Under fire

When the media turned against Labor in Australia

—The recent federal election in Australia saw the Murdoch press mount its most aggressive campaign against Labor in a generation. The ferocity of this coordinated attack took everyone by surprise – except Rupert Murdoch’s inner sanctum of editors. As prime minister Kevin Rudd’s senior adviser I was in no doubt that News Corp would side with the Liberal opposition. What I did not know until just before the election was called was that Murdoch’s right-hand man, Col Allan, had come to Australia to direct the campaign. It was reported that Allan convened a meeting of key editors and directed them to ‘go hard’ against Rudd.

Murdoch controls 69 per cent of the newspapers in Australia – from the national daily through to weekly suburban ‘throw-aways’. But News Corp strategists focused their campaign against Labor through its well-read Sydney paper, the Daily Telegraph, and its key Brisbane paper, the Courier Mail, as they knew the election would be won and lost in electorates in those cities.

On the day after the election was called the Telegraph ran a front page editorial with the screaming headline ‘Kick this Mob Out’. Things went downhill from there. The damage to our campaign was the way in which New Corp’s stories tended to blow it off course. Whenever there was a major event in the election, such as a debate, News Corp always had a major story to distract public and media attention from our key campaign messages.

Our response to this all-out attack was to draw attention to the motivation behind the News Corp campaign – the fact that the national broadband network Labor planned represented a direct threat to News Corp’s pay television company. So we found ourselves caught in a pincer movement between News Corp’s heavy negative campaign and the opposition’s negative advertising, allowing the Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, to remain relentlessly positive in all his comments. However, we did have some allies in fighting Murdoch – the progressive online campaign group ‘GetUp’ ran hard-hitting but funny television ads pointing to News Corp’s bias.

Although Labor lost the election, the swings against us were actually lowest in Brisbane and western Sydney. Some have suggested that this was because News Corp overreached with its campaign. However, our focus group research suggested that its campaigns did have a heavy impact and distracted readers from our agenda.

So, what lessons might be drawn from all this? First, it is important to hang a lantern on any media-led campaign against Labour well before the election is called so you do not waste precious campaigning time exposing the motivation behind their attacks, as we were forced to do. Second, enlist allies and third parties to reinforce your message about media bias. Research and publicise the concrete examples early and often – Labour can till fertile ground in the UK when it comes to News Corp. Third, do not try to appease biased media outlets but, by the same token, do not try to punish them by withholding stories. Notwithstanding the aggression shown by News Corp, some of their journalists would run our stories if it sold their papers. Fourth, recognise that operators like News Corp are politically savvy and very strategic in the selective exercise of their power. Put together a team to ‘war-game’ possible attacks by hostile media outlets and how to pre-empt them or respond effectively. Fifth, utilise social media as a strong alternative means of disseminating your message. It is also a very effective medium to lampoon and expose media bias. And, sixth, enlist their competition to expose bias. Remember, your enemy’s enemy is your friend.

There is nothing new about a hostile media. Labour has had to deal with aggression from the Tory-friendly press since the Zinoviev letter and before. Remember, we tend to win elections despite the media, not because of it. So, do not obsess about media bias – it must not consume or divert your efforts away from your key messages.

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Bruce Hawker is a former general election campaign manager at the Australian Labor party and author of The Rudd Rebellion: The Campaign to Save Labor

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Photo: David Hass

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