New England voters are frequently ridiculed and rebuked for electing Barnaby Joyce. Spend enough time on social media and you’ll see it littered with negative comments about New England voters, questioning our intelligence and our rusted-on support.
Criticising us may be somewhat misguided and counter-productive, especially given not all of us support Barnaby. But can it ever be a fair call when New England media coverage doesn’t appear to accurately portray candidates during elections?
How is any voter meant to make an educated decision when local journalists appear reluctant to ask probing questions and challenge politicians’ comments, and when media coverage in general lacks unbiased, investigative reporting?
As we approach the federal election, I find myself reflecting on the impact of media coverage on elections; how it influences voter perceptions of candidates, their understanding of various policies, and ultimately how they will vote.
Looking back on the 2017 New England by-election, the media coverage regarding Barnaby Joyce felt like it was ‘whitewashed’. While a couple of independent media outlets covered issues surrounding Barnaby and his marriage, and there was social media ‘chatter’ about an affair and pregnancy, our local news media had limited information regarding Barnaby’s marital issues.
Some voters may have heard a few rumours, but the majority had no idea that their local member’s marriage was in trouble; that Mr Joyce — who had been very vocal about family values, especially during the same-sex marriage survey — was having an affair with a staffer. A more cynical person would have been forgiven for thinking there was an intention to avoid reporting on his marriage woes.
Instead, the local media reported that over half of the candidates were “out-of-towners”. Mr Joyce was reported as saying: “It would be handy if a few more of them actually came from our electorate,” and “let’s push back against out-of-towners trying to impose their views and agendas on the local community.”
Even Tamworth Mayor Col Murray contributed: “To me, it’s a sign of disrespect to the electorate, candidates come in to promote themselves or one cause at the expense of candidates that are genuine,” he said.
I found the comments regarding out-of-towners and self-promotion rather ironic, given that when Barnaby was elected as the member for New England in 2013, he’d been living at St George since 1998 and had been a Queensland Senator for about nine years.
Following the 2010 election, Barnaby was reported as wanting to pursue the Nationals leadership and deputy prime minister position. Originally, he sought pre-selection for the lower house seat of Maranoa but the incumbent, Bruce Scott, didn’t stand down, meaning Barnaby was forced to seek another seat and was ultimately elected as Member of New England.
Interestingly, it was while living at St George that Barnaby developed close relationships with major irrigators like Cubbie Station and the owners of the Clyde and Kia Ora properties.
Clearly, political spin gets reported during elections, so can anything be done about it?
‘Stop and consider’
Electoral commissioner Tom Rogers made an interesting comment in a recent Australian Electorial Commission (AEC) press release: “AEC is encouraging voters to ‘stop and consider’ this federal election”.
Under the Commonwealth Electoral Act (1918), there are no provisions relating to truth in electoral communication in respect of political claims and counter claims, and the AEC has no legislative power in this area. Australian voters have the freedom and right to express a political opinion or critique an election policy, either in-person or via social media.Tom Rogers
This means that political parties and candidates can take an ‘all care, no responsibility’ approach to communicating with the unsuspecting Australian voter. Some political parties may even rely on the majority of voters being sufficiently disconnected politically to question political claims.
So if the AEC wants us to question the messenger, is anyone responsible for the message?
Australia’s level of media ownership concentration is already one of the highest in the world.Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland, press release, November 8, 2016.
The Conversation’s fact check into the claim whether Australia’s level of media ownership concentration one of the highest in the world found that the claim was correct.
Since 2016, Fairfax Media and Nine Entertainment have merged, further concentrating the media mix. In the 2016 submission to the New Zealand Commerce Commission, prepared by Dr Julienne Molineaux and others, it states that News Corp and associated Murdoch companies owned 57.5 per cent of Australian newspapers.
The major media players in Australia: News Corporation, Nine Entertainment Co and Seven West Media Limited, are all conservative media houses. News Corp is arguably the most right-wing. It has been described as a company deliberately positioned as the voice of the right.
Rupert Murdoch and News Corp have been influencing elections in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom for decades. In Australia, Murdoch influenced elections in 1972, 1975, 1996 and his tenacious support for Tony Abbott in 2013. Following the 1992 UK election, News Corp’s The Sun newspaper actually claimed victory on behalf of the Conservative Party.
Having assumed his father’s role, Lachlan Murdoch is anticipated to guide News Corp further to the right. The New York Times described the purpose of Lachlan Murdoch’s at News Corp as being about building “…an unabashedly nationalist, far-right and hugely-profitable political propaganda machine.”
While much is written about Murdoch being the political ‘king maker’, Kerry Stokes, chairman of Seven West Media, also ventured into king making during the recent change of Australian Prime Minister.
Are we resonating yet?
New England’s media is primarily controlled by three major players: News Corporation, Nine Entertainment Co and Seven West Media Limited.
While regulations don’t require election campaign communications to be truthful, New England voters and the Australian public deserve to be presented with an election coverage that follows a journalistic code of ethics ensuring coverage is accurate, discloses all essential facts or doesn’t provide a distorted emphasis. Journalists need to resume challenging politicians, asking the difficult questions, and deliver hard-hitting stories.
Last week Nine Entertainment announced Anthony Catalano and billionaire Alex Waislitz’s Thorney Investment Group announced their purchase of Australian Community Media’s 160 regional titles for a total of $120 million. When asked about editorial independence, Mr Catalano said: “There’s simply no merit in content that doesn’t resonate with the audience, and it doesn’t resonate if it doesn’t have authenticity and credibility.”
Does Anthony Catalano’s comment mean that in future, New England coverage will be aligned to journalistic code of ethics, with journalists challenging politicians, investigating news stories and delivering hard-hitting news stories?
Or can frustrated New England voters get answers by simply electing an alternative federal member?
Adam Blakester, the Independent candidate for New England believes that true representation is ethical, transparent and above all inclusive. That is why I am supporting him.