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Federal Election ’22: Inside the Media Scrum

Have you ever wondered how and why journalists and editors cover elections the way they do? Don’t know your doorstops from your divisions? Have you ever wanted to be inside the media scrum to see what happens behind the scenes of the biggest media event and most consequential form of democracy in Australia?

During the 2022 federal election the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas will take you Inside the Media Scrum to give you an insider’s guide to how and why the media is covering the election the way they are.

Veteran journalist Malcolm Farr, who has covered every election since 1993 and has written on federal politics for publications across the media landscape, including The Australian, news.com.au, Crikey, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and more, will provide an eagle-eye view of the media during the campaign.

Amanda Copp, Political Reporter for the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia’s National Radio News, is covering her first federal election. She will be out on the road with the major parties and will provide a first-hand perspective of what it’s like reporting on a national election.

Each week Malcolm and Amanda will be filing stories, newsletters, video and podcasts to help you keep across the media in Federal Election 2022. So, sign up for the latest updates and follow JNI on social media to go Inside the Media Scrum.

Episode 1: Get your go-bag ready

April 6, 2022

Episode 2: Hire me, please

April 12, 2022

The federal election has started, just not officially

Malcolm Farr

Malcolm FarrFew things unite Australia’s news outlets like a federal budget delivered within days of an election being called.

Timing could depend on the Budget’s reception, with newspaper polling to tell that story next week, and the Liberal Party’s ability to fix its candidate selection shambles in NSW.

Meantime, there was close to unanimity in coverage of the federal budget released Tuesday night. It was seen as an economic blueprint which was all about winning an election.

The Australian’s front page from March 30, 2022

“The cost of winning,” said the front page of The Australian above a GQ-style picture of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Actually it was the cost of living the government was claiming to address with an $8.6 billion relief package.

The Australian Financial Review front page put it this way: “PM splashes cash in dash to the polls.” A Nine newspaper columnist called it a “brazen” election ploy.

Online news site Crikey Tuesday night went straight to a blunt evaluation: “A budget bulging with big bribes.”

Other outlets, particularly the tabloids, agreed but were focused on the important task of telling readers how much loot they might expect personally.

“Hip pocket rocket,” said the Herald Sun. “It’s a working class plan,” said The Daily Telegraph in a singular mix of economic reporting and Barnesy.

Pleas for trust over budget pledges

Guardian Australia joined the what’s-in-it-for-me analysis with a detailed, itemised breakdown headed, “The complete Australian 2022 budget: chose what matters to you”.

The difficulty in news coverage of a federal budget is that it is largely hypothetical. A government might throw around billions of dollars but most of the cash won’t land for months, or even years — if at all. And forecasts are projections, not guarantees.

For starters, it is difficult to relate sums calculated in the billions to the lives of Australians scratching to find the cash for school excursions. The huge totals might seem impressive, but barely have a glancing blow with everyday reality.

The government — Coalition or Labor — says “trust me” to deliver budget goodies.

Reporters covering those pledges have to test them, but “trust” remains the critical factor.

And just when Prime Minister Scott Morrison is asking voters to have faith, his character is being attacked. Again. From his own side.

Canberra Times front page
The Canberra Times front page, March 31, 2022

On Thursday The Canberra Times front page led with the scarifying attack on him from outgoing Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells: “PM digs in amid new claims of bullying.”

The Sydney Morning Herald went to former Liberal prime minister John Howard on the issue: “Bile incites PM’s critics: Howard.”

News reports of the negativity began on-line when it emerged late Tuesday night, and  continued to pile in during subsequent days, including coverage of independent senator Jacqui Lambie: He’s “one of the most unpleasant men I’ve ever had to sit in front of – he is a bully,” she told Sky News.

But on Thursday the economic attention turned to Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and his budget reply speech to Parliament that evening. Albanese had a virtual address to a joint sitting of Parliament by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a curtain raiser who dominated news here..

The Australian’s front page Thursday morning carried a government preview of the Labor leader’s speech: “PM taunts Albanese on vacant poll pitch”.

The article opened with, “Scott Morrison has demanded Anthony Albanese reveal his economic policies, accusing Labor of attempting to sneak into office with a ‘vacant space’ small-target strategy…”

On Twitter Thursday morning Mr Albanese gave voters his own preview: “You deserve better than an election-eve budget full of one-off handouts to problems that have been a decade in the making.”

His speech was a broad outline of priorities with concentration on improving aged fare. It was not a detailed spending program directly responding to the government point by point.

This annoyed some commentators. “Not once was there a dollar value on anything you just heard over the past 30 minutes,” huffed Sky News after dark host Paul Murray.

The Australian’s front page headline Friday morning reads: “Small-target Labor demands election now.”

The coverage said: “Anthony Albanese has made an uncosted pledge to fund pay rises for nursing home workers, as he challenged Scott Morrison to call the election immediately and ‘let the people decide’.”

The one figure out last night was leveraged out of Mr Albanese on the ABC’s 7.30 after his speech, and was picked up by most online news services.

Guardian Australia’s first-up headline was “Budget reply speech: Anthony Albanese ledges $2.5bn extra for struggling age care system.”

The Sydney Morning Herald posted: “Labor’s $2.5b pledge for aged care, cheap child care.”

Wheels of democracy in motion

The Prime Minister said he will not be visiting the Governor-General this weekend to officially start the election campaign, but we should consider it unofficially already underway.

Journalists will now be waiting for the neatly choreographed prime ministerial car trip to Yarralumla for Scott Morrison to seek vice regal approval of an election campaign, with the poll set for May 14.

There will be all the drama of the wheels of democracy being set in motion.

More prosaically, it will be time for accountants at news outlets to calculate how much coverage of those wheels will cost, and for journalists to work out how to pack for weeks on the road.

One well known woman member of the press gallery used to bulk buy cheap underwear to eliminate the need for weeks of washing.

Trailing the party leaders during a campaign is an expensive and essential part of election coverage. It ensures they are accountable and unable to say one thing in one electorate and a different line in another.

It also allows contact with voters themselves.

Australia’s size and decentralised regional areas make election campaigns an endurance test for candidates and reporters.