Knott Getting It Right – Why the Media Got the Election Wrong

I am annoyed at myself. Long ago, long before this election was even called, I was convinced that two of my local seats – Macquarie and Macarthur – were going to be Labor once again. That was my instinct based local knowledge. For Macquarie, it was because of the long term campaigning in the Blue Mountains of Labor’s Susan Templeman whilst her opponent, Louise Markus, was a poor campaigner and local member. In Macarthur, because local candidate Dr. Michael Freelander was a very well known local paediatrician against the slightly clownish former mayor Russell Matheson. That and a general dislike for a government that had been tinkering with welfare payments and Medicare.  Lindsay, I wasn’t so sure about. That area keeps increasing in gentrification and wealth, which usually leads to a higher Liberal vote. But it did have state election candidate, Emma Husar, who simply needed to continue her doorknocking.

I am annoyed about myself because as the election campaign started, I lost that local instinct and bought the national media’s line about the western suburbs hook, line and myopic sinker.  The western suburbs weren’t shifting, they said. Liberal Party strategists said Lindsay was in the bag, even with both party leaders visiting the place very often.  And NO-ONE was talking about Macarthur and Macquarie.  We had lots of articles and thinkpieces about Batman and Grayndler, though.

Why? Because the media circus who report on elections don’t seem to care about such areas unless they are told to be by media and political insiders.  It was the same in 2010, when I started this blog. It was the same in 2013. And now we are here, in 2016.

What we did see what rubbish like bookies’ odds, bus selfies, Fake Tradie hunts and journalists on Twitter tweeting back and forward lols at each other.

No wonder they were surprised at the result. There was a lot of evidence available showing that they were out of touch and unwilling to accept feedback to that effect.

Maybe, however, they may be willing to listen. Today, Matthew Knott of the Herald has come out with this piece, positing the idea that maybe they did get it wrong.  It’s a good piece, despite still mostly relying on insider analysis.  His words in the boxes.

It’s not just politicians searching their souls after Saturday night’s surprisingly close election result.

Those political reporters not too hubristic to engage in self doubt are asking: did we get it wrong? Did we, as a collective, miss the story?

The consensus, speaking to colleagues in the Canberra press gallery, is a reluctant yes. Some insist they got it spot on. But many admit they expected a more decisive Coalition victory than occurred. And they concede this influenced the way the media covered the campaign.

Those who insist they got it spot on are fooling themselves.  There was a consensus that this was a long, boring campaign where there was some improvement from Labor, but that was it.

One gallery veteran put it simply: “We didn’t believe the polls.”

This election campaign rained polls. Week after week, media outlets published national polls showing a 50-50 tie or at best a 51-49 Coalition lead.

The results barely shifted from week one to eight. Yet, as the campaign progressed, a view solidified that the Coalition was on track for a relatively comfortable victory.

Yet the Coalition suffered a sizeable swing against it on election night and is struggling to hit the 76 seats needed to govern in its own right.

So what happened?

One thing – there should be much more to media coverage of elections than polls. Detailed knowledge of the regional areas that are more likely to swing is much more valuable than just looking at various poll results and making lofty pronouncements.  It turns out that the one poll that was discounted more than the others – a ReachTel seat poll commissioned by the NSW Teachers’ Federation, was actually the most accurate poll of the lot – and was wildly different from national polls.  But because the consensus was to listen to Liberal strategists and to each other, reportage of that poll disappeared.   Again, I was convinced that those ReachTel numbers were out of whack, because media coverage was spun that way.
Stupid, really.

“No one believed us!” a senior Labor Party strategist says, insisting he warned journalists they were writing off Bill Shorten too soon.

“We were projecting a confidence that many people thought was bravado.

“The commentariat fell into a bubble and were reflecting what each other thought.

“A narrative caught hold and everyone started reporting it.”

With hindsight, there’s much to support this .

As Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Don Cobb says in the film Inception: “What is the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm?”

