack in the next few months, I assume Howard and Costello will revert to their tried and true strategy of targeted bribes, personal attacks, and scare campaigns, no doubt aided by their mates at News Ltd/Channel 9. But, is it all too late? Maybe the horse has already bolted?

  34. In all honesty it’s not the bias at the Australian that annoys me. I know it’s biased and find it quite amusing in reality.

    What truly annoys me about the Oz is the utterly hopeless analysis of polling. It’s inept. That editorial is also inept, continuing the grand tradition of Oz ineptitude relating to analysis of public opinion polling and politics.

    While the Pro-Howard headlines were unrealistic and poorly justified by the numbers, I think most people understand that the Oz needs an angle rather than saying ‘Nothing has Happened!”

    It is obvious what the angle will be.

  35. Spot on, melbalp!

    It is as if the Coalition is trying to forestall panic in its own ranks, or those of donors, by spruiking dodgy figures that reflect double counting.

    It’s a bit like telling the turkeys that Christmas is 11 months away. No wonder the Minister did not want attribution.

    For the benefit of Coalition MPs reading this, here is a table that may come in handy.

    Four columns:

    A is the notional intending 2pp ALP vote
    B is the notional intending 2pp Coalition vote
    C is the percentage of intending 2pp ALP voters needed to change their minds to bring the Coalition 2pp to 50 percent
    D is x, as in “one person in x is needed” to change their minds to bring the Coaltion 2pp up to 50 percent

    A B C D

    57 43 25 4
    56 44 21 5
    55 45 18 6
    54 46 15 7
    53 47 11 9
    52 48 8 13
    51 49 4 26
    50 50 0 0

  36. Ummm, Evan, sorry to burst your bubble, but Mr Howard doesn’t have his own MySpace page – in fact, very few Coalition MPs do, recognising it as just another silly gimmick.

  37. As for Dunlop – good riddance! Why was News Ltd publishing his blog in the first place? Anyway, I’m sure the morons at Crikey will greet him with open arms – if they can run Alex Mitchell’s drivel, they’ll run anything.

  38. The ALP may well top its Qld figure.

    Most states top was prior to 1983 but Victoria`s was not probably due to the DLP deflating the 61, 69 and 72 figures.

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