British Newspapers and the Australian Election of 2007

Posted: January 11, 2009 in Media convergence, Politics and international affairs

Intro.

British national daily newspapers did what was expected of them in covering the Australian federal election of November 24th, 2007. The tabloids largely ignored it, and the papers formerly known as the ‘broadsheets’ (as well as for the purpose of this essay) covered it according to their well-established ideas and prejudices.

The purpose of this essay is to explain why the event was, on the whole, not deemed newsworthy by the British tabloid press in the weeks leading up to and following the election. In doing this, I will also attempt to show how articles that made it onto tabloid pages were able to do so. Secondly, I will dissect the coverage of the election in the broadsheets, comparing and contrasting coverage with that of the Croatian election, which took place on the same weekend, but which, by any measure, suffered severe under-reporting. I will attempt to explain why this is the case, with reference to ideas of cultural proximity, ethnicity and language, and the relative importance (real or imagined) of both countries in the minds of British readers.

Before I conclude, I will refer to media ownership structures, and how this may have affected the coverage of certain publications. I will do this with specific reference to The Times newspaper, whose owner Rupert Murdoch met, and publicly backed (before the election), Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd.

Coverage of the Election in the Tabloids

By and large, coverage of the election was minimal. The Sun failed to cover the event in print, but managed a brief website posting. Two ‘conflict’ stories concerning John Howard appeared months before, but the first reference of PM-Elect Rudd came on December 7th in relation to the UN Climate Change Conference. When Rudd signed Australia up to the Kyoto Protocol, Australia ostensibly became more of an ‘important’ nation in the eyes of the paper. Golding & Elliott (1996) cite ‘importance’ of an event as crucial, and as climate change has grown as an issue, Rudd’s move had ‘considerable significance for large numbers of people in the audience’ (Golding & Elliott 1996, p407). The same explanation can be given to the Daily Star’s coverage; the paper had no news of the election; the first mention of Rudd came in relation to Kyoto. The Express had no coverage at all, while The Daily Mirror, keen to publicise the fall of a government that took Australia into the same war the paper was steadfastly opposed to, published two articles in the lead up to the election. The first of these pieces (Points of Disorder, 22.08.07) focuses on Rudd’s visit to a New York strip-club. In doing so, the Mirror begins to construct Rudd as a personality, focusing on the man and not the party. According to Golding & Elliott;

‘This news value emphasises the need to make stories comprehensible by reducing complex processes and institutions to the actions of individuals.’ (Golding & Elliott, 1996, p410)

Also of note is the way Rudd is referred to as ‘The Oz answer to Gordon Brown’. This at once implies that this in itself is a good thing, and that labor’s (sic) Rudd must also be electable. It also adds what Golding & Elliott call ‘cultural proximity’ to the story – putting an international story in context for the domestic audience.

The Daily Mail, the tabloid with the most coverage, manages to attach cultural relevance by reporting Rudd’s republican stance (Australia’s new PM is sworn in – but refuses to swear allegiance to the Queen, 4.12.07), an issue the paper’s readers could be said to feel strongly about. We can make sense of a conservative paper taking this angle on the monarchy (which the Telegraph and Times also pick up on) in terms of Fiske’s claim that relevance of content in popular newspapers can be found when the issues are already pertinent ones amongst the readership (Fiske, 1992).

In other pieces preceding the election, the Mail personalises the issue by reporting it in terms of the YouTube sensation that was Kevin Rudd caught eating his earwax on camera (New Australian PM woos voters – by picking his earwax and eating it, 3.12.07). Here we can say that of the implicit assumptions made concerning the audience and ‘fit’ in determining news values (Golding & Elliott, 1996), the audience would certainly be ‘entertained’, but the story also clearly ‘fits’ into the Mail’s view of what it is to be an Australian; It makes sense in terms of what is already ‘known’ about the subject – that Australians are uncouth. After describing the ear-wax and strip-club incidents, and claiming this should spell electoral disaster, the journalist writes that ‘this being Australia, the opposite appeared to be the case.’ Fiske also claims that relevance can be found in the ‘bridge’ between the micro and the macro (Fiske, 1992). By reporting that the former journalist who unseated John Howard was once a typist at the BBC (Howard routed by Australia’s ‘Tony Blair‘ and ex-BBC typist, 25.11.07), the Mail again makes the issue relevant to its readership, who have for years been imbued with the idea that the BBC is full of Labour sympathisers. At the same time, the issue was again boiled down to the personalities involved.