No. It’s an idea.

“Once an idea has taken hold of the brain,” he says, “it’s almost impossible to eradicate”.

Yes it is. And no matter how much people outside the bubble talk about the contrary, it’s common amongst those inside the bubble to ignore and / or dismiss contrary evidence, views and opinions expressed on mediums like Twitter and the various commentary blogs. This was partially because most of the journalists were on the same bus, literally in a bubble. That was also because many were committed to gotcha moments in inner city seats, such as trivial stuff like David Feeney’s property portfolio and Richard Di Natale’s au pair arrangements. But it was, as ever, a complete waste of time to offer this critique on Twitter, unless you are one of them. This deliberate cutting off from the world outside the bubble definitely led to various ideas.

 

Several ideas took hold quickly in the gallery’s collective brain. That Australians don’t kick out a first term governments (despite this happening recently at a state level). And that Malcolm Turnbull’s personal popularity was a decisive advantage against the less prime ministerial Shorten.

During the campaign, several events became seen as “turning points” for the Coalition despite the polls never really budging. Labor’s admission it would increase the budget deficit over the next four years was one. So was the UK’s departure from the European Union.

The Australian Financial Review‘s Laura Tingle spoke for many in the gallery in mid-June when she wrote that “the sense that Labor is a serious challenger has faded”.

And The Australian‘s Dennis Shanahan on the day before election day: “Malcolm Turnbull is coming home with the wind in his sails, Bill Shorten is running out of puff.

The Daily Telegraph, already foreshadowing a challenge to Shorten’s leadership, reported on Friday that Malcolm Turnbull was on the “brink of victory”. Fairfax Media highlighted a 50-50 poll result but with an unusually strong emphasis on voter expectations that Turnbull would win.

Leading commentators on Sky News predicted between 80 to 85 seats for the Coalition, with Peter van Onselen saying he would quit in the event of a hung parliament.

Many had picked up a “vibe” in the community that voters were disappointed in Turnbull, but not sufficiently angry to remove him. There was also the confidence exuded by Turnbull and his advisers.

Many of us even convinced ourselves that the low-energy, small-target campaign was a clever way of “boring” voters into backing the Coalition.

There’s an inherent issue here. The Australian and the Daily Telegraph have been anti Labor for as long as anyone can remember, so looking for any direction from them raises considerable questions.  In addition, all of these are vague feels, rather than concrete knowledge or understanding of public perception or belief.

One such issue that exposed this gap between the media coverage and voters was that of Medicare (which is now, quite vapidly, being referred to by the Coalition’s word for it, “Mediscare”). Two elements made that particular campaign work for Labor. One was that the Coalition did fiddle with Medicare. It flirted with a co-payment. It put bulk billing at risk – most doctors in the outer suburbs bulk bill, so that was important.  Journalists may have been distracted by inner city people on Twitter saying “who bulk bills anymore?”.  That, like much of Twitter’s daily chatter, was irrelevant to the experience of those in swing seats.  The Government did look at the privatising of elements of Medicare’s operation, so that wasn’t made up. The other element was Abbott’s last minute “there will be no cuts…” speech, which was perceived by many in the same way as Gillard’s “No carbon tax” promise – proof that the Government couldn’t be trusted. It may have been a new man in the chair, but it was the same government. So the Medicare attack line worked because it was based on a grain of truth and a whole lot of perception.  But we didn’t hear that type of analysis during the campaign. It was mostly verbatim repeats of what politicians said and trivia.  Back to Knott, quoting from Jonathan Holmes.

“You got the impression they were confident and confident for a reason,” former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes says of the coverage. “There was very little scepticism of what was behind that”.

But if the media were wrong they were hardly alone. Two days before election day the bookmakers – often hailed as more accurate than pollsters – had Labor at $8 and the Coalition narrowing to a near guarantee of $1.08.

Many political insiders, too, were surprised by the scale of the swing.

