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Federal Election ’22: On your marks, get set…

Image: Gokarna Avachat

Image: Gokarna Avachat

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.

On your marks, get set…

Malcolm Farr

Malcolm Farr

Newsrooms spent most of this week running on the spot as their journalists waited for the start the election race proper.

But they had plenty to consider as a squad of savage critics — from an angry pensioner in a pub near Newcastle, to an unidentified texter said to be a cabinet minister — took aim at the prime minister’s character.

It was a flood of abuse, coming as a literal inundation wrecked lives in northern NSW while state and federal authorities there and in Queensland continue to squabble over relief efforts.

The problem for political journalists was how to handle the deluge of character defacing.

Scott Morrison began this critical week with sources telling The Saturday Paper he used racial and religious smears to knock off a rival for preselection to contest his seat of Cook more than a decade ago. Then the defacing of his character just gained speed, cementing its position as an election issue.

NSW state Liberal MP Catherine Cusack reinforced claims Mr Morrison was a bully, citing him for allegedly mucking up flood relief by politicising the allocation of aid.

A vast left-wing conspiracy?

Andrew Bolt, Sky News

Sky News commentator Andrew Bolt on Monday proposed a conspiracy theory for this mounting criticism of the prime minister personally: “Media left and Labor seem to think the federal election is about ‘Scott Morrison’s past’.’’

Many journalists would reject this suggestion of a joint operation, in large part because it doesn’t make sense.

Mr Morrison’s past has been illuminated by people of his own political brand who have known him for decades. They have issued sometimes terse, always massively unflattering descriptions of him — from “liar”, to “bully”, to “horrible, horrible”.

Barnaby Joyce, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Michael Towke, Catherine Cusack, Gladys Berejiklian and a clutch of anonymous others are neither left wing, nor in the media, nor in the ALP (although Mr Towke was briefly a party member at university).

At issue, of course, is whether the claims, denied by the prime minister, are accurate, and there is no ready way for journalists to clearly establish that.

But that doesn’t negate the importance of the allegations. Timing is an issue.

The central figures in the Towke allegations have bottled their outrage for 15 years and just now have decided to go public.

Departing Liberal senator Fierravanti-Wells, Ms Cusack and Mr Towke appear to have deliberately struck when the prime minister was most vulnerable — on election eve.

News coverage of their claims and government disunity was warranted.

Polling the pollsters about polls

Meanwhile, journalists waiting for the campaign wrote about the pretend elections — the welter of opinion surveys which from Monday tested the reception of the budget delivered the previous Tuesday and rated Morrison and Albanese.

There was Newspoll (The Australian), IPSOS (The Australian Financial Review), Resolve (The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age), Essential Media (Guardian Australia), Roy Morgan (The New Daily).

The Sydney Morning Herald, April 5

All tended to find that the budget had not been a successful election rescue mission for the Coalition government — or, in some cases, the economy —  and that voters were not keen on Scott Morrison.

The opinion polls roughly agreed that on a two party preferred basis — after second preference votes were added to primary votes for the major parties — Labor was well ahead.

“The Morrison government will enter the election campaign lagging Labor by up to 10 percentage points,” said the Financial Review.

Haunting these findings were the memories of the 2019 election when Labor’s Bill Shorten, according to the polls, just had to turn up to win. He did turn up but didn’t win, of course. Scott Morrison had his “miracle” victory.

The caution roused by 2019 was a restraint on reporters daring to take the findings any further than the opinions voters had on the day they were surveyed — not necessarily the ones on election day.

One view is the twin problems were how the 2019 polls were taken and how journalists interpreted them.

Data cruncher Casey Briggs on ABC online asked the question, “Are the polls right this time?”

“Several pollsters also suggested Mr Morrison’s ‘miracle’ came after a failure of journalists and commentators to report the uncertainty in opinion poll, leading people to think they were more precise that they really were,” said Mr Briggs.

He quoted Peter Lewis, director of Essential: “The so-called failure of polling was actually a failure of analysis and insight from everyone that purports to understand politics.”

Mr Briggs asked and answered the key question: “So were the polls wrong in 2019, or were they just read wrong? The answer is probably a bit of both.”

Back to current polling, the ABC’s highly regarded election analyst Antony Green was not inhibited but for one significant “if”: “I think if the opinion polls are correct, then the swing will be large enough for Labor to win.”

He added: “But of course we saw in 2019 that the polls seemed to narrow, but they also were just inaccurate.”