So, when there was coverage, it was delivered in a format that was made relevant to the audience, whether by speaking of the issue in terms of British comparisons, by personalising the characters, by speaking of issues that might directly affect the readership (climate change, the monarchy), or by simply making it more entertaining.

Coverage in the Broadsheets

From the date of his election as leader of the Labor Party, when we can say the election campaign really kicked off, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian & Observer, The Independent and The Times all had dozens of articles each on the subject, while the Financial Times had, at the time of writing, (Dec 19th, 2007), well over 200 mentions of ‘Kevin Rudd’.

Yet despite vastly more coverage, the broadsheets used similar methods as the tabloids. The Telegraph, for instance, had 69 mentions of ‘Kevin Rudd’ from his election as Labor leader to his election as PM, including the ‘strip-club’ and ‘earwax’ scandal pieces. Turning the issue into one of personalities is something Golding and Elliott spoke of, but the ‘fit’ factor was strongly at play, too. For example, headlines such as ‘John Howard’s fate to be decided by migrants’ (The Telegraph, 17.11.07) appeared beforehand, while following news that a lesbian and a former rock-star would both become ministers in the election aftermath, ‘Rudd reveals his ‘right on’ government’ (30.11.07) was used. Without going into the issues of the language used in news described by Bell and others (Bell, 1991), these articles clearly also ‘fit’ into the mindsets of a more conservative readership.

As with other broadsheets, the Telegraph covered the campaign with reference to the war in Iraq. As Fiske would argue, this issue is already a pertinent one to UK readers (Fiske, 1992), and as the UK is involved, it’s also important (Golding and Elliot, 1992).  As such, the Guardian, Independent, Times and F.T. also focused on the implications for the war. As left-of-centre newspapers, issues pertinent to readers of the Guardian and Independent popped up, and so there was increased focus on the Kyoto protocol and Australia gaining a female deputy PM. The joy of the editorial team when reporting Howard’s loss was clear to see in titles such as ‘Howard’s reign in Australia ends’ (The Observer, 24.11.07), while the Independent was patently anti-Howard in the lead-up to the election, with the headlines ‘Howard accused of strip club smear against rival’ (The Independent, 21.08.07) and ‘Howard attacked for links to secret Christian sect’ (23.08.07), The FT covered the issue at length, with frequent reference to Iraq, the Kyoto Protocol, plus domestic tax issues and the merger of mining firms Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton.  Of all the broadsheets, it is the Times which is the hardest to analyse. As with other papers, the issue was contextualised, so there was talk on a possible referendum on the monarchy (‘Let’s have a vote on the Monarchy’, The Times, 27.11.07), and the reoccurring comparison to Tony Blair (KEVIN RUDD: Australia’s Tony Blair?, The Times, 23.11.07). Most pieces seemed keen on Rudd, although Simon Benson’s comment piece following the election (‘Australia’s mystery landslide’, 25.11.07) typified a slight sense of indecisiveness.

Within Australia, there was a taming of News Corp papers in their treatment of Labor. Fairfax papers in the country reported this change in the wake of a meeting with Rudd, and commentators soon linked it to the candidate’s promise to increase spending on Australia’s broadband infrastructure. Former Information Minister Helen Coonan summed up what many were thinking about News Corp:

“Quite clearly they’ve got a vested commercial interest in selling their content, and they would like to do so on the back of some infrastructure that they don’t have to pay for.”  (‘Coonan Rejects Murdoch Broadband Criticism’, Sydney Morning Herald, 16.11.06.)