Strategists from both sides agreed early on that Labor would pick up 12 seats at best. A week before polling day Labor strategists were telling reporters they expected to pick up eight to 10 seats. They picked up 14 seats, and may win up to 16.

Bookies. Journalists love repeating bookie odds, even though bookies would be basing their info on media reports, rather than detailed knowledge of areas and seats.  It’s a silly echo loop, perpetuated by people like Stephen Koukoulas, who on Twitter is part Tom Waterhouse, part Angry Boomer complaining about The Young People.  These kinds of people should be seen as the Twitter carnival acts they have become, rather than serious analysts, until such time as bookie odds and fights with other Twitter carnival acts become a thing of the past.

Plus, which strategists were they talking to? I talked to many who were confident of a shift to Templeman in Macquarie, for example – yet we never heard that from any source.

For me, the dumbest moment of the campaign was this –

Meanwhile, the Coalition was talking up gains in seats such as Werriwa (easily held by Labor).

As. If.  Not in Green Valley, which has some of the poorest people – including a number of former refugees – in Sydney.  I doubt most journalists would even know how to get to Werriwa.  Back to Knott, quoting from Barrie Cassidy, who is perhaps not the best at knowing what happens outside the journalistic bubble.

So, as Insiders host Barrie Cassidy asked, were journalists shown to be “gullible”? Or were they being lied to?

Neither, a Coalition strategist says.

“Everything I heard indicated the swings for Labor were not happening where they needed to be,” the insider says.

Serious questions are now being asked in the Liberal Party about the accuracy of its polling and who had access to it.

But Holmes says the media shouldn’t let themselves off too easily.

“There is certainly a lesson for the gallery about whether they should be less credulous when it comes to internal polling,” he says. Particularly when it is being briefed anonymously.

“Everything I heard”. That’s what comes of listening to strategists and not having detailed knowledge and understanding of the areas in which the votes may well change.  And that doesn’t mean endless articles and stories talking about Western Sydney or Regional Queensland. That means talking about specific areas and specific issues, which didn’t happen.

Blaming Liberal strategists for getting things wrong is an absurd excuse for journalists who needed to do their job properly – which means being less credulous and resisting the urge to just report what they are told by insiders. They should have been doing stories and investigations of possible swing seats during the last three years, so such stories and research could have been used during the campaign. The shallowness of the stories that came thick and fast during the campaign was mind boggling.

That shallowness, however, was not present in the many pieces we saw about Batman, which was a largely irrelevant seat when seen in the national picture.  Whether Batman is Green or Labor won’t have an impact on the direction of the nation when compared to the possible swing of seats in WA, Qld and NSW from the Coalition to Labor. Yet that seat received a disproportionate amount of coverage.  I say this as someone who likes Alex Bhathal and thinks would make a good MP. But Batman should not have been covered as much as it was.

One of the good features of Knott’s piece was quoting Margaret Simons, who had the best insights to share.

 

Margaret Simons, Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at University of Melbourne, says: “I was struck by how everyone was so wise after the event and so all-knowing.

“It’s easy to write in retrospect where everything went wrong but I didn’t see many people pointing it out as the campaign was happening.”

Simons offers the example of the eight-week long election double dissolution election campaign itself. Originally hailed as a political masterstroke, it was only after Saturday that many commentators started questioning how wise the decision was.

“Journalists,” Simons concludes, “were too quick to become part of Malcolm’s fan club.”

Leather Jacket Syndrome is a very real phenomenon amongst the press pack, with Peter Hartcher suffering with one of the worst cases of it.  “How could anyone still like Tony?” was the consensus amongst the press pack. Yet stand with Fiona Scott more than a minute at pre poll, like I did in the last week and they would have seen angry people saying to her “I didn’t like what you did to Tony”.   There was even an Onion Man loving (and Mosque hating) candidate in the seat, Marcus Cornish, who stood as an ex Liberal purely so he could exact revenge on Scott by taking volunteers away from Scott’s campaign, as well as direct preferences to Labor. His 2.4% was enough to put Labor’s Emma Husar over the line.  This kind of detail was missing from any analysis of seats in those marginal swing areas.

Finally, in an interesting and refreshing new twist, Knott listened to people on Twitter, which does have its pluses and minuses.

In preparing this piece, I asked readers on Twitter and on Facebook for their views of the coverage.

Some dominant criticisms emerged:

  • An insistence the Coalition was on track to win (despite the polls predicting a tight result) and a consistent under-estimation of Shorten’s performance;
  • Overly “insular” coverage dominated by conversations with political insiders and other journalists rather than voters
  • Coverage that was too “presidential”, with an intense focus on daily movements of both leaders;
  • Too much focus on the colour and movement of campaigning rather than the policy offerings of the two main parties;
  • A lack of co-ordination by journalists, especially in the travelling media pack, to demand answers from the leaders;
  • More focus on campaigning techniques by third-party groups such as GetUp!

Journalists may quibble with some points. If the campaign is light on policy, blame the politicians’ and not us. Others might argue that, despite what readers say they want to read, many more will click on a story about a “fake” tradie than a plan to save the Murray Darling Basin.

Still, that doesn’t mean those in the media shouldn’t listen – and reflect.

Yes, all of these critiques hold true.  The political media need to have that list pasted somewhere to remind them in future elections.  Yet there’s also the idea posited at the same time that the reason why policy is trumped by fake tradie garbage shows a problem for that media – the idea of clicks driving the media.

Their readers may be inner city political tragics who enjoy clicking on trivia, but where the media get this stuff wrong was in being focused on entertaining those clickers, rather than on the issues and the people who actually swing elections.   People in such seats make a judgement call based on service delivery and hence swing hard.  In the inner city seats lived in by most consumers of the news, those swings are small in regards to conservative / progressive changes.  Yet such minor swings get blanket coverage.

Even now in the wash up, there’s a proliferation of articles that ask “what does this means for the Greens”,  which should be of minor interest in terms of the ramifications of the election.  The Greens as a party did well in this election at holding on – and in same cases growing – their vote in an election that was again about shifting from one major to another. However, they remain largely irrelevant to marginal swing seats, except as a help to Labor in terms of preferences.  Richard Di Natale’s pragmatic approach to building the credibility of the Greens may have long term benefits in those seats, certainly more so than in the recent past. The party needs to stick to that long term plan of gaining economic and social credibility, rather than be distracted by critiques from activists who continue to validate and push the affluent Sydney baby boomer belief that the party isn’t socialist enough.  But right now, the relevant and vital story that needs to be told is that of Liberal and Labor and their appealing to the working class and middle class of the swing seats.

It’s encouraging to have journalists such as Matthew Knott to want to genuinely seek feedback from people in regards journalists and reportage. They can’t say it hasn’t been available – Andrew Elder has been talking about this issue for years, and has been largely rebuffed, partially due to his (understandably) furiously frustrated tone, but the substance of his critique generally holds true.  I used to do that as well, before I gave up.  Being responded to in a snarky and dismissive style tends to make people discouraged from offering critiques.  There’s a fair few on Twitter who have experienced the same.  I don’t mean the Whacky Ibises in that, who often drown out rational voices.

As the last quote in Knott’s piece says,

As Simons says: “A little humility goes a long way.”

Yes. I hope there is a touch more of that shown and felt by people wanting to provide a full and comprehensive view of Australia in their coverage.   This may surprise some, but I believe one of the best journalists through this campaign was Buzzfeed’s Alice Workman, who listened to feedback as well as did some very good live interviews with politicians during the campaign – while using an engaging and non self important tone. More of Workman’s style of coverage, focused in certain regions, would have worked well. Because out there, beyond the bubble, there’s still people after detailed and well researched journalism, no matter the outlet.

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