While The Australian quickly backed labor, it’s not as clear to what extent Murdoch’s British establishment equivalent, The Times, was leant upon. Yet there is a history of such pressure, not least Murdoch’s claim that he ‘did not come all this way not to interfere’ at the News of the World (Curran, 1997, p74). Where the international arena is concerned, Curran also details the removal of the editor of The Times in 1994 following critical coverage of the Malaysian government (Curran, 1997). At the time, the mogul’s satellite network was being developed in South East Asia, and the Malaysian government was soon enough informed that a ‘rogue editor’ had been ‘sorted out’. (Curran, 1997, p82)

In this light, it is conceivable that the Times was not as naturally in favour of the pro-conservative and previously more business-friendly candidate as one might expect, in order to reward Rudd’s acquiescence.

Coverage of the Australian Election vis a vis Croatia

Finally, when compared to coverage of the Croatian election on the same weakened, there were plenty of articles on Labor’s bid to remove the Liberals. This leads us onto ideas of cultural relevance, tribalism, the ‘like-us’ mentality and the extension of Anderson’s idea of ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, 1983). The Telegraph had no article on the outcome in Croatia, the Guardian and the Independent carried pieces from agencies, The Times quoted the president of Croatia in an article on the Croatia v England football match, but not on the election itself, and the FT had around a dozen articles in the lead up.

There are a number of ways to describe this imbalance. Scholars of international relations might argue, as stated, that Australia’s role in the wars in Iraq and Australia, as well as the Kyoto protocol, gave it added weight for a country of its size. Yet in truth, as a future member of the EU, events in Croatia could one day have just as much repercussion for Britain as those in Australia. The answer lies in what Angela Philips called the ‘like us’ sense of news values (Phillips, 2007). Events that occur in former British colonies always cause a stir in the UK press – the coverage of recent events in Pakistan as well as Kenya, compared to the lesser coverage received in Britain’s European neighbours, is proof of this. But events in English speaking, predominantly Anglo-Saxon societies will always garner more interest. Phillips also claims that ‘proximity’ is another rule paid heed to. Although Croatia is geographically closer, in the minds of a nation familiar with Neighbours, Kylie Minogue and an on-going sporting rivalry, it is Australia which is perceived as the closest. The ‘imagined communities’ that Anderson speaks of (Anderson, 1983) are in full-effect here, and it is not stretching the theory to suggest a supranational Anglo-Saxon ‘nation’ exists in a similar form to that of the Arabic ‘nation’ stretching from Iraq to the Magreb. Furthermore, the amount of British nationals who have relatives in Australia far exceeds that of those with relatives in Croatia, thus increasing the ‘relevance’ of the Australian election in the minds of many readers.

‘Unexpectedness’ is another factor cited by Phillips. After more than a decade of FYR states making headlines, readers are thought to have grown tired of news from the Balkans. Political conflict in this region, whether violent or not, is nothing new. The fading interest in the ongoing war in Iraq is testament to the theory of the importance of unexpectedness in news values. Yet what cannot be denied is that although both elections were planned in advance, one was in a country perceived to be politically less volatile, and was therefore of more note. Finally, Phillips cites ‘access’ as a crucial factor, and a common language as well as other ties between Australia and Britain will have gone some way in increasing access to news from this country.

And so to conclude, those colleagues of mine who claimed that ‘The Australian election was not well covered in the British press’ may need to think again; the similarities, real or imagined, between Britain and Australia, meant that it received a good deal more coverage than elections in a European neighbour. Yet while Croatia covets EU membership, Australia is still a more ‘important’ actor in most people’s eyes.  The tabloids largely ignored the election in Australia (not to mention Croatia), but did manage a few mentions by personalising the issue or introducing scandal, portraying it as a simple conflict, or using other methods to make it relevant to British readers. This was achieved by making comparisons with British politics or suggesting direct relevance to Britain, whether by bringing in climate change, Iraq, or the monarchy. And for all the supposed differences between the tabloid press and the broadsheets, similar tactics were used by the latter. Virtually all papers leant in the direction one might expect of them, favouring the candidate of the ‘left’ or ‘right’, although this was much harder to pin on the Times, which raised interesting points concerning the political economy of the mass media less clear when looking at other titles.